John Langdon | About John


The Art of John Langdon
by Sam Heller

“John is an artist and philosopher….and, I think, one of our true geniuses.”
Dan Brown, author, The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons 

“It is a rare mind that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious.”
…Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency 

     A coincidence: On April 19th,1946, the membership of The Society of Typographic Arts gathered, in Chicago, for their 19th annual conclave, unaware that their thriving and time-honored discipline was only a few years away from extinction; or that a child, John Langdon, born earlier that day, was destined to preserve the traditions of their craft, and help to resurrect them as Fine Art.
     Langdon’s elementary, and high school education, at The Episcopal Academy, in Merion, Pennsylvania was, fortunately, stimulating for a child gifted with a keen, searching intelligence.  However, his father was on the Academy’s teaching staff and Langdon, as a “faculty brat,” at an expensive prep school, was aware, early in life, of the bruising social politics of the class/income divide.
     As a teenager, he discovered, and became fascinated by, the Yin/Yang symbol, representative, in Eastern traditions, of balance, polarity, and the interdependency of opposites, i.e. night/day; male/female; water/fire; earth/air, etc..  Langdon became, early on, a student of Eastern Philosophy, and credits his study of the Tao, and the universal constants at the heart of its teachings – symmetry, ambiguity, polarity among them – as the foundation stone of his artistic life.
     Langdon hit adulthood in the mid-60’s, just as career and life choices were expanding and being reexamined.  With no conscious long-term plan, he ended up charting his own unique, and multifaceted, path.  Langdon’s first job – which his enthusiasm turned into an unofficial apprenticeship – was at a typography studio, working in the last days of hand set letterpress.  He quickly developed a deep knowledge, and an abiding love, for traditional typefaces.  With the advent of computer typesetting, these artisans became “redundant” nearly overnight.  However, by that time, Langdon had a solid grounding in the often-subtle distinctions in look and “feel” of various typefaces. As well as the power differing letter styles had to affect our emotional interpretation of what we read.
     By the late-1960’s the parallels between Eastern Philosophy and Western Physics had become a growing public fascination. Encouraged by the new openness to cultural change, a string of  best-selling books – some wise, some absurd – brought this synthesis to the general public. Still-remembered titles include: The Dancing Wu Li Masters; Morning of the Magicians; and Be Here Now.
    The poetic conciseness and use of symbolism in corporate logos drew Langdon to that corner of the graphic design world.  At the same time, he began toying with drawings that incorporated and explored universal constants.   These nascent doodles and glyphs led directly to his discovery/co-invention of the Ambigram.

   An Ambigram is a graphic design that “appears” to be a word, or a cluster of words, with the mind-boggling characteristic of being absolutely identical from more than one point of view.  Most Ambigrams are composed of original glyphs and arrangements of line that appear to be certain letters, but are not.
     Extremely difficult to successfully create, once a word or phrase is chosen, the artist spends hours – and often days – creating a concept. Then the design is continually revised until the illusion finally appears.
An Ambigramist usually works alone; for hours at a time; focusing their creative imagination and logic on one small invention.  In a manner similar to a Mandala master’s, the finest examples appear effortless, meditative, and beautiful.  Nothing is superfluous.   art, optical illusion, and the design of new glyphs masquerading as letters.  Langdon’s seminal book on the Ambigram phenomenon, Wordplay, was published in 1992 and is still in print.
    Langdon reached worldwide prominence after the author Dan Brown named the hero of his novels, The Da Vinci Code; and Angels & Demons after the artist.  Langdon is the creator of the arcane symbols that guide the plot of Angels & Demons; and is also a partial role model for his fictional “doppelganger.”  For a few hours each week, the artist becomes Professor John Langdon, while lecturing on design and Visual Language at Philadelphia’s Drexel College.  Brown dubbed his lead-character “Professor Robert Langdon,” a Harvard Symbology expert.  The “fictional Langdon” recently reappeared in Brown’s The Lost Symbol.  The author has said that several future novels will continue to chronicle Langdon’s adventures.

    Most recently, these varied branches of activity have been joined by one in which Langdon takes particular pride.  For more than 2 decades, he has spent more and more of his time painting.  These works are often enamel on canvas, but cover a wide and creative combination of media and methods.  Obviously, they are further extrapolations of his continual focus on words, and the complex, ineffable semiotics of these highly subjective connections between thought and tangible reality.
     Langdon is certainly unique.  In large part, this is because, with only intuitive planning, his entire artistic life has been based in symbols, letterforms, and words.  However, more importantly, he has never cast off one “identity” when moving from one field of endeavor to another.  Instead, he seems to lay his latest role, and mindset, on top of the previous one.  When he picks up a paintbrush, he is still a typographer; still a graphic designer; still an illusionist; a linguist; a philosopher; a teacher.
    And if one wonders what the next Langdon layer will be, it’s encouraging to know that Langdon often asks himself the same question.  


Washington Post Staff Writer By Emma Brown
Monday, May 24, 2010; 1:08 PM
Martin Gardner, 95, a journalist whose omnivorous curiosity gave rise to wide-ranging writings that popularized mathematics, explored theology and philosophy, debunked pseudoscience and dug into Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s books with the gusto of an investigative reporter, died May 22 at a hospital in Norman, Okla.
His son, James Gardner, said the exact cause of death was not known.
A native of Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Gardner was writing stories and poems for a children’s magazine in the 1950s when he submitted an article about hexaflexagons — pieces of paper folded intricately to resemble, Mr. Gardner once said, “a budding flower” — to Scientific American. Then-editor Dennis Flanagan was so taken with the piece that he hired Mr. Gardner to produce a regular column on recreational mathematics.
The resulting monthly feature, “Mathematical Games,” ran from 1956 to 1981. It became one of Scientific American’s most popular items, capturing the imagination of amateur and professional mathematicians and introducing a generation of young readers to the pleasures of problem-solving.
The sharp-witted column, packed with cultural references, humor and accessible logic puzzles instead of academic jargon, featured the mathematical concepts behind fractals, Chinese tangram puzzles, and the art of surrealist M.C. Escher. Widely read around the world, “Mathematical Games” made Mr. Gardner — who never took a math class after high school — the beloved grandfather of recreational mathematics and the inspiration for countless young people to consider careers in math and science.
“Beyond calculus, I am lost,” he once said. “That was the secret of my column’s success. It took me so long to understand what I was writing about that I knew how to write in a way most readers would understand.”Math puzzles were just one part of Mr. Gardner’s sprawling career.
Among more than 70 books Mr. Gardner, one his first, “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science,” heralded a lifelong passion for discrediting scientific fraud and quackery. Deemed “unputdownable” by Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, “Fads and Fallacies” used calm logic to expose flat-earth theorists, flying saucers and believers in extrasensory perception.
In 1976, Mr. Gardner joined with Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and others in founding the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the group encourages rational investigation of everything from homeopathic remedies to fortune tellers. Mr. Gardner later wrote a monthly column, “Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” for the committee’sjournal, the Skeptical Inquirer.
Following his own fascinations, he wrote books to explain scientific phenomena including Einstein’s relativity theory (“Relativity for Millions,” 1962) and oddities such as right- and left-handedness in mollusks and crystals and the bathtub vortex, in which water in a bathtub in the Northern hemisphere drains counterclockwise, while water in the Southern hemisphere drains clockwise (“The Ambidextrous Universe,” 1964).
Mr. Gardner, a childhood fan of Frank L. Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” books, used his inquisitiveness as a tool of literary criticism. In 1960, he published perhaps his most popular book, “The Annotated Alice,” a line-by-line examination of the wordplay, satire and allusions in Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass.”
Filling the margins of the original text with explanatory notes and compressed essays, Mr. Gardner used physics, psychology, history and math to illuminate the classic tale, offering two possible origins for the phrase “grin like a Cheshire Cat” and digging up weather records to show that July 4, 1862, the “golden afternoon” that Carroll described in the first lines of his book, had actually been “cool and rather wet.”
The book “memorializes the meeting of two remarkable eccentric minds in a particular moment in intellectual history,” wrote critic Adam Gopnik in the New York Times in 1999, upon the release of a new edition of “The Annotated Alice.”
“Gardner has an old-fashioned, almost 19th-century, Oliver Wendell Holmes kind of American mind — self-educated, opinionated, cranky and utterly unafraid of embarrassment.”
Mr. Gardner used a similar technique to annotate other classics, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and E.L. Thayer’s baseball poem “Casey at the Bat.”
In interviews, Mr. Gardner said that among his favorite books was “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener” (1983), a collection of essays about issues including faith, prayer, evil and immortality. Faith was also the subject of his 1973 semi-autobiographical novel, “The Flight of Peter Fromm,” in which the title character and his atheist professor of divinity grapple for decades with questions about God.
“This is a brilliantly illuminating metaphysical novel that employs ideas as adversaries and translates them into human dilemmas,” wrote Martin Levin in New York Times review. “Can a novel whose action is essentially cerebral be exciting? Yes indeed — if the novelist is as engaged by the history of ideas as is Gardner.”
Writing for Humpty Dumpty

Martin Gardner was born Oct. 21, 1914, in Tulsa, where his father owned a small oil business. The younger Gardner grew up playing chess, practicing magic tricks and reading the “Wizard of Oz” series, which he later satirized in the 1998 novel “Visitors From Oz: the Wild Adventures of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman.”
He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy in 1936, then worked as a journalist and public relations man before serving during World War II as a Navy yeoman aboard a destroyer escort.
He launched a post-war freelance writing career with the publication in Esquire magazine of a story called “The Horse on the Escalator,” a tragically comic tale about a man who collected jokes about horses. Several years later, he found steady work in New York at Humpty Dumpty, a children’s magazine. Each month for eight years, he wrote a short story and a poem offering moral advice, some of which were later collected in “Never Make Fun of a Turtle, My Son” (1969).
His wife, the former Charlotte Greenwald, died in 2000 after 48 years of marriage. In addition to his son James, of Norman, survivors include another son, Tom Gardner of Asheville, N.C.; and three grandchildren.
Over the years, Mr. Gardner earned a devoted following and respect from such diverse thinkers as the poet W.H. Auden, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky, who once wrote, “Martin Gardner’s contribution to contemporary intellectual culture is unique — in its range, its insight, and understanding of hard questions that matter.”
The writer’s admirers have gathered every two years since 1993 for a conference called “Gathering for Gardner.” Begun as a tribute, the event features presentations by magicians, mathematicians and puzzle-lovers of every stripe.
“Many have tried to emulate him,” mathematician Ronald Graham said of Mr. Gardner in 2009. “No one has succeeded.”