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The son of George Langdon, a teacher at The Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania, John Langdon attended that school from 1950-1964. He received his bachelor's degree in English from Dickinson College, graduating in 1968. A self-taught artist and graphic designer, Langdon has free-lanced as a lettering artist and logo design specialist since 1976. Known for his ambigrams, which he began developing in the late 1960s and early 70s, Langdon featured those and his essays in the book Wordplay, published in 1992. Langdon is known mostly through his association with Dan Brown, and the novels Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, Inferno, and Origin. The protagonist of these novels was named Robert Langdon as a tribute to John Langdon.
Langdon is now a professor of typography and corporate identity at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He continues to do work on ambigrams, as well and fine art works that incorporate language, type, and philosophy.
Langdon credits his paternal grandparents for his equal interests in and abilities with images and language. His grandmother painted in Paris in the impressionist years preceding the turn of the 20th century. His grandfather was a poet, a translator, and a professor of Romance Languages at Brown University, whose translation of Dante's Divine Comedy won him a decoration by Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III.
Langdon majored in English at Dickinson — with a particular interest in the History of the English Language — but began painting, tentatively, on his own before graduating. His strong emotional response to cubists Gris, Braque, and Picasso inspired what a painting instructor later referred to as “a pastiche of cubism.” While that comment discouraged Langdon's painting efforts for a while, the cubist influence never left him. He considers Surrealists Dali and Magritte, and pop artists Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol significant influences, as well. Langdon took drawing and painting courses at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and The Philadelphia College of Art after graduating from Dickinson.
Langdon was also influenced greatly by the Taoist graphic symbol yin/yang, and the graphic work of M.C. Escher — both black and white representations of concepts that encourage viewing things from more than a single point of view. Unhappy with marginal success at designing words that would tessellate a plane like Escher's birds and fish, Langdon's discovery of the NEW MAN and VISTA logos (by Raymond Loewy and Dick Hess, respectively), which featured rotational symmetry, steered him in the direction of what later became known as ambigrams. The blend of his Taoist philosophy with ambigrams resulted in the 1992 publication of his book Wordplay.
His first job in the graphic design world was at Armstrong Typography in Philadelphia, where he worked in the photo-lettering department, a Headliners franchise. His intense love and study of work by Herb Lubalin, Lou Dorfsman, Gene Federico, George Lois, and other leading graphic designers of the late 60s and early 70s inspired him toward a career in graphic design. After five years at Sulpizio Associates, a Philadelphia design firm, Langdon began his ongoing career as a free-lance logo designer, type specialist, and lettering artist.
Blending his love of Robert Indiana's word paintings, Dali's optical illusions, Escher, the Tao, conventional typography, Lubalin's work, and psychedelic poster lettering, Langdon's late 60s explorations with words became the embryonic forerunners of his ambigrams (which he referred to simply as “upside-down words” until Douglas Hofstadter (Godel Escher Bach) coined the now widely accepted term “ambigram”). Ambigrams are created by designing each letter to perform as two different letters, one facing each of two different orientations. After creating perhaps a dozen of these creations, his friend and fellow artist, Robert Petrick followed suit. But it was not until 1980 that they learned that computer scientist and puzzler Scott Kim had been designing words symmetrically for about the same length of time. Kim's book, Inversions, was published in 1981. While isolated examples of symmetrically designed words dating from the 19th century (or older) are known, John Langdon and Scott Kim are generally acknowledged as the originators of the currently popular art form.
Initially Langdon's ambigrams followed the yin/yang model, featuring rotational symmetry. But when the name STARSHIP resisted his efforts, he resorted to mirror image symmetry, establishing a second format. The STARSHIP, ambigram was sold to Jefferson Starship and appeared on the label of the Spitfire album (1976). Other approaches to ambigram designs followed: chain ambigrams are those that will not work as self-contained words, but when separate parts of a word can each be created symmetrically, they can be linked, end to end in an infinite chain. These can be of either rotational or mirror-image type. Mirror image chains are rare; rotational chains are normally presented in a circular format. Totem ambigrams, so named due to their vertical stacking of letters, present mirror-image symmetry. Totem ambigrams give the artist greater flexibility as to what letter may be called upon to mirror another. A non-symmetrical type of ambigram is the Figure/Ground illusion,  in which spaces within and between the letters of one word form the letters of a second word. These are verbal versions of the well-known profiles-and-chalice illusion. For these, a voluntary perception shift is required of the viewer. Langdon contributed to the FyreWater script for the Ambigram Generator website fripscript.
Wordplay was published in 1992 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It contains about 60 of Langdon's ambigrams — specifically those that refer to Taoist philosophy and fundamental symbols and concepts from Western physics (not including quantum physics, which Langdon admits is well beyond his reach). Each ambigram is accompanied by a brief essay that explores the word's definition, its etymology, its relationship to philosophy and science, and its use in everyday life. Wordplay sold “respectably,” as they say in the publishing world, but one sale in particular proved particularly fortuitous: Dan Brown, a mathematics teacher at Phillips Academy in Exeter, NH, was particularly taken with Langdon's work, and asked Langdon if he would design an ambigram for his singer/songwriter son, whose next CD would be titled Angels & Demons.
Angels & Demons
The CD turned out to be Dan Brown's last, as shortly after its release, Brown turned to writing novels. He decided to reuse the name Angels & Demons as the title of his second novel Angels & Demons, and visited Langdon's Bucks County, Pennsylvania getaway home to become further acquainted with his work. It was there that Brown saw many of Langdon's ambigrams, including his circular, yin/yang-inspired four-word design reading, “EARTH/AIR/FIRE/WATER”, in perfect rotational symmetry, and his accompanying ambigrams of each word individually. Soon thereafter, Brown asked Langdon to recreate those ambigrams in a more antiquated and sinister style, and the word “Illuminati” as well. He declined to tell Langdon any more about what he had in mind for his next novel. Brown was thrilled with Langdon's reworked ambigrams, and months later let him know that he would name the protagonist (Robert Langdon) in his honor. Angels & Demons did not take the world by storm any more than had Digital Fortress, Brown's first effort. But Brown had found his groove and his leading character. Robert Langdon was carried forward to the enormously successful The Da Vinci Code, and Angels & Demons rode its coattails to worldwide popularity, and Langdon's ambigrams went along for the ride. An expanded second edition of Wordplay was published in 2005 by Broadway Books/Random House, followed shortly by British and French editions.
Robert Langdon was, to some degree, patterned after John Langdon. Both are university professors; Robert Langdon studies symbols, with a particular focus on religious iconography; John Langdon designs symbols, and exhibits a distinct interest in philosophy. John creates ambigrams, Robert deciphers anagrams. Both have swim team experience, combined with a paradoxical fear of drowning, and both have phobias about falling.
Langdon's affection for the yin/yang symbol was conjoined by his interest in western scientific symbols: the normal bell curve, wave pattern, the infinity symbol, and spirals and helices, and in the mid 1980s he produced a body of work in various media exploring the relationships among those symbols.  In response to the changes in the graphic design world brought about by the advent of the Macintosh, Langdon resumed his painting career enthusiastically in the mid-1990s. Since then he has produced many paintings that explore his combined interests in words, symmetries, and optical illusions.
Ambigram paintings (1996-99)
Langdon began a committed painting career in 1996, making a variety of works, as he searched for a direction. Some of these early paintings stem directly from his ambigram work. But they did not require that the painting should rotate, or that the viewer would need to navigate around it, although his A Very Good Year was intended to sit in the middle of a gallery floor. A Portrait of the Artist, Us, Love, and Optical Illusion are Figure/Ground illusions that can be appreciated from a stationary and upright position.
Rorschach paintings (1997-present)
A New York show of Andy Warhol's large-scale Rorschach paintings inspired Langdon to create folded and imprinted images of his own, and after countless experiments with media and techniques, he found that he was able to make vertical images that mixed random distribution of paint with just enough control to create what amount to inkblot totem ambigrams.
Logo manipulation paintings (1999-2001)
Langdon's preceding decades of experience with corporate logo design was merged with the traditional word game of making anagrams (scrambling letters to form a new word) to form the foundation of his next series.
The theme of presenting familiar word images that reveal new interpretations evolved into cropped logo paintings, logos with missing letters and finally, logo juxtapositions.
Mixed symmetries (2001-present)
Perhaps Langdon's most original theme explores vertical relationships between seemingly random pairs of words, while subtly juxtaposing a pair of yin/yang opposites. These are both disguised and revealed by Langdon's use of bold complementary color combinations and simultaneously, comparatively subtle changes in value. Like much of Langdon's work, these paintings are both playful and profound.
Langdon became a third generation teacher, beginning his career in 1985 teaching Lettering at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. In 1988, he moved to the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University when the college initiated a Graphic Design Program. At first Langdon taught only the introductory Typography Course, then added Type II after a couple of years. From the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s, he taught full-time, eventually adding Advanced Typography to his schedule, while maintaining his other art and design pursuits. In the mid ‘aughts’ he was made a full professor. But at the same time, the demand for commissioned ambigrams grew exponentially after The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons took his work and his name to readers around the world, and he cut back on his teaching load to accommodate that demand (which included ambigrams for rock performers John Mayer and Aerosmith). In 2015 he ended his teaching career at Drexel.
In addition to writing Wordplay, Langdon has written design criticism for Critique magazine and forewords for Eye Twisters by Burkard Polster and Fading Ads of Philadelphia by Larry O’Toole, and a preface for Calligraffiti - the Graphic Art of Niels Shoe Meulman.
- Bearn, Emily (April 12, 2005), "The doodle bug", The Daily Telegraph, London, retrieved March 1, 2008
- Perseghin, Lou (November 17, 2005), "Letter Man", Philadelphia City Paper, archived from the original on July 24, 2008, retrieved March 1, 2008
- Alex Bellos (10 April 2013). "Ambigrams: the upside down imagery of the artist who inspired Dan Brown". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 December 2019.
- "A Farewell to a Man of Letters". Drexel University. 2 November 2015. Retrieved 18 December 2019.