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On Exhibit: the delicate art of corporate communications

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Once every year, no matter what it usual line of business, every publicly owned company becomes a publisher. Men in red suspenders sit down with men in ponytails to cook up ideas. Design boards are trotted in and out of conference rooms, executives dicker over copy, the chairman sits for a flatter-or-fail portrait. Type is set and set again.

The resulting publication is the corporate annual report--vehicle for the illusions and galloping egos of the world of business. Born of the SEC's requirement that management occasionally touch base with shareholders, annual reports have evolved from bare-bones accounting documents to full-blown marketing literature. They are now used to enhance the company's standing with all its various "publics," as they say in the trade--shareholders, suppliers, customers, potential employees, etc.

The rationale for a slick yearbook is the boost it can give to the corporate image, but this is a little tricky: What's primarily promoted (or defended) in the annual report is not the company and its widgets, but the performance of the incumbent management team. That's why it's a bummer to work on a report after a bad year. Budgets are cut, concepts turn somber. When earnings disappear, so does the vellum, the extra varnish, the hot photographer. At the very least, a bad-news book has to look like it was produced with an eye to saving money.

On the other hand, given profits and an adventurous corporate spirit (it helps if either the company is expanding or the CEO is in a manic phase), the results can be amusing, even impressive. Take, for example, the 26 winning entries from an international annual report design competitions sponsored by Graphis Press, now on display at the American Center for Design. The reports (including one by the local team of Pat and Greg Samata for Kemper Reinsurance) were all produce for fiscal 1988.

The runaway star of this show is the report done for the Chili's Inc. restaurant chain--14-foot illustrated foldout that features a character called Johnny Chili Seed cavorting among giant shrimp and talking rabbits. According to a spokesman for the restaurant chain, this was the brainchild of Dallas art director Brian Boyd, who was so moved by the Chili's Inc. story, as told by its executives, that he (in the words of a company vice president) "went berserk" and, in this altered state of consciousness, produced the report. Chilli's chairman's message, review of operations, and financials are discreetly printed on the reverse side of the foldout so you never have to see them.

Another charmer is a palm-sized, illustrated book for the Rhode Island School of Design, with a palette-headed student on the cover. This clever little report doesn't even pretend to account for where the money goes, but simply lists the names of thousands of the school's benefactors. Also appealing: a wire-bound, tabbed piece for Trenwick Group Inc. that looks like a business workbook. The Trenwick report is typewritten, double-spaced, and already highlighted in yellow marker by the chairman himself. That's how we know at a glance that the company made record earnings and things it "met the challenge of maintaining morale while cutting staff."

There are some clunkers. The San Francisco Airports Commission, ironically,has a report that is completely static: a series of cliched still-life photographs of items (baggage, ties, postcards) from various destinations. Reeves Communications Corporations, a television production company, has used flecked paper, quadruple-spaced its text, and dropped a second text between the lines, making it about as easy to read as a flickering video screen.

But text is not what this is about. Most annual report manuscripts are exercises in euphemism and group speak anyway, and most designers consider the text simply another graphic element--a mass on the page,to be sculpted and balanced. That's why the type is sometimes toocondensedandsometimes t o o s p a c e d o u t to be legible. The American Center for Design (formerly the Society of Typographic Arts) is at 233 E. Ontario, fifth floor--right next door to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Hours are 9 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday. The show continues through June 21; admission is free.

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