You might not know John Langdon’s name, but you’ve probably seen his work. Langdon, of Philadelphia, is an artist who is in love with words. His passion for words — their symmetry, their meaning, their look and texture, has taken him from the rather practical application of logo design to the more esoteric practice of ambigrams, which are defined as “a graphical figure that spells out a word not only in its form as presented, but also in another direction or orientation.” His most well-known ambigrams can be found in the novel “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown.
Langdon joins dozens of presenters at the Thinking Creatively Conference on Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, at Kean University in Union.
Sponsored by the Art Director’s Club of New Jersey, the conference features a host of speakers ranging from Hollywood animator Brian Oaks talking about his recent animated films, “Ice Age” and “Robots,” on to Zoa Martinez, creative director of Design Inc., who tells how she choreographs moving type and fluid color into live-motion marketing. Cost: $200. Registration is online at www.adcnj.org.
The event also includes seminars and workshops with nationally and internationally recognized professionals in advertising, design, marketing, corporate communications, and other design fields.
“What’s So Great about Ambiguity?” is the topic of Langdon’s presentation. While most people would agree that ambiguity is an impediment to communication, Langdon sees it as an invaluable tool, one that everyone depends on every day. As a typographer and logo designer, Langdon says his work is “heavily concerned with symmetry, but underpinning it all is my love of ambiguity.”
Langdon’s love of words, art, and ambiguity began early. He was fascinated by the work of Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher, but did not study art. Instead he majored in English. “That left things pretty open,” he says. After college he worked in the photo lettering department of a type house where he received his on-the-job education in graphic design. He went out on his own in 1977 as a freelance graphic designer, type specialist, and lettering artist and has taught typography and corporate identity design at Moore College of Art, and, since 1988, at Drexel University.
Ambigrams are Langdon’s trademark. He “invented or discovered them” in the early 1970s while “trying to do with words what Dali and Escher did with images.” He published a book, “Wordplay,” about his unique word art, in 1992. (A second edition was published in 2005 by Broadway Books).
A famous ambigram created by Langdon is the logo for the band Aerosmith. But ambigrams make up only a part of his design and logo work. His clients have included hospitals, banks, and technology companies, and his logo designs have won numerous awards.
This proponent of ambiguity has very definite ideas on how to create a great logo. “You need to appeal to the consumer, to intrigue the customer, not hit them in the nose with something obvious,” he says. A logo should be subtle. It should work on a person’s “natural curiosity and show the familiar with the familiar,” says Langdon. It should present enough of a challenge that the viewer “will feel smart and creative,” yet be “reasonably easy to meet. It shouldn’t make the viewer feel stupid.”
Appropriate. A logo “must embody and convey a feeling that represents the nature of the industry at large,” says Langdon. In other words, a logo for a school, a bank, and a retail store should look very different.
Distinctive. “An appropriate look that does not draw attention to the unique qualities of the business it represents only supports the industry as a whole, and will most likely draw business toward the leader in the field,” says Langdon.
Attracting and attractive. “Pleasing esthetics serve any business well. However, the qualities that attract the target consumer may not always overlap with conventional standards of attractiveness, and so ‘attracting’ may occasionally take precedence over ‘attractive.’”
Readable and understandable. “If letters and words are involved, the consumer must be able to decipher them. But the same is true for pictorial, symbolic, and abstract images,” says Langdon. The image should not only convey what is intended. It should not convey any unintended ideas, as well.
Functional. A logo should be effective in every situation in which it is used. “It must work on the side of the company truck and the business card,” says Langdon.
A look at Langdon’s career reveals the same hidden symmetry that is found in his ambigrams. His art developed from his fascination with words. He became a teacher to supplement his income at a time when the graphic design business was changing. In the 1980s “the advent of Mac changed business so dramatically I lost 80 to 90 percent of my work,” he says. “The nature of what people wanted changed and I looked at where it was going and I wasn’t willing to go there.”
His book, “Wordplay,” brought him into contact with Dan Brown. In fact, the book’s main character, Robert Langdon, who also appears in “The DaVinci Code,” bears Langdon’s last name. Brown has said the character is a composite of several people he admires, including John Langdon.
Langdon’s association with “Angels and Demons” has changed the nature of his business in several ways. “For the last two years I get five or six requests a day from all over the world for my ambigrams,” he says. Most, he admits, are from people wanting their girlfriend or boyfriend’s name for a tattoo.
“But every couple of months I hear from a Fortune 500 company that wants something for a promotion,” he says. He has one set of fees for personal art requests, and another set for those from large corporations. Unfortunately, many of the corporate logos don’t ultimately work out. Not every word or phrase can be turned into a legible ambigram.
Langdon is now able to supplement his income with royalties. “I’ve done countless things for free or for very little money because they were interesting or creative and of course I’d think that someday one of these jobs might produce surprising results,” he says. At the time that Brown wrote “Angels and Demons” he was a relatively unknown author without a lot of money. He offered Langdon “a tiny portion of the royalties” as payment. That “tiny portion” has become “pretty significant,” says Langdon, and has allowed him to be more selective in the jobs he takes.
What continues to astonish him, he says, “is that I’ve had a career doing what I love to do. I didn’t follow a pre-established career path, instead I’ve been carving through dense forest.” He “hates to do cold calling” and instead has promoted his graphic design work through competitions, articles in publications, and his website, www.johnlangdon.net.
The good thing about carving his own path, he says is that his work is unique. “There’s no competition,” he says. “I have a different way of seeing the world and words and I can get that down on paper.” — Karen Hodges Miller
Lord Of The Rings Opens Doors
When opportunity arrived, just a half hour from Daniel Reeve’s home in New Zealand, he was prepared. Six years ago Reeve was a computer programmer at a bank near his home in Titahi Bay, near Wellington, New Zealand. Today he is an artist whose work has appeared in several movies and in exhibitions worldwide.
Reeve’s opportunity was the filming of “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson and produced in New Zealand. Reeve, an artist with a passion for calligraphy and cartography, used his opportunity to work on the film to turn his love of art from a part-time to a full-time career.
Reeve will be the main stage speaker at Thinking Creatively at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, March 30. A mini exhibition, “Lettering Lord of the Rings: The Art of Daniel Reeve,” will be on display throughout the conference and Reeve will also be available before his presentation, from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m. to sign books and chat.
Art, says Reeve, “is something I could always do. I never studied it and I can never decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” He never thought of art as “a viable career, although I was slowly ramping it up.” Before “Lord of the Rings” came along, he was spending an increasing amount of time on painting, exhibiting and selling his work in New Zealand.
“I intended to make a career shift eventually, but with a family to feed and a mortgage to pay it didn’t seem responsible to leave a perfectly good day job,” he says. Then opportunity came knocking.
Reeve had been interested in both cartography and calligraphy since his teens. After reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” as a teenager he had practiced the elvish script that appears in the books. When he heard that the filmmakers were looking for someone who could write elvish script, “It was too much to ignore,” he says. “It seemed unthinkable that when I was already practiced in this rather strange niche that I wouldn’t send a sample of my work.”
Reeve didn’t quit his day job right away, however. It wasn’t until New Line Cinema, the distributors of the film, asked him to do some work on merchandise for the movie that he felt he could make the move. “Their list of jobs for me to do was big enough that I was able to take the big plunge — quit my day job and become a freelance artist. And I’ve never looked back.”
A change in lifestyle. Work as a freelance artist has “changed life in odd ways,” says Reeve. The most obvious is that, “I don’t have to wear a suit and tie and commute every day. I’m out of the rat race.” Working as an artist gives him more time with his wife, Joanne, and his children, Gareth, 17 and Alice, 14, but it also means that he travels more. He is away from home as he attends conventions and exhibitions to promote and sell his work.
The oddest thing is that now that he is a full-time artist, Reeve has less time to paint. His expectation had been that as an artist he would focus on his paintings, but, he says, “in the last few years I’ve only turned out a handful.”
Marrying tradition and technology. Instead of paintings, much of his work is in calligraphy, cartography, and illustration. It can be seen in several movies, including “Van Helsing,” “King Kong,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and “Dead Letters.” Often his work is only on screen for a moment or two, but he has developed illustrations for film-related merchandise, such as a game based on “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“I am lucky to have found this niche,” says Reeve. “When someone wants something that has a totally traditional look, that only quill and ink can provide, they call me.” But using traditional materials doesn’t mean he has turned his back on new technology.
“I use whatever tool is best, or a combination,” he says “The creative process almost always starts with pencil and paper, doodling ideas, refining ones that look good. The next stage is often scanning a sketch and using graphics software to test the idea, making mock-ups on screen to see what is going to work. Then it’ll be back to paper, paint, and ink to create the final piece.”
The traditional arts are “far from dead,” he says. Many people still appreciate the techniques and tools that have been around for hundreds of years. Technology, however, has given them a new place in people’s lives.
For example, a new project Reeve is working on is computer fonts. His first font, “Shire Font, Spidery Version,” is available for sale on his website. “Written in a spidery, wandering style,” as if made by Bilbo Baggins (a charcter from “The Lord of the Rings,” and its prequel, “The Hobbit”) the font is a great example of the marriage of traditional and modern techniques. Reeve first “dreamed it up using the quill,” then used font-making software to transfer it to the computer.
Expecting the unexpected. Since quitting the day job, work has been landing in Reeve’s lap. He has only actively marketed himself in the last two years since launching his website, www.danielreeve.co.nz. Most of his marketing comes through conventions or exhibitions. “It’s necessary if you want to survive as an artist. People have to be aware of you,” he says.
Reeve’s niche in the marketplace has helped create demand for his work. “I’m the guy who does calligraphy and old-style maps and illustrations with a quill. People now know that such a person exists because of “Lord of the Rings” and my website, so they need look no further. They seek me out.”
He’s getting used to the idea that new work will come his way. Other than “Lord of the Rings,” the only other job he actually sought was “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which is based on another of his favorite books. “I E-mailed them a couple of images of what I’d done on ‘Rings,’ and they took me on for some props that fell into my area of expertise.”
For the most part, “jobs just arrive in my inbox when I least expect them, usually several at a time, with conflicting deadlines,” says Reeve. He is getting used to expecting the unexpected, he says. “It used to feel precarious. Now it doesn’t bother me. It’s impossible to predict what’s around the next corner.”
— Karen Hodges Miller
Capturing Broadway In a Poster
How do you fit all of “Fiddler on the Roof” onto the back page of the New York Times? How do you distill the star power of Bernadette Peters to catch the eye and lure the heart of the casual New York pedestrian in a half-second glimpse? These are the questions Gail Anderson and her crew at SpotCo answer every day — often five at a time.
As creative director for theatrical advertising agency SpotCo (www.spotnyc.com), Anderson designs those artistic, eye-grabbing street posters, full-page adds, billboards, and in-theater posters that advertise Broadway’s top shows. She discusses the complexities and the boggling many-player team effort required for this work as the endnote seminar, “Designing for Broadway,” at the Thinking Creatively Conference on Saturday, March 31, at 3:10 p.m. at Kean University in Union.
“For most of my working life, I held the best job in the best possible magazine,” says Anderson. “Believe me, the shift into Broadway designing was no mean turn around.” Growing up in the Bronx, Anderson says that she got her precise, artistic hands from her father, a watchmaker for Longines. She attended New York’s School of Visual Arts (Class of 1984).
After a brief stint as graphic artist for Random House and the Boston Globe, Anderson landed the dream job of senior art director for Rolling Stone magazine. “After 14 years with Rolling Stone, I realized I was never likely to find any other magazine I’d like as well,” says Anderson. Meanwhile, Drew Hodges, who had been a classmate of hers at the School of Visual Arts, was remolding his Spot Design Company into SpotCo, and focusing on Broadway’s need for key art. So in 2002, when he invited Anderson to join the team and get back into typography and posters, she opted for the mid-life shakeup and made the leap.
In addition to her SpotCo work, Anderson teaches at the School for Visual Arts and has co-written several design books with Steve Heller. Anderson is now working on posters and key art for “Shrek,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Guthrie,” a Manhattan Theater project, and Hans Klock’s Magic Show in Las Vegas, and “Rock of Ages,” a l980s rock review for which she’ll be creating the key art.
The creative mystique. In romantic lore Broadway show art springs from inspiration scribbled on a cocktail napkin, which dramatically transforms itself into a poster. While Anderson admits to scribbling ideas on napkins late at night, she quickly adds that there is a lot more perspiration and politicking behind the process.
She begins a project by attending a play reading, and meeting the actors, director, and producers. If it’s a remake or has established name stars involved, she checks past publicity. Then the labor begins in earnest.
SpotCo is responsible not only for those alluring outdoor street posters, but also for billboards, newspaper and direct mail ads, material in hotels, regional ads in the area in which the play tries out, as well as the memorable ads in the front of the house. Each piece has to be coordinated.
Countless drawings are made, adjusted, or scrapped. Contractual factors, such as giving stars top billing, are all worked in. Usually, within a couple of weeks, Anderson and one or two other designers have bundled together one major with half a dozen other possibles, and are ready for the presentation.
The prime art is placed on the easel and everyone involved comes in to inspect and criticize. Producers, the director, writers, costume designers, even actors and their publicists, have their say.
“You’ve got to have a pretty resilient ego to do this kind of work,” Anderson says. “Producers sometimes give very frank critiques.”
Art & show. Each show is the hopeful launch of a new business. Every day Anderson works with a troupe of individuals all desperate to make their show a hit. “We cheer for them all,” she says, “not just because we love them, but because there’s no such thing as a good poster if the play is bad.”
A few years back she faced the challenge of creating the art for “I Am My Own Wife.” The play was based on the real life of East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorfname, an antique-collecting eccentric who survived the repressive Nazi and Soviet regimes. The producer wanted a bold swastika, overlaid with an equally bold hammer and sickle. Anderson thought “I mean what do you do with that?” In the end she created the infinitely more though-provoking poster of a faint swastika hidden in the sheen of a string of pearls on a black background.
Some of Anderson’s proudest creations involve smaller plays, such as the currently running off-Broadway performance of “Heights.” The play covers a few days in the lives of several Washington Heights characters. “The poster’s joyful, bright, and lively, like the show itself,” she says. “I always smile when I see it in the subway station. It’s reminiscent of the bodegas you see on almost every corner up there and it sells the show really effectively.”
As with any product, there are the occasional misfires. When the show “Lennon” came out a few summers ago, SpotCo’s posters showed a simple portrait of the singer made out of guitar strings. It seemed right, but apparently people on the West Coast couldn’t determine whether the poster was depicting John Lennon, famed Beatles singer and guitarist, or Vladamir Ilich Lenin, Russian revolutionary. The ad was withdrawn.
Print to poster. At a print periodical life centers around publication dates. “At Rolling Stone my whole life and emotion revolved around the bi-weekly editorial cycle of the magazine,” says Anderson. Now, at SpotCo, Anderson’s projects come in an overlapping, constant flow. She has time to let ideas percolate.
Anderson also enjoys the heady interaction with Broadway’s best. And, though her consumer is still her public, she has creative minds to give her feedback on her work right away. As she sums it up: “When a show’s a hit, you actually feel like you were part of something big. We’re always rooting for our shows. It’s very genuine.”
— Bart Jackson