The images used in the SFI Press volume Worlds Hidden in Plain Sight (2018) were created using sand from SFI’s Cowan Campus. (Photo: SFI Press

We judge books by their covers, but also by their spines. These slim billboards teem with titles, authors, and taglines to attract the roving reader’s eye. All the more jarring, then, for that eye to fall upon a spine that from a distance has no words at all. In their place flare symbols that might belong equally to a civilization chalking runes long before paper was pulped or an extraterrestrial symbology discovered eons after humans leap into the cosmos.

Open the book, however, and we find that its origins are as contemporary as it gets: this is a brand-new volume from the Santa Fe Institute, home of complexity science.

Academic publishing rarely attracts praise for aesthetics, affordability, or alacrity, but all three have defined the SFI Press since its founding in 2017. Supported by Bill Miller and the Miller Omega Program, it aims to bring new research from submission to publication within a year, at trade-book prices and in unique, collectible style.

As for the mysterious symbols on the spine? These are the SFI Glyphs.

“At SFI we are great admirers of the work of Turing and fellow codebreakers at Bletchley, as well as the doodle art of Henri Michaux, and the book notation systems of Walter Benjamin,” says SFI President David Krakauer, who also serves as the Press’s publisher and editor-in-chief and originated the series’ distinctive look. “In what shall remain a secret conversation [between SFI Press Manager Laura Egley Taylor and artist Brian Crandall Williams] combined with a series of stochastic permutations with SFI staff, these influences and algorithms coalesced into the Glyphs.”

On the shelf, Krakauer adds, those glyph-stamped spines give the impression of “an ancient artifact or ciphertext” while honoring the restrained tradition of Fitzcarraldo or Gallimard. So too does the cross-hatching of past and future circumscribe the books’ original artwork, from sand grains kaleidoscoped via macro-lens to the ambitious “photo-weavings” accompanying InterPlanetary Transmissons: Stardust, the proceedings of the second InterPlanetary Festival.

“The idea that you can choose to create beautiful scientific texts can surprise some people,” says Egley Taylor. But then again, this is SFI: a place where a single conversation might range from Turing’s codebreaking to the iridescent sheen of a parakeet feather and back, and a designer is perfectly at home among physicists, computer scientists, and even a novelist or two. “There was no other way to do this.”