Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Interview with John Langdon

The following is an interview with John Langdon, who is the creator of the well-known ambigrams for Dan Brown's book Angels & Demons. His work can be found on

1. Can you briefly describe how and why you became enamored with ambigrams?
Essentially, ambigrams did not exist when I began finding my way into a career. They evolved quite naturally. My hereditary and environmental influences were quite evenly balanced between language and the visual arts. I have a degree in English with a particular interest in word origins. The driving force behind my work is the yin/yang symbol and its representation of complementary opposites. My most significant art influences were Dali and Escher. My first job was in the photo-lettering department of a type shop. Eventually, I was trying to do things with words that Escher had done with birds and fish and buildings. And yet, my first ambigrams appeared in my sketchbook almost by surprise.

2. What is the hardest aspect of creating an ambigram?
Well, it’s either creating a word that can be read from two points of view, and is still attractive, or it’s having the judgment to know whether or not I’ve succeeded or failed at that.

3. Since Angels & Demons, you’ve probably been inundated with requests for ambigrams. How can you tell when an ambigram is the right or wrong solution for a project?
Before Wordplay was published (1992), most of the ambigrams I did came from the fine art part of my creative self. They were words that were selected to explore and express the natural dualities and balances we find in the world around us. Ambigrams were inherently appropriate to express those ideas. It never occurred to me that an ambigram would be an appropriate corporate logo.

After The DaVinci Code put Angels & Demons on the bestseller list, and led many people to discover my work, I have been inundated with requests for ambigrams. Most of those requests are for “a tattoo of my boyfriend’s name” or some similar decorative purpose. (I have had to stop accepting those commissions, as they are too numerous, and do not really take me anywhere new.) Nevertheless, for tattoos and band logos, ambigrams can be appropriate simply from an aesthetic point of view, or to alert the viewer to an unorthodox approach to the world.

I have had several corporate commissions however, and here the question of appropriateness is a real issue. An ambigram is the right solution when the idea being communicated is relevant to the message. An excellent example is the series I recently did for Grant McCann Erickson in Sri Lanka for a Western Union campaign that promotes the ease of transferring money by way of Western Union across countries, continents and currencies: from rupees to pounds, rupees to riyals, or rupees to dollars, and vice-versa. These can be seen at and the News and Updates column on my website ( When a company that makes widgets wants an ambigram because they think they’re cool, it’s usually not the right solution.

4. Does every word have a potential to be an ambigram?

That’s the hardest question of all. Yes, no, and I don’t know are all right answers. Whether or not the attempt to create an ambigram is successful is an entirely subjective judgment. In my opinion, if the ambigram cannot be easily read and have some (conventional or unconventional) aesthetic appeal, it is not an ambigram. Probably less than 50% of my attempts to create ambigrams reach that threshold. I’m sure that even a few of my published ambigrams don’t pass that test, but I throw an awful lot of failures in the recycling bag.

The kicker, though, is that with some words, I fail and fail and fail to make them work and then, maybe weeks or years later, I succeed. So, I don’t know.

5. A lot of ambigrams have a very heavy blackletter feel to them. In your second Wordplay book, you mention that a blackletter/gothic look is a last resort if an ambigram proves to be difficult. Is the blackletter/gothic style a general trend in ambigram design, or is it truly a last resort?
For me it’s a last resort. I normally let the demands of readability and aesthetic consistency determine the style of an ambigram. Blackletter was enjoying a period of popularity before ambigrams came along by way of the Hells Angels and heavy metal bands. But the extreme popularity of Angels & Demons has made Blackletter the archetype of ambigram design. Because Dan needed six ambigrams in a consistent style, there was almost no other choice. The fact that he wanted an antiquated look was a fortunate secondary factor.

6. Can anyone create an ambigram?
IMHO, a very few people currently create really good ambigrams. As I said, I think most of the ones I attempt are failures, but then, no one except my wife ever sees those. I’m very pleased and gratified about the interest in ambigrams of course, but I think the average quality of ambigrams that we see on the web could be raised if people didn’t typeset the word underneath the image. The underlying factor for me is a great appreciation for conventional letterforms and the guidelines that conventional typography sets out for us.

7. How do you get over the mindset ‘oh it’s too difficult I cannot do it’?

I do have a little mind game that I play. I ask myself, when I’ve gotten to the point of giving up, ‘Well, if it weren’t impossible, how would I do it?” And then I keep going. Most of the time, ‘impossible’ wins. But my little trick has actually worked a couple of times.
There are also words that I have returned to numerous times over periods of months or years. If I can approach the challenge with a fresh start (if I’m unable to recall the failures, that helps) I can often find unexplored avenues.

8. Have you received any unusual requests for ambigram projects
Well, there was the Russian one a few years ago that I had to do in Cyrillic letterforms, despite my total lack of understanding of them. But a better story is the request from a politician (Republican, Texas) who wanted his name as an ambigram to use as a logo in his upcoming re-election campaign. I told him that, as a pretty radical leftist liberal, I would have philosophical qualms about supporting a Republican. I tried to mitigate his disappointment, however, by telling that I had spared him the indignity of having his opponents seize the opportunity to refer to him as a flip-flopper.

© 2008 John Langdon

(This interview was conducted on June 3rd, 2008)


modifieddog said...

Great interview with a lot of insight. I tried my hand at ambigrams during art school, and failed miserably. I'm going to try them again!

jroz said...

It would be interesting to see a few examples of his work within the blog post, since not everyone is familiar with it.

homero said...

Great interview! J. Langdon is one of my favourite ambigramists, and there is always a lot to learn about his work.

I'll see if I am able to come up with an entry for this blog!

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