Michael Bierut | Essays

And the Gold Award for Design Goes to God

Composite image of Saturn, Cassini-Huygens mission, June 29, 2004

Is it possible that such a beautifully designed object as the planet Saturn actually exists? The pictures that have been arriving from the Cassini-Huygens mission are...well, I guess the scientific term is "just mind blowing."

That's according to Dr. Carolyn Porco, the mission's chief photographic interpreter. The images of the planet's rings are so arresting that Dr. Parco added, "I thought they were simulations of the rings and not the rings themselves."

In an era of beautifully designed simulations, it's gratifying to be reminded that, every once in a while, reality can still surpass artifice.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is the product of one of those us-humans-are-all-in-this-together alliances that we'll need to defeat the aliens when they finally start invading: NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. But it's the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena that built the Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras and that's spearheading the effort.

Although we didn't design Saturn, these images are without a doubt the product of design thinking. I saw members of the JPL team speak at a TED Conference several years ago, right after the success of the Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. That project, which put the unmanned rover Sojourner on the red planet, was "originally designed as a technology demonstration" according to the NASA website. At TED we saw a film that documented the mission. Underfunded and, one sensed, more-or-less ignored by the powers-that-be at NASA, the JPL team was shown hunched over monitors in a windowless room that looked more like a discount brokerage in suburban New Jersey than the nerve center of a great space adventure. Yet when the first signal came back from the Martian surface, the scientists on the screen (and the conference attendees watching the film in the auditorium) exploded in cheers. For the finale, a working prototype of Sojourner rolled out onto the stage: it was the hands-down star of the show. People lined up to have their pictures taken with it.

Cassini is no less a design achievement, both in terms of process and product. The photographs are mostly black and white, a decision made to maximize the efficiency of data management. As a result, and I assume inadvertently, the images take on the quality of fine art photography, reminding me more than anything else of Edward Weston's beautifully composed still lifes.

I was also reminded, after it's all said and done, just what a strange object the planet Saturn is. Usually the design process involves taking messy reality and isolating its abstract essence. In Saturn, the job has already been done. It's as inviting and sleek as a Jonathan Ive product design or a Peter Saville record cover. Designers as far back as Man Ray have realized what a good logo it makes. Seventy years later, the designers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have shown us that the real thing is even better.

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