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What Makes a Beautiful Report: Images

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Posted on 07/10/2014

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NOTE: This is the fifth post in our Windward series on creating beautiful reports. Missed the beginning? Start here.

Ahh, images: the quickest and easiest way to add beauty to a report.

We’re not talking about charts or tables (although those also add visual appeal). We’re talking about logos, screenshots, photos and the like. They’re often colorful, usually informative, and always wise to consider.

The idea of using images in your report or document may not thrill you, however, especially if you consider yourself a “data” or “just-the-facts” kind of person. But we’re here to encourage you to use images because they:

—when done right, that is.

A Simple Image Example

Before we get into the what, how to and where of including report images, let’s look the “why.”

Consider two nearly identical reports:

WindwardTruckingTopNoTruck WindwardTruckingTop

The small addition of a clean and simple image in the header captures the user’s eye and makes the report more beautiful, illustrating (heh!) that images in your report don’t have to be mind-blowing to be effective.

Another benefit of using report images is that they can entice your readers to pay closer attention to the content. The Nielsen Norman Group, experts in eye-tracking studies, found that people “pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information.”

The study was focused on websites, not reports, but the message extends to other documents, especially if they are viewed online.

Finding Images

If you (or your marketing team) already have images at your disposal, great. You probably don’t have to look far to find appropriate company logos, product photos or screenshots, employee and office life photos, and images of events relevant to the report’s content.

You can also find and easily download images from the Internet, but a couple words of caution:

  • Keep your images real. Not all images add to a report or document; some can detract from its impact. The aforementioned study found that users ignore “big, feel-good” images and stock photos of models.
  • Pay attention to copyright. It exists for a reason, and that reason is to protect the person who created the image. Just because you can right-click and grab an image from the Internet doesn’t mean you should. Instead, consider purchasing images from a site such as iStock or Shutterstock or using images from Flickr, which clearly spells out the copyright of each work via a Creative Commons license.

Storing Images

When it comes to images in reports, the most important decision you’ll make is WHERE to store them.

Embedded Document Images

One option is to embed the images into the document. A copy of the image is stored in the report, so it is always available. The bad news is that it’s always available – even when you don’t want it to be.

Best Use Case
For example, suppose you’re generating hundreds of different documents that display your company logo. If the logo changes, you have to go into each individual report that includes the logo and change it. Plus, this increases the size of the report definition, which may be cumbersome.

Images Stored in a Database

databaseThat’s why it’s often preferable to store the images elsewhere. One option is to store them in your database. This limits the size of the report definition, allows you to change an image once and have the change replicated across all reports, and lets you keep records together. And if you do store images in a database, you may decide to store them as BLOBs (Binary Large Objects).

Best Use Case
For example, we see customers use this process for keeping track of defects on an assembly line. The customer needs to associate a defect with a time and put it in a final report, so they maintain a separate file system with the images for ease-of-use purposes but store them in a BLOB in order to allow the report process to be fully automated.

But (yes, this is a big “but”) images stored in databases work best when they are not too big. As they get larger in size, queries slow down, performance degrades and images take up much more space than text. Migrating to another database platform or even the same platform but a different version becomes more difficult if images are handled differently in the target platform or version.

Images Stored in a File System

folderTherefore you should strongly consider a third option: store images on a file server. File systems are great for storing images because you can easily back them up, update and manipulate the images, and move them to a bigger hard drive if you need more disk space.

For more on the database vs. file server debate, check out this great conversation on StackExchange: What are the best tips for storing images in a database?

And remember, if your images are stored anywhere other than in the template, be careful how you reference them. You’ll need to give as much of a complete path to the image as necessary. That’s why it’s great if your image is stored on the Web; you can simply give the HTTP address, and it will always be available to your report (provided the Web server doesn’t go down!)

TIP: Trying to generate an Excel spreadsheet report that includes an image?
See “Insert picture into Excel cell” on Stack Overflow.

Sizing Images

Obviously, images don’t do much good in a report if they’re blurry or much too small, so let’s talk for a second about resolution. Here are a couple general guidelines:

  • If the report is printed, images should be at least 300 dots per inch (dpi).
  • If the report is online, you can get away with a much lower dpi, such as 72dpi.

Also, when possible, use vector images instead of non-vectored ones.They scale much better in the output and typically give you a better resolution. If your company has an art or creative department, they may be able to help you out with this.

Positioning Images

When working with a dynamic reporting solution, positioning becomes crucial. You don’t want to end up with images pushed off the page or in another funky spot.

So at first glance, “pixel-perfect,” absolute positioning, where you place an image at a specific point on the report, sounds great. And when the image is in a header or footer, where you can be certain the object will appear, it’s often your best option.

relative positioning

Relative positioning, as shown here in the Windward AutoTag software, allows you to precisely place images and other objects.

But as your report expands and you get a waterfall effect, images in the body of the report can end up in places you don’t expect – or want.

That’s why we recommend you use relative positioning for most images. Here you use some part of the image (top, bottom, left or right) to align the image with a specific element or point on a page.

Another consideration with images is that you may want to keep another item – specifically, a caption – with them. How you do this will depend upon your reporting solution.

(This is another reason to avoid using Crystal Reports, because it doesn’t have a “keep together” or “keep with next” command.)

Windward, for instance, allows you to keep images with captions, and you can use borderless tables to position the images relative to other elements.

Final Image Tips

Lastly, we leave you with a couple tips:

Tip #1: Use non-traditional images. Basic shapes, stylized text, etc. are also images. Keep in mind that images don’t have to be big and colorful to add beauty to your report.

Tip #2: Follow your brand guide. If your company has a brand guide, it likely has a section on using colors that “match” your brand. A simple change to an image — such as editing the color of an icon in the report — can tie the entire report together beautifully.

Click here for the next post in the series, What Makes a Beautiful Report: Colors.

The Whole Beautiful Report Series

Beautiful Reports cover pageWe hope you found these tips useful. Feel free to let us know in the comments section below and add your own observations on navigation.

Also, we want to thank your for reading this series on how to design beautiful reports. We have released the entire series as a free e-book for you to download, share and refer to in the future.

Remember, you can receive the series in your email inbox by subscribing to our company blog here:

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Author: Heidi V. Anderson

Heidi has been writing professionally about computers, technology and the Internet for more than 20 years. She lives in Vermont where she taps her maple trees for syrup and most of the year wishes it was just a little bit warmer out.

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