The master of wordplay

Work of Philly native John Langdon bends the boundaries of typography, turning it into an art form that is all his own.

Work of Philly native John Langdon bends the boundaries of typography, turning it into an art form that is all his own.

John Langdon’s living room is like some kind of alternate universe, a world as imaginative as his mind.

REBECCA SAVEDOW TTN John Langdon stands in his eclectic Fairmount home, throughout which many of his paintings and designs, such as this ink splatter painting, are displayed.

Many of the artist’s own etchings and paintings fill the walls of his Fairmount home, designs that often revolve around multiple perspectives and unconventional typography. Some of them are ambigrams – words that, through the unique transformation of text, can be read the same from multiple directions – an art form Langdon more or less invented and undoubtedly popularized.

Langdon’s influences are as eclectic as his many projects, ranging from surrealist and cubist artists to psychedelic posters from the late ‘60s to the yin and yang symbol.

“When I encountered [the yin and yang symbol] for the first time in college, it made a really deep connection with me immediately,” Langdon told The Temple News. “I kind of just latched onto it as a concept. It’s easy to see the concept of polarized opposites, but I just had the sense that there was a lot more to it.”

In what he called his “habit of drawing, sketching, doodling and playing with a pencil on paper,” Langdon took apart and redrew the symbol in as many ways he could imagine.

Langdon’s decision to major in English sparked his interest in the intricacies of the language. After college, a chance referral landed him a job as a type-setter in a local print shop.

“I learned a huge amount about type and its conventions,” Langdon said. “I hadn’t put it together in my mind at that point that the visual presentation of words was where I was going, but at the same time, I was interested in psychedelic poster lettering, and today, even though I teach type and love type, what I love a lot more is the artistic design of words and going beyond type.”

Langdon, who teaches a typography elective during certain semesters at Drexel University, said he has been working on what are now known as ambigrams as early as 1968, though the term didn’t exist until many years later. It wasn’t until 1992 that he published a book on his philosophies behind ambigrams titled Wordplay.

The book caught the attention of struggling pop musician Dan Brown, who approached Langdon about designing an ambigram for the cover of his band’s album, Angels and Demons. Needless to say, Brown’s music career fell short, and he then turned his attention to fiction writing.

When Brown began crafting his 2000 novel of the same name, he asked Langdon’s permission to reuse the ambigram, and further discussion sparked the author’s interest in weaving ambigrams into the plot of the story. Langdon agreed to craft those designs, which would play an integral part in the book. Unexpectedly, during the novel’s production, he learned it would involve him in another way entirely.

“Dan called me and said, ‘I think I’m going to name the main character after you,’” Langdon said. “And I didn’t quite know what to make of that. He was not well-known, and I just thought, ‘Oh, well that’s sort of cute, having a character in a book named after you.’ Neither of us really had any idea of where it was going at that point.”

Brown’s fictional Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is now a widely-popular figure, but the real-life Langdon laughs at the notion of his predicting the incredible success of Angels and Demons.

“He and I had each had a book published at that point, and neither really sold that well,” Langdon admitted with a smile. “I wasn’t sure what his expectations were but I just thought, ‘Oh well, whatever.’”

A lot of the work he has done over the years has either been for free or for very little profit, mostly because of his simple passion for designing and because he enjoys working with people and having them challenge him, Langdon said.

The artist said Brown, struggling financially prior to the book’s release, could not even afford to pay for the ambigrams and instead, offered Langdon a small percentage of his earnings from the book’s sales. The artist said he never envisioned he was contributing to a future New York Times best-seller.

“I said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ not really expecting much of anything,” Langdon said with a short laugh. “A tiny percentage of what Dan made on that book happened to be a great deal of money for me.”

Wordplay may be the most apt title for the work of John Langdon. Some his best work, he said, originates from what he calls “unfocused and non-goal-oriented playing.” His sketch books are flooded with all sorts of letters, words, shapes and figures in a sort of trial and error phase.

An M.C. Escher print, one of Langdon’s prized possessions, is a prominent fixture in the home he designed with his wife, an interior designer. Their second-floor studio is adorned with intriguing logos, signs and an entire wall of vintage psychedelic posters for bands like the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.

For as eclectic as his influences may be, it is clear how something in each has easily sparked Langdon’s imagination.

Langdon is in a fortunate situation now; he can take the time to do what he said he loves, noting that there’s a definite connection between his passion for his work and its quality.

One of his recent long-term projects involves his reworking of the classic Alice in Wonderland, complete with some of his own designs.

“My career has not been meteoric or anything like that,” he said. “It’s been a long, gradual improvement.”

No matter what artistic challenges he faces, Langdon said his mindset remains that what he does “is just fun.” His hope for his many students sounds relatively simple, but when he offers this bit of advice, it’s clear how much value it holds with him.

“There’s a very close link between doing what you love and being successful at it,” Langdon said. “I’d like it if young people and students could make sure they find time to do what they love.”

Kevin Brosky can be reached at

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