Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ambigram Sketchbook Exchange: Digital Edition | Merry Christmas

I suspect that my word choice for this ambigram sketchbook project was strongly influenced by the upcoming holiday season. Last year I made a general Happy Holidays ambigram card, but this time, I wanted to be more holiday-specific.

The Merry Christmas ambigram

Initial Brainstorm
This is my first step in every ambigram design that I work on. I write out the word, and then write it upside down beneath the first word. Usually I use either uppercase or lowercase letters. There are several reasons why I like this approach. First and foremost, it helps me determine the letter ratio, whether it’s 1-to-1, 2-to-1, 3-to-1, etc. The basic handwriting eliminates visual aesthetics (for now), as focusing on aesthetics too early in the process can hamper legibility and readability. Most importantly, this simplistic approach allows me to visualize the transitions between the letters. I might do a few doodles here and there, but depending on the complexity of the word, I usually have a good visual of the ambigram in my mind before I even attempt more detailed sketches. The vertical line that you see splitting the word in two simply tells me that there is an even number of letters and I only have to sketch half of the word, flip it over, and complete the ambigram. Had there been an odd number of letters, I would’ve had to overlap the center letter (this will make sense in the following sketches.)

First complete rough
This looks like a very messy sketch. Well, there is a very good reason for that! After visualizing the ambigram with the help of my quick brainstorm, I had a pretty good idea of what each of the letters would look like. First, I started drawing with very light pencil strokes and shaped the letters out one by one until I got to the ‘C/H/R/I’ combination. Throughout this stage, I rotated the paper countless times & sketches from both directions; when developing an ambigram, it is very important to rotate it consistently to make sure that all the letters are legible. I stopped at the ‘H’ because it was the midpoint of the word. However, after the first rough sketch, I realized that the ‘C/H/R’ transition will be the most complex in the whole word. I had trouble visualizing it in my head & realized that early during my sketching stage, which is where the next page of sketches came in.

In any ambigram, you can have 99% of the letters & transitions worked out, yet there will be that one pesky letter combination that you might never get to work. When starting to work on the ‘C/H/R/I’ combination. The ‘H/R’ did not cause that much of an issue. If you analyze the two letters, they both have a cross-bar (more prominent in the ‘H’ than the ‘R’) and at least one shared vertical side. Having common verticals, horizontals & curves in two or more letters makes one’s life a lot easier when trying to create an ambigram! The bigger problem was the ‘C/I’ combination. The ‘I’ (in most common alphabets) is a perfectly geometric character without a single curve, while the ‘C’ is nothing but one continuous curve. The challenge here was to curve the character enough to have it represent the ‘C’ in Christmas, while retaining enough geometry and rigidity to appear as an upside down ‘I’. As you can see from the sketches, I tried several uppercase and lowercase versions, as well as mix u/c & l/c together. Also I attempted to merge the ‘C/H/R’ together as one graphic and then add a lowercase ‘I’, but that didn’t work very well, as the block of letters seemed disjointed. Finally, in the last sketch you see (bottom right) I decided to ignore the ‘C’ and attempt the ‘H/R/I’ combination. While sketching the leg of the ‘R’ where it comes close to the bottom of the ‘I’, the stroke naturally curved around the leg of the ‘R’. When I rotated the sketch upside down (as I do multiple times throughout the ambigram process) it looked more like a ‘C’ then any previous sketches. Finally!!! After this sketch, I was also able to visualize the ‘C/H/R/I’ combination working well with the rest of the word. Next!

Now that the most difficult block of letters was more or less solved, I turned my attention to the easier letters. The ‘MERRY/STMAS’ (the STMAS being upside down of course) came out similar to the first rough sketch, as the merging of the letters and transitions from letter to letter were very clear in my head. You see some slight refinement in these sketches, but that’s about it. I experimented slightly with the connection of the ‘M/E’ and different serifs on the ‘R’s’ and the ‘E’. In the end, I decided to keep the serifs similar to the rest of the letters in the ambigram. I also attempted an uppercase ‘T’ instead of a lowercase, but discarded that idea as I thought it looked a bit harsh.

Final Ambigram
Up until now, I’ve switched between plain paper and graphing paper (1/4 inch grid) because in the later stages, I wanted a basic grid for my sketches. For the final rough, I switched to graphing paper that had a 1/8 inch grid, because I wanted more control over the finer details of the ambigram. As you can see, I’ve made some slight adjustments to the previous sketches & ideas that I had. I curved the ‘I’ a bit more, and visually your eye carries over from the leg of the ‘R’ into the ‘I’, so it’s an implied (but not an actual) transition. Other then some slight aesthetic changes, the ambigram did not change much from the first rough. When I bring this ambigram into the computer, I might make some other miniscule changes, but in terms of development on a paper with pencil, I think it is pretty complete. I used three different types of paper in this ambigram development; plain paper for some initial brainstorming & smaller sketches (as the ‘CHRI’ block), graph paper with a 1/4 inch grid for some of the roughs, and graph paper with a 1/8 inch grid for the final rough. In the end, the final design took about four pages.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ambigram Sketchbook Exchange: Digital Edition | Louis Armstrong

Our first participant for the Ambigram Sketchbook Exchange: Digital Edition (please click the link to find out more about ASE) is John Langdon. He has taken the time to create a fantastic ambigram of Louis Armstrong, who also happens to be one of my favorite jazz musicians. Now, here is John's ambigram along with a written explanation from the artist.

The LOUIS ARMSTRONG ambigram, step by step.

Page 1 Looking for a word. If I recall correctly, I started with an Angels & Demons theme, trying LUCIFER and BEELZEBUB. Then went to HEAVEN and HELL (the first two ambigrams I ever did, in the early 70s), and they led to NIRVANA and VAN HELLSING (sp?). Then to TYPOGRAPHY and EXQUISITE, which made me think about a name of someone who produced exquisite work: SHAKESPEARE, and then LOUIS ARMSTRONG.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG fell into place fairly well, with both an O and an S repeating at regular intervals. Making use of that starting point meant that the ambigram would have to be a chain, which needs two self-contained inversions. The G was an easy one. The ARM would be a bit trickier.
Although this page was turned both 180 degrees and 90 degrees during the exploration process, I have shown it here “right-side-up” as regards the LOUIS ARMSTRONG development. To the east-southeast of the upside-down word BEELZEBUB, is the upside-down word LOUISARMSTRONG. (I start by writing things upside down, rather than writing them right-side-up and then turning the page.) Immediately below that is my first shot at converting the letters to ambigram glyphs. The ARM at this point looks more like ARN. After a couple of experiments with ARMs in the lower left part of the page, I see that by extending the upstroke of the R, I can make the M seem more M-ish, as can be seen in the lower right. The previous ARM, employing script forms, also suggests that an angled style will be better than a vertical orientation.
Page 2 At the top is my somewhat carefully drawn interpretation of my previous sketch, with letters a little less than 1” in height. There are also two quick sketches to see whether I’ll want two or three iterations of LOUIS ARMSTRONG around in a circle to complete the infinite chain. Although the right hand one, which approximates two iterations, provides a better letter height-to-circle size ratio, I think the readability will be better with the three-times-around approach, seen on the left. Below that is an amusing result of trying an optional shape for the chain-linking G.
Page 3 After enlarging the relatively tight drawing on page two by three or four hundred percent, I trace that drawing, making careful measurements to ensure consistent letter height and angle and stroke weight. The letters are drawn in outline, forcing me to be very committed as to where the edge of a letter is. No fudging allowed. I’ve drawn only half of the O, S, and G, as I’ll want each of those letters to be perfectly symmetrical in the end.

Page 4 The O, S, and G have been completed, and all the letters strung out in order. Then that stage is copied and repeated, arranged in full ambigram form, completing the name, with the extra G that will link to the next iteration. This is as far as I would go without using the computer. From here, I would create finished vector art of the letters, then arrange them around one third of a circle (a trial and error process). Then the tops of all the letters (farther from the center of the circle) and the spaces between them will need to be split, allowing them to fan out along radii of the circle. Much adjusting of spatial relationships and some redrawing of letters is involved at that stage. Because the letters appear in both a right-side-up and an upside-down orientation, the R/U glyph, for instance, will need to be split and repaired in both its configurations, making it more efficient to do that work with vector-formed letters, rather than having to draw each letter twice. (I’ll take this project to completion in Adobe Illustrator in the next few weeks, and all that will become clearer when you can SEE what I mean.)

John Langdon Nov. 18, 2008

John, thank you for your wonderful submission & insightful glance into your ambigram design process! To see more of John Langdon's work, please click on his website under the list of Contributors. For more information on the Ambigram Sketchbook Exchange: Digital Edition, click here!
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