Consumers and investors are becoming increasingly interested in sustainable and ethical companies. But what happens when organisations turn their sustainability reports into marketing material, without actually accounting for their impacts on the environment and society?

One researcher is looking at ways to ensure that sustainability reports accurately reflect a company’s impacts – and in a way that’s more accessible to everyday consumers.

She’s been looking at the role of graphic design in the process, and has unearthed some surprising findings that could transform how these reports are produced.

“Research has been quite critical of the use of graphic design and imagery in company sustainability reports, saying that organisations use graphic design to make their reports look really pretty, without actually telling us any real or accurate information about their performance,” explains Dr Claire Horner, an accounting expert from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

“But one thing that’s been lacking is an investigation into the role that internal or external graphic designers play in the production of these reports.”

In the first-known study of its kind in Australia, Dr Horner studied the use of graphic design in sustainability reports across organisations and industries, interviewing report makers, graphic designers, and external reporting consultants to figure out what role designers play in producing misleading sustainability reports.

She also examined the images used in sustainability reports, classifying them as informative or uninformative, depending on if they were associated with actual facts that accounted for the company’s performance.

“If, for example, the report discussed an amount of funding the organisation had given to local Aboriginal communities for development, and accompanied that with a picture of a sporting team they had sponsored in the community, then I deemed that to be informative,” she explains.

But if they just included a beautiful picture of a smiling Aboriginal child, with no caption, and where it doesn’t seem to have any relevance to the accompanying story, then that’s potentially misleading or uninformative.

While previous research has suggested that graphic designers were complicit in obscuring companies’ real impacts on society, Dr Horner found that this wasn’t the case at all. In fact, misleading examples like the one mentioned above were rarely the handiwork of the designers themselves.

“The surprising thing I found, which is quite unique, is that graphic design and graphic designers didn’t actually contribute to the portrayal of misleading images,” she said.

“They’re actually helping to tell the story, and they tell it in a way that makes it more understandable and more accessible to a broader range of stakeholders.”

Dr Horner found that graphic designers made reports more accessible to the average consumer through techniques as simple as adding more white space in a document.

“A lot of the people involved in preparing these reports might be accountants, engineers, or environmental scientists, so they’re economical in their approach, and the more words they can cram on a page, the better, because it saves money. But that makes it very intimidating to read,” said Dr Horner.

“One designer I spoke to emphasised the importance of having enough white space on the page to aid readability.”

Dr Horner hopes her research can be used to shift the blame for misleading sustainability reports to where it’s justified – the organisations refusing to account for their impacts through accurate sustainability reports.

“I’m hoping that once I can start telling this story, it will change people’s perception of the role of design in reports, and perhaps shift some of the criticism away from the use of imagery and design in reports, and help those preparing them from an industry perspective to understand the importance of design in communication,” she said.

Because if organisations are to be truly accountable for their actions, the reports of those actions need to be accessible to as broad a range of stakeholders as possible. And graphic designers can actually help in that communication.

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About Dr Claire Horner

Dr Horner’s research is closely aligned with the University’s research theme of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, the TSBE research theme of Sustainability and the Business Community, and the TSBE Accounting and Corporate Governance Discipline themes of Accountability, Stakeholder Engagement, and Accounting Towards the Future. Her primary research to date has examined the ways in which companies account for their social and environmental performance, and whether their accounting, reporting and stakeholder engagement practices are indicative of a desire to discharge accountability, or merely an exercise in impression management. In her PhD research she conducted the first known Australian study exploring the role of graphic designers in corporate social and environmental reporting.

View Dr Claire Horner's full researcher profile