Scott Kim’s symmetrical alphabet

October 18, 2012

As a child I used to draw things like animals and people using only the letters in their names. I would stretch and contort each word’s curves to evoke the shape of what it referred to. It’s a game I’m sure many have played. And I liked drawing faces that were also faces when you turned the page upside-down – like this matchbox set, but simpler.

So you can imagine the appeal ambigrams held. There’s an example above, or see Wikipedia for a basic introduction. I think I first encountered these shapes, also known as inversions, in Douglas Hofstadter’s books. They involve an artfully contrived symmetry whereby a word can be rotated, reflected or otherwise shifted but remains readable.

I recently came across the beautiful ambigram below: a perfectly symmetrical mirror alphabet from puzzle-designing wizard Scott Kim.



It’s immediately recognisable as the modern Latin alphabet, but the ingenious warping and blending required to make it symmetrical gives it a striking, quite exotic appearance. Ambigrams are “so purely visual,” Kim has said: “You can explain them in words, but it’s like describing a dance.”

The symmetrical alphabet is available as a poster, and you can see more of the artist’s ambigrams, many of them animated, on his page of inversions. The image is copyright © Scott Kim,, and is used with permission.

Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types

February 14, 2012

In 1937, a hundred years after its founding, the Bauer Type Foundry issued Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types:

I know little about typeface design, still less its history, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. But I like the idea of a family tree of types, and it’s a fine presentation: the fonts are like colourful garden birds preening peaceably in the sun, each showing off its unique qualities.

For detail and supplementary text, see Steven Heller’s post at Print magazine, which brought the tree to my attention.

Comic book grammar

July 13, 2011

Here is a very interesting page on comic book grammar and tradition. Written by Nate Piekos, a comic artist, letterer and font designer, it presents a series of ad hoc comic panels with text explaining how to convey particular styles, moods, sounds, and punctuation through speech balloons and related graphic devices. Piekos writes:

Comic book lettering has some grammatical and aesthetic traditions that are unique. . . . The majority of these ideas have been established by [publishers] Marvel and DC, but opinions vary from editor to editor

With 34 panels arranged in alphabetical order, the short supplementary notes cover a wide range of comic book language and expression, for example hyphenation, foreign languages, coughs, music, and telepathic speech.

Piekos explains such details as when to use lowercase, how to convey “off-camera” speech, and in what order to place the marks in an interrobang (!? or ?! – “It’s a loose rule that the question mark should come first”).

Sometimes these conventions shift. Of whispering (see image, reproduced with permission), he says:

Traditionally, whispered dialogue is indicated by a balloon with a dashed stroke. More recently accepted options are a balloon and dialogue in a muted tone (grayed-out), or with a lowercase font in conjunction with small dialogue/big balloon.

While reading comics, I have noticed some typographic patterns but never established whether they were standardised forms, for example the fact that emphasis is normally illustrated by a combination of bold and italics (and sometimes underlines), seldom if ever by either in isolation. I’m glad to have some of these observations and wonderings confirmed, and to have a host of others clearly summarised.

You can see them all here.

Interested readers are also encouraged to visit Gwillim Law’s history of grawlixes (aka obscenicons: taboo words represented by typographic symbols, which I previously linked to here), Ben Zimmer’s related commentaries at Language Log, and Doug Gilford’s Don Martin dictionary of Mad magazine sound effects.

Crisis = clanger + hypothesis

August 30, 2009

There is a much-repeated linguistic canard that the Chinese word for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. It doesn’t really, but the popularity of this misconception testifies to its inherent appeal. We like to imagine that our often self-inflicted disasters have solutions that will propel us into a better future, solutions embedded in the very structure of these disasters and echoed in an ancient language we don’t understand.

It’s a nice idea.

Consider this photograph:

Stan Carey - Pharmacy - we are, therefore we care

The loss of a letter C from the façade of this pharmacy suggests the activity of vandals, gravity, or an audacious magpie. One hopes that the other letters are not in danger of theft or collapse, and even if they were this would not constitute a crisis. But there is an opportunity here. If you’ll indulge me:

Already the accidental result makes a kind of crude existential sense:

We are . . . WeCare

Incorporating the green medical cross as a plus symbol also works:

We are [and] WeCare

Or they could go all out and replace the cross with a therefore symbol (.·.), thereby transforming their name into a compelling slogan:

We are, [therefore] WeCare

…albeit a slightly pretentious one readable only from certain angles. Not alone would this recall one of the founders of modern science (on which at least some modern pharmaceuticals depend), it would also make unexpectedly good syntactical sense.

(I have heard that Descartes’s inspiration for his catchy line was an angel who visited him in a dream, but it would probably be best if I didn’t get into the implications of that here.)

[more signs]

It’s all cut up. Uh huh huh.

August 21, 2009

Today’s signs inadvertently boast avant-garde literary credentials. (Wait, come back!) This quality is, of course, imputed by yours truly; the enjoyment of many signs requires a certain whimsical contrivance.

The strangeness of these summer sale signs, or more properly posters, is easily overlooked. On first glance they appear entirely unremarkable:

Stan Carey - summer sale sign

Yes, the bold colours and unfussy font effectively convey key information: a summer sale is taking place, and some items are available at 40% of their former price – or “up to 60% off”, as it is conventionally expressed. Cynical shoppers ignore the percentage, since it might refer only to a handful of undesirable items; moreover, the bigger the sale, the greater the rip-off the rest of the time. (There’s that cynicism.)

But from an aesthetico-linguistic point of view, the posters are a delight. See how the two key words were presented: “Sum Sale mer”. How wonderful! Had someone in the store’s marketing department been studying Dada or practising cut-up writing? Was the store selling anti-nuance cream?

Probably not. But the possibility brightened an already bright and sunny summer’s day – an especially pleasant thing to think about after three days of almost incessant Irish rain.

Visa check, Visa check, check-in man

August 18, 2009

Ryanair visa check at Shannon Airport

Here is a notice at Ryanair’s check-in desk in Shannon Airport (click to enlarge (the image, not the airport)). Irish caricaturist Allan Cavanagh sent me this photo, and its contents immediately enchanted me – as all good chants do. It reads like a percussive jingle, which is a very unusual attribute in an airport sign.

Why is the line “Visa check” repeatedly repeated? Please don’t say it’s for emphasis; I couldn’t live with so dull a revelation, and would rather imagine that the word processor became self-aware and tried to revolt.

But is its chant of escape a chorus or a verse? What would come next, if the chant were extended? Would poetry suddenly emerge from the Langton’s-ant-esque loop of monotony? I would love to hear your ideas. Despite the banality of its subject matter and the maturity of its intended audience, “Visa check, Visa check…” may yet gain the popularity of classic chants like “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe”. Here at Sentence first, its rhythm suggested a riff on another well-known nursery rhyme:

Visa check, Visa check, check-in man,
Check my pass as fast as you can;
Cleave it, click it, and mark it with B,
Say a quick prayer for luggage and me.

7 day indoor market opening soon further info contact

June 11, 2009

Stan Carey - further info

A little punctuation, well chosen and well placed, goes a long way. So does consideration for your readers, even if you’re only writing a publicity notice to stick on a window.


Stan Carey - íoc & taispeáin, with Tironian et

The Tironian et is quite rare, except in some Irish typefaces. See here for more examples of its various forms, and here for my earlier post about ampersands. Note also the dotless Irish ι.

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