A WHO-supported interdisciplinary arts project to benefit cancer research



Glyphic Alphabet 
for SFI

They should be simple, simple but suggest complexity —the clients at The Santa Fe Institute deal in complexity — massive, incomprehensibly sprawling complexity, forbiddingly unapproachable topics that provide no obvious entry point such as tracing the comically ancient and ongoing unspooling of the universe, charting the swelling and shrinking of cities over centuries, predicting the path of a bee as it follows its genetic instructions from flower to flower, you know, weighty, baffling things whose topics we all know but whose whys and wherefores are an utter mystery to the vast mass of us that quite happily shuffle between beds, desks and pubs for the bulk of our lives, and though we may swap pubs for the pta and eventually trade the desks for plein air or tai chi (the beds are here for the duration), you and I will likely never encounter anything as monumentally complicated as even the most basic of bread-and-butter concepts toyed with at the Institute day in and day out, so it follows that the symbols they have asked me to design should be simple for the sake of accessibility, but still allude to capital-C Complexity, which, again, I don’t really grasp, but here goes.

Primitive cave paintings from the very distant past seemed an okay starting reference point, ancient carvings you see on tv specials, really really old ones, where you can tell a human made the shapes but it’s anyone’s guess what the scrapings might mean; some look like a mountain or a river, some like a bison or fish, I dunno, I never studied these things, so totally on purpose I avoided learning anything about ancient carvings while exploring this so my fake ancient carvings wouldn’t look too much like actual ancient carvings, but what I quickly realised is that while I might not know what those ancient carvings depicted, the ancient people who carved them did know, so their ancient carvings look like something whereas mine don’t look like anything, just lines that run into each other, some thick, some thin, some round and some straight, just lines drawn by some guy who isn’t even able to mimic the most rudimentary of pre-man scrawling and so, not surprisingly, all of this was rejected. 

More of this nonsense — boy I guess I really loved using these pens, they are called Pentel Parallel pens, normally used for calligraphy (tricky for me since I’m left-handed) but anyway you can use the full width or just the edge, giving this nice contrast between thick and thin, and they come in a range of different sizes so you can get the exact look you want, and, if you’re careful, you can use one pen to load another with a second colour so as you draw it will gently transition between the two, from pink to orange, for example, it’s really lovely once you get the hang of it — all of it obviously rejected because they neither look like nor mean anything at all.

So away went the pen and ink and out came digital sketches of spirals, mazes, grids, then variations on all that by changing line widths and the distance between dashes which made it look like I had more ideas than I actually did, some of which unintentionally resemble Hopi folk art or children’s puzzles and some resemble needlepoint or cross-stitch, none of which was right but I did feel this dabbling in basic shapes in different ways was at least getting closer to what the increasingly patient clients were after, so that was cheering.

More and more variations, polygons and curves, things that look like electrical shorthand and things that look like plants, some of them too complicated but that’s ok it all needed exploring, though I still don’t know for sure why for certain projects some things feel “right” and some don’t, but it’s true, and the clients at the Institute and I never disagreed on the “wrong” ones.

I don’t know when it happened or why but at some point I rounded nearly all the line ends and joints which had the effect of making the polygons and line segments seem smoother and less mechanical and hopefully made the designs feel that they had roots in something hand-drawn — not so far, weirdly, from those mysterious cave scratchings I never bothered to learn that much about — made by a person, which the clients felt was important, and pretty quickly we settled on a final, adorable set of 26 glyphs with almost no discussion or debate.

Once the final designs had been approved, tinkering with how they are used and displayed could go on and on...

...and on and on practically forever, which is fun but you gotta stop at some point.

Anyway that’s the end of that, they’re out of my hands now, sadly, blissfully, so after all the splashing in pools I had no right to be in and tinkering with concepts I didn’t really grasp, didn’t try to grasp, will likely never grasp, it’s all fine, the clients know — I assume — what they were after and so they are free to use these little squiggles as they see fit, tastefully arrange them into airy layouts or shove them onto crowded pages, coddle them or torture them, deboss them, foil them, or keep them on a hard drive away from view, but ideally, if all goes to plan, they will simply act as plucky support to the ideas emitted from the Institute, wingmen to a wide swath of complex topics like Robustness and Evolvability in Living Systems, (that’s a real book title) or What Algae Can Tell Us About Political Strategy (you can’t make this stuff up), but even if that’s not the case and they get trampled or ignored or superseded by a fresh set of symbols commissioned from someone else in a few months, it’s strangely comforting that as I look at them now I don’t really remember what I was thinking, how they were made, or identify much at all with their creation, as if they were designed by someone else.