Design a pictograph for aliens.


The Pioneer plaque is a 6x9 inch gold-anodized aluminium plaque that was attached to the 1972 Pioneer 10 spacecraft. Since the Pioneer 10 was the first human-built object to escape from the solar system, a pictorial message was engraved onto it for any extraterrestrial life that happens to intercept the spacecraft. The plaque is designed to communicate the origin of the spacecraft and the existence of humans.


In order to redesign this plaque, I first made a list of assumptions to define the capabilities of what an alien species would have to know to interpret this pictograph.

                • They must have at least equal scientific knowledge of the universe as we do.
                • They must be able to perceive images as a series of meaningful symbols.
                • They must understand their own concept of numbering systems.

After setting the constraints, I tried to comprehend the plaque myself. If a human can’t understand it, then how is an alien supposed to? From the most recognizable to the most abstract, I researched into each part of the plaque:

1. Male & female bodies in front of the spacecraft displaying general human anatomy and relative size compared to the spacecraft.
2. Map of our solar system showing that Pioneer came from Earth, and went by Jupiter—in order to use the giant planet’s gravity to fling the craft out of the solar system.

3. Pulsar map showing our sun’s proximity to the 14 closest pulsars.
4. a schematic representation of the hyperfine transition of hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe.

Redesign: Binary System

To begin, the lines and dashes used throughout the plaque (ie. for the pulsar map & solar system) are crucial to understanding any of the images because it is the numbering system that accounts for all the distances marked on there. The vertical lines and horizontal dashes represent the 1’s and 0’s (respectively) in a binary system that allowed the designer to abstract and compress all those numbers into a small space. 

Rather than explaining all of the mathematics of the system, the most important aspects are that it depends on digit placement, and goes by the power of 2. Seeing that there was no identification to guide viewers to treat those dashes and lines as numbers, I designed a key to try to explain how those lines relate to this binary system.

This key translates the table from above, providing a comparison for extraterrestrial species to count the squares in relation to the lines. The first 7 decimal numbers are enough to figure out the powers of 2 and determine how the lines are computed to add up to 7.

Redesign: Hydrogen Hyperfine Transition

Going off the binary system legend, the hydrogen atoms also take part in defining the scale of these binary numbers. The original plaque shows an electron changing states, which releases light at a wavelength of about 21cm. By placing the vertical line between the hydrogen atoms, it marks the base 1 unit at 21cm, to be scaled for the measurements of the rest of the plaque. 

My design changes several parts of the original:

- Because the electron change-in-state is based on a flip of direction, I changed the ends of the electron from dots to arrowheads, since I would be using arrows for other parts of the plaque.

- I differentiated the wavelength and the measurement line to clarify that the distance is marked by only one wavelength.

- Rather than having the wavelength be a line inbetween the atoms, I made it radiating outwards since it is a result of the transition.

Redesign: Adding the Milky Way

Assuming the Pioneer plaque will leave our solar system and travel to different galaxies, it would be important to mark our place in the Milky Way as a larger scale reference for our location. While the pulsar map relays back to our sun, it isn’t immediately recognized as so. Including the Milky Way and having that strong visual would help viewers understand it is conveying location.

To make room for the image, I simply overlaid the pulsar map atop the sun and revolved the planets around it. I removed some of the pulsar lines, knowing we didn’t need all 14 pulsars to pinpoint our location.

Redesign: Plaque Layout

After fully redesigning the core numbering system, the rest of the design was mainly based on laying out the parts in a way that makes sense. I decided not to individually change the human bodies, solar system, and pulsar map since they were already clear representations of themselves. As a whole, however, the graphics need to be read as separate meanings but connected by similar imagery.

To make the plaque be laid out in a more meaningful way, I grouped the images into sections based on:

          • Defining the binary system (hydrogen atoms, binary legend)
          • Finding Earth’s location in the galaxy (pulsar map, solar system)
          • Introducing the human species (human bodies, spaceship)

Final Print

Once the design was complete, I laser-cut the finished pictogram on a 6x9x1/4 inch block of glossy, black acrylic.