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  The Pioneer Plaque - The ultimate editorial illustration
Nanette Hoogslag
posted on February 19, 2013 at 11:26

Imagine you had to make the illustration that represented the world, an image for an audience of spacefaring extraterrestrials as part of a welcome pack to planet Earth.

Today I revisited a famous image that is just that, the famous image of the Pioneer Plaque.

The Pioneer Plaque on the Pioneer 10 and 11, 1972/1973 artwork by Linda Salzman Sagan.

The Pioneer Plaque was placed on board the spacecrafts Pioneer 10 and 11, which were launched in 1972 and 1973. They were the first spacecrafts to fly by Jupiter and Saturn, and the first human artefacts to venture beyond the solar system. Now forever coasting through interstellar space, they carry with them a gold anodized plaque with symbolic drawings as shown in the image. Let’s just say they’re the first (fully illustrated) editorial publication to meet our alien friends. The Voyager carried the next edition - the Golden Record - also containing sound messages and more pictures.

The astronomers and astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, both pioneers in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, designed these diagrams along with other details of the plaque. The artwork was done by Carl’s then wife Linda Salzman Sagan. (Remember, nepotism rules…). A small team of people conceptualized, designed and created the plaque, which now forever represents the world. Done with great care, it does however represent a particular view of what is important on planet Earth. It tells the aliens who to turn to for the ‘meet and greet’ - the ones with the straight hair and Caucasian features - and above all it speaks of a believe that aliens can’t help but be interested in us. More than forty years on, things have changed, so the aliens might be somewhat confused when they arrive. They might want their money back if they compare what they see here on the planet compared to the ‘golden welcome brochure’. People started to wear clothes, stare at miniature screens and some humans might confuse the hand lifting gesture as a starting position for a slap around an aliens face rather than a greeting.

But imagine this as commission today. This image, if it wasn’t done be a small and secret elite team hidden somewhere in NASA or the Russian/Chinese equivalent, would nowadays be directed, mulled over and picked at by a committee of the worst kind. Imagine middle managers with political and personal ambitions, scientists with no artistic bone in their body and diplomats that think that they represent the world or, worse, a large corporate sponsor helping to pay for the thing. In other words the most important job ever, represented by the worst ditherers, hidden agenda’s, compromisers and corporate marketing strategies. An assignment that would make the commission of the European banknote look like a forward thinking and decisive project.

Should we rethink the plaque, our Facebook identity to infinity and beyond? Should we iron out those Western, paternalistic and naïve images collected which back then so-called represented us, the planet? The plaque that’s out there might have its issues, but the way the creative commissions work today, it would probably make for the worst compromise ever, which at best might persuade the aliens from coming. Just consider this when you are commissioned to do someone’s business card.

See also Wikipedia or Edward Tufte, the great pioneer of data visualisation and info graphics.