Monday, June 2, 2008

What are ambigrams, and how do I make one?

Ambigram? Ambi-what?

by Nikita Prokhorov
It’s definitely not a medical procedure, despite ending in ‘gram.’ You will not find a definition of ambigram in any dictionary. The only way to understand the true essence of an ambigram is to read this blog, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, nonstop, ignoring any other commitments and responsibilities in your life. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Of course I am being humorous. Go ahead and laugh, I’ll wait….

Ok. Now that you’re done laughing, let us talk about ambigrams and take a look at some examples. It is very easy to understand what an ambigram is, but creating one is a completely different story!An ambigram is a word that, when turned, mirrored or displayed in any direction reveals another word. The second word (which you see by changing the orientation of the original) can be the same word or completely unrelated. Scott Kim (who is a graphic & puzzle designer out of California) published an article in Omni magazine in 1979, which showcased a number of ambigrams. He referred to them as ‘inversions.’ The term ‘ambigram’ was coined by Douglas Hofstadter, who is an American academic known for his book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, which focuses on cognition, thinking and perception. Most recently, ambigram recognition and awareness has been given a boost by John Langdon, who is an ambigram artist and graphic designer. He created a set of amazing ambigrams for Dan Brown’s book Angels & Demons. Those ambigrams, as well as Langdon’s book Wordplay (1 & 2!), were my original inspiration for learning about ambigrams and starting to create them on my own. Now that you have a short background on ambigrams…

Why are ambigrams so difficult to create?

After researching multiple examples of ambigrams as well as looking into my own process, I’ve come to realize why. Ambigrams are pure typographic play, or as John Langdon put it, “wordplay.” When we, as designers/artists look at our education and knowledge in regards to typography, we realize that letterforms are meant to be seen a in a very set manner, proportion and context. Every letterform, character & symbol has a very specific proportion and meaning. We are taught to recognize these characters from birth, and that ‘signature of the specific character is engrained in us. The definitions of the letterforms are so clear that oft times, they do not need to be accompanied by other letters for us to understand their meaning. With ambigrams, you have to keep an open mind and forget the restrictions of typography and classic letterforms.Let me try to illustrate that with a few examples using some simple letterforms first.

Below is a ‘q’ from the Helvetica Neue Condensed character set.

When we flip the ‘q’, it become a ‘b.’ How simple is that?

Now, let’s take a more custom ‘q’, drawn by hand, then retraced in a vector program such as Illustrator or Freehand, that has a bit more personality (with all due respect to Helvetica!)

Flip it upside down, and it becomes a ‘b’ once again. But this time, it has a hand-rendered feel to it, and feels a bit more personal.

Take the same ‘b’, and mirror it on the vertical axis. Now, it is a ‘d’!

And just for kicks, flip the ‘d’ upside down, and now it is a ‘p.’

I think that one more example is in order! Take the ‘p’ from the previous example, shorten the ascender, and add a serif at the top. Still looks like a ‘p’ right?

Well let’s flip it upside down and…

…we get an ‘a’? But wasn’t it a ‘d’ earlier? Or is it still a ‘d’…and an ‘a’ at once? The most important point about ambigram creation: Keep an open mind and try anything! Just because you are used to seeing a character one way does not mean you cannot view it several other ways, or even as a different character! The best advice I received was from none other then John Langdon, when I emailed him with some questions back in 2007. I started sketching out my first ambigram on graph paper, and ran into trouble. He suggested that I “...use regular, unlined paper (maybe as large as you feel comfortable with) for your exploratory and playful stages. Bring the graph paper in later, when it will help you establish regularity in the construction of the letters…” The moment I switched to regular unlined paper and started sketching with reckless abandon, it was as if a switch was flipped. My sketches became more open and unrestricted, my words began to breathe, and the word started to make sense. Within a day of sketching, I had my first ambigram!

My first name, Nikita.

The other point I would like to bring up is that not every word can become an ambigram. As designers, we have to learn to analyze the problem before we design. Before you start working on an ambigram, write out the word you want to morph and analyze it. But do not just write it out in one direction; write it down upside down and place it under the original. Much like you use similar parts of characters to identify a certain typeface, you can use the same principles for determining whether a word (or words) will form a successful ambigram. Look for common angles, strokes, serifs and curves in letterforms. Determine if you want to keep the 1:1 letter reflection or if you want to combine two letters to form one letter when it’s viewed upside down. Find out if you want to give the ambigram a certain look; but, do not start to apply that specific look until you’ve worked out the rough ambigram. If you try to apply a specific style to the ambigram too early, it will hamper the readability and legibility, which are the two biggest issues with a lot ambigrams out there. With an ambigram, you need to see all the letterforms within their context (together as a whole word or group or words) in order to determine how legible they are, how easy it is to understand them and how continuous is the flow of the ambigram.

Lastly, let me provide a very rough step-by-step guide to creating ambigrams.

1. Pick out a word. Start out simple, and even pick out words that will make easier ambigrams to start with. As you develop them more and more, switch to more complex words and/or multiple words.

2. Keep an open mind! Start off with very free-flowing, free-thinking sketches. Do not limit your thinking and be willing to experiment. Try fifty different approaches before settling on one.

3. Work out the rough ambigram before applying a certain style to it (gothic, decorative, deco, etc.) Applying a certain look/feel early on will really stunt your ambigram development.

4. Do not get frustrated. An ambigram can take hours, days or even weeks to develop. It depends on how much effort you put into it!

5. Not every word is destined to become an ambigram. If it doesn’t work, let it go…and move onto the next one!

Obvious this is a very rough list, based on my own process, research and discussions with other designers. Colleagues and friends of mine who are designers have repeatedly said ‘oh I can never create an ambigram.’ For those and others who think like them, do the following; research some examples, ask a few questions, look at the list above, and start thinking upside-down!


Eve said...

You are a man obsessed, My dear Russian. But this is pretty cool stuff...

modifieddog said...

This stuff makes my head hurt. Theoretical physics sounds easier. :)

jroz said...

So when you going to start a course on making these? :-)

Erin said...

You ARE obsessed, my dear, but this is a really well-written post. I'm looking forward to reading more. :)

nagfa said...

Hi Nikita!

congratulations on this new blog.. love the direction you're heading with process other than final outcome. we'll try to send a design process once we find our scanner cable..

salam (peace)

Jason said...

You have to check out the princess bride and it's new packaging ambigram.

Anonymous said...

My name is Jose,19, and I am an ambigram "artist-in-the-making". I have become addicted to drawing ambigrams. In a week i did about 12 different ambigrams, mostly of my name. it has coe to a point that i am reading and i begin picturing how the word would look like as an ambigram. There have been times that in my college classes I begin to sketcha few ambigrams. I have memorized how most letters look upside down. I have become very good at it. i find it better to do a rough sketch of how it looks, and then transfer that to graph paper to get the right proportions. I am hoping to get even better at this. It is truly a unique type of art.

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