High Yield, Future Tense: Cracking The Code of Speculative Debt is a very beautiful book about a very boring subject.
The book is from the New York Society of Security Analysts about the predictive future of high yield bonds. Unless you’re in finance, you probably won’t understand a quarter of it. But it does look dope as hell.
Eddie Opara’s team at Pentagram designed it. The authors hope the book becomes a bible of sorts for traders and those who hope to be traders looking to get rich off the market. Because we’re talking numbers, here are some: The 200-page tome brims with 111 charts and graphs, 57 tables, and 31 mathematical equations, along with essays from 31 contributors. Densely packed with eye-glazing information, the book is simultaneously a designer’s dream and nightmare.
The project started with an unusual phone call. Adam Sterling—the book’s producer, whose wife, Karen Sterling, was at the time executive director of the New York Society of Security Analysts—rang Opara out of the blue. “He didn’t introduce himself at first,” Opara recalls. “He said, ‘Hello Eddie I’m actually watching you.’” Sterling was watching an online video of one of Opara’s lectures. He had seen the work Opara had done with water conservation and geothermal heat pump manuals. Opara, it appeared, was the man to make his esoteric subject sing. “He said, ‘I think I’m talking to the person who’s going to do this job, and I’m adamant about it,” Opara recalls. “’You don’t have to sell me on it—I think I have to sell you.’”
Sterling explained that he and the team wanted to write the definitive book on high yield bonds, and didn’t want it to be boring. Most financial publications are snoozefests filled with pages of Times New Roman and indecipherable black-and-white charts and graphs. The Society was itself guilty of these design tropes. “If you’ve ever gone to [our website] you’ll be bored out of your mind. It just looks so sterile,” Opara says. “But one of the things that hit me was, they’re talking about buttloads of cash.”
Opara explains his approach: “If you’re going to talk about wealth, you need to show wealth to a certain degree,” he says. Financial communication is still communication, after all. Opara’s design is loud but rational. The book is organized by color and typography. Four colors—bright pink, blue, purple, fluorescent orange—separate the sections, and the four typefaces on the cover—Larish Neue, Domaine Sans Display, Px Grotesk, and Danmark—echo that differentiation throughout the book. “There’s a function and form to it,” Opara says.
Because the book is filled with dense, mathematical information, Opara and his team had to develop a visual language that communicates which information is most important. Some pages feature infographics that bleed across the gutter. Others have a quote that takes up the entire page. On occasion, Opara and his team flipped the orientation of the layout to guide the reader’s attention. Fluorescent orange is used in the index and for algorithms to highlight their importance. The book’s one throughline is the body copy.
It’s a serious book about serious things taken seriously by serious people. Opara and his team had to ensure that all of the information (particularly the infographics) was accurately represented, which wasn’t easy given that the designers didn’t have much background in finance. But Opara still had fun with it. If you look closely, the gutter of each page has a subtle glow that was created by printing a gradient onto the page’s edges. Each page is hand-gilded, giving the book a luxe effect. Did it need those touches? Probably not. But Opara believes that practicality shouldn’t preclude fun. “I’ve always thought graphic designers are way too fucking humble with the way we relay content,” he says. “And I sometimes think that, you know, we need to shout a little.”
The playful use of color and type is smartly done, if a little jarring given its context. It’s non-traditional, to be sure, but Opara figures that eventually other financial publications (see Bloomberg’s design resurgence) will follow suit. And if not? He has a piece of advice for you: “If you don’t like color don’t fucking read the book.”