Design Inspiration: Astrology and the Zodiac

Design Inspiration: Astrology and the Zodiac

Zodiac Symbols: Vector
Zodiac Symbols: Illustrations

Design inspiration for astrology and the symbols of the zodiac? Really? Sure, since as a designer anything that's a significant part of the zeitgeist is fodder for creative work. And in this case there are three categories of related imagery: the actual constellations; the signs of the zodiac; and characterizations of these symbols. With examples going back thousands of years in cultures across the globe, the possibilities for fresh design directions are almost endless, whether for client work or a portfolio piece.

Phrenology head from The Household
Physician
, 1905. Image source: flickr

Before getting to the imagery of the zodiac, what's the context for belief in a system such as astrology, which posits that the alignment of the planets can tell us something about ourselves? Are we not unique individuals, free and in control of our actions and destiny? Or is our fate to a significant extent already ordained, with our ability to freely invent our future thus constrained? And if the latter is the case, is it possible to determine the degree to which our path is predictable, via a system that reduces our individuality by categorizing us?

There have certainly been no shortage of such systems over the centuries. The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was convinced that human behavior could be explained in terms of four body fluids, a concept that lived on into the 20th century in psychological form, via the five temperaments of William Schutz.

But the 19th century was without a doubt the golden age, when it came to systems that attempted to reduce the infinite complexity of what it is to be human to a more manageable set of divisions. Franz Joseph Gall, for example, came up with a system known as phrenology, based on his belief that 27 "organs" in the human brain determined personality. Practitioners, known as phrenologists, thus ran their fingers over the skulls of their patients, in search of telltale bulges or dents, and made use of a craniometer for taking measurements. All very pseudo-scientific in the grand 19th century tradition. I suppose there are stranger ways to make a living, although nothing comes to mind at the moment.

From The Graphologist's Alphabet by Joel Engel. Thank goodness
for email. Image source: Putro Perdana

A similar now-discredited pseudo science is graphology, which claimed to tell us essential truths about ourselves via our handwriting, as shown at right. And you thought penmanship didn't count! Beyond that craziness there are the many psychological classifications of individuals, thanks to everyone from Sigmund Freud through Neurolinguistic Programming and 1990s pop psychologist John Gray.

But when it comes to reducing us all to a few simple classifications, you just can't beat astrology. I can almost hear you groan but wait — I bet you know what your astrological sign is and can name at least six of the twelve. And there's a good chance you also know what some of the personality traits of your sign are: emotional, loving, generous, creative, romantic, resentful, superficial, secretive... whatever. Which just goes to show how embedded this ancient belief system remains in our otherwise apparently enlightened culture.

Because astrology is indeed very, very old. Mankind has been observing the heavens since day one and eventually came up with the zodiac, a celestial coordinate system based on twelve constellations. Western astrology can be traced to Mesopotamia in 1700 BC and while having lost its authority to explain and predict the affairs of nations and events on earth, remains potent as a peripheral belief system for many, with a physical manifestation of this being the popularity of zodiac symbols as tattoo designs. While exact numbers seem elusive, a survey by the National Science Foundation indicates that almost half of all Americans believe that astrology is either "very scientific" or "sort of scientific." Thankfully, only a few expressed a belief that the world is flat, so that's something.

Given the long history of belief in astrology and the continuing popularity of horoscopes and the signs of the zodiac, not to mention growing interest in the Chinese zodiac, it can't hurt to know your Taurus (not the car) from your Gemini (not the bitcoin exchange). Check out our examples for some design directions to explore.

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