This is a special treat.
We have a guest, and fellow ambigram fan with us today. His name is Nikita Prokhorov, and he runs one of the most extensive ambigram blogs on the Internet, located at ambigramblog.blogspot.com. Nikita agreed to an informal interview to talk about his history and opinions on the ambigram space.
Mark: So Nikita, I know from my previous conversations with you that you have a background in graphic design and typography. Can you tell us how your background fits with your interest in ambigrams?
Nikita: I received a “Master of Fine Arts in Ambigram Design” back in 2006, and…(laughs)
I could only hope that it was a major offered in my graduate school, but when I found out it wasn’t, I had to dive into the world of ambigrams on my own.
In the undergraduate stage of my education, I was a very bull-headed designer. I was under the (oh so false) impression that my design work & ideas were great, and that I could do no wrong. When I began attending graduate school, my thought process & approach to graphic design (and my own ability) changed drastically. I learned how to think more openly, be more critical of & less restrictive in my designs. That was not the direct link to my future interest in ambigrams, but it definitely set the foundation in the sense opening up my mind and learning how to be more flexible with design work.
Mark: Now, you seem to have developed quite a deep interest in ambigrams. What motivates you to pursue it to the extent that you have, and what was the purpose of starting Ambiblog? Be honest, it’s for the ladies, isn’t it?
Nikita: If that‘s true, then I must be doing something wrong, because it hasn’t worked yet! Ladies, if you are reading this interview, you are encouraged to respond…
My original interest was peaked when I read Angels & Demons, much like yourself & thousands of others. It happened at a perfect time, as I was in search of a creative outlet other than my schoolwork, and my first ambigram appeared mid-2005. Ambigrams immediately drew me in because they were unlike anything I have ever seen. Earlier this year I started paying close attention to my thought & sketching process, which was slightly different for each ambigram. Upon understanding my thought process, I became curious about other artists’ ambigram process, and that led to the Ambiblog. The concept behind it is exploration of the actual ambigram development more so than the end result.
Every artist has an overall approach that is similar; first a general concept is developed, followed by rough, then detailed sketches, ending with the final ambigram. What really interests me is the individual thought/design process and execution of the various stages of ambigram development. On the blog, one artist from Singapore submitted a video that included multiple ambigram transitions and animations, from individual words to the whole alphabet. Another artist from Barcelona submitted a video he recorded of himself creating an ambigram in MS Paint! I would have never thought of using MS Paint, but he did, and created a successful ambigram.
Mark: OK, let’s just lay it out there. In your opinion, who are some of the best ambigram artists out there? What makes their work so special?
Nikita: You just asked me a difficult question with a tough answer. I think there are several categories that ambigrams artists could be broken down to.
There are the select few artists that initiated the ambigram movement (for lack of a better term), from coining the term ‘ambigram’ to creating the first existing ambigrams. In my opinion, they are in a league of their own & make up the upper echelon of the ambigram community. Not just for being the founders of a new movement, but also for conceptualizing something so unique. I have been lucky enough to meet one of them in person, and it was none other than John Langdon! He met with me for several fantastic hours of insight and conversation a few months back, while also providing one of the first interviews on Ambiblog.
Another gentleman in this group is Scott Kim, who, aside from ambigrams, creates wonderful games and puzzles for children, also agreed to an interview, the content of which is also published on the blog. The third is Douglas Hoffstadter, who coined the term ‘ambigram’ and has exhibited his work in various art galleries; he is a rare academic who is able to think from a creative as well as scientific perspective.
The second category is…well, everyone else! There are, however, several smaller subgroups.
These artists continuously experiment with ambigrams. Never adhering to simple 180-degree rotational ambigrams, they create reflective ambigrams (reflected on a vertical axis), figure/ground ambigrams, 90-degree rotational ambigrams and mirrored ambigrams (when a word is split in the middle and reflected to complete the ambigram), chain ambigrams, etc. The body of work produced by these artists is consistent and diverse from start to finish. They don’t just create an ambigram, but are concerned with style, visual aesthetic, and an ambigram’s representation of the actual meaning of the word. In one sentence, their work is consistently unique.
The work produced by these artists is overall very solid. Why are they in a separate group? Their body of work is just too similar! The ambigrams can be aesthetically pleasing and very readable/legible, but they lack individual personality, which I believe should be the ultimate goal at the core of each ambigram concept. I think that almost any word can be trans-morphed into an ambigram, but it takes perseverance, artistic talent, and experimentation to make an ambigram truly unique.
The artists here create good ambigrams, but after a while they all merge into one because of similar appearances & aesthetic. They stick to similar styles for various reasons; it could be a comfort zone that developed after a period of drawing in a similar style, or a certain typographic style so abstract that you virtually lose distinction between each character in a word (blackletter/gothic typefaces anyone?) Whatever that reason might be, their approach makes their work good, but not unique.
This sub-group is the last of the three, and ultimately, their body of work could use a lot of improvement. The ambigrams they develop are created just for the sake of being ambigrams. Traditional rules of typography/design are almost completely ignored! You have to remember that at its roots, an ambigram is still clever, yet artistically tactful & controlled manipulation of typography. When the artists forgo the visual aesthetics, artistic tact and controlled manipulation are replaced by ‘I can make this into an ambigram in just a few minutes.’ You lose the unique concept of the ambigram itself and it become just typographic manipulation, often illegible and unreadable.
The artists that belong to this group should attempt to create one aesthetically & typographically pleasing ambigram instead of a plethora that are not even close.
My classification might seem harsh or unjust, but if you really take a look at the ambigram community in depth, you will realize that at least some of my assessments are well founded. I am not approaching this critique as just an ambigram designer, but as a trained graphic designer. My wish is not to offend anyone with a direct critique, so please remember, that this is my opinion as a designer, art/design lover & professor (I do teach graphic design full-time in a university.) I would love to hear from anyone who reads this interview regardless of whether you agree or disagree with me. And if you would like to tell me which category you think I belong too, take a look at my body of work & email me! Comments are always appreciated.
Mark: You’ve probably seen it all. What are some of the common errors being committed by new ambigram artists? What could they learn from the more seasoned designers?
Nikita: This is another difficult question Mark, and you are two for two so far! Can’t you ask me an easy question, like what’s the meaning of life, or why do cats always land on their feet?
There is no set ‘rules’ for creating any ambigram, hence the creation of Ambiblog, to explore the individual process for each artist. Since there are no set rules for ambigram design, you can’t really label unsuccessful ambigrams as mistakes. It is a matter of having a very open mind and ability to experiment almost endlessly before you find a successful solution.
You also have to be willing to swallow your pride and show your ambigram to various people, while asking them ‘What do you read?’ and be prepared to hear rather strange interpretations of what you thought was legible & readable.
My suggestions for beginning ambigram artists:
- When attempting to experiment with ambigrams, start with basic words and letter styles; avoid complex typographic styles such as script or handwritten. Begin with three to four letter words, and work your way up as you get more comfortable and experienced. Also, try mixing uppercase/lowercase together, or limiting the use of uppercase or lowercase to any word.
- At first, your primary concern should be making the ambigram legible & readable. After you train your eye/hand to quickly and efficiently approximate the possibility of turning a word into an ambigram, then you can start to apply various styles and different visual aesthetics.
- Experiment, experiment, experiment. Explore any and all possibilities of letterform interaction and do not be afraid to try anything! You are still sketching & developing your idea, so what’s the worse that could happen from an extra hundred or so sketches?
- Create several legible, readable and unique ambigrams, rather than trying to turn every word into an ambigram.
I have a unique approach that I attempt with some ambigrams. Once I am able to tell that a word will become a successful ambigram, and it proves to be true on paper, I start with a blank sheet and try to draw the same ambigram in a completely different style. It might not always work but it will force your mind/hand to explore a successful design from a completely different perspective.
And who knows what successful letter interactions you might discover that can be used for an ambigram at a later point?
Mark: Now, I know that you’ve read the book “Angels and Demons”. What are your thoughts on the upcoming movie?
Nikita: It’s not really a question of whether I read Angels & Demons, but how many times I’ve reread it…
I am waiting anxiously for the movie, but I am very wary of book-to-movie adaptations. The last movie I saw adapted from a book was The Count of Monte-Cristo. Having read the full two-volume, 2000+ page edition, I found the movie to be accurate for all of ten minutes, nine of those minutes being the end credits. I hope that the producer & director stick closely to the original plot and give the ambigrams their due recognition, without making the movie solely about ambigrams. Although, how bad could a movie purely about ambigrams be? As long as you have a seat that rotates 180 degrees…
Mark: So, do you think ambigrams are going to become more mainstream? Or will they forever be somewhat of a niche phenomena?
Nikita: Any trend has the potential for remaining a unique entity, as well as becoming ubiquitous and mainstream. If you look at this problem statistically, ambigrams were ‘conceived’ in the early 70s, and are just now becoming more mainstream. Exponentially, they do not risk becoming mainstream until the middle of the 21st century or so. However, with the popularity of Angels & Demons, as well as with the ability to share information using new(er) technology, ambigrams have the potential of being as much a niche phenomena as personal computers & cell phones. One important aspect to consider is the transition and development of various art and culture periods from a historic perspective. Who is to say that ‘the ambigram period’ won’t simply die out, or transition to a different artistic style/period?
Mark: Judging from your answers to some of my previous questions, especially where you talk about how unique each ambigram should be, you might be opposed to the idea of an ambigram generator. Can you tell us why, or why not?
Nikita: I have to be honest with you: after seeing some of the previous ambigram generators, I thought that they do a horrible job and were completely useless. After seeing Glyphusion at work, and seeing what it can do, my outlook changed, at least from the aesthetic standpoint. I think that Glyphusion does a great job of generating ambigrams that are ahead of any previous efforts by leaps and bounds. I also thought that ambigram generators (not yours specifically, but any previous versions as well) are just computer programs that create ambigrams purely from code. After interviewing you and learning more about the work that went into Glyphusion, I have a different opinion about your ambigram generator. I think it is an incredibly difficult project that has taken a lot of time and effort from multiple people to develop, and it definitely deserves recognition from the ambigram community.
I look at an ambigram generator much like I look at many predesigned website templates. For someone who does not have the time or the ability to create ambigrams from scratch, they can turn to a generator. You mentioned yourself that Glyphusion is constantly evolving, and there is no real limit to how ‘good’ it can be. With a quick push of a button, (and some slight aesthetic changes to accommodate any personal preferences), someone could have a beautifully designed ambigram, without the headaches of trying to develop one from scratch. But if someone wants a unique ambigram drawn from scratch, they will turn to an ambigram artist. I think that both solutions cater to slightly different target audiences. There is room in the ambigram community for both options to coexist side by side, and I don’t think that one will replace the other.
Thanks for sharing your opinions and projections on ambigrams, generators and the upcoming movie, Nikita! I’m sure our visitors will enjoy reading this.