For the uninformed, an ambigram is a word, art form or other symbolic representation, whose elements retain meaning when viewed or interpreted from a different direction, perspective, or orientation. There are various forms of ambigrams including rotational, mirror-image, chain, symbiotograms, 3-D and perceptual shift among others.
The earliest known non-natural ambigram dates back to 1893 in works created by artist Peter Newell. Newell published two books of invertible illustrations, in which the picture turns into a different image entirely when turned upside down.
Although they’ve been around for quite some time, Dan Brown gave ambigrams a serious shot in the popularity arm with his novel Angels & Demons. Commercially, they’ve been used by Raymond Loewy who designed the rotational New Man ambigram logo, Paul McCartney’s album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and the Princess Bride 20th Anniversary Edition DVD cover designed by Menagerie Creative along with many more.
One designer who’s mastered this curious creative typographic exercise is New York City-based, Nikita Prokhorov. Nikita, being the nice guy he is, shares his knowledge in his new book, Ambigrams Revealed: A Graphic Designer’s Guide To Creating Typographic Art Using Optical Illusions, Symmetry, and Visual Perception. Within its 168 pages, Nikita provides a thorough introduction to this esoteric art form with the aid of a panel of noted design judges, including Scott Kim; John Langdon; Stefan G. Bucher; Jessica Hische: Maggie Macnab and Cheryl Savala.
The author also shares a series of case studies complete with sketches and the thought process behind the creation of some remarkable ambigrams. The showcase section of Ambigrams Revealed presents numerous examples from ambigramists around the world.
So, how does one find his way into this unusual design disciple? I caught up with Nikita to find out and also get some more background on his new book.
Nikita’s photo by Corey Lynn Tucker, www.coreylynntucker.com
What led you to a career in graphic design?
NP: My career in graphic design began with a spectacular failure as a programmer. If any computer programmers are reading this interview, they’ll know that one of the first programs you have to write in a C++ or Java class is one that displays “Hello World!” on the screen. I couldn’t even get that to work correctly! Once I factored in my love for drawing and my grandfather’s influence (who was an architect and artist), the choice to pursue graphic design was pretty clear.
Was there a teacher or teachers who helped shape your work in design?
NP: As an undergraduate, I had a teacher who was in the habit of correcting students’ work with a red sharpie. Usually my sketches, and sometimes even final projects, were full of red marks! She was one of the few professors who pushed me further than anyone else and helped shape my design thinking early on. On the upside, if she was happy with the work, all she drew was a little red heart: I got the red heart a few times.
During one of my first graduate courses in SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), I butted heads with the professor more times than I can remember. Yet, she made me realize that my work was very average and I had to think and work differently if I was to succeed as a graphic designer. To this day, I think her class made the most impact on my creative & conceptual thinking. There were several other professors in graduate school whose work and dedication I admired, and they influenced and inspired my thinking and work ethic.
What are the particular types of projects you enjoy (print, identity, Web, lettering, etc.)
NP: My forte is identity and lettering. However, I never had an interest in ambigrams or lettering (beyond traditional typography) until I finished graduate school. I stumbled across some lettering work by artists such as Doyald Young and Gerard Huerta, and I became hooked. They were my early inspiration, especially when you consider that Gerard Huerta created the logo for my favorite band, AC/DC.
You’re a founding partner in CINQ, a design group handling a variety of projects for various clients. Please describe CINQ’s work and client relationships.
NP: There are two other partners at CINQ, and we all bring something different to the table. Our focus is on small to mid-size businesses and non-profit organizations. The relationships that we try to build with our clients go far beyond the digital realm: this includes phone calls, Skype, and face-to-face meetings whenever possible. Coming across as personable, approachable and fun can’t be done via email alone, and we like to keep in touch with clients after the project is done, aside from the traditional post-project follow-ups.
As for the personal Nikita, you seem to have a penchant for jumping out of airplanes. What got you into that?
NP: Can you believe that work-related stress caused me to jump out of a plane? I was teaching college level graphic design at the time, and it was a very difficult semester for everyone in the department. After one particularly stressful class, I walked outside into the courtyard next to the design building, and I was thinking of what I could do to take the edge off. I looked up at the sky, remembered that I did two tandem jumps several years before…and within a week I was signed up and on my way to getting my solo license. I am now a B-licensed skydiver with approximately 150 jumps, which isn’t much in five years, but I’ll take what I can get.
Many designers listen to music while they work. Is that the case for you and, if so, what artists do you listen to?
NP: It really depends on the project. If I am doing production work or website updates, I prefer something melodic and monotonous, such as house music. Classical music is perfect for when I need to come up with various concepts and brainstorm. But my go-to music is anything by AC/DC. It’s perfect for any occasion, even weddings!
You have a focus on lettering, in particular, ambigrams. They’re not exactly the easiest design project to tackle. What brought you to that unusual discipline?
NP: As many ambigram artists nowadays, I saw John Langdon’s ambigram work in Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons. After seeing the first ambigram maybe ten or so pages into the book, I couldn’t continue reading. I had to pick up a pencil and start sketching to try to figure out how it worked. It took me a bit of time to come up with my first ambigram, but it was well worth the artistic struggles I faced.
What is your process for designing ambigrams?
NP: If I have a specific word in mind, I usually sketch it out and try to make it legible and readable without any color, texture, additional illustrative elements, etc. I try to focus on just legibility and readability first. Once I’ve achieved that, then I turn to typographic style, colors, and texture.
Ambigrams convey a certain aspect of illusion, but they are not magic. An ambigram is a puzzle with malleable pieces and multiple solutions. A traditional jigsaw puzzle has a set number of pieces that you assemble into a predetermined solution: Neither the puzzle pieces nor the final solution offer flexibility. But an ambigram has an undetermined number of typographic elements that you can shape and morph as you see fit for the best possible outcome.
This is where the essence of the ambigram development process becomes clear. The exploration process guides how those typographic pieces will develop. Therefore, the perception of the final solution that you had at the start of the design process will change as well. It is nearly impossible to predict where the process will take you. As an ambigram designer, you are not just crafting new letters. You are establishing new relationships through existing letters. Each of those letters consists of a shape and meaning you learn from an early age. When you’re crafting those new relationships, you have to take special care to preserve the original meaning.
Your new book, Ambigrams Revealed, promises to be an engaging, must-have for a graphic designer’s library. What led you to writing it?
NP: I have been writing and managing Ambigram.com for about four years. Throughout that time, I got to know the ambigram community fairly well and realized how widespread and diverse we were.
Several ambigram pioneers (John Langdon, Scott Kim, and Douglas Hofstadter) have published individual ambigram books of their own, but there has never been a book of international ambigram work. Burkard Polster published a wonderful book Eye Twisters: Ambigrams & Other Visual Puzzles to Amaze and Entertain, but it wasn’t dedicated solely to ambigrams. The combination of my research and writing for Ambigram.com morphed into the idea of Ambigrams Revealed, an international publication of ambigrams, with a respected panel of judges to comment on the work, case studies of outstanding ambigrams, and a gallery of stunning work from every corner of the world. Approximately 60% of the participants are from outside of the United States, and it reflects the diversity and the far reach of the ambigram as an art form.
...An ambigram takes on the same sort of life that a symbol does by connecting to nature, but how does it become its own entity, and such a visually lively one at that? To uncover that, you need to look at both parts of the ambigram: the word and the universal principle expressed. Although the written word is the most apparent component of the ambigram, you intuitively process visual information before you intellectually understand it…”
~ Maggie Macnab, author, graphic designer, from the section titled The Organic Ambigram
Please describe what readers can expect from the book and, perhaps, some key points they can take away after reading it.
NP: I am not exaggerating when I say that everyone can take away something from this book. If you are a graphic designer, you’ll marvel at the creativity demonstrated in the book, and will appreciate it from a typographic, as well as a design viewpoint. If you’re an ambigram designer, your Pavlovian reflex will kick in as you look at all the beautiful ambigram work. And if you’ve never heard of ambigrams before, you will definitely know what they are after you finish the book. Most importantly, I know that anyone who reads this book will attempt to create an ambigram long before they get to the last page.
When is Ambigrams Revealed due to hit the bookshelves?
NP: It will be available on March 29th, 2013, on Peachpit’s website and other online booksellers. As for actual book stores, you’ll be able to order it through most individual bookstores, but it may be easier to just purchase it online. The book will be available in both print (softcover) and ebook editions.
Nikita is currently developing an ambigram workshop for various universities and design organizations. He also has plans to develop an online version of the same workshop.
Ambigrams Revealed is an obvious labor of love and passion. “Over the years, ambigrams have become an artistic addiction, which I’ve pursued relentlessly,” said Nikita. He added, “The process of developing the idea for the book, pitching it to various publishers, getting it accepted, and actually designing it has been an incredible learning experience that I would recommend to everyone. In the end, it paid off: not in the monetary sense, but in the sense of artistic, professional and personal fulfillment, as well as seeing a project that’s very close to your heart come to life.”
End Of The World | This was created as an artistic response to the Mayan Calendar prediction for the end of the world in 2012. I’m glad that everyone lived to fight another day.
Elizabeth | Created for a friend of mine as a gift.
One Love | Created as an homage to Bob Marley and the Rastafarian way of life.
Dracula | Created for fun after watching Leslie Nielsen’s portrayal of Dracula.
Infinite | This is an example where I tried to portray the meaning of the word as well rather than just turn it into an ambigram. This is a rotational chain ambigram: when you turn the chain 180 degrees, it reads as ‘infinite.’ However, note that it’s not a direct rotation: the center of the word shifts when you rotate it, so that the ‘infinite’ upside down begins in the middle of ‘infinite’ that you see initially. Hopefully that makes sense!