Deciphering the art of ambigrams
If you’re looking for an interesting logo or typography idea, it’s time to explore how an ambigram can give you an intriguing mirror-image design.
What is an ambigram?
An ambigram is a word or design that retains meaning when viewed from a different direction or perspective. Specifically, a rotational ambigram reads the same when viewed upside down, while a mirror or bilateral ambigram is one that reads the same backward and forward.
Another type of word ambigram is one that takes on a new message when rotated. Some ambigram designs have made their way into popular culture. One design reads “love” when viewed one way, and “life” when viewed another. Another says both “saint” and “sinner.”
How to create your own ambigram.
A successful ambigram is one that fulfills two criteria. First, it needs to be legible. If the message is lost or difficult to perceive, your ambigram doesn’t work. Second, it needs to have a reasoning behind it. Why are you creating this ambigram, and what message are you conveying? The life and love ambigram works because of the duality it captures.
Creating ambigrams is all about getting out of your comfort zone as a designer to solve a visual puzzle. While it can be an overwhelming design project, it takes just a few steps to begin.
1. Start by identifying your message.
What will your ambigram say? Whether it’s a phrase or a simple word, be cognizant of the limitations of ambigrams. Some letters can’t be transformed into others, and short words can’t magically become lengthy sentences when flipped upside down.
2. Research different fonts and iconography.
“By looking at motifs and design styles from different cultures, you can build your frame of reference,” explains artist and designer Arnold Pander. Understanding the flourishes and serifs used in medieval or gothic fonts can give you more tools to use when designing and warping letters for your ambigram design. If you need a place to start, try exploring Adobe Fonts — you may find the inspiration you’re looking for.
3. Start sketching.
Ambigrams are word puzzles, so broaden your mind by sketching out your word several times. See where the letters line up and experiment with shapes. “There are a lot of layers to ambigrams that make it work, but if it doesn’t work, it’s very obvious,” according to lettering artist Robin Casey. The kerning and spacing of letters varies depending on which way it’s read, so keep that in mind when sketching your shapes. Ambigrams are inherently tricky to design — don’t get discouraged by your first draft. If a design isn’t working, try referencing a different font or switch to all capitals.
4. Perfect your design.
When you have a design that works, formalize it with Adobe Illustrator. If you’ve sketched on paper, scan or photograph your design and create a vector version of it. Familiarize yourself with how to rotate and reflect objects in Illustrator so you can flip and finalize your letters. Additionally, follow this logo tutorial to learn how to polish up any design, including your ambigram.
Exploring the ins and outs of ambigrams.
Ambigrams were first referenced by Douglas R. Hofstadter, who described them as calligraphic designs that manage to squeeze in two different readings. They have since been made famous in popular culture by author Dan Brown in his novels and artist John Langdon. The design style features in the plot of Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and one adorns the cover of his book Angels & Demons. In fact, Brown named his main character after artist Langdon, who helped foster the development of ambigram designs. Outside of popular book covers, you’ll most often spot ambigrams as logo designs or tattoos.
“[Ambigrams are] where logos and graphic design become a real art form, because you have to twist your mind and break or bend the rules.”
Pander calls ambigrams a branding palindrome, “where logos and graphic design become a real art form, because you have to twist your mind and break or bend the rules to make it work.” Brands may want ambigram logos since they can hide a secondary meaning or convey a message beyond a simple brand name. Ambigram logos are also memorable and can help companies stand out from their competition.
As optical illusions, ambigrams are popular designs for tattoos. If you’re looking for inspiration for your ambigram tattoo, don’t be afraid to reference ambigram generators like FlipScript.com. These programs can inspire a new combination of letters or help you solve design problems that arise when rotating or flipping letters upside down.
Now you’re ready to attempt an ambigram design of your own. Making it meaningful and legible makes all the difference in the world. Need more inspiration before you jump in? Take a look at Behance and see what other artists are creating.
Do more with Adobe Illustrator.
Create logos, icons, charts, typography, handlettering, and other vector art.
You might also be interested in…
Picking the right font: Serif vs. sans serif.
Choosing between serif or sans serif fonts means considering user experience, attitude and history.
Explore inspiration to help fuel your logo ideas.
Dive into the technical and aesthetic concerns of distilling a brand into a symbol.
Learn about the versatility of this file format and discover how to use it in your design work.
Get Adobe Illustrator
Create beautiful vector art and illustrations.
7 days free, then HK$158.00/mo.