Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ambigram Submission: Frank Sinatra

Naguib & Fadilah run a blog called Ambigrams by Nagfa. It is a blog that is dedicated to the art of ambigrams. Aside from creating some great ambigram solutions, Naguib & Fadilah also conduct the Ambigram Challenge.

Below is their submission. In this case, a picture is worth more than a thousand words, as their sketches clearly detail their thought process and development.


Solution 1

Solution 2

Wonderful sketches and submission!
(a link to Nagfa's blog can be found under "Contributors" on the right hand side.)

Ambigram Submission: Revelation, Typophile, Roxanne & Sins

Mark Simonson is a type and graphic designer working out of Minnesota. I met him on the Typophile forums, and he offered to submit some beautiful ambigrams, along with sketches, a detailed though process and tips & suggestions for other ambigramists. (Is that even a word? It is now!)
Here are his submissions.

As a result of the discussion on Typophile, I was asked to create this design for a tattoo. I've attached sketches and some of the exploratory artwork.

Sketch 1

First sketch shows a bit of brainstorming. The basic idea seems to have come pretty quickly, but I don't remember exactly how. It's strange that there are two non-starters, then something not far from the final idea. I must have had a "revelation." :-) As I recall, my basic approach was to work from the outside in, the inside out, or both at once, trying to picture it upside down as I went. Rotating the drawing frequently is essential.

Sketch 2

Second sketch shows a refinement of the basic idea. (There is also a blackletter variation shown that I didn't pursue further.) Only one half is drawn, which was then traced in the next sketch.

Sketch 3

Third sketch is on velum, traced from sketch #2 in both orientations. This was to see whether it read well and looked good. I guess I wasn't quite happy with this.

Sketch 4

Sketch four shows the same idea rendered upright instead of slanted, just one half of the design.

Sketch 5

Sketch five shows some more refinement of the same idea. At this point, I scanned it into the computer in order to work with the design more efficiently in Illustrator.
First vector draft

Here is the first draft of the design in Illustrator, based on the last sketch. The final forms are nearly worked out, but need more refinement.

Final variations

This shows the final variations. The top is a refinement of the draft shown previously. As an option, I did two variations with flourishes added. The bottom one was chosen.

This was done as part of the discussion about ambigrams on I did several others before arriving at this solution. You can see the others online at


Another commission. This one was very easy to work out, almost a natural ambigram. It's both legible and aesthetically pleasing. I spent most of my energy on the formal qualities, since there was very little to work out in the symmetry.

This was another commissioned design. I like the way it looks, but I don't think it reads very well, and therefore not very successful (in my opinion)

Ambi-tips (sounds catchier then ambigram tips, no?)

- Rotate the design frequently when you are working on it. The process is very iterative, and needs a lot of push and pull.
- Once you have drawn half of the ambigram in Illustrator (or another graphics program), you can copy and rotate it for the other half, or to replace one side when you've made changes to the other.
- Keep an open mind to ambiguous forms. (This is probably the hardest part.)
- Calligraphic and script forms tend to work better than typographic forms because the elements tend to be more ambiguous and modular.
- Too much ambiguity can make it unreadable.
- Consider the different forms a letter may take.
- Part of one letter may be part of a different letter when the whole is rotated (the best ambigrams have this quality).
- A decorative element may be part of a letter when the whole is rotated, or vice versa.
- Strive for visual and stylistic unity (not strictly necessary, but always makes it better).

Great submissions and some wonderful tips! Thank you Mark!
(a link to Mark's website can be found under "Contributors" on the right hand side.)

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)

Ambigram Submission: Friend/enemy, black/white, Naomi & Botanica

Some great submissions from David Foster, a designer living/working in Australia. A quote from the designer...

"...I do most of my work straight into illustrator, although I do sketch quite alot I just never scan them, I use them for reference. I really dislike ambigrams that are illegible.
My process is usually the following:
1a. Either a client or a friend needs one, in which case I will try, not all words work.
1b. Alternatively, I just find a concept or word/words I like, black and white is meant to say alot about how we are different but the same
2. I open illustrator and look at the words from different angles with different spacings in different fonts
3. I open my sketchbook and have a shot at it that way, it's a trial and error process
4. I generally then build it from scratch OR I use parts from existing fonts to make the shapes i need..."z`

The friend/enemy & black/white ambigrams are known as 'symbiotograms', where the word on the bottom is different from the word on the top. Those are some of the hardest types of ambigrams to work on, as the success depends on a lot of factors, including whether the words match up in number of characters and how similar the shapes of the characters are. Very nice job Dave, on both the symbiotograms and the rotational ambigrams! Now how about some color? :D
(a link to Dave's website can be found under "Contributors" on the right hand side.)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Ambigram Video Submission: How Your Perception Evolves

Very interesting video submission from Chong Lai, a designer working out of Singapore. Some very unique ambigrams and portrayals of different types of ambigrams. Great video work and ambigrams Chong!
(a link to Chong Lai's website can be found under "Contributors" on the right hand side.)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ambigram Submission: Ambigrama

So...if a picture is worth a thousand words, what's a video worth?

The above submission is from Txescu from Barcelona, and it means "ambigram" in Spanish, Catalan and Portuguees. Here is a quote directly from the artist:

"...That was a personal work. I am not good at drawing and I do not have much knowledge in graphic design, so I follow a very simple method to compose my ambigrams. I use to cut, rotate and paste different parts of a letter in order to create another that can be reversed (as you will see in the video). Normally I make that with MS Paint as only software and using a different font for every ambigram, some typographies fit better to a word than others. That method is not as
creative as others but it is very effective for beginners or for non designer ambigramists..."

While Txescu (aka Francesc) did not have any actual sketches, he had the following to offer:

"...I don't have any sketch from this ambigram but my brother and I had made a video showing the process...

A video??? Even better then a sketch, here you can actually see someone's process unfold in front of your eyes! It shows another approach, with the same end result (a great ambigram), yet completely unique. This also shows what someone can do with an open mind, creativity and basic computer functions.

Muchas gracias a mi amigo nuevo de Barcelona para su sumisión. (a link to Francesc's website can be found under "Contributors" on the right hand side.)

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ambigram Submission: Steph

This is an ambigram submission from Steph Doyle, an incredibly talented designer from Maryland. He submitted several sketches, or 'scratches' as he called them, a black & white ambigram, and the same ambigram with his signature 3d glasses. The wonderful aspect of the sketches is that you can see on paper how someone's mind is working, the thought progression and how the transformation is happening. Nice work Steph! (a link to Steph's blog can be found under "Contributors" on the right hand side.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Anna Ambigram

Did this for a friend. Probably the quickest ambigram I've done. A few preliminary sketches...and I DO mean a few!

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)

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!

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