Monday, June 9, 2008

Interview with Scott Kim

Since 1990, Scott Kim has been a full-time independent designer of visual puzzles and games for the web, computer games, magazines and toys. His puzzles are in the spirit of Tetris and M.C. Escher — visually stimulating, thought provoking, broadly appealing, and highly original. He has created hundreds of puzzles for magazines, and thousands for computer games. He is especially interested in daily, weekly and monthly puzzles for the web and portable devices.

In 1979, Scott Kim work was published by Omni magazine. The works published were referred to later on by Scott as 'inversions', and...well, why don't you read the interview below to find out the rest?

Scott Kim's work can be found on

1. The first time you became known for inversions was in 1979 through an article in Omni magazine. How did you come up with the term ‘inversions’, and what was your first inversion?
The term “inversion” didn’t exist when Scot Morris first wrote about them in Omni magazine. Instead, he called them “designatures,” a word we have both decided is best forgotten.

I came up with the term “inversions” as a title for my book, which came out in 1981. I knew I wanted a title that inverted to become my name, and after considering several titles, I settled on Inversions as the word I liked best and could make a legible ambigram. Incidentally, the word “ambigram” came much later, coined by my close friend and fellow ambigram artist, Douglas Hofstadter. (Actually the term was coined by Doug and his friends in conversation, and no one is quite sure who first said it.)

I created my first ambigram in 1975 (coincidentally the same year John Langdon started creating ambigrams) in response to an assignment in a visual design class. The assignment asked me to create a design in which the foreground (“figure”) and background (“ground”) were equally interesting shapes. Most students chose to draw abstract shapes or natural forms; I chose to work with the words “figure” and “ground”.

I struggled for a while to write the word “figure” in black so the space around the letters spelled the word “ground” in white. I couldn’t do it. So I changed the problem and instead wrote the word “figure” in black so the space around it was the word “figure” in white. Once I succeeded in creating a figure-figure figure, I started wondering about what other symmetrical designs I could create with letters, and the whole world of ambigrams opened up to me. In retrospect, my first ambigram was one of the most unusual and difficult that I have created.

2. Did any artist or art period influence you when you first began creating inversions?
Not at first. I struggled just to make the words legible. Later I studied the history of lettering design, and learned about classical calligraphic forms from the Renaissance, and the eye-popping geometric lettering of Herb Lubalin, both of which have influenced my lettering.

The only direct art influence was M. C. Escher, who inspired me to create poetic designs of both mathematical and visual beauty. I did not try to follow directly in his footsteps, but instead to develop my ideas as fully as he developed his.

3. What is your approach to ‘thinking upside down’?
“Thinking upside down” means to me not just literally looking at a design upside down, but also metaphorically turning ideas of all sorts on their heads, considering them from unusual angles and points of views,

4. What is the easiest part about creating inversions?
The initial sketch is easy and fast, often taking as little as a minute. Refining the design — making it both legible and attractive — takes much more work.

5. Is there a set number of steps that one can follow to create an inversion, or is it a more open-ended process?
There is a definite process with steps I have taught many times when I give talks about ambigrams. But because ambigrams are all about breaking rules, the process always involves a bit of improvisation and creativity.

6. How does your background in programming and mathematics education help you when creating inversions?
Creating ambigrams requires a methodical mind similar to what is required in programming and mathematics. I have found that typeface design requires a similarly meticulous approach to problem solving.

7. What’s the best advice you can give to someone who is starting to experiment with inversions?
Always show your ambigrams to people you don’t know, to see if they can read what you wrote. You are never the best judge of legibility when it comes to your own lettering.

(This interview was conducted on June 9th, 2008)


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Nirvana said...

Which edition of OMNI in 1979 had the Scott Kim inversions?

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