Upside-Down World, or Is It? Creating an Ambigram in Illustrator

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An ambigram is text that squeezes “two different readings into the selfsame set of curves.” That’s a quote from the coiner of the term, Douglas Hofstader. You can tell he said it and not I, because he uses the word “selfsame,” which even I—with my unhealthy love of pompous words—do not know how to use it in a sentence. The particular type of ambigram we’ll consider today is one in which you turn the letters over, only to find that nothing has changed:

What with having a new pope and all, I got to thinking about Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons and its tale of Vatican conspiracies. It was the first place I was delighted by ambigrams (if not by sophisticated word choice). And so, I thought I’d share this tutorial, first considered in video form in Deke’s Techniques 069. By the way, under normal circumstances, 69 is an ambigram, but Deke likes to add a preceding zero, which unfortunately makes it 690 upside-down. I have no idea what that means. The conspiracy continues.

Meanwhile, here’s how to use the power of Illustrator’s ability to create your upside-down mirror on-the-fly, in the service of creating a message so inscrutable that you can decipher it from multiple directions.

1) Set a guide in the exact center of your artboard.

If your rulers are not visible, press Command-R (Ctrl-R) to evoke them. Then drag out a vertical guide from the left-hand ruler. To center it exactly, make sure the guide is selected, and click the inscrutable icon in the options bar that appears just before the string of standard alignment icons, and choose Align to Artboard from the popup menu. Next, click the slightly less mysterious (because we’re used to it) Horizontal Align Center icon. I’ve identified both these mysterious symbols below:

2) Draw a square and position it in the center.

In order to ensure the devine symmetry of our characters, we’ll start with a perfect square. Grab the Rectangle tool and click anywhere in your artboard. In the Rectangle dialog box, set both Height and Width to 100 points and click OK. Grab the black arrow tool and move the square until it snaps to your center guide.  (I’ve given my rectangle a green stroke as well so that you can see it, and not because I might have been working on a St. Patrick’s Day project earlier.)

3) Duplicate the square to the right.

With the black arrow tool, grab the lower-left point in your square and drag to the lower-right point. After you start dragging, (but not at the beginning), add the Alt (Option) key to your drag in order to make a copy. (This, to me, is a mystery of Illustrator that I always forget. You can’t add the Alt/Option key until after you start dragging. It’s a conspiracy.)

4) Move the new square over, duplicate it again, then move the new square over.

With your new square selected, move it 30 points to the right. The easiest way to do that is press Shift-right arrow three times. Repeat step 3 on your new square, creating a another clone to the right. And then move it 30 points to the right as well.

5) Delete the left side of the center square.

With the white arrow tool, click the left side of the center square and press Delete (Backspace). Then marquee the two left-hand points and move them back to the center guide. (Three presses of Shift-Right Arrow got me there.)

6) Rotate and copy the two-and-a-half squares to the other side of the center guide.

With your 2.5 squares selected, choose Object > Compound Path > Make. Then choose Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform. In the Transform Effect dialog box, click the left-center point in the reference matrix and set the Angle to 180 degrees. Then set the Copies value to 1.

When you press OK, you should get the rotated version of your short string of boxes. Of course, since we’re working with squares, they appear to be simply mirrored, but in true ambigram style, they’re actually rotated upside down on the left.

7) Round off the corners.

These boxes are eventually going to become the letters of our not-so-secret message. To give them a slightly more letter-like appearance, round off the corners by choosing Effect > Stylize > Round Corners. Enter a Radius of 25 points and click OK. Since we’ve told Illustrator this is all one compound path, all the corners are rounded (even the secretly upside down ones on the left.)

8) Extend the spine of the B (or D if your’e holding your computer upside-down).

Double-click anywhere on the path (as long as it’s to the right of the center guide: remember the left is still a ghost) to enter isolation mode. With the white arrow tool, click the left side of what (in this orientation) will be the B. Press Command-C (Ctrl-C) to copy it and Command-F (Ctrl-F) to paste it in front.

Click off the path then click back on the top point of the B’s soon-to-be-ascender. Move it up 25 points. Then select the bottom point (the soon-to-be-descender) and move it down 25 points.

9) Add a point to start building the E (aka, the upside-down A).

Choose the Pen tool and click at the half-way point of the left side of the last square. The Smart Guides will help you find the right spot by shouting “intersect” in neon green when you hit it.

10) Delete the bit of the E square you don’t need.

Grab the white arrow tool, click off the shape, then click back on that lower left section that is preventing our square from remotely resembling a lowercase E.

11) Adjust the E.

With the white arrow tool, marquee the bottom right point of the E and move it to the left 25 points.

Then, choose the pen tool again, click on that point you made halfway down the right side and then Shift-click directly across from it (touching the other side of what was once the square.) Then nudge that new point back to the left by selecting it with the white arrow tool and moving it to the right 25 points.

12) Create a circle and snip it into useful bits.

Those stylized circular flourishes on the B/D and E/A are actually cleverly distributed bits of circle. Grab the Ellipse tool and create a 50 by 50 point circle somewhere on your artboard. Then switch to the Scissors tool, and snip all four points on the circle (by clicking on them).

13) Distribute the chopped up arcs accordingly.

With the black arrow tool, grab each segment of the circle and place it as shown below. You’ll want to grab the point of each arc that is going to connect to each letter. So for instance, grab the lower point of the upper right arc and snap it to the top of the B’s ascender. Below is your map for where the pieces go, then you can delete the lower right segment by clicking it to select it and pressing Delete (Backspace.) 

14) Add a stroke.

Press Esc to exit isolation mode. Then select your path and press Command-G (Ctrl-G) to group it together. Open the Appearance panel (Window > Appearance), and click the empty square a the bottom of the panel to create a new stroke. Set color to black and the size to 20 points, then click on the word Stroke and choose the Round cap in the flyout menu as shown below.

15) Add another stroke.

Click the empty square icon again to add another stroke. This time choose a different color (I’m sticking with my St. Patrick’s Green) and set the size to 10 points.

16) Move the colored stroke slightly off center.

To give it a jaunty edge, click the word Transform under the colored stroke entry in the Appearance panel. In the Transform Effects dialog box, set both the Horizontal and Vertical Move values to -2.

There it is. Mysterious word revealed, twice. For those of you who a) love animated GIFs, b) require proof of ambigramity, or c) enjoy being annoyed by rotating letters, here is Deke’s proof-of-concept GIF of the project. (You’re welcome for my not putting it at the top of the post):

Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 203: Developing a Dramatic Castle in Adobe Camera Raw

Previous entry:Photoshop Action as Social Commentary?


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