Different treatments of columns in reports

We return to the four reports we chose earlier. The reports came from these firms: Eversheds, “21st Century law firm: Inheriting a new world” (2008); Hogan Lovells, “Risk and Return: Foreign Direct Investment and the Rule of Law” (2014); Norton Rose Fulbright, “Shipping” (2017); and White & Case, “Mining & Metals 2017: A tentative return to form” (2017). The focus of this review was their report’s layout, and specifically how many columns were used.

Interestingly, each of the four reports chose a different columnar layout. One of them, published by Eversheds, has a single column but also makes use of margin boxes with text. That report also colored the borders with a stripe on alternating pages. Here is a sample (the snippet shows the green border on the right).

The report from Norton Rose uses neither columns nor marginalia. Each page is undivided.

The Hogan report breaks each page into two columns while the White \& Case report displays three columns of equal width and a fourth, narrower column. The snippet below comes from that firm’s report.

Assuming reports are laid out in portrait format (not wide landscape), it seems to me that having more than two columns squashes the plots and gives a busier, more crowded look to the page. It may be that with powerful desktop publishing software the designer can array plots across multiple columns, but that arrangement adds to the visual complexity of the page.

Report elements (text, plots, other) as percentage of page space

The law firms in our collection of surveys make all kinds of decisions about the design of their reports. To start to understand the outcome of those decisions, we analyzed four reports. With each report we estimated the distribution of text, plots, and other design elements.

The four reports we chose were Eversheds, “21st Century law firm: Inheriting a new world” (2008); Hogan Lovells, “Risk and Return: Foreign Direct Investment and the Rule of Law” (2014); Norton Rose Fulbright, “Shipping” (2017); and White & Case, “Mining & Metals 2017: A tentative return to form” (2017). To be forthright about our criterion for selection, we picked four we had not written about before.

We decided to study the first five substantive pages of each report. Accordingly, we skipped the cover, executive summary, table of contents, and other introductory pages. For each of the next five pages we concentrated on the space available between the four margins (We ignored material in the margins on the left and right.). We estimated by eye what percentage of that space is filled with three elements: text (including space between lines), plots or tables of data, and other components such as pictures, embellishments, or pull-out quotes.

The eyeball estimation admits a degree of subjectivity, but we parsed all four reports consecutively so we applied a consistent standard. We are confident the findings are directionally correct even if other reviewers might estimate slightly different percentages.

For each of the four surveys, the next plot shows s a column for each of the three elements (Norton Shipping had no “Other” components so its column is missing). The columns indicate the average over the five pages reviewed of the percentage of space taken up by that element, for each report.  Together, they should total 100% for each report.  The first plot shows the elements side-by-side as columns.

The next plot shows the same data but stacks the elements into a single bar. People differ in their ease of interpreting the two plot formats.