How To Make an Ambigram

May 13th, 2009 | By | Category: Design Secrets

An ambigram is 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 Ambigram.com, 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 often 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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  1. Even with such powerful applications as Freehand and Illustrator (my go-to), it’s still amazing how important plain old paper is. However, when I sketch out ideas I use computer protocol and SAVE all those papers — experimenting and keeping the experiments. It’s sometimes been years after the fact that I’ve gone back into the file cabinet to resurrect some old ambigram idea I want to take another shot at.

    I appreciate your column, Nikita. Thanks for writing.

  2. Ambigrams were brought to my attention several months ago when I saw one on a fan-art web page and thought, ‘Oh, that’s neat looking’ and I forgot about it for some time. Then about 3 months ago I visited that fan-art page again and looked at the ambigram again. At this point I went looking around the web for more information. WikiPedia.org has a very interesting article about ambigrams. (That’s what led me to this site today.) After reading the WikiPedia article, my flexible artistic brain cells got right to work on the first of many ambigrams to emerge from my pen… or computer drawing tablet. It was a mirror of the name Hebert, where the r and t reversed together with exaggerated serifs formed the capital letter H, the capital letters E were drawn without the solid upright bar and I used serifs to cause the eye to appropriately “connect” the three disjointed horizontal bars, and the capital letter B was drawn more like a roundish-squarish 8 but with serifs on all four extremities. It turned out pretty well for my first attempt… drawn in MS Paint with a regular mouse. Since then I have made dozens of ambigrams, most of which are single names, some are first and last names together, one rotational ambigram is three words long. I always start, as you suggest above, with writing down the word or phrase in multiple directions (mixing lower case and upper case will help at times) on plain unlined paper, then I work out a rough drawing using lines one pencil point thick. Frequently I have to merge letters together, break them into disjointed pieces, or “wiggle” them up and down in a wave across the page rather than the conventional horizontal chain to form an inversion that is easier to play around with. After I have given shape to the “skeleton” of the ambigram, then I add the “meat” by developing its style.

    I had to chuckle when I read item #4 above, that an ambigram could take days or weeks to develop. I like to let my artistic mind go unleashed when I get into another ambigram kick. When I really get in the ‘zone,’ one after another after another will flow out of me almost as naturally as conventionally written text. This week has been quite remarkable for me. In the past five days I have drawn 44 ambigrams… No, that’s not a typo. Yes, I counted them. Seriously, I drew forty-four of them (up to the time of this posting) in the past five days (and there may be more to come before the day is over). Though, now that I think about it, some words and phrases will be far more difficult to stylize than others, especially if you need to develop a company logo that reflects, represents an image of the company’s presence.

    My advice to anyone who wants to attempt an ambigram: “Forget the rules; mix the cases; change the sizes; strech the ‘tails;’ break the letters into pieces; mash the letters together; free your mind from restrictions; and — most important — Have Fun!”

  3. thank you for the tips Nikita. My classmates love doing this, but the other way, But I have a question, for example you use the word love and when you turned it upside down it will become hate…. do you still call that an ambigram?

  4. Hello Frank,

    Love/hate is just a different type of ambigram, called a symbiotogram. That simply means that when the word is rotated 90 or 180 degrees, it is read as another word.
    Is there any specific aspect of ambigram design you’d like to see…perhaps in a future article?

    Nikita

  5. Well, perhaps yes. But i don’t know some other examples of ambigram, thanks in advance. I’ll be visiting this site if i got any questions about ambigrams. thank you sooooo much..

  6. Ambigram is in the dictionary.

  7. i just got into ambigrams a few days ago. yes i read about them in the book angels and demons( anyone know how much of that book is fact???) well i realized my friend showed me some symbiotograms of love/hate life/death. i am wondering what the limits are for how different in size two words can be. and if any one has a phrase or sentance… anything with more than one word.

  8. different designs in ambigram

  9. tnx

  10. [...] Learn how to create your own Ambigram here: http://www.ambigram.com/how-to-make-an-ambigram [...]

  11. In reply to Exaiver: I like to draw greeting card phrases as ambigrams. Here are just a few of the phrases I have drawn. The entire phrase reads the same right-side-up or up-side-down.

    “Thank you for being my friend!” “Happy Anniversary” “Many Thanks”
    “Missing You” “Hang In There” “It’s A Boy” “It’s A Girl” “A Bridal Shower”

    The un-even word divisions sometimes pose a slight problem, but I try to find ways around that. I also find that a one-to-one ratio isn’t always the best way to go, especially when your words aren’t the same length and you have wide letters like M or W occurring at the inversion of narrow letters like i and L. Two-to-one or three-to-two ratios often work better for those inversions. There are even phrases whose letters “play nice” better as an infinite chain (the inversion overlaps somewhere in the middle of the phrase). I like to draw these repeating in a circular chain.

  12. Is there any way you can help me out hints, more sketches, ect.

    -Thanks.

  13. hey nikita,thnx for ur coloumn.Like most of people i have got inspired abt ambigram frm ‘Angels & Demons. Now i m trying 2 make ambigrams of my own. can u tell me that ambigram is possible in other language like Bengali?

  14. Hi Avijit,

    I can’t tell you whether it’s possible or not because I’ve never experimented with ambigrams in that language. I can only tell you this: try it and see if it works! There are ambigrams out there in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and many other languages. No reason why, with some research, sketches and exploration, an ambigram in Bengali shouldn’t work.

    Good luck! Would love to see what you come up with.

    Nikita
    nikita@ambigram.com

  15. Hi Avijit,
    Interesting question, was thinking about that myself.The slight problem with devanagari based (scripts like bengali and hindi) have very definite letter forms and there is no uppercase/ lowercase.Having said that (and briefly glancing through the bengali script) its definitely not impossible, in fact I remember see a tamil(though its not devanagari based) ambigram so keep trying and I”ll give it a go in hindi if i can :)

  16. hii nikita
    i was really inspired to make my own ambigram after reading angels and demons..and thanks to you i was able to create an ambigram.
    without you i would have never really made myself an ambigram

  17. [...] How to Make an Ambigram [...]


 
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