Meet the Artist: Scott KimJul 6th, 2009 | By Editor | Category: Artists, Feature
We are pleased this month to be talking to Scott Kim, one of the pioneers in the ambigram space. Scott talked to us from his home in Santa Monica, California.
Ambigram.com: “Thanks for talking with us today, Scott.”
Scott Kim: “It’s my pleasure.”
Ambigram.com: “Scott, I know we have a lot to cover, so I’m going to jump right into it.
You and John Langdon are widely regarded as the two inventors of the modern day ‘ambigram’, although you originally called the designs ‘inversions’. What was your first design, and what inspired you to create it?”
Scott Kim: “I created my first ambigram design in 1975 for a graphic design course at Stanford. The assignment was not to do an ambigram, but to create a figure/ground work of art where we were told to pay attention to the background as much as the foreground. Most of the other students focused on shapes, but I wanted to focus on words.”
Ambigram.com: “And no one else in the class was working with words?”
Scott Kim: “Right. I wanted to create a design of the words ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, but that attempt failed. So, I needed a different strategy, and decided to try the words ‘Figure’ and ‘Figure’, which ended up being my first ambigram.”
Ambigram.com: “Had you seen any ambigrams before creating that one?”
Scott Kim: “I knew about palindromes, like RACECAR, and I knew about naturally symmetrical words like NOON, but it had never occurred to me to push that idea further. When I created the ‘Figure / Figure’ design I realized there was a vast world here waiting to be explored. It was like in the Wizard of Oz movie, when the door opens and everything is suddenly in color.’
After that, like everyone else when they first discover ambigrams, I started to do ambigrams of my friends’ names. But I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of my lettering. So I studied calligraphy, typeface design, and anything else I could find related to letterforms. Ambigrams pushed me to study typography. This is a different path than the one that John Langdon took, who studied typography and design first, and then later became interested in ambigrams.
Shortly after those first few ambigrams, I met Douglas Hofstader, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach. He said that he and Peter Jones had dabbled in similar things, but had never tried to turn one letter into multiple letters, which really limits what you can do.”
Ambigram.com: “The term ‘ambigram’ had not been coined at the time. What did you and Douglas call these designs?”
Scott Kim: “Every ambigram creator had a different name for their art. I started using the term ‘Inversions’ since it worked well with my name, but I didn’t intend for that to be an industry-wide term.”
Ambigram.com: “Let’s go ahead and talk a little bit about your book ‘Inversions’. You wrote that book in 1981, long before there were web sites devoted to ambigrams. The book focused on your collection of ambigram designs up to that point. What made you decide to write a book about this topic?”
Scott Kim: A lot of encouragement from friends and colleagues, and a desire to create a book. The publisher, Byte Books, actually approached me about the project because they had seen my work.
I was in grad school at Stanford at the time and essentially took a year off from my studies to write that book. I had worked closely with Hofstadter when he was writing his book, so I knew a lot about the process.”
Ambigram.com: “How did the book do?”
Scott Kim: “Very well, thanks to help from some key magazine articles.
My ambigrams first appeared in print in Scot Morris’s Games column in OMNI magazine in 1979. Later, Martin Gardner wrote about my work in his ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American.
When the OMNI magazine column started appearing regularly, John Langdon heard about my work for the first time. Since he was an independent pioneer in this space, and we were previously not aware of each other, he was surprised that someone else was essentially doing the same thing. We later met and we continue to keep in touch.
Ambigram.com: “Let’s talk a little more about that column in OMNI magazine. What was the response to that column?”
Scott Kim: “At the end of the article, Scot Morris asked readers to send in their own ambigrams. He was surprised when over 3,000 entries poured in from all around the world. The article really created quite a stir. There were so many good entries, Scot decided to run the designs across several issues. Then they ran the whole contest again in 1987.”
Ambigram.com: “It seems that people that are interested in ambigrams tend to share other interests as well. Why do you think this is, and what do you think those interests are?”
Scott Kim: “I’ve definitely noticed that, too. People interested in ambigrams are often also interested in music, mathematics and puzzles. For instance, before I was making ambigrams I was composing musical canons.”
Ambigram.com: “I must admit, I’ve never composed a canon.”
Scott Kim: “A canon is a song like ‘Frere Jacques’, where several voices sing the same melody starting at different times, and all the voices fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to create harmony. Canons can be as simple as children’s songs, or they can be as complex as Bach fugues.
As with ambigrams, there are many different symmetries you can use. Voices can be transposed to start on different pitches, a voice can be turned upside down so intervals go up instead of down and vice versa. Bach even wrote ‘crab canons’ where one voice plays the melody backwards, like the way a crab seems to walk backwards, which led me to create a mirror symmetrical ambigram of J.S. Bach.
What’s the exact visual analogue of a musical canon? Instead of delaying “Frere Jacques” a few beats to create a harmonious piece of music, you would shift a visual design in space to create a legible piece of lettering.
In fact, I created an ambigram that I felt would be the visual equivalent of a musical canon. The subject is digital artist “John Maeda”, and I call it a slide ambigram, as a portion of the design shifts to reveal the whole picture.”
Ambigram.com: “You mentioned that people interested in ambigrams are often interested in mathematics, and you have a strong mathematical and computer background, including a PhD in Computers and Graphic Design from Stanford. Has your formal education helped you with ambigram creation?”
Scott Kim: “Studying mathematics made me familiar with a wide range of geometric symmetries that I can use in my ambigrams. I use my computer science background when I draw ambigrams in Illustrator or program interactive ambigrams in Flash. Most importantly I use the problem solving skills I learned in math and computer science when I figure out how to create an ambigram on a particular word or name.
Of course there’s more to ambigrams than just math. That’s why I like creating them…they’re a whole brain activity that calls on both math and art skills.”
Ambigram.com: “So, let’s bring things back to the present day. How did your ambigram creations from the late 70s and 80s lead you to the mind exercises and puzzles that you are involved with now?”
Scott Kim: “In all my work I want to create experiences that help people stretch their minds, and see things in a different way than what they are used to. Art can do that, and so can games.
For instance, my ambigram of the word MIRROR appears in many geometry textbooks, along with artist M. C. Escher’s works, as a way of getting students interested in learning more about symmetry. Notice that the word ‘Mirror’ appears identical when reflected in a mirror.
But I didn’t just want people to look at ambigrams, I wanted them to experience the creative joy I felt creating ambigrams, writing canons and doing mathematics. That led me to become a game designer, and to create my first big game – Heaven and Earth.”
Ambigram.com: “Is that a board game?”
Scott Kim: “It’s a computer game. I designed about 600 puzzles for Heaven & Earth. The puzzles are all based on optical illusions. When you play the puzzles your brain has to keep shifting how it perceives things. It’s like mental yoga. The game is long out of print, but you can play one of the Heaven & Earth puzzles, called Figure/Ground at clockworkgoldfish.com.”
Ambigram.com: “What sorts of games are you making now?
More and more people are realizing that they need to exercise their brains to keep themselves fit, just as they exercise their bodies.
So I’ve started a company named Shufflebrain that makes computer games that are both fun and good for you, along the lines of such hit brain games as Sudoku and Nintendo’s Brain Age. Shufflebrain’s first game Photograb is now available on Facebook. It’s a quick seek-and-find style game in which you hunt for details in photos that you and your friends contribute.
I am also writing a book called Brain Candy with neuroscientist and author Richard Restak. It’s all about the different areas of your brain, along with puzzles to exercise each area.”
Ambigram.com: “It sounds like those anatomy charts in the gym that show you what muscles will be worked out by each exercise.”
Scott Kim: “Exactly. That was precisely the idea.”
Ambigram.com: “Wow, Scott. That was a great conversataion, and a fascinating peak into your mind. Where can readers go after they read this article to find out more about you and your work?”
Scott Kim: “They can check out even more ambigrams on my personal web site – scottkim.com/inversions
They can also find the games on my professional site: shufflebrain.com.”
Ambigram.com: “Thanks again, Scott.”
Scott Kim: “My pleasure.”