how I make ambigrams
I initially wanted this to be a “How To Make…” write up. But with what I had learned starting from the first time I tried my hand out at ambigramming straight through when I had decided to dedicate this blog mostly to my personal exploration of the artform, was that while – just as with other discipline – ambigramming could be taught, I wondered how will I be able to make a step by step instructional presentation when ambigrams can be created through a number of different methods. So I decided to focus on one, my method. But the thing is – my methodology may only make sense to me and maybe even more difficult to put in words.
After multiple rewrites on the content (wrote the first draft 24 May 2015) – and title changes – I opted to forgo with the instructional format as the tone, voice and language sounded a bit of a put on (and another version that seemed to be a long winded anecdote) and settled with the idea of just flat out sharing my creative process.Personally, I don’t think I am anywhere near the point where I could impose with authority the way I do things anyway.
49 published posts (two were non-ambigram related), over a hundred ambigram designs, 24,373 words as of last count, hundreds of unsorted stack of scrap paper, over 1TB disk space and 4 years later, it all remains to be just a bunch of jumbled up mental post it notes – a mishmash of pointers I remind myself, plus some actual written stuff at the back of virtually every sketch or some notebook to remind me how I came up with certain solutions or what inspired me to do the piece and tips I picked up from other designers and a couple of orphan .doc files. This for the record is my attempt (fourth, actually) to put them all together in one place.
*** sidetrack ***
Yup! 50 posts. And while I never really set out to find readers and followers for this blog (as I just needed a regular outlet and a place to put up my work on so I can force myself to not procrastinate too much), I have managed to get a few likes, a re-blog and 30+ followers with only one of them I personally know, not to forget some very nice people who became clients! I know, 30something in an era where a hundred followers is considered lame, yet for me having even just one person mildly interested enough in what I do already is a biggie!
So, as a gesture of appreciation to everyone kind enough to have followed, liked and all that stuff, AND whoever else stumbled upon this inconsequential parcel of web space, whether intentionally searching for the topic or not, I present a hopefully helpful insight – of which I do not impose on anyone – how I do ambigrams.
First, a couple of caveats…
- I believe there is no right or wrong way to make an ambigram. Whatever works work.
- This is not a “How-to” guide, it’s more of a peek in to my process -pointers I check myself with while I draw my ambigrams.
- The list of tips below are just that – tips. They are not commandments to live by. My process may or may not work with anyone else’s. You may think that my notes here are all bull and that’s fine, go with what you feel will work for you and you’re free to cherry pick.
- Ambigrams, I think, are just the same as optical illusions, or as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: ‘brain failures’. In concert with the eyes – our complex but somewhat flawed primary organ for observation, our brain is easily tricked by patterns, lines, shapes and forms when seemingly arranged in such a way that titillate our own biases and preconception. Also our brain has evolved to recognize and pick out patterns (especially faces) even and especially in a clutter or among “background noise” the way our precursors saw the zodiac patterns in the night sky, or the faces on toasted bread or sides of a mold laden wall. Therefore, our objective is to try and trick the brain, or exploit that shortcoming, into recognizing a word where that very word was formed not necessarily with its “proper” parts. Where characters and glyphs are setup trying to convince the brain into thinking it is what it appears to be.
- Most of these tips assume that you do intend to push through with this artform and willing go and actually get your hand wet with it. Because like in any discipline you need to work on it, learn as much as you can about it, and dedicate time to honing the craft. A person just don’t go applying a “Y” incision on anybody without first going to med school expecting things to turn out just fine or pick a fight with Conor McGregor on a whim without going through some form of training. Talent can only take you so much.
- It also assumes that we are aiming to craft a proper ambigram. Not even a perfect one, but a proper one.
- Not all words are ambigram friendly.
A Somewhat In Order Unordered List
There are no rules in ambigram making. Well, sort of.
So long as it’s legible, it’s all good. However, a really successful ambigram (as intimated by those better at this than I am) is one that even with all the manipulations applied to it, follows basic typographical fundamentals.
Keep the letterform consistent.
As with making a poster (or most printed materials) try not to mix up types and fonts. It gets too busy and taxing to the reader. Another characteristic of a good ambigram is that it does not seem to be a specially lettered word until after you rotate or flip it. If you began with a Sans Serif type then there shouldn’t be a Blackletter glyph in there unless of course the ‘concept’ calls for it.
While it is mainly aesthetics I try to keep all forms fairly similar, I try my best not to mix my “double storey a” with “single storey a” on a piece unless there really is no way around it. I have a similar problem with placing caps between lower cases but sometimes you just have to roll with it.
Keep the letterform consistent II.
Or define the ambigram’s personality. This comes in the later stages, usually as I finalize (mostly done digitally) the piece. I take on the most prominent letter and work on it first. It does not need to be the first letter, but the letter that will appear most frequently (especially with Filipino words: the letter A appears with great frequency in Filipino words). Once that letter has been interpreted to my satisfaction, I use its parts in building up the other letters employing as much (or little) modification necessary. This help ease in the reader with the word as they do not need to decipher each letter, since, as seen on the figure below, certain letters appear somewhat similar to its previous incarnate. Similarly looking parts and ligatures lend a consistent personality to the ambigram – as if it was set to a very specific type, the way one would apply a font selection to a regularly typed word on a word processor or a graphic design program.
Which leads us to… typography.
A little background knowledge on lettering basics IS a big plus.
Back in college I passed LETTERING 101 and 102 by the skin of my Speedball C-tip. I was not an exceptional calligrapher nor letterer, I was average to say the least but I had this knack of retaining useless information that works just as well with useful ones. I am not bookish but I read a lot and pay attention to things I know I should know even after college. Printing is a big part of my profession so I tried to be as much informed as I could in the early days, and typography has got a lot to do with printing. What I had learned then(well mostly), added to my design studio and freelance experience has provided me adequate practical understanding of the basics of typography.
So, empower yourself, know the basics, read up on it, learn the difference between types and spacing… and kerning, and width… and the parts of a type… etc. Like me, you need not be a John Hancock but you have got to be able to know a bit of it since you are basically making word art.
With that I offer a link to a downloadable type cheat sheet that I made for myself at the bottom of the post, with no obligation on your part. It focuses mostly on the anatomy of type – could be helpful in identifying or discerning which part of the type you’re supposed to be manipulating in the construction process of your ambigram. And whodathunk that types have parts and classification, amarite? At the very least it could be useless trivial fodder at boring parties, but you are free to keep it for yourself or share or pass it around if you so wish.
Research. Explore. Exploit.
This is an integral part of any creative undertaking. When I do logos, poster works, album covers and even when preparing for a meal I already know how to make, I do my homework. And this goes also with ambigram designing. Study the word you intend to work on. Include in your study word association and etymology, not just the meaning of it. Better understanding of the word will greatly help you in interpreting and setting it to appropriate type.
If you go over my ambigram work you’ll probably notice that I mostly incorporate or design them around a theme. Call it Conceptual Ambigram… or don’t. Anyway, with the research I had done for the ambigram itself, I am able to plan out an even bigger idea than I started out with. And if done correctly, would inevitable make the ambigram more well rounded. Of course not all ambigrams need to be this elaborately designed as a good ambigram can, should and will stand on its own merit. But I feel it should also be flexible enough to be incorporated with an even bigger concept and play well with its environment and not only exist in the vacuum of negative space. (Negative space, hehehe… get it..? vacuum..? space..? typography joke..? lame? ah well)
But before you jump into doing convoluted pieces…
Take up simple words first…
Take it easy. Start tackling simple word problems first, and after you’ve got the hang of it, it’ll be easier finding solutions to more complex word combinations after having gone through with the easy stuff.
… then interpret it in mono weight letterform…
The simpler the better. Besides, having created your ambigram in mono weight first, you now have the foundation you can build upon should you decide to stylize the piece.
…then try doing it in Blackletter.
Like it or not Blackletter is THE welcome mat for beginners. I found that it has the flexibility needed to “coax” a glyph, or at least a part of it, to form the letter you need. Blackletters, usually, are created with parallel vertical parts that you can easily re-purpose for the flip. What type can afford you the bowl or stress of an “o” to turn into a stem of say… an “r”? Yup, Blackletter, while being an old-timey font is probably the most flexible and ambigram friendly type classification.
Spell the word out…
And then below it- spell it backwards. With my early works, this was a system I devised so that I could actually see which letter correlates with which when flipped. I have not done this for a while now because I had become increasingly familiar with letter correlation and seeing which combination works best, but I do go back to it when the word I’m doing require very complex combinations, especially with chain ambigrams. This system, though, has its limitations, as sometimes a letter with two legs will match-up with a single stemmed letter thus prompting you to “borrow” from the next which kind of messes up the match-up. However, for beginners this could very well be a useful step as you try to manage your way through your own system.
Use less of flourishes…(gasp)
I am the biggest transgressor of this. I did not realize I enjoyed putting too much flourishes on my earlier works (now, I only sparingly sprinkle them around as crossbars). While these are great runaround solution, too much of it tends to be distracting.
The ambigram above was both my debut piece and first foray to competitive ambigram making, bagged 2nd place I believe. Ooh, look at them lovely flourishes! Remember kids: do as I say, not as I do… hehehe
For coupled words and phrases, layering them may be a more effective solution than having them on the same plane. Only be wary to not overlap or overcrowd where it’d be too busy to read. Sometimes this too work on single words where a ligature could overlay itself on top of the next glyph to act as part of the corresponding overturned letter. Choosing to do this, however, you may have to flex a lot more creative muscles than you’d normally use with mono-weight and monotone ambigrams but the reward could be very satisfying having made the ambigram more dynamic.
Layering a medium “Bang” over a heavier “Big” and a couple of larger iterations somewhat created a gradually expanding radial motion suggesting an explosive origin of sort. And while “Bang” was on top, you are still prompted to say “Big Bang” because “Big” is more imposing (and probably familiarity with the phrase helps a lot too).
Approach it as you would any puzzle.
Not only is ambigram an optical illusion, it’s also a puzzle to be solved. And as you would with any puzzle, you first look at all the parts available to you and recognize which would act as the linchpin or the keystone or a cipher that could thread through or hold together or break the code to help you set things in motion. How do you do that? (Un)fortunately, through multiple failures.
ACTUAL TIP –> Make each glyph slightly elongated or taller.
The brain can recognize (most of the time) the top half of a letter at a glance. Familiarity will get you halfway through recognizing the word. Remember, we are hardwired to recognize and pick out patterns. Try covering the lower half part of the ambigram below, and see if you can make out the word.
By the way, this is the world premiere of this ambigram. And after a painstakingly long time debating with myself what to call it, I have finally decided to name this one “theory”. Its proximity to the Big Bang ambigram was purely coincidental.
Keep on sketching…
When developing a piece, explore every possibility. Try different combinations, letterforms and ambigram types. Sketch away… use the back of misprints and discarded reports from ten years ago… save a tree.
Keep a pen handy (better if with a notebook) wherever you go, you’ll never know when the muses shall visit you next. The idea for the piece below came to me while I was stuck in traffic with no pen and paper around and I had to consciously block everything else out until I got home, so I wouldn’t forget. You can check out the final ambigram by clicking >>> this link <<<.
While not necessary, learn a graphic design program.
You can create great ambigrams by hand, so you don’t actually have to. Computer programs just get things done a lot faster, not necessarily better. But wouldn’t it be nice to have that know-how in your arsenal, ready to be pulled out when needed? So if you do decide to try your hand on a software, invest on a vector based program.
Use an existing font… as a jump off platform.
While it’s easy and novel using a readily available font and work it to form an ambigram, more often than not the final product appears to be forced and awkward. Believe me, I used to edit fonts straight away. It’s a great exercise, I can attest to that, but there seem to be no pleasure (at least to me) gained from it. Now, I usually try and approximate the general characteristic of a certain font but still work the ambigram from scratch. The ambigrams below were based off Serpentine.
Take advantage of all the glyphs available.
You don’t stop with just the letters, no, you have at your disposal every numeral, symbol, punctuation and diacritical mark! Use them if necessary. Best example I can give you is my most favorite piece, PASKO! Take notice of the last two glyphs, the “O” and the “!”, as they were kerned tight enough to form the “P” when overturned. Of course, I had to adjust all the other letter spaces to even them out.
Hey! It seems that while this piece has appeared in Nikita Prokhorov’s Ambigrams Revealed and other places, this is the first time it has graced this blog!
Ask for advice.
A lot of people have been doing this a lot longer than you’d imagined. And the people that I know who have and still are, are so generous with their feedback and advise. Look for and try going on forums or join a community. I belong to an FB group called Fellow Ambigrammists.
Check out other ambigrammists work, and wallow in sorrow with the realization that you’re too stupid to have not thought of or done that piece first! You’re never going to be as good as them! (That last line was a self-deprecating sarcasm, just in case it went whooosh! by you.) But really, you don’t have to be as good as anybody, you just have to find your voice, your style, your niche. So, learn from their work… digest… take inspiration from them… interact with them… ask questions… then incorporate whatever you’ve learned from all these with your next attempt.
Show your work and take a hit.
Not every “ambigram” you make will be appreciated the way you thought it’d be and get an A+ grade or raving reviews. Take note: just because you can “read” the ambigram doesn’t mean others will be able to. Sometimes the best comments you can get are those that ask “What does it say?” or “This so and so letter seems weak.” or “Can’t read it.” And that is just fine. What could come after that is an intelligent discourse on better approach to specific faults in the piece and all these new information will provide you new and different perspectives that’ll challenge you in to coming up with more creative ways to tackling the next iteration or an entirely new piece.
Much as it feels good to get a “like” when I post on the Fellow page, my actual intention is to get relevant feedback that could bring attention to possible flaws that I might have missed due to my own biases. I try as much not to prime the members with captions obviously to test the ambigram’s legibility. That is why I even put up Filipino ambigrams, or as I call them Suliktad, for the same reason.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Try the word out on a different ambigram type. Aside from the usual rotational, you could try it as a chain, reflective, perceptual shift or a symbiotogram. Yes, there are other types of ambigram you can exploit. Go for it, just remember each type operates on slightly different principles.
If that don’t work as well… do not be fixated on a single word/phrase/name.
Be open to the possibility that the word/phrase you are trying to create is a non-ambigram friendly word, maybe it’s just not doable. Find a more suitable synonym or another form of the word. There are plenty of words that I have been working on and have just recently cracked and there are even more that I haven’t. Or…
Just, Walk away… Renee…
When you’re at your wits end, walk away. Go read a book, binge watch The Night Of, listen to Tina Fey’s Bossypants audiobook, immerse yourself in the discography of MC Miker G and DJ Sven, climb a mountain, ford a stream, follow a rainbow, take up line dancing, do gardening, repair that leaky faucet you promised your wife you’d do or work on other materials and designs. Put it out of your mind. Then after a spell, come back to it with hopefully fresher eyes. You might realize that you are just being stubbornly myopic and looking for a solution to the wrong problem.
Forget everything I said…
After churning out designs after another based on your methodology, things start getting… familiar. And familiarity keeps you blind and numb to creeping faults in your system. You tend to be complacent and dependent on it because it works for you, you’re accustomed to it. So, once in a while, go against your gut. Move out of your comfort zone. This might or might not deliver a pleasant looking piece, but it’s beneficial either way in the sense that it’ll keep you in check, on your toes, and not rest on your laurels. Shake things up. Challenge yourself.
If it is truly necessary for creating ambigrams to have a rule, even just one… then definitely, an ambigram needs to be legible. A really successful ambigram can be read easily even if you are not familiar with the word or its meaning.
There you have it, my ambigram making process. Winding it down, let me add this one “WHY” to the list. Why I do ambigrams.
The “Yes!” simultaneous with a fist pump moment.
Or simply put- the Eureka! or Aha! moment.
This is probably the biggest driving force for me, something that I thought was lacking in my attempts with other discipline and artform. I tried Visual Arts in my college days, it’s not for me. Experimented with photography and then video production, which I both enjoyed very much and still take on from time to time, but it wasn’t my calling.
Easily, over 75% of my ambigram solutions were followed immediately after with fist pump gestures. In fact, to me, ambigramming provide twice the gratification. First, this rush that happens midway through the process after having solved the puzzle. And second, as I contemplate on a finalized version of the ambigram. There’s this feeling of satisfaction and completeness I get after cracking the code and finding a solution to the problem at hand, and then looking at the final piece. Not better than sex – as nothing is, but relatively close.
And now we’ve come to a not-so-real-time account of me doing an ambigram.
First, apologies for the camera work. As you’d soon find out it’s not easy shooting yourself (with a phone) as you draw. The camera tends to wander off the subject as I zoned in on sketching, and at times the pencil would just hover about as I shift my focus on the phone to see if I have it all still in frame. Also, there was supposed to be an annotative track over the video but the recording was awful and I sounded nervous so I took it out. Maybe on my next attempt. The video was sped up enough so we can still follow the process without getting a headache because at normal speed it seemed to be just dragging on. Am sure no academy award will find its way to my mantle with this stuff.
The Oprah moment we’ve all been waiting for… Freebie!!!
Finally as promised here is the >>> link to my cheat sheet <<<. Enjoy!
Hmm… nice way to celebrate my 50th post, 4th year with WordPress and end 2016 with. Hopefully you could all check back in for issues 51 and 52 for an ambitious multi-layered rotational and chain combo suliktad and journey back to the Ambiverse. Maraming Salamat, po!!!