Friday, June 24, 2011

Which way up?

Everyone likes to try ambigrams
    I've enjoyed experimenting with inverting the alphabet for years.  Ambigrams* are ingenious written figures, introduced by Scott Kim in his 1981 book Inversions.  Like many people, he had noticed that W turned into M when rotated 180°, b into q, n into u, and d into p.   But he also noticed the less obvious rotated resemblance of e to a, f to j, and h to y, and so on.  Using this unique propensity of the Roman alphabet’s letters** he worked miracles of perception for his readers and inspired many other artists to try their hand.  Over the following decades, ambigrams expanded to 90° rotations, mirror images, and beyond.  Today Scott Kim's designs unfold in animation on his website and for his many clients. 
    Ambigrams spell out something that letters already teach without words; that perception changes with orientation.  Reading teachers know that young students with dyslexia, for instance, run into trouble because to them the mirror forms of d and b or q and p are indistinguishable.  This makes reading problems much more common in Roman-letter languages than in others; most of the world’s writing systems don’t have letters that turn into other letters (or numbers) when mirrored or rotated.  In another field, paleontologists have long theorized that early printers could make 26 letters from a limited stock of capitals.  E can rotate to make M or W; D becomes C or U.  Calligraphers are taught early on to look for family resemblances and to group letters by the strokes and proportions they share.    

    Ambigrams were an idea whose time had come.  Hundreds of designers, engineers, and artists continue to try their hand at inverting their names, the alphabet, their holiday greetings.  I’m including two of my own designs here and urge you to try rotating, yourself.

 Caption: When rotated 180°, the word ALPHABET turns into into itself, above, whereas my first name turns into my last name, below.   

*About the word AMBIGRAM, Kim writes on his website, “Douglas Hofstadter coined ambigram as the generic word for inversions.”
**Also Gothic, Italic, and to a lesser degree, Celtic.

On page 90 of Learn World Calligraphy, ambigrams contributed by David Moser and by Haji Noor Deen turn Chinese characters into English words and Arabic into Chinese with a simple 90° clockwise turn. 


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