It’s often forgotten that graphic design revolves around communication. A visual way of communication, but communication nonetheless. There’s 4 things needed for successful communication:

  • The Sender
  • The Message
  • The Medium
  • The Receiver

This applies to all types of communication, verbal and non-verbal alike.

For a message to be successful (i.e. the sender is able to send out the message and have the receiver on the other end get it and decipher it), some criteria must be met:

  • A common language must be spoken. "Language” can be verbal or nonverbal. Following this logic, English is a language of course, but so are images, maths, and music! For any of these languages to be shared and understood by two or more people, organization is required. This organization ensures that the communication can be deciphered by the receiver in the way that the sender intended.
  • The medium mustn’t have noise or noise must at least be minimal. By “noise” I mean interference - something that could alter the message or in some way prevent the message from being deciphered. An example of this is the game telephone we used to play as kids. In this game a message is whispered from one kid to another and, without a doubt, by the time it gets to the last person it will have been changed from the original message. Another more straightforward example is trying to talk to someone across a noisy and crowded room: the message will most likely arrive deformed (or not at all).

It’s interesting to think about the different ways in which communication can be established. Imagine none of us spoke the same spoken language: we would need another type of language in order to establish communication. This is one of the areas where graphic design is applied. The study really should be called “graphic communication”, but it’s shinier to say “design” so that stuck.

As I mentioned earlier, images are a form of communication in themselves. There’s certain conventions that need to be established for them to be used as a language. For example, if I drew a stick figure, then there is a great chance that everyone will know that it’s a loose interpretation of a person. How do we know this? By convention.

We unconsciously learn a lot of things by convention just by being immersed in the society that we live in. Graphic design exploits those conventions in order to create communication. It’s why it’s so important to never re-invent the wheel. Not only is it a waste of time, but it would also go against convention, creating interference in the medium, and prohibiting the receiver from deciphering the message.

On the other hand though, imagery can be a tricky way of communicating. Images are associated to symbols and concepts rather than a concrete “thing”. For example the stick figure I drew means “person” to me, but, to someone who doesn’t share any of the same social and cultural conventions as me, it might not. Sometimes even images literally don’t translate.

Today I wanted to talk about a piece of graphic design which to me is the epitome of AWESOME in both communication and aesthetics. It’s a piece that was created to send a message to beings with whom we don’t know anything about. Scratch that, we don’t even know if they’re there. To me, this piece fully encompasses what graphic design is. Not only that but it accomplishes this in the sphere of one of my other passions, space!


In 1972 and 1973 NASA sent off the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecrafts to explore Jupiter and Saturn. After their core objectives were completed, they continued their route and flew out of the Solar System. Attached to the spacecrafts they added a golden plaque with a message. There’s over 7000 spoken languages on Earth (and a few more of unspoken nature), so how on earth (ha!) would we be able to send out a message that could be deciphered by beings that we can only assume do not share any of our Earthly conventions?

The answer is science.

Science uses the language of mathematics to express itself. One can only assume that any civilization advanced enough to explore the universe and bump into the spacecrafts that NASA launched in the 70’s will know a thing or two about science and maths.

The Pioneer plaque was a last minute addition by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. It’s also an important piece to me because the person who actually drew it was a woman: Linda Salzman Sagan, Dr Sagan’s wife.

The plaque is broken down into 4 sections and can be “read” using maths.

Section 1: The Key

The first section shows two hydrogen atoms and represents the key to deciphering the whole plaque. The design team and the scientists postulated that hydrogen, being the most abundant element in the cosmos, would be one of the first elements to be discovered and studied by a civilization. The hydrogen atoms are shown changing from one energy state to another, a process called hyperfine transition where electromagnetic radiation is released. That wavelength can be traced (it’s approximately 21cm), serving as the first clue by giving a spatial measurement. The period of the transition can also be calculated to approximately .7 nanoseconds, serving as the second unit given, a unit of time. The next clue is the small tick between the atoms, that assigns the values of space and time to the binary number 1.

Section 2: The Address

The second part of the plaque is a bundle of lines extending radially from a common centre: our star, the Sun. This is our interstellar address. The lines indicate the direction of the 14 most significant pulsars (a type of rotating star) near our Solar System. The little dashes and lines represent the period of the respective pulsar, in binary. Not only is this a map communicating the position from which the message originated, but time as well. With this information, a civilization advanced enough to decipher this part of the message could triangulate our position in time and space.

Section 3: The Origin

The next section of the message is a zoomed out view of our Solar System, with the Sun at the far left, followed by the 9 planets (Pluto was still considered a planet when the spacecrafts were launched) orbiting the star. Their respective distances to the Sun are written in binary above or below each planet. The third planet, the Earth, shows the path the spacecraft took when launched, which gives evidence of the origin of the Pioneer spacecrafts.

Section 4: The Sender

The final section shows what’s found in that planet. The image of a man and a woman, the man bends his arm and extends his open palm as a sign of 'hello', which admittedly could be meaningless to another civilization. No detail in this plaque has been by chance, as seen in the woman’s stance, her arms are down and her weight is shifted to one side to show we are mobile and flexible. They stand by a diagram of the probe for scale, but if that wasn’t enough, on the far right of the image there is a binary number 8, meaning the woman is 8 units tall (or, 8 x 21cm = 5.5 feet tall).

The last signal from Pioneer 10 was received in 2003, when it was 12 billion kilometers from Earth.

I love this piece not only because it combines two of my greatest passions, but also because it’s one of the most ambitious pieces of communication ever created. The receiver is unknown, the common language is a big assumption, and we’ll probably never know for certain whether the message was deciphered like the sender intended.

Having said that, it may sound like this was a fruitless exercise by the very smart folks at NASA. From a graphic design point of view however, it’s incredibly poignant how communication can be established (or, at the very least, initiated) by learning as much possible about those who will be deciphering the message. In this case, the assumption that a learned civilization would know of the hydrogen atom allowed experts to work backwards from that point and attempt to establish a common language (science) so that whoever might be out there could understand our message: "We're here!"

If you liked this article by our Chief Design Officer, Vicky, check out this interview with her!