Physis: An Astrological Glyph Typeface

Discussing the process, ideation and creation of Physis, an astrological glyph typeface

Hugh Tran
May 19, 2022

It's so fascinating to think about the strange ways astrology works in our lives. 2020 was a tumultuous year for me (as for many of us) and there were many things that were uncertain. What good emerged out of it however was this little typeface called Physis.

It's kind of uncanny to be writing this blogpost now, as at the time, I still felt I was kind of a weirdo nobody who just happened to accidentally stumble into the horrible and amazing world that is AstroTwitter. People now know me as The Designer in this space, and have since had my hands in many projects within the astrology community. I also had the privilege of serving on the board of the Association for Young Astrologers for a couple years as well. What a difference a year makes.

The following are my reflections on the process of creating this typeface.

Origins of Physis

So, I am a designer and an astrologer. I started making these glyphs simply because I was unsatisfied with the available glyphs on the marketplace. I guess there aren't a ton of people making glyphs for astrology. Who figured.

I inadvertently shared my progress of some haphazard versions on Twitter in the Spring of 2020. Shockingly, that post completely blew up, and I immediately realized: "Woah, people really... want this?" The community response really was the thing that catalyzed my efforts towards making this into something people can use.

Physis was technically my first typeface, ever. Although I went to University for graphic design and had a strong command of typography, designing typefaces is an entirely different skillset. The technical knowledge and software you need as a type designer can be quite different; after four years of college education, I felt like I was basically at ground zero again with this project. It didn't elude me how much I still did not know.

Illustration of me being confused about how to draw type. I have a wood plank nailed to my forehead. This is a Patrick meme.
Depiction of how I felt trying to figure out type design

The following months were riddled with relentless book-buying, stress, and passionate, hyperfixated deep-dives into the strange and wonderful world that is type design. I'll save my readers from too much of the gruesome details, but oh, what a wild, Mercurial joyride it was. During the process, I necessarily learned about the extensive history of type, how it was designed in the past and is approached in the modern day, and the many ways type sped up the transference of knowledge via books to the masses.

The first moveable type was actually designed in 1040 AD in the Northern Song Dynasty in China. However, many people accredit the German printer Johannes Gutenberg as the first to invent a metal movable-type printing system in Europe, in order to print and distribute the famous Gutenberg Bible.

Astrology of a Typeface

For those who know a little bit about astrology, I want to contextualize this with the astrology of my own natal chart.

My natal Midheaven, the point related to public recognition and career, is in Virgo, ruled by the planet Mercury in Libra. This is the planet in astrology most concerned with translation, writing, language, and communications. The sign of Virgo is a mutable and nocturnal sign, with Mercury as its domicile and exaltation ruler. In my own practice, I was pleasantly surprised during research to find that many type designers whom I admire have shared placements in these signs.

Chart of type designer Matthew Carter, with exalted Mercury, stellium in Virgo, and a Libra Sun

Chart of type designer Tobias Frere-Jones, with an exalted Mercury and Virgo Sun, and a Venus in Libra

Virgo and Libra

Virgo is the sign that marks the gradual change from the end of summer to the beginning of autumn in the northern hemisphere. The sun transits through Virgo during the harvest season, where farmers in both the modern and ancient world must dutifully work with the utmost of care and precision in order to ensure a fruitful harvest, as life and death can depend on having the proper supply of grain for the winter months.

Virgo is a sign of process. It is cold and dry, double-bodied, and represents the blend between two forces like the other signs in this quadruplicity. This is the Virgin and her wings/bird.

An aspect of the dual nature of Virgo in practice demonstrates a contrast between necessity and the unnecessary. Going back to the metaphor of the harvest again, if you do some research on farmers and the harvesting process, it is so archetypal to the qualities found in Virgo.

Farmers are often constrained to a narrow window during which conditions are optimal for harvest. They often have to work quickly due to constraints against time and adverse weather conditions. Grain and wheat are often not able to be used right away. The grain has to be removed from the chaff, processed and ground to make flour, which is a key ingredient in making bread. All this being said, it is no wonder this sign is considered both the home and exaltation of Mercury, where Mercury's goal to communicate are given the gifts of speed, necessity, and refinement to only the essentials, and therefore improving clarity.

Refinement and Utility are key signatures to the nature of Virgo.

As the saying goes, type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters. — Matthew Carter

Libra is the sign of the Scales and marks the true beginning of Autumn at the equinox. The hours of night begin to overtake the hours of the day, as we enter into the darker half of the year. The light and life of selfhood and the concerns of the individual truly begin diminishing in power in Libra. It is the fall of the Sun.

Libra is a sign about balance. This warm and moist sign is the domicile of Venus and the exaltation of Saturn. As a diurnal and cardinal sign, it initiates conversations, seeks relationship with novel ideas, is attracted by just systems, and strives to learn the thoughts of those around it. It is concerned with proportion, aesthetics, and how harmony is achieved through discourse with parties outside of oneself, and taking others' opinions and views into consideration.

Symmetry, proper alignment, and weighing out every possible factor are virtues demonstrated in this sign. Within the complex that is all things Libra, if there is a "me," then there is the "you" that must be considered. As the exaltation of Saturn, it takes a great deal of patience to weigh out the details of the collective, to make sure that every 'member' gets along with the rest of the group. No one should be left out, but no individual's opinions should disrupt the ideals of the group, either.

Harmony and Balance are key signatures to the nature of Libra.

The Give and Take of Design

Through this process, I learned a lot about the language of astrology and how it can describe the Process of Design itself.

So much of the type design process is about prioritizing the system over the individual parts. One letter or glyph cannot stand out too much, as it will call attention to itself and disrupt the flow of reading in bodies of text and break the overall visual harmony. The process of iteration? Well that requires we step outside of ourselves. The wants of others, relationships, and aesthetic appeal matters. While I began this process as a casual design project for myself, Physis was born because I saw the need in the world and sought to design a solution for that need. Good design is designed for its users. Who are the users I had in mind? Well, astrologers.

This is why I tried my best to map the order of the planets in a way that was most intuitive for those familiar with astrology.

Good design necessitates the need to be without ego. The greatness of a piece of type design is not about personal brilliance or uniqueness of any single glyph. It is about the harmony of the group, which requires give and take and some degree of sacrifice from the individual.

When trying to figure out a problem, pause for minute, and see if you can make it worse. A structure can really describe itself as it falls apart. —Tobias Frere-Jones

Type design is tediously working at the pixel level to perfectly sculpt shapes again and again to achieve their most perfect form. Every curve, angle, and stroke is refined to perfection, ensuring its durability in a multitude of scenarios. It has to be seamless, efficient, and easy to use. Utility, consistency, and beauty is key, and that is why I've repeatedly seen so many type designers with placements in Virgo and Libra. The significations of these signs are very much core to the process of most forms of design and how many designers think.

Physis is Born

In January of 2021, I launched Physis. Designed with the contemporary astrologer in mind, Physis is a sans-serif typeface of astrological glyphs, ranging from planetary glyphs to Trans-Neptunian Points. Whether you are a modern practitioner, or you lean more traditional, Physis is designed for optimal legibility, to lend a bespoke and clean visage to the teachings of the Stars.

I even designed and animated a little reel for the launch.

The Table of Essential Dignities typeset in Physis v.01
Physis printed specimen examples

Ever since its launch, it's been really gratifying to see it out in the world. Something so small seems to add a lot of value into the practices of my friends, patrons, and professional colleagues. It was even used in the development of a popular astrology iOS app called Cusp, a collaborative horoscope project many of my fellow astrologers took part in.

Physis used in the iOS app Cusp–Daily Love Horoscopes

Here are a few more examples of cool designs fellow friends and colleagues have made using the font.

Refinement and Version 2

Design is an iterative process. Designers test the tools they've crafted, find problems, and iterate again to improve usability. Almost exactly a year later, I began to reiterate the forms of Physis, addressing long-standing typographic issues with the font now that I've acquired more knowledge on the finer details of type-making.

As fate would have it for the mutable mind, I got caught up with many other project along the way. Basically I lied lol. "Soon" is relative, I guess. However, this time away did allow me to refine my chops and add new skills to my toolbox, enough to add more weights to the type family in the future. The process is tedious, and requires a lot of finesse to adjust the forms at every weight. This is why I decided to launch 2.0 with just the regular weight, with more to come in the future. Otherwise, my Saturnine behavior will delay even further for those who have been waiting to purchase.

Process for additional weight development for Physis, including bold and thin weights.

Additionally, this time away also allowed me time to develop another (currently unnamed) type project: a complete, Roman serif typeface for text with 'OpenType' features. Features will be coded into the font to allow the user to type certain keywords to input astrological glyphs inline, while also typing out words, all in one font. Stay tuned on my pages to get updates.

Example of new font's typesetting with glyphs and Roman characters together

Thank you for the continued support everyone. It's been a pleasure to be able to use my skills to live out this natal promise in service of a community I care a lot about.

If you have purchased Physis already, you will be receiving an email for the download to v2 soon. If you haven't gotten a copy and you would like to support my efforts to create more digital tools in the field of astrology, you can purchase the typeface here.

p.s. For those with Physis already installed already, it's best to delete the existing copy of the font and then install the new version. This prevents some possible font cache issues which can create errors in the future, which I only found out about recently. Thanks again, everyone!

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Physis: An Astrological Glyph Typeface

Discussing the process, ideation and creation of Physis, an astrological glyph typeface