What is an ambigram?
An ambigram, also known as an inversion, is a graphical figure that spells out a word not only in its form as presented, but also in another direction or orientation.
Douglas R. Hofstadter describes an ambigram as a "calligraphic design that manages to squeeze two different readings into the selfsame set of curves". The first published reference to the term was by Hofstadter, who attributes the origin of the word to a friend.
Ambigrams are exercises in graphic design that play with optical illusions, symmetry and visual perception.
What types of ambigrams exist?
There are many different types of ambigrams, most of which usually fall into one of several catagories:
- A design that presents several instances of words when rotated through a fixed angle. This is usually 180 degrees, but rotational ambigrams of other angles exist, for example 90 or 45 degrees. The word spelled out from the alternative direction(s) is often the same, but may be a different word to the initally presented form. Most of the ambigrams on ambigram.net are of this type.
- A design that will read the same when reflected or viewed through a mirror.
- A design where a word (or sometimes words) are interlinked forming a repeating chain. Letters are usually overlapped meaning that a word will start partway through another word. Sometimes chain ambigrams are presented in the form of a circle.
- Similar to chain ambigrams, but tile to fill the 2-dimensional plane.
- A design where an object is presented that will appear to read several letters or words when viewed from different angles. See my 3-D ambigram generator for an automatic tool to create these.
- A design with no symmetry but can be read as two different words depending on how the curves of the letters are interpreted. These designs are very uncommon as it is difficult to find words which will work as an ambigram in this manner.
How can I learn how to draw ambigrams?
It's mostly down to practice and experience. I'm thinking about putting a tutorial here when I have time, but I really suggest that you jump right in and give it a go. Drawing ambigrams is not really as difficult as you probably think, but getting them readible and in a consistent style is very tricky and takes a lot of time.
Names are a good choice for a starting word as they make excellent gifts for people. Try choosing a name between five and eight letters long as these are usually easier than longer or shorter names.
When I draw ambigrams, I write the word down and then write it upside-down just above. This allows me to see what shapes I'm aiming for in the design process.
If you want to be a serious ambigrammist, you must learn to understand what constitutes a letter. Look out for how different letters can be written (see right). With experience, you'll be surprised how easy it is to create the illusion of a letter when it's not actually there in a traditional sense. The fact is your brain wants to read a word rather than a collection of lines and it will force a set of curves into an word more easily than you think.
When designing ambigrams, there is a trap which is incredibly easy to fall into. As you know what your own design says, you'll be able to read it much more easily than other people. This gives the impression that the ambigram is more readible than it actually is. At this point, you may need to show the design to a friend who'll give comments. If the comments are along the lines of "I can't see what it says", then you may need to make some changes. I frequently show designs that I'm working on to friends and colleagues for input during this phase.
The following books have information on ambigrams:
- Kim, Scott, Inversions, Byte Books (1981)
- Hofstadter, Douglas R., "Metafont, Metamathematics, and Metaphysics: Comments on Donald Knuth's Article 'The Concept of a Meta-Font'" Scientific American (August 1982) (republished in the book Metamagical Themas)
- Langdon, John, Wordplay: Ambigrams and Reflections on the Art of Ambigrams, Harcourt Brace (1992)
- Hofstadter, Douglas R., Ambigrammi, Hopefulmonster Editore Firenze (1987) (in Italian)
- Ploster, Burkard, Les Ambigrammes l'art de symétriser les mots, Editions Ecritextes (2003) (in French)
- Ploster, Burkard, Eye Twisters: Ambigrams, Escher, and Illusions, web-based book available at http://www.maths.monash.edu.au/~bpolster/ambigram.html (date unknown)
Ambigrams also feature prominently in Dan Brown's novel, Angels and Demons.
Can you draw one for me?
Unfortunately not at the moment, as I am busy with other projects. so am unable to design ambigrams for individuals. If you are interested in having an ambigram designed for commercial use then please contact me for further details.
Where can I find an Ambigram Font?
Many people come here searching for an ambigram font. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that no such thing can exist as a traditional 'font' on a computer.
The reason that it is not possible is that a regular font has 26 letters of the alphabet. An ambigram font would need to have letters for every pair of letters, e.g. an 'a' that reads an 'a' upside down; an 'a' that reads 'b' upside down etc. This is 351 [(26x27)/2] letters and cannot fit into a traditional font! Most ambigrams also contain groups of letters that are linked together, e.g. a 'w' could read 'in' upside down.
Fortunately, there is a tool that does just that, on the ambigram-matic website. Unfortunately, the designs that it generates are often a mishmash of letters and generally not a readable design. It's always worth a try though.
Can you give me advice on drawing ambigrams?
I'm willing to help out a little bit with advice and suggestions for how to improve your own designs. Use the contact form to send a message to me.
Some of the text above has been adapted from the Wikipedia article on ambigrams and is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.