What Business Cards Can Teach Us About Evaluation Reports

After 5+ years, which started as Michael Scriven’s assistant, I’m departing from The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University on August 31 to accommodate the major increase in my consulting around data visualization and evaluation reporting. I began the tedious effort of cleaning out my drawers and came up the ubiquitous stack of business cards I’ve accumulated over the years (why do we do that?). I saved a few because they reminded me of great graphic design principles that we should all be applying to our evaluation reporting.

Alignment
The best business cards (and evaluation reports or slides) look organized. Notice how well the Lansing Community College one is aligned:

business card from Lansing Community College

Mary’s name and everything underneath it are all in line. You’d think this could be common but it’s actually pretty rare. Doesn’t it just look and feel professional and organized? (Admittedly, though, I do want to nudge up the LCC logo so it is top-aligned with her address.)

In this one, from MATEC, note how Lara’s name and info align under MATEC, even though the company name is stylized as part of their logo:

Business card for MATEC

Strong alignment between text, headers, and graphics communicates professional competency. Work it!

Hierarchy
The most important thing on a business card is the name of the employee. Yet on most business cards, the employee’s name is small, put in the corner, and camouflaged by less important location information (let’s psychoanalyze what that means about employer-employee relationships). Great business cards showcase the employee’s name.  Think about how this supports user cognition: If you’re anything like me, you’ve forgotten someone’s name within 10 seconds of introduction. We inevitably trade business cards before departing. I want to call this person by her name when we say goodbye, so I sneak a glance at the card. In the best case, the name leaps out and saves my day. Good design supports the needs of the end user.

Here is the nice emphasis carried out by Indiana State University:

Business card from Indiana State University

See how Gerald’s name has been visually made the most important part of the card by it’s large size, color, and italics? In the hierarchy of importance on the card, Gerald’s name is at the top and the information of lesser importance is deemphasized. Mary’s card, way above, also achieves in establishing a hierarchy by making Mary’s name darker than the rest of the text and placed at the top of the card.

Our evaluation reports and slides should strive for the same communicative power. That which is most important should be set off in some ways, through color or placement or size or what have you.

Orientation
Orientation is actually one of those aforementioned emphasis techniques that can help establish a hierarchy on certain bits of text, but layout orientation of an entire business card is also a really powerful way to communicate unique, fresh, youthful, everything you are. Check out how New Latino Visions used orientation:

Business card from New Latino VisionsThe difference is eye-catching and eyeballs-on-cards is an important step leading to the goals of fingers-on-keyboard and name-in-memory.

Now, changing the traditional orientation of a report page or a slide would actually be fairly disruptive in that it would both distract and impair legibility. But the same idea can be applied to a picture or short bits of text like a heading to grab attention.

Our evaluation reporting tools are our business cards. Represent yourself well.

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Beer Delivery Visualization

Time to tackle some of the more important parts of life. I saw this delivery schedule in a cooler at a DC Whole Foods. Bell’s Beer is from Kalamazoo and we take pretty big pride in our hometown beer. So we (I mean, I) get really geeked when Bell’s shows up during travels. But this delivery schedule? It’s not working for this data visualizationist (I just made that term up – how does it sound?).

chart of delivery for various Bell's beers

I couldn’t put my finger on precisely what bothered me so much about it, so I took a snapshot and mulled it over for a few weeks. Here is the revised chart I settled on.

Revised chart of Bell's Beer delivery

The revision still isn’t sitting right with me, but I’ll tell you what important changes I did make:

1. I reversed the order of the listings. Previously, the beers that are delivered year-round were closest to the headers listing the months. That meant that the ones that were the most narrowly distributed were furthest away from the month listings, making them the hardest to decipher. In the revised version, I also just put the month listings across the bottom of the chart, too. Why not?

2. The beers are in a very slightly different order, now depicted by the length of months they are on the market. Just adding a little more logic.

3. The labels over the bars make for less seek-and-find. Previously, the viewer would have to locate the desired beer label, trace the bar to the right, and then simultaneously locate the months across the top, traveling that information down the graph, to find where the paths crossed, just to determine if Favorite Beer was in stock. Too much. This way, we remove one element of difficulty in decoding the chart. Still, I’m unhappy with how I had to abbreviate the top two beers to make them fit in the label.

4. White background. The textured orange background (intended to be beer) was too busy and conflicted with the colors used to differentiate each bar. I’m not totally in love with my new color scheme, but it’s a step up.

If I had access to the beer label icons, I would have still placed them along the left side of the chart. That visual cue is important for the viewer to quickly identify the beer in question.

Moving Emphasis

As much as I advocate for minimalistic slide design, sometimes that just can’t happen. Sometimes you’ve gotta have a lot of words or a logic model or diagram to show. I previously showed one strategy for handling this – the Slow Reveal. But incrementally revealing parts of a complex image might not work for you. So here’s another strategy – Moving Emphasis.

Let’s say I was trying to explain to an audience how they can submit a proposal for the American Evaluation Association 2012 conference. My slide might look like this:

I need to show the whole screenshot here so I can illustrate the proposal submission process while also talking about the individual pieces. But instead of projecting this single screenshot, which would lose visual interest quickly, I can begin using arrows, circles, and other emphasis techniques, like this:

This was as simple as inserting an arrow shape in PowerPoint. Then, as I talk about the next bit, I move to the next slide. Same screenshot, different part emphasized:

I just inserted a text box and a circle shape to draw the viewer’s attention where I want it to go. This way, I can help my listeners better track my own words because the visual matches my verbal pace.

I like this red because it is so good at drawing attention (image how the effect would be lessened with black, for example), but you could even customize the moving emphasis to match your project’s colors.

When we use Moving Emphasis as a technique, it allows us to keep the same visual – which is really helpful in some circumstances, like websites. So we capitalize on attention-grabbing elements like circles and arrows to guide attention and maintain visual interest. Have fun!

Kuler/Color

Here’s a procedure I use all the time to help me select color combinations for my reporting. It makes use of this great, free, online program that takes all the scientific color theory stuff and translates it for those of us without a MFA.

First, I head to my client’s website and take a screenshot of their logo.

Then I go to this cool program, called Adobe Kuler (pronounced “color,” I’m pretty sure) at kuler.adobe.com. This is a color picking website. Once you sign in, you can upload your image. Here I have my client’s logo I just stole from their website. And the program picks out the exact colors from the logo.

Once I save, I can click a little sliderule icon that gives me the RGB color codes. With those color code numbers, I can customize the palette of my word-processing and presentation software programs to match my colors to those of my client.

I just write down those RGB color codes and head over to Word. Here I’m showing a screenshot where I transferred the RGB codes from Kuler into the Custom Colors option (right-click on, say, Heading 1 in the Styles menu and select Modify, then click on the arrow by the color menu, go down to More Colors, and click on the Custom tab).

In the same area you can modify the font, justification, etc. Once you have set up your page layout the way you’d like, go to the Themes button and select “Save Current Theme.” This will allow you to access to these settings on other Word documents and even in other Office programs like Excel or PowerPoint. I like to name the theme after my client and use the theme consistently in all of my work with them.

Why go to all that trouble? Because now you have an intentional tone that communicates consistency and belonging with your client’s work, and that’s what evaluation should be.

Releasing the Evaluation Report Layout Checklist

So I made this lovely checklist of graphic design best practices as a product of my dissertation (Standing Rule: If you want to know the details of my dissertation, you’ll have to buy me a drink). It included input from a panel of graphic designers including Peter Brakeman, Christy Kloote, Chris Metzner, and Kevin Brady.

I’ve been having such a great time travelling around the country, giving workshops on the checklist and using graphic design to improve the way we communicate in evaluation. But I’ve gotten overwhelmed with requests for the checklist, so I’ve decided to make it freely available:
http://bit.ly/EvalReportLayoutChecklist

Enjoy! And do post comments on your use of the checklist. (Well, your nice comments anyway.)

Evaluation Report Layout Checklist

A graphic designer, I am not. A laborer of long words and awkward sentences structures, I am. That’s why I became super fascinated by the world of report layout and formatting. Maybe the geekiest hobby, I hear you. But so important!

I’ve detailed the importance of good communication elsewhere on this blog. For evaluators in particular, the packaging and presentation of our content are often dealbreakers. Indeed, at times our choices in font and line length actually impede our clients’ ability to comprehend our findings. Yikes! Not our goal!

After reading a bazillion books and getting input from a panel of graphic design experts (Kevin Brady, Peter Brakeman, Christy Ennis Kloote, and Chris Metzner), I’ve compiled a checklist of graphic design good practice specifically for written evaluation reports.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want a copy? Send me an email.

But be warned, I’m about to use the checklist on roughly 90 evaluation reports as part of my dissertation. Surely in there I’ll find good reason to make a tweak or two. I’ll post the revised version then. But in the meantime, go forth and make good work!