All those symbols flashing in Web site promos and posters promoting Ron Howard’s new film “Angels & Demons,” based on the novel by Dan Brown, were created by a professor of typography at Drexel University. John Langdon, who, not by coincidence, shares the same last name as the film’s protagonist played by Tom Hanks, has been creating ambigrams — words that can be read from left to right, upside down or from multiple viewpoints — since the 1970s. The follow up to the international blockbuster “The DaVinci Code” features Langdon’s ambigrams, which were first seen by the public in Brown’s novel, Angels and Demons, published in 2000.
Five of Langdon’s illuminati ambigrams play an integral part in Robert Langdon’s adventure into the Illuminati network. In addition to the Illuminati ambigram itself, Langdon’s earth, air, fire and water ambigrams appear on the splash page of the film’s Web site. An ambigram connecting all four words, the “Illuminati Diamond” that appeared in the Angels & Demons novel may play a part in the film as well. Brown first used one of Langdon’s ambigrams as the Angels & Demons title on the cover of the first edition. On the acknowledgments page, Brown calls Langdon “one of the most ingenious and gifted artists alive… who rose brilliantly to my impossible challenge and created ambigrams for this novel.”
Langdon’s relationship with the best-selling author began when Brown’s father bought him a copy of Wordplay, Langdon’s book of ambigrams. Brown was amazed at Langdon’s ability to play with words and called the Philadelphia native to compliment him. They have been friends ever since. Brown also asked Langdon to create a logo for the Depository Bank of Zurich that appeared in “The DaVinci Code” film.
Langdon was invited to the “Angels & Demons” set in the summer of 2008 and watched as Hanks and director Howard brought Robert Langdon to life. Several of John’s ambigrams were put to use around the set by the crew, including Hank’s off-camera set location and the official “Angels & Demons” bike.
Langdon has been creating ambigrams for more than 30 years. “In a sense, I invented them without setting out to do so,” he said. Fascination with the yin and yang symbol was what sparked Langdon’s interest to start manipulating fonts and scripts in order to make art from words. His undergraduate degree is in English.
“In the early 70s, I tried to do with words what Dali and Escher did with images, I invented (or discovered) what came to be known as ‘ambigrams.’ In 1980, I discovered that Scott Kim had invented them, too, almost at the same time. The editor who wanted to publish my ambigrams seemed to think that a book needed text as well, so I dragged my writer self out of the closet, and Wordplay was published in 1992 by Broadway Books,” he said.
Langdon says that not all words he attempts to develop into ambigrams work. “My standards are very high, so I fail to meet them about 50 percent of the time,” he said. But persistence is often the key. He has gone back to words that frustrated him and eventually turned them into masterpieces.
“Even after designing hundreds of them, each new word or name I try to make into an ambigram is as fresh a challenge as my first ones,” he said.
A professor at Drexel for 20 years, Langdon teaches advanced typography and logo design to students in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Since 1995 he has taken his visual-verbal meditations and manipulations to canvas. His paintings of words involve symmetry and illusion, a bit of philosophy, and a few puns thrown in for good measure.
Langdon is a self-taught artist. After a few years at a Philadelphia design studio, he began freelancing in 1977 as a logo designer, type specialist, and lettering artist. Traffic to his web site brings requests from around the world for designs that range in nature from ambigrams and corporate logos to tattoos. More information on Langdon and his work can be viewed at www.johnlangdon.net.
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Zeek Weil, Westphal College
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