What follows is a review of sellside research notes ranked by aesthetics, not content.

The whole exercise might seem frivolous, because it is. But investment banks invest non-negligible time and money trying to get this stuff just right. When Mifid II is impeding the natural flow of information, published research has to serve both as a shop window and a calling card. In that context, isn’t it worth sorting the Allens from the Van Pattens and the Batemans?

(Please don’t feel obliged to skip straight to the comment box with your answer.)

House rules: to create something resembling a level playing field, we’ve tried to base judgments on standard ‘printable’ versions of research notes. In a couple of instances, we’ve had to opt for platform shenanigans.

We’ve unscientifically erred towards whatever note we found first from each outlet in our inbox. If you’re concerned that means comparing apples and oranges, we ask you this: why do you care at all?

Here they are, from worst to best:


20. Citi

First impressions: Citi’s an outlier in the group because it comes to Alphaville via a web platform. Aaaaaand . . . it’s dull. There are ways to work CSS formatting — Bank of America’s web platform is higher rated for its relatively elegant recreation of the battle-tested design of an A4 note, for example — but Citi is a mainly just a block of text. It’s utilitarian, it’s perfunctory. It doesn’t really invoke much emotion. All the power of the internet, and they made this.

Details: Type-wise, it’s Arial across the board here, which isn’t much of a choice. Setting’s fine though.

In three words: Shrug, yawn, meh.


19. JPMorgan

First impressions: This is a lot! The chocolate-brown sidebar with the swishy signature and the liberally bolded, tightly leaded serif body give an impression of mass that its bulge-bracket rivals fail to muster — probably by choice. Overall, things are pretty maximalist.

Details: Dimon’s designers have gone completely meat-and-potatoes here, marrying stalwarts Times News Roman and Arial. Amplitude — JPMorgan’s san-serif primary brand typeface — is absent, as is its backup, serif Celeste.

Is the result pretty? No. But is efficient? Also no.

Colour-wise, everything’s being played quite straight except that brown, which the designers say “is reserved for the logo and therefore used elsewhere sparingly”. The strip is certainly distinct, but is it sparing?

The signature, an “artistic rendering” of J Pierpont Morgan’s own John Hancock, exists in JPM branding to “reinforce the rich heritage of our organisation”. JPM’s 2009 ‘brand tool box’ inefficiently adds:

The stylized signature is intended to stand for the entire company. Therefore, it is a stylized design element meant to represent far more than one person.

In three words: Bold, dated, overwrought.


18. UBS

First impressions: Simplicity without elegance. Reddish-brown. Tight leading across big, unfeeling blocks of justified text. Dispassionate blue links. Charts uncaringly dispatched to later pages. Frankly, this is about as bad as a simple note can be. Where’s the love?

Details: Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger shows up, but with his self-titled Frutiger typeface rather than Univers (which will make several appearances later). It’s a reliable and ubiquitous option, although to our eyes the tight leading of the body text makes it harder to read. Conventional logic roughly runs: the smaller the text, the looser the lines ought to be.

We like the serif heading typeface, which is a custom brew called UBS Headline that seems to owe a lot to Walbaum, a classic in the Didone style. The origin is German but the effect is Italianate, which is a nice blend for a Swiss company. It looks a little lost amid all that sans serif though.

Colour-wise, UBS lacks boldness when applying its signature red, and the less said about that brown the better. Incidentally this is a as good a time as any to remind readers of UBS’s weird corporate dress codes.

In three words: Simple ≟ beautiful.


17. Exane BNP Paribas

First impressions: There’s a loose feeling at the top of this note that all the elements don’t want to be seen together. The ink-wasting black band is quite distinct, but the overall sense is of unease.

Details: In note dominated by unfeeling Arial, the only threat of personality comes from the heading, in Zuzana Licko’s Bodoni-inspired Filosofia. Exane wears this dash of characterful type awkwardly: it’s like pairing a T-shirt and blue jeans with an cravat.

In three words: Bon courage, Exane!


16. Cenkos

First impressions: This looks like the packaging for something you’d be embarrassed to ask for at a pharmacy counter.

Details: Cenkos primarily leans on Calibri, the nice-but-oh-so-dull typeface that took the world by light breeze as the default option in Microsoft Office 2007. Calibri’s so generic now that we tend to zone out looking at it: “The interim dividend has been increased apply morning and night, consult your GP if itching occurs…”.

There’s plenty of information packed in without total overcrowding though, so Cenkos gets points for that.

In three words: Walk on by.


15. Goldman Sachs

First impressions: Unlike its management, Goldman’s research notes play clean. Readers are treated to well-spaced lines, clear contact details for the analysts and plenty of white space. This is about as vanilla as a note can look — even the colour accents are fairly muted.

Details: The body typeface is Univers, a dependable neo-grotesque created in the 1950s by Adrian Frutiger. Prominent uses include many London street signs and the eBay logo.

The blue being used (#7399c6) is GS’s straight-down-the-line primary blue, described in its style guide as its “hero color”. Complementary yellows and mid-tones are available, which the design team says might be used “in order to capture our target’s attention, and set the firm apart from the competition”. For sellside, however, it seems that being Goldman was considered to be enough.

In three words: Clean, safe, boring


14. Jefferies

First impressions: At first glance, there’s an admirable amount of info packed onto this page. That’s fine on screen with zoom functionality, but hang on — imagine turning up to a meeting with a printed version of this:

Details: The slightly anaemic appearance of Jefferies’ notes stems mainly from heavy use of Roboto’s Light weight. It’s clean, elegant and modern, although it’s definitely putting visual style above maximum readability. Occasional splashes of blue add a bit of interest to an otherwise plain note, which given the dearth of competition is enough to lift Jefferies clear of the relegation zone.

In three words: Form over function.


13. Rabobank

First impressions: Rabo, we want to love you. The curse of modern design is uniformity, and many a beautiful bit of idiosyncratic branding or design has been suckified by companies choosing to play it safe. Thankfully, there are nascent signs that this era might be passing — but we’re not sure that this Rabo design ought to make it through.

Details: The blue bubble! The gradient orange bubble! The blue and orange bubbles, together! OK, it’s all derived from Rabo’s dope logo, but that block at the top is a horror show, especially with the blue one weirdly tucking behind the orange at the right-hand edge. They play together quite nicely on charts though.

All the significant bits of text appear to be Adobe’s Myriad, which is a fine if slightly ageing typeface. Points for the sensible use of one font in a variety of weights and colours. But doesn’t the word spacing feel a little too much?

In three words: Blue! Orange! Ahh!


12. Nomura

First impressions: It’s the list’s first example of a classification known as SocGenus. Like the higher-ranked Frenchies, it’s got some bold black chunks and splashes of accent red. Overall, there’s a bit less going on — it just doesn’t spark joy in quite the same way. The red’s a little more muted, the type worse.

Details: Once again we find ourselves in the lukewarm embrace of Arial. It’s a hugely popular and reliable typeface but it really does so little. It’s a non-choice. Arial isn’t offensive, and its ubiquity makes it accessible, but it’s just not particularly lovely to look at or read.

In three two words, one of which is a portmanteau: Diet SocGen.


11. Credit Suisse

First impressions: Smart, neat, a little desaturated — this isn’t a note out to make a big statement, but it nonetheless delivers some nice surprises. The hierarchy’s good, the type is well set (something the other big Swiss investment bank could certainly take note of). There’s some gentle quirkiness in the title’s straight terminals, giving a turn-of-the-century retrofuturistic look to the whole thing without going too far down that road. For a sometimes reckless bank, this is sensible stuff.

Details: Credit Suisse sometimes uses slightly more poppy, saturated colours in its publications, but this note is much more in line with its reserved corporate face.

Fonts are all custom here, a mixture of Credit Suisse Type and Credit Suisse Headline. Other than some slightly weird open kerning before the commas, it looks ok to our eyes — maybe losing some slight points for the slightly gappy effect of the justification, which seems to be exaggerated to the relatively tall, condensed appearance of the text itself.

In three words: Clear, cold, technical.


10. Deutsche Bank

First impressions: Is that a 7-column grid? Groovy. There are some interesting things going on with alignments, and the meta headings look a bit . . . random? Does “UK economic notes” need to be so big? The limited colour palette’s tasteful though, as are the flashes of tertiary red brought in via the well-placed sidebar charts. We’ll refrain from jokes about German efficiency.

Details: Deutsche, like Goldman, uses Frutiger’s Univers, albeit in its own variation. It plays well with Deutsche’s ultra-modernist logo and is a nod to the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Univers was widely used.

Its research uses a mixture of Deutsche’s distinct dark blue (Pantone 072C), but also liberally splashes out with its bright-blue accent. Brand guidelines call for a 5-10 per cent proportion of bright to dark blue, a rule that has definitely been broken here.

In three words: Smart. Too smart?


9. Morgan Stanley

First impressions: Morgan Stanley is a cold plunge. Light text, small bursts of bright colour, plenty of white space. It’s clean, elegant, and unfussy (although scrolling for charts sucks). Headline leading’s too generous. A critic might label it dull, even though nothing’s threatening to interfere with their enjoyment of the text.

Quick grouse on visual hierarchies. There’s just one large block of blockiness, contrast and colour on this page: the signature-teal “Brands” bar on the right. It’s where we look first when we open this note, which seems wrong. Why is it so prominent?

Details: Headlines are in Gloriola, released in 2007 by Tomáš Brousil, a Czech designer. Morgan Stanley had an exclusive licence to the typeface for a period, and it was also once used by the UK’s Channel 5. In charts and some side-matter, Roboto is the weapon of choice. It’s not as trendy as it used to be but it’s airy and legible.

In three words: Smart, but distant.


8. Barclays

First impressions: Clean design, plenty of white space, decent hierarchy, splash of colour. Pretty decent, although it doesn’t feel like much more than a + version of Goldmanesque minimalism.

Details: Barclays’ notes are set almost exclusively in Source Sans, the first open source typeface made by design industry superpower Adobe. In other words, it’s open and free — which is likely to have some positive externalities in terms of interoperability and accessibility. It’s clean, modern and unpretentious.

The only other font present is Awesome Regular, which offers a selection of icons and dingbats (see left). Wowzers!

Barclays’ recognisable cerulean (#00aeef) is present in links and some headers, but the teal ribbon is more mysterious.

In three words: Clear, clean, cold.


7. Bank of America

First impressions: We get BofA’s notes through a web portal, but we can approximate a PDF appearance, mutatis mutandis, by zooming out a bit. First up: good on them for providing a top-item link to an accessible version (not visible in this screenshot) for users of screen-readers. Elsewhere, it’s smart and sensible: colour is used in moderation, the things you need to read first are typically bigger and the ‘Key Takeaway’ box is neat.

Details: BofA uses a 1990s-era font called Connections, by Jasper Brik, which we’ll admit we weren’t very familiar with. It’s clear enough though, and the hierarchies are generally very sensible.

Disappointingly, our searching yielded no corporate waffle about BofA’s royal blue of choice. It’s nice enough we suppose, and they haven’t compromised readability by aiming for an overly harmonic chart palette.

In three words: Two-piece suit.


6. HSBC

First impressions: All the info, right here, right now. Which is good, done right — and few notes manage it better than HSBC. Despite this density, there’s space for some visual interest at the top. It’s not super pretty, but it works.

Details: Arial… we’ll just pop a yawn emoji here. 🥱 Univers Next, HSBC’s main brand typeface, is nowhere to be seen (although this is a slightly older note — HSBC flak, please let us known if you’ve had a glow-up).

Incidentally, HSBC’s brand spiel says its hexagon logo refers back to its Scottish heritage, which is an odd thing to do in bright red.

In three words: Flesh without blood.


5. Numis

First impression: Everything’s so circular, so curved. This is a safety note. It looks like an iOS screenshot. Maybe the analysis is sharp but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Our eyes are drawn, uncomfortably, to the strangely erotic blue form pictured at the top, which looks like some kind of convoluted sex toy viewed through lightly frosted glass. What does it mean?

[Editor’s note: when Numis revealed its bulbous rebrand in last September we tried to engineer a fight between it and Minus, a Scandinavian fashion website whose logo is nearly identical. To their credit, neither side could be goaded into responding.]

Details: Numis leans on the delightfully named Poppins, a free geometric offering from Google that embraces circularity. Lines are a bit tight, but we like the judicious use of Numis blue.

In three words: wub wub wub


4. SocGen

First impressions: Société Générale is bold and bright, with a fairly dense body-text second offset by decent amounts of white space and accents in its signature red. This is perhaps too much bold, to our eyes, but it’s still a handsome, eye-catching note.

Details: Like Barclays, SocGen primarily leans on Source Sans, although its designers have erred towards generally heavier weights and tighter lines.

The signature look comes primarily from the red, a major part of the bank’s graphic design since the late 1980s, when its Dennis The Menace-esque ‘brand identity’ was introduced by design agency Sopha. As SocGen puts it:

Red, which is bright and dynamic, is associated with passion and emotion, while black is the colour of solemnity, seriousness, and institutions.

Whether that bears any relevance to what is red and what is black here is a matter of perspective.

In three words: Fort, distinct, unpretentious.


3. TS Lombard

First impression: TS Lombard’s notes want you to know it is achingly cool. Look at that bright, bold highlight; the underlapping underlines in the top-right; the big splashes of primary colour. It looks like it would aspire to be Topolsky-era Bloomberg.com. And, let’s be honest, it is pretty nice, although all that bright blue’s tough on the eyeballs (colours vary by note theme).

Details: The typeface of choice here is Christian Robertson’s Roboto, a Google Fonts staple that takes on geometric forms without turning them into a straitjacket. It’s nice, although the mixing of its Light and Bold variations creates a possibly unnecessary amount of contrast in the body text.

One for the type nerds (we’re assuming if you’ve got this far you’re at least tolerant) — an interesting quirk here is that the TS Lombard logo and the “Economics / Politics / Markets” bit are both in Helvetica (ooh err, look at that tight spacing), but the date is seemingly in Akzidenz Grotesk, a workhorse from the 1890s. This is not a thing that matters.

In three words: OMG so cool 😭


2. Standard Chartered

First impressions: Here’s a better version of a lot of what we’ve seen elsewhere. Maybe not so much needs to be in blue, but the hierarchies are sensible, there’s a good amount of content without crowding and charts are presented in-line, so no need for extra printing/scrolling. We’re also big fans of these little tl;dr summary bits alongside some latter pars:

Details: . . . Arial, again?! Look, it’s fine, we get why it’s there, we’re not mad, honest.

In three words: Solid, considered, practical.


1. Peel Hunt

First impressions:

Details: What is there to say? First up, “Hello, Georgia!” — another works-anywhere kind of typeface — which provides body copy complements to Archivo elsewhere. Spacing’s maybe a little tight, hierarchies so-so.

But the lilac and the teal — perfection. The deep purple headline, the random photo of an office — genius. We’d argue that given the cost of printer ink, printing something with this many shaded boxes is financially reckless, but what an object it would be to hold.

In three words: [a picture is worth three words]

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