Show, don’t tell

The first rule of all good narratives, critics tell us, is to show, not tell. This is the challenge that Insinger De Beaufort, an Anglo-Dutch private bank, takes on in their 2007 Annual Review titled ‘The way things are’.

The Review is stylized in a handsome hard-bound book with light grey boards and a matte black spine, and at first glance, gives an impression of an understated but conventional elegance. But as the reader opens the book, the first section (p1-123) is unexpected and provocative: a photo essay on NoFit State, a contemporary circus company based in Wales.

The essay combines full-page photographs of trapeze artists and dancers suspended in the air with quotations from the company members to create a compelling montage.

Interspersed among these full-size pages are sections of narrower leaves, recessed 2cm behind the fore-edge, containing quotations, photographs, and narratives from the company’s members about their work and lives. An amusing, almost postmodern visual feature of these narrower pages is the arrangement of decorative block quotations; they appear to be cut off, mid-letter, at the fore-edge – as if it were a printer’s error or design oversight – but the reader soon discovers that the quotations continue overleaf.

The material of the photo essay, however visually alluring, initially seems discordant with the brief of a private bank. But, as the reader progresses to the second section, ‘CEO Comment’ (p125-136), motifs subtly state themselves and the circus company emerges as a surprisingly apt prism through which to view financial ventures in the time of crisis.

The imagery of the high-wire dance of the circus company signifies risk and boldness, but also the importance of calculation and collaboration; a team of experienced practitioners working together in a high-pressure environment to entertain and benefit their customers.

The very experiment of the photo essay within the Review itself, of course, is meant to be an enactment of this theme.

The third section, ‘Results’ (p137-224), reproduces almost entirely – both in content and format – Insinger de Beaufort’s 2007 Annual Report. Austere and elegant, but largely unimaginative and formulaic, the third section primarily uses black text on a white background with no traces of colour anywhere, and expresses all financial statements and ancillary data in tables, completely eschewing any forms of graphic representation.

The final section of the Review comprises a Dutch translation of some of the English material (p225-264). The translation of the CEO’s Comment is apposite and welcome, but the translation of the narratives of the NoFit members is uninspiring. The narratives appear only as text, divorced from the interplay of photography and decorative quotations, and thus its effect is much muted. The final section also attempts to imitate the visual placement of the truncated block quotations featured in the photographic essay, but instead of reducing the leaf-width, the design incorporates a 2cm black border panel along the vertical edge of each page. Therefore, to follow the quotation overleaf, the reader’s eye has to straddle two border panels. This appears to be an unnecessary design variation and one wishes that the original template would have been reproduced. These oversights create the regrettable impression that the Dutch section was a somewhat half-hearted addendum, and the Review suffers by not giving equal attention to both English and Dutch readers.

The unconventional photo essay opening the book is ultimately the highlight of this Review, but this feature should not obscure the fact that the remainder of the document follows a more generic formula of a corporate report. The Review, therefore, can be seen more as a hybrid work rather than one where the innovation is integrated throughout. Another element of confusion is the dating of the Review. The spine clearly indicates ‘2007’ and all financial statements included within are for the year ending 31st December 2007; however, the cover lists a series of dates from July to August 2008, and the introductory CEO statement is dated 18th June 2008. Despite these issues, the Annual Review lives up to its title as an honest, realistic confrontation with the uncertainty of the moment.