Oh, I see! moments
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Creativity’s Corner: Where Art Meets Wordplay

by Sheron Long on April 17, 2014

Creative painting and word play by John Langdon showing the word "ME" set against the sky and the word "YOU" formed by the spaces inside the letters M and E. (Image © John Langdon)

© John Langdon

Look . . . and Look Again at John Langdon’s Illusions and Ambigrams

In life (and at OIC), you often get the invitation to consider new perspectives, to see things from different points of view. Today’s invitation is to a place where the visual and the verbal play together in the work of John Langdon. And the souvenir you take home is a hidden, often deeper meaning.

Let the games begin: How does the painting above fit its title, “US”?

On first look, you probably see the word “Me,” a key part of “US.” But look again to find another word in the same space.

Once you do, the hidden meaning hits you in an “Oh, I see” moment—You can’t get to “US” without considering both “Me” and “You.” More than a visual trick, this illusion leads to one of life’s truths.

Sources of Creative Inspiration

Creating art is often an individual endeavor, but rarely without influence from others.

Langdon has played with symmetry and ambiguity in his work for over 30 years. As inspiration on the visual side, he cites (among others) Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and René Magritte—all artists who used unusual perspectives in their images.

Wordplay via an optical illusion in which the words "Question" and "Answer" share the same space in a figure-ground reversal. (Image © John Langdon)

© John Langdon

Their influence shows in “Question/Answer,” an ambiguous illusion of two related words sharing the same space. The key to seeing them both is reversing figure and ground to view the image from two different perspectives. Give it a try!

When Langdon began investigating the graphic nature of the yin-yang symbol, he became reacquainted with the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which has inspired most of his work in one way or the other.

Yin-Yang symbol representing Taoist philosophy that influences the ambigrams and optical illusions in wordplay paintings by John Langdon. (Image © Voraorn / iStock)

Yin-Yang symbol
© Voraorn / iStock

The symbol represents, in Langdon’s words, “a dynamic state of balance that ebbs and flows with the interplay of opposites,” such as light and dark, good and evil, the tides.

He explains more about the symbol:

“The two halves are not in opposition, but exist in a complimentary relationship. . . . The dot of opposing color represents the idea that in every force there exists the seed of the opposite force. . . . That the tide is low in one part of the world when it is high in another means that the two must necessarily reverse.”

In much the same way, “Good” is in “Evil” and “Evil” is in “Good.” Do you see them both here?

Wordplay painting of a face whose features embed the word "Good" in one direction and the word "Evil" in the other. (Image © John Langdon)

“Good and Evil” shows two opposing forces and
the Taoist influence in Langdon’s work.
© John Langdon

Birth of the Ambigram

In the early 1970s, Langdon was trying to do with words what Escher and Dali had done with images. In his creative play, he invented what became known as the ambigram, a new art form in which words can be read equally well from more than one point of view.

Ambigram created with typographic manipulation to read the same from the left as from the right. (Image © John Langdon)

“Starship,” a mirror-image ambigram, reads the same left to right and right to left.
© John Langdon

Ambigrams depend on typographic manipulations that create the same or related text when the image is reflected in a mirror, turned upside down, or rotated, for example. Invert this image in your mind. The “1” here becomes the “4” in the flipped image. What else happens?

Ambigram created with typographic illusions by John Langdon. (Image © John Langdon)

© John Langdon

Langdon’s early job in the photo-lettering department of a type house and his passion for graphic design helped him perfect the art form. So did doodling. Today, he encourages budding ambigramists to play:

“Have fun, be patient, don’t expect miracles (for a while). I discovered the ability to create ambigrams by playing with words. If you keep a playful attitude, you may discover something even better than ambigrams, and that would be your personal specialty.”

Photograph of John Langdon, inventor of the ambigram and lover of wordplay. (Image © John Langdon)

John Langdon loves to play and has fun in his roles as
artist, graphic designer, writer, and typography professor at Drexel University.
© John Langdon

Among his other advice is to set standards:

“When a word or a name you’re trying to make into an ambigram seems impossible, or if the result is too hard to read or hideously ugly, don’t call it an ambigram. Call it trash and throw it away.” 

An Accident of Mirth

Langdon was having fun creating ambigrams when a fortuitous chain of events occurred:

  • A publisher convinced Langdon to create a book of ambigrams and released Wordplay in 1992.
  • Dick Brown, a mathematics teacher at Phillips Academy, bought the book for his son Dan.
  • Captivated, Dan Brown commissioned Langdon to create ambigrams in 1998 for a book he was writing.
  • That book turned out to be Angels and Demons, propelling Langdon’s ambigrams, such as “Earth, Air, Fire, Water” and “Illuminati,” into pop culture and into movies based on The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

It is no coincidence that the protagonist in Dan Brown’s works is named Robert Langdon in tribute to his friend, the typography genius and professor with the same last name.

Come Play with Words

In the mid-1990s when design went digital and hand-lettering was less in demand, Langdon began to play with words in paint.

Wordplay painting by John Langdon with the words "ambiguity," "small," "none," and "off" vertically stacked with color used to highlight opposites contained within the words: big (from ambiguity)/small; all (from small)/none; on (from none)/off. (Image © John Langdon)

© John Langdon

As an English major, he has always loved words; as a designer, he is fascinated with letter forms and typography. As a follower of Taoist philosophy, he has continued to reflect its principles in his art.

He maintained them all in his new paintings.

In John Langdon’s corner of the world, art and wordplay meet up in an experience that invites you to see ideas from different points of view.

Now it’s your turn to play. Look for the opposites and how they connect to the whole. Use the titles to uncover hidden meanings. May you find more than meets the eye.

Wordplay painting with the words "nine," "out," "often," "seldom" vertically stacked and color used to highlight opposites in/out and often/seldom. (Image © John Langdon)

© John Langdon

Wordplay painting by John Langdon with a vertical stack of Roman numerals I-V in which the Roman numeral IV is made from the letters I and V in the word "FIVE" and the Roman numeral V is made from the letter V in "SEVEN."  (Image © John Langdon)

“Years and Years”
© John Langdon

Wordplay painting showing the letters "ok" in white on a red background and a hint of the letter "C" to the left and "e" to the right, cuing that the hidden part of the word would turn "ok" into "Coke."(Image © John Langdon}

“The Two Most Well-known Words in the World”
© John Langdon

Keep up with John Langdon’s latest work on his Facebook fan page

Hints and possible interpretations:

  • In “Ambiguity,” as in life, one thing turns into another—the BIG  in AMBIGUITY leads to SMALL; the ALL in SMALL leads to NONE; the ON in NONE becomes OFF. 
  • In “Survey,” you can read OFTEN two ways—OF TEN and OFTEN. How often do surveys reveal nine-out-of-ten results? The last word says it all. 
  •  In “Years and Years,” perhaps the clever mash-up of numerals and letters reflects time from the Roman era to the present.
  • Langdon created the last painting after hearing on NPR that “Coke” and “OK” were the two most well-known words in the world. The letters “C” and “e” are hidden in the outskirts of this painting. Spy them, and you have found a most refreshing solution.

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