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.

Report Layout in PowerPoint?

I was recently workshopping with a group of evaluators who had bravely submitted their work examples for group critique. In one instance, they had admitted that what I thought were text-heavy slides was actually a full written report. That’s right – they’d used PowerPoint for written report layout. Mind. Blown.

Then I started asking around. As it turns out, this is somewhat common. People find PowerPoint immensely easier to work with, particularly in terms of arranging text and graphics, than Word.

I get it. Totally. Evaluators don’t have time (or money) to learn fancy new software programs that make report layout simple. We’ve gotta work with what we have. And if it’s all going to end up as a PDF anyway, I suppose the software doesn’t make much of a difference. Just be sure to pay attention to two things:

1. Long reports need to be presented in portrait orientation. And this is possible in PowerPoint. Here’s a screenshot:

You can actually turn the orientation of your slides so that it looks more like a written report. In PowerPoint 2010, this is under the Design tab, within the Slide Orientation setting. Pretty cool, eh?

Why is this so important? Well, we are used to seeing slides in landscape (and the occasional chart or table) but we are used to reading long text in portrait orientation. And if we want people to be able to pay attention to what we are saying, rather than get distracted by internal questions like “Is she trying to give me a full report on PowerPoint slides?”, we have to work with the familiar.

2. Because PowerPoint works through textboxes, evaluators need to make sure the narrative text is set at an appropriate length.

Headers, call out boxes, and graphics are places where one can stretch the boundaries of margins in PowerPoint a bit more. But when placing the narrative text, it should be done such that the lines are no more than 8-12 words per line. (That’s 50-80 characters, depending on the font, for you folks that like to labor in long words.)

When our lines are longer than that (super easy to do when filling a landscape-oriented slide with a textbox), it gets difficult for the reader to track the text. Tracking the text is when a reader tries to finish one line and start the next. When the lines are too long, readers mistrack often, getting confused about which line is the next (and this interrupts comprehension and works against our intentions as evaluators).

So I’ll remain agnostic about the proper software program for report writing, as long as we can agree to pay attention to the components of legibility and comprehension research wherever we are.