Accounting: It’s not just numbers

Company accounts are more than just numbers. Images – photographs, graphs and diagrams – are becoming increasingly important when
companies provide information about themselves and what they do. Readers must understand illustrations as easily as they understand text.

Emelie Havemo at Linköping University.

Messages from CEO

Ericsson’s annual report for 1985 has a photograph of bespectacled managing director Björn Svedberg at his desk looking serious, talking into a telephone. On the desk – documents. In the annual report three years later he has moved outdoors, taken off his spectacles and is smiling as he holds a mobile phone in one hand.

Två pictures of Ericsson CEO Björn Svedberg.Same CEO - different messages.

The same company and the same person, but two completely different messages: while the 1985 photo communicates power, hard work and seriousness, the photo three years later gives an impression of openness, modernity and availability.


“It’s a remarkable difference, even though it’s easy to expect that photos of managing directors are always the same. But a lot of message can be packed into a single photograph”, says Emelie Havemo, doctoral student in economic information systems.

In her doctoral thesis (in Swedish), Den visuella bilden av organisationen – Perspektiv på visualitet i accounting, she describes how she has investigated different ways to use images to present accounting, management control and financial reports from companies. She identifies a “visual turn”, in which different types of image are becoming evermore important, not least as a consequence of technical advances.

Symbolic pictures

One of the five articles that comprise the thesis examines how images were used in Ericsson’s annual reports in the period 1947-2016. It shows that not only did the number of images increase: the images themselves became more “dematerialised”, in the sense that they tended to depict a more non-specific and symbol-based image of reality.

Emelie Havemo at Campus Valla.

“Initially, the images turned inwards, towards the organisation and depicted, for example, a group of employees, a factory, or a particular machine. The illustrations in the reports were mainly maps. As time passed, the number of images increased and they gained a more external nature, with a marketing purpose.”

Emelie Havemo describes diagrams of company business models as “self-portraits” and identifies four groups: some have components that are independent of each while others are transactional, sequential or cyclical (see the diagram below). Diagrams that show solely components provide least information about the relationships between various parts of the organisation, while the others show different types of relationship. In general, different types of diagram are suitable for different purposes.

“They complement each other. If you want to show a process, one type of illustration is best, while if you want to describe a network, a completely different one should be used”, says Emelie Havemo.

Colour of confidence

The investigation has been based on her examinations of many annual reports and websites of companies in different industries. The colours used differ, although this is not discussed in detail in the thesis.

“Blue is most common, maybe because it gives a feeling of confidence”, she says.

Different types of illustrations in accounting.Different types of illustrations in accounting.

As images become increasingly important in company accounts, Emelie Havemo suggests that “visual literacy” is an important skill for people who read economic information. It’s not enough just to be good at arithmetic. The thesis presents two frameworks that can contribute to this skill.

“Essentially, it’s being able to interpret images and understand that they function as metaphors. It’s also about understanding how easy it is to create something new from images, to be aware of their function”, she says.

  • Another article describes investigations into how visualisations are used in practical management control. The particular application is how the digital boards used in lean production can be digitalised. Visual control has many advantages for planning and collaboration, and the process of digitalisation brings both opportunities and challenges. This article is coupled with a practical report (in Swedish) on digital boards: http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-161316

Translated by George Farrants

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