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Ambigram

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.

Introduction to letter art

An ambigram is a piece of letter art with a single line of characters that say one thing upside right, and something equally legible but different when rotated 180 degrees. Unlike most letters found in the American English language, ambigrams have letter use in everyday or academic writing. American cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter has referred to the ambigram as a form of calligraphy that allows two distinct readings from the same set of character curves.

Even though designers have been making ambigrams as far back as the 1890s, the term "ambigram" wasn't actually coined until the 1980s, when it came into usage among Hofstadter's circle of friends. Two ambigrams in 3-D grace the cover of his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach.

Lear to create ambigrams

An ambigram is designed by placing matching or differing words upside down from one another and finding commonalities in the characters that line up. Preferably, the two words will be the same length and character count, but clever designers can often find ways around the problem of lopsided pairings. 

After the two words are aligned, the designer then cuts away at parts of each letter. Once the tops are cut to form readable, invertible words, both sides are joined into one character set. Certain letters—H, I, N, O, S, X, and Z—are invertible in uppercase, and can therefore be used without cutting when aligned from both words. 

Ambigram - Historical information

As a mixture of optical illusion and symmetry, ambigrams subvert form and content to play upon the visual perceptions of viewers. While most ambigrams are invertible, variations of the design form exist, including the following:

  • Figure-ground – Displays a secondary word, formed from the spaces created by the main word.
  • Mirror-image – Shows the same word when held to a mirror.
  • Glass-door – Displays a different word when held to a mirror; named as such because this type of ambigram can be printed on glass doors to read differently from the inside than on the outside.
  • Chain – Where words overlap, letter by letter, with one or more words appearing between the spaces of the first.
  • Multi-lingual – An ambigram that will show a word in one language or another, depending on which direction it's being held.

Children's illustrator Peter Newell pioneered what would later be called the ambigram with his 1893 book Topsys & Turvys, in which the same set of characters manage to say THE END upside right and PUZZLE upside down. In the book's 1902 sequel, he repeated the feat with the same two words, but with the numeral 2 at the end of PUZZLE.

One of the most iconic ambigrams is the NEW MAN logo by French-American industrial designer Raymond Loewry. First unveiled in 1969, the bold, minimalist logo by the then-76-year-old is still widely seen in the 2010s. Also popular throughout the ages is the DMC horizontal ambigram by DeLorean Motor Company, which made its debut in 1975.

The 1970s also saw some notable ambigrams in the world of rock; namely John Langdon's horizontal STARSHIP logo for the Jefferson Starship; and Robert Petrick's ANGEL logo for the glam-metal band of the same name. Ambigrams also feature on the cover art for the Grateful Dead albums Aoxomoxoa (1969) and American Beauty (1970).

On the 20th anniversary DVD release of the 1987 romance fantasy The Princess Bride, the title words—minus the definite article—are formed into an invertible ambigram.

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