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.