Establishing Communication

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 in which the message will be expressed, and the receiver. This applies to all types of communication, verbal and non-verbal alike.

For a message to be successful, meaning, for the sender to be able to send out the message and have the receiver on the other end receive and decipher it, some criteria need to be met:

  • A common language must be spoken. By “language” I mean something that can be verbal or non verbal. English is a language, but so is maths, music, sign language, and even images. For any of these languages to be shared and understood by 2 or more people, it just needs to be organized by convention, so that it 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 might prevent the receiver from deciphering the message in the way the sender intended, something that could alter the message. An example of this is the game telephone we used to play as kids, where a message is whispered from one person to another, and without a doubt, by the time it gets to the last person, it will have 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. In another meeting we could probably go into the other major aspect of graphic design which is the written form, but for today I’ll focus on imagery.

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, 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, by just being immersed in the society that we live in, and 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, as images are associated to symbols and concepts rather than a concrete “thing”. This could mean that a stick figure I draw would mean “person” to me, but to someone who doesn’t share any of the social and cultural conventions with me, might not. Sometimes 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 born to send a message to beings with whom we don’t know much about. Scratch that, we don’t even know if they’re there. This piece, to me, encompasses what graphic design is, and does it 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 scientists be able to send out a message that could be deciphered by beings who we can only assume do not share any of our languages?

The answer is science.

Science uses the language of mathematics to express itself and we 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 have done so by means of science and thus, 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” by 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 and it’s approx 21cm, serving as the first clue by giving a spatial measurement. The period of the transition can also be calculated to approx .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 tringulate 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 2 of my greatest passions, but also because it’s one of the most ambitious pieces of communication ever created, where 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 sounds like this was a fruitless exercise by the very smart folks at NASA, but from a graphic design point of view, it’s incredibly poignant how communication can be established (at least, initiated) by learning as much possible about who will be deciphering the message (in this case, the assumption that a learned civilization knows of the hydrogen atom), and working backwards from there by establishing a common language (science) in order for the message to be transmitted and deciphered.

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Written by
Vicky Jaime 16 Aug 2018

Creative Director, ocassional artist & space nut


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