Q700 | 21801 | HOFSTADTER, d.

Ambigrams and the Mechanisms of Creativity

A joint Art and Cognitive Science seminar
by Prof. Douglas Hofstadter
Spring Semester, 2006

Q700 / 21801, 3 credits

Tuesday & Thursday, 2:30-3:45 p.m.
at CRCC, 510 North Fess Avenue
IU Bloomington

In the past year or so, the art form known as ³ambigrams² Has
been brought to the attention of the world through the great
popularity of the novel ³Angels and Demons², written by Dan (³Da
Vinci Code²) Brown.  However, ambigrams are not new; I myself, for
instance, have been an ambigrammist for over forty years, and in
fact I was the person who originally coined the word ³ambigram²,
some twenty-two years ago.  It would seem that this is an auspicious
time for me to offer a seminar on ambigrams.
What are ambigrams?  An ambigram is a piece of calligraphy
that by deliberate design has two readings, one usually being
obtained from the other by flipping, rotating, or reflecting the
piece of paper on which the ambigram is written.
What are ambigrams for?  For the sheer beauty and surprise
value that they manifest, and for the delight that they afford a
viewer (or a recipient).
Anyone can make an ambigram, just as anyone can draw a
person¹s face. However, creating a high-quality ambigram is just as
complex and elusive an achievement as drawing a sensitive portrait.
What separates good ambigrams from poor ones?  First and most
importantly, the criterion is rapid, effortless legibility of both
readings by any native speaker of the language in which the ambigram
is created.  Secondly, any good ambigram possesses artistic
elegance, surprise value, and simplicity.  These are subtle and
intangible qualities, and it takes time to develop an eye and a mind
for them.  Ambigrammetry, in short, is a genuine and deep art form
with all the complexity and devotion that art always entails.
Designing a good ambigram requires a number of creative
sparks. At the core of such a creative act lie several distinct
Though overlapping abilities, including, but certainly not limited
to, all of the following:

€ the ability to dream up highly distorted but readable
€ the ability to look at structures on several different levels;
€ the ability to self-critique and to change one's mind;
€ the ability to sense even the slightest risk of illegibility;
€ the ability to design beautiful, graceful shapes;
€ the ability to tell when a risk taken has succeeded or failed;
€ the ability to back away from an idea despite time invested.

All of these abilities, or close analogues of them, are
indispensable ingredients in any kind of artistic creativity.
Through readings, classroom discussions, and the creation of
letter designs and ambigrams, students will explore the relation
between form and content, while mastering the techniques of
designing an artistic ambigram.  This will naturally lead us into
discussions of the fundamental mechanisms of human creativity.  All
participants in the seminar will create a personal portfolio of
ambigrams and related alphabet-based graphic projects.

These will be drawn from among the following articles and books,
of which are available at the CRCC Research Library, 510 North

Douglas Hofstadter: ³Ambigrams: An Ideal Microworld for the Study of
Creativity².  Florence, Italy: Hopeful Monster, 1987.

Douglas Hofstadter: ³Notes for the Second FARG Creativity Workshop²,

Douglas Hofstadter: ³Analogy as the Core of Cognition² in ³The
Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science² (eds. D. Gentner, K.
and B. Kokinov).  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press/Bradford Books,

Scott Kim: ³Inversions: A Catalogue of Calligraphic Cartwheels².
Peterborough, New Hampshire: Byte Books, 1981.

John Langdon: ³Wordplay: Ambigrams and Reflections on the Art of
1992.  New edition: ³Wordplay: The Philosophy, Art, and Science
Ambigrams², Broadway Books, scheduled to appear November 1, 2005.

David Moser: ³Sinosigns: A Hundred or so of My Best² (1997).

Burkard Polster: ³Eye Twisters: Ambigrams, Escher, and Illusions²,

For additional information, please call 855.6965.