The Organic Ambigram

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The ambigram is one of the few modern letterforms that engage both your intellect and intuition simultaneously. It reads as a word while also communicating a deeply familiar pattern. This is something beyond the ambigram’s obviously clever construction. I’ve thought quite a bit about why I love this word-image hybrid, and I’ll set out here to uncover just what it is about the ambigram’s design and structure that makes it so captivating.

Design Is Alchemy
By combining eternal form with the fire of inspiration, you create something that did not exist before. This ambigram has two-point rotation symmetry. (Designer: Nikita Prokhorov1)

My primary design background is as a symbolic logo designer, so I begin with what I know: symbols. I look to nature to create my work as a matter of practicality as well as aesthetics, because symbols are derived from nature and are the first language of all humans. Symbols engage us deeply as expressions of the organic principles and forms that life embodies. Nature is common to everyone, and when it is used symbolically in visual language, the chance of creating a relationship with the audience is significantly elevated because it mirrors the relationships within and around us. Nature even embeds symbols that mirror universal processes directly in our DNA.

The twisting double helix is a perfect example of opposites being combined into the genetic dance of balance that results in you and me. Unlike spoken or written language, natural symbols don’t have to be learned because we know them at our core. They are us.

Double Helix
Micro to macro, a handful of patterns construct everything in the universe. The weaving pattern of the helix combines two opposites in cooperation, the basis of organic life. (DNA micrograph: Andrzej Stasiak2.) On the left, a double helix nebula at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. (Image: NASA3.)

Art or design that incorporates natural symbolism resonates intuitively well before the intellect “makes sense” of it. Written language is processed intellectually first, before it is understood as images or emotions. Without a doubt, much of the ambigram’s appeal to me has to do with my preference for visual information, which you may share. But it is more universal than that.

An ambigram combines a word with the symbolic representation of a much larger principle. When you see reflection, oscillation, rotation, continuity and other universal principles integrated as an intrinsic part of a design, it engages you at a deep level. Any piece of art or design that embeds a universal principle is connected to something more, something real, something we just know.

Paris Ambigram
The Paris ambigram and logo has reflected (or mirror) symmetry. (Designer: Nikita Prokhorov4)

Chain Reaction
“Chain Reaction” displays weaving, continuity and rotational symmetry. (Designer: John Langdon1195)

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 this, we need to look at both parts of the ambigram: the word and the universal principle being expressed. Although the written word is the most apparent component of the ambigram, you intuitively process visual information before intellectually understanding it, so let’s start with image and intuition first.

Symbol-Speak

Humans have survived and proliferated by reading the universal principles and forms of nature as a common symbolic language, no matter when or where they have lived. The principles that constitute an effective ambigram resonate to your depths because you are made up of the very same fundamental formulas.

Your intuition knows that a circle is the shape of wholeness or completion (planets, eggs, cells, molecules, seasonal cycles); that waves oscillate to balance extremes (atoms and galaxies do this, too); that the branch pattern (tree branches, veins, lightning or the network of nerves that drive impulses throughout your body) moves life’s energy from one place to another; and that mirrored halves contain bilateral symmetry (the basic structural form of almost all higher animals, including humans).

When a universal principle becomes a primary ingredient in a piece of communication, be it literal or visual, something tells us to take note. The ambigram resembles independent, self-animated “life” by presenting the very same qualities.

Anatomy Snake
As the dominant symmetry in all higher life forms, bilateral symmetry is a compelling and intuitively recognizable principle. (Human anatomy image: Visual Language6. Snake skeleton image: Srdjan Draskovic7.)

Communication in the modern world has ramped up to a scale and speed never before possible, and the human species is now networked in the extreme. The Web connects the body of the world just as impulses connect throughout your body — but with one important difference: common ground must be established in human communication because of the many cultural and linguistic crossovers, unlike the immediate language of nature. Symbols help us do this by bringing an underlying fluency to people of different cultures and languages.

Symbols predate written language by at least tens of thousands of years and are far older than civilization itself. But because three-dimensional space is continually morphing, time erases nearly all traces. From what has been found to date (there is evidence of complex symbolic behavior going back as far as 200,000 to 500,000 years!), we know that our predecessors recognized the value of the information contained in natural patterns and forms all around us.

Snake Art
This six-meter-long python, discovered in Africa in 2006, is embellished with more than 300 manmade “scales” and is approximately 70,000 years old. Humans have been using their brains symbolically since “time out of mind.” (Image: Sheila Dawn Coulson8)

All cultures use the same shapes and patterns in their art because we all experience them in the same way. Everything we’ve ever invented has come from understanding a universal underlying process and then replicating it as a human system. City grids mimic the stacking and packing patterns of nature in a linear format; apartment buildings and shopping carts contain the same pattern of stored energy in three dimensions; and road systems that carry petro-fueled vehicles mimic veins that carry the energy to fuel our bodies.

Patterns, shapes and processes of the natural world cue our inspiration and understanding by revealing the eternal baseline of existence. You simply can’t stop noticing nature’s processes in your peripheral vision. As constants of organic structure, they present an interesting paradox: the workings of nature are typically dismissed by our sped-up intellect as being commonplace but are recognized instantly by the senses as being essential and eternal.

Energetic Patterns
Nature’s process dictates effective human design. Packing and stacking is another natural pattern that efficiently stores energy that isn’t needed at the moment but is readily accessible. (Designer: John Langdon1195)

Language barriers preclude this ability to communicate universally and immediately. Visuals are immediate because they connect as a gestalt, and they communicate in both universally and personally relevant ways. The ambigram communicates more than the sum of its characters because it is enhanced with principles that communicate beyond the word itself.

The Manipulated and the Manipulator

Words, as opposed to symbols, tend towards specifics (different words can describe multiple aspects of one thing) and can dissect meaning into smaller and smaller details. Words are particularly good at giving directions, stating rules or declaring a law. Being created by humans, they are also malleable by humans. The way they are written can change lives, as is so often demonstrated in organized religion, law and politics. Written language is an essential human construct that not only provides information with efficient and (sometimes) consistent delivery, but allows generations to communicate their stories over time.

The Sun Microsystem
The Sun Microsystems logo has four-point rotational symmetry that emanates from the subset rotation of individual character sets — a vortex of self-similarity that contributes to the optical illusion of spinning. (Designer: Vaughan Pratt10)

The ambigram is a perfect example of inclusiveness — and the root of the word tells you so up front. The word “ambigram” is derived from two Latin words joined as one, as are many modern words. The root ambi means “both,” and it is a popular prefix in a world of dualities: day/night, youth/age, left/right, birth/death, good/evil — words that serve as the bounding markers of every human experience. Its suffix gram is another Latin word meaning tracing, mark, drawing, writing or record — a common suffix in our vocabulary ever since humans started taking notes. All sorts of everyday words include the prefix “ambi” to connote “all” or “inclusiveness.”

Illuminati
John Langdon1195 created ambigrams for the films The Da Vinci Code12 and Angels and Demons13, based on the books by Dan Brown. The perfect interplay of opposites is expressed in the rotational symmetry of “Angels and Demons” as equivalent extremes, while the single word “Illuminati” as the same word right side up or upside down alludes to its mystical and conspiratory nature.

Amb-ient is combined with the Latin -ier which means “to go”. It is conjugated as an adjective with the -ient suffix to describe an overall relaxed mood (ambi, in this case, includes everything within extremes to surround you with an overall sensual feeling of balance and well being). Another word used in this context is ambition, or the act of moving around and through the multitudes — originally from a Latin word for “canvassing for votes,” and covering every base to reap the best return. The legal term “ambit” is derived from the Latin ambitus, meaning scope, limits, boundary or circumference: the “ambit of a statute,” or “within the ambit of the law,” falls within legally defined bounds. Ambidextrous refers to both hands having equal dexterity. The Latin dexter means right — so, two rights for those who are adept at using both hands (the lefties might have a say about that). To be “ambivalent” is to literally have either or both of two contrary or parallel values, qualities or meanings (the Latin verb -valeo means “to have value”). By its very nature, ambi is inclusive of opposites and implies wholeness.

The Infinity Circle
Called a “chain” ambigram, this design by Scott Kim14 presents an infinite loop that mimics the underlying cyclical motion of life and death.

A Living Loop

The ambigram’s sublime evolution exists within the form of the word itself. The word must have visual relationships to be interesting and relevant — not only in the way the characters create a meaningful word, but also in the symmetrical relationships that let you know you are experiencing something beyond just a simple word. It has the rather fantastic ability to be read upside down or backwards — and even sometimes in a loop!

Ambigrams mimic life by visually expressing some of the most basic principles that make up the entirety of living organic nature. There is one basic that underscores all of the different symmetries and structures that an ambigram can take on, and that is balance. In any beautiful and functioning design — manmade or natural — balance reigns supreme. Modern culture could learn from this: the opposite sides of your brain are not meant to contradict each other and entangle without resolution. Being creative is not of more or less value than being strategic. They are meant to work together. The same goes for opposite sides of the world’s hemispheres. When opposites combine in cooperation, they create something new, something useful, something beautiful that is far stronger and more resilient than is achieved by favoring one over another.

The Milky Way
Visible beyond towers of sedimentary rock, called “hoodoos,” in Bryce Canyon are thousands of individually discernible stars in the nearby Milky Way galaxy. (Image: Ben Cooper15)

Despite the rather incredible technological advances made by humanity in the current era, we still lag behind our ancestors in understanding an important lesson displayed by the simple ambigram. We are nature and cannot put ourselves above our source, nor can we distance ourselves from it for very long. When you see a piece of design that simply makes you feel good, what you’re really seeing is an expression of nature flowing in place. It feels right because the common denominators that underscore all of life are the truest part of the human experience. It’s the most compelling reason there is. Ambigrams are closed living loops, little word ecosystems that stand independently on their own, just as each of us is designed to do.

(jc al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.ambigram.com/
  2. 2 http://www.unil.ch/cig/page50667.html
  3. 3 http://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/milkyway_twist.html
  4. 4 http://dribbble.com/elusiveillusion
  5. 5 http://www.johnlangdon.net/
  6. 6 http://www.visuallanguage.com
  7. 7 http://www.istockphoto.com/stock-photo-7939164-big-snake.php
  8. 8 http://www.hf.uio.no/iakh/english/people/aca/coulson/index.html
  9. 9 http://www.johnlangdon.net/
  10. 10 http://boole.stanford.edu/pratt.html
  11. 11 http://www.johnlangdon.net/
  12. 12 http://www.randomhouse.com/doubleday/davinci/
  13. 13 http://www.sonypictures.com/homevideo/angelsanddemons/
  14. 14 http://www.scottkim.com/
  15. 15 http://www.launchphotography.com/Milky_Way_Bryce_panorama.html

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Maggie Macnab has been recognized as an innovative design communicator for over three decades in design publications and with international honors. She has written two books on design theory, Design by Nature (New Riders, 2011) and Decoding Design (F+W, 2008). She teaches at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Institute of American Indian Arts, the University of New Mexico, and Santa Fe Community College, and speaks and leads workshops on designing with nature in mind. Maggie is committed to beautiful and functional design and creative problem solving based in nature's richly practical process. Macnab Design Design by Nature Decoding Design

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  1. 1

    A refreshing read, as always ! You made me wanna read Decoding Design, again.

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    • 2

      Sergiu, thanks so much for your comments! “Decoding Design” goes into a fairly deep discussion that is primarily focused the use of symbolism in logos, while “Design by Nature” really gets into the broader principles and forms of nature and their use in design of all genres.

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    • 3

      Although this is something I’ve pondered when approaching design, after four years of design school, I can’t recall this being discussed; what a shame. Well done!

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      • 4

        @Ruerat, I am not an academic and I don’t teach like anyone else I know of. My teaching is derived of a personal passion for exploring the depths of functional beauty, the principles of which originate in nature. I see understanding the fundamentals of design as the first step to designing a life that works for the individual. I just happen to access it via graphics.

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  2. 5

    Great article! I especially love your analogy of the “living loops”.

    Although you didn’t mention it in the article, both Nikita Prokhorov and John Langdon also worked on the artwork in the ambigram generator at FlipScript.com, where ambigrams can be created by anyone using the techniques and styles of the master ambigram artists.

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    • 6

      Thanks so much for pointing that out, Mark. I was remiss to not add that as a resource! I have seen FlipScript.com and it is a great tool to experiment with.

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  3. 7

    I think that Arabic calligraphy has a long and beautiful history of using ambigrams, with the text defying typical flow and arrangement in order to depict ideas bigger than the text itself. They communicate at a semantic, phonetic and aesthetic level.

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    • 8

      Totally agreed, Arcduck. Islamic artists used an underlying symmetry based on quasicrystals 500+ years ago that hi tech science labs only recently have been able to replicate. The artist MC Escher created his amazing tessellations of “impossible” symmetry by studying the Islamic tiling patterns of the Alhambra in Spain that incorporate quasicrystal symmetry.

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  4. 9

    ambigrams don’t make great logos. the readability is always sacrificed and how often does it actually apply to the target product? maybe on something that rotates, a bicycle wheel, where it might be viewed from both angles, but not on other things that are viewed from one angle.

    I’m not saying readability is the end all-catch all for logo design, but wouldn’t you want a wordmark to be readable? that’s what these ambigrams are. Sorry, this doesn’t get my motor running…

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    • 10

      Hi Ugh :) I am primarily a logo designer, but do not imply ambigrams make good logos. In fact, in most cases the complexity of an ambigram’s design precludes its use as a logo. There are always exceptions, however. Very short words, like Nikita Prokorov’s “Paris” design (note this also integrates a relative graphic; another reason for its strength), or the Sun Microsystems logo, are good examples of effective logos or logotypes. John Langdon also used ambigrams to convey a sense of mysticism with “Angels and Demons” and “The Da Vinci Code” by using high levels of rotational complexity that instilled fundamental power into the words themselves. Very effective for his particular project. How they are used is key to their success, as in any well conceived design.

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      • 11

        I made a logo for a fashion designer that I feel is very successful given the method and approach i used with its relation to the versatility of the product… check the logo for “Proud” in the PDF linked here: http://www.inkoperated.com/pdfs/branding.pdf – the font I created is VERY simple, but it reads right-side up and upside-down, making this a successful and user-friendly piece…

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  5. 12

    Enjoyed this essay. You write beautifully, and you obviously love design.

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    • 13

      Thanks, Christopher. I do love design and its meaning and usefulness to humanity. We learned to design from nature and we would be one smart species if we remember who our original mentor is.

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  6. 14

    Who loves ambigrams should/must read “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”, by Douglas R. Hofstadter :)

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  7. 16

    I have always found ambigrams so captivating and beautiful, and now I know why. This is an exceptionally well written article, and I love the underlying themes of nature and functionality.

    “We are nature and cannot put ourselves above our source, nor can we distance ourselves from it for very long.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

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    • 17

      Thanks, Kelly. I am a lover of nature and beauty, and have huge appreciation for those that consciously attempt to understand and capture it in their work. We are here to enjoy beauty…and to contribute to it. Nothing else.

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  8. 18

    Wonderful article Maggie…love your insights and your writing.

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    • 19

      Thanks, Nikita! I can’t wait to see your finished book, “The Ambigram Revealed.” When does it hit bookstores?

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  9. 20

    I used to draw a lot of ambigrams for my classmates back in high school. This article reminded me of that. Thank you so much for this :)

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  10. 22

    I need to read “Decoding Design” once i am done with your “Design by Nature” I am your fan Maggie Macnab :-)

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  11. 24

    Brilliant, well written article. I’ll certainly be reading your books soon. I also feel strongly that art is an instrument for unveiling the underlying and often-overlooked patterns of the natural world. I was especially struck by the aptness your micro/macro analogies. Thanks!

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    • 25

      My pleasure, Garrett. Thank you for your comments. I teach nature as the fundamental inspiration of design to people from all cultural backgrounds. Everybody gets it! In the process of elevating awareness for nature, appreciation for nature grows, too. It’s a small step to a more sane world, but it is a step. :)

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  12. 26

    I created an anagram logo for a steampunk artist. It worked for her because the idea of an anagram paralleled the cerebral context of her work. It might not be for every logo but there are some that it is just perfect for. http://pinterest.com/pin/282037995385365053/

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    • 27

      Thanks for sharing this, G. The mechanical/nouveau style you used is quite specific, but I think it works for a steampunk artist.

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  13. 28

    Great article! ambigrams work great as pre-loaders too, rotates and still reads!
    Check out one I made for The Gemini Method:
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150294331834431&set=pb.51639144430.-2207520000.1353119455&type=3&theater lol funny how these usually associate with a white glow.

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  14. 30

    Maggie, thank you so much for your wonderful piece of wisdom and knowledge. It really is a treat when you come across a great piece of literature, full of powerful ideas, and makes you sit back in your chair and smile because there really are people out there filled with passion for design and truly devote themselves to their craft. I am currently attending school for design and I have big ideas and goals for myself and the design community but as you have said, we must come back to our roots and remember our original mentors…well I may have big dreams but the basics and fundamentals will be my foundation to the larger dreams and experiences I will go through in my life and career. Thank you again for your inspirational piece.

    Truly inspired,

    Albert

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    • 31

      Good for you, Albert, and thanks for your comments! Working with design students is my primary area these days (which I LOVE), and my classes are based on my book “Design by Nature.” Check it out at http://www.designbynaturebook.com for a free chapter download and other information. It has exercises and examples to support your exploration. SM is currently doing a giveaway of the book, too. Check their twitter feed for that info!

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  15. 32

    ‘…stars in the nearby Milky Way galaxy’? It cannot be ‘nearby’, as our solar system is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

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  16. 34

    Great article. I recommend you to check this ambigram typeface it´s amazingly well think.
    http://www.typographyserved.com/gallery/Voltica-Ambigram-Typeface/3055567

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  17. 37

    Excellent article – I will have to re-read it a couple of times to grasp it all.

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  18. 39

    This is the best article I have read in a long time. Thank you for sharing this deep reflection. Coming from a fine arts background, but now doing web design I find myself too often forgetting to spend the time thinking further than my computer screen!
    I will look up your books.

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    • 40

      Julie, thank you so much. If design was only about advertising, I would have left this profession long ago. Design, though, is about everything and it influences all we do. I love sharing what I’ve discovered about it over the decades…and continue to learn about it. Education about it really never ends, as is appropriate :)

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