Here be monsters
The signage design for Carlsbad, New Mexico, an underground site to be sealed until the year 12,000 AD, is a genuine matter of life and death.
In 1999 the US Department of Energy commissioned a remarkable project: a signage system for the nuclear waste underground storage facility site in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The message: Keep out and don’t dig for the next 10,000 years. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site will be filled and sealed by 2035, and that seal must not be opened until the year 12,000AD. Three hundred generations will have lived on Earth by that time.
What these future human beings look like, how they live, what language – if any – they speak, we cannot even begin to imagine. Yet however much we might like to be able to ignore the potential catastrophe we have bequeathed them – the Department of Energy initially considered leaving the area unmarked – we cannot in conscience do so. If our warning loses its significance and clarity, future treasure-hunters will be digging up their own downfall and possibly that of the whole human race.
For the interdisciplinary team given the brief, this meant rethinking communication; understanding how it evolves in relation to social and cultural changes; and envisioning some of the changes that might take place in the near and not-so-near future. If all technology were to be destroyed, for example – a scenario that Albert Einstein famously predicted, saying ‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones’ – what would visual communication look like? Would our writing systems and their typographic shapes still prevail? Would systems such as runes, hieroglyphs or arranging objects in space resurface? Or alternatives as yet beyond our imagining? For future inhabitants of Earth, Western writing might be an ancient script, belonging to a culture they can hardly imagine and cannot, literally, understand – although Carlsbad, as an archeological site, would provide perhaps the most quintessential clues to our times: the way we use technology, the planet and design.
Even if typographic symbols were still in use, or at least physically legible, their meaning might not be apparent to future generations. Language is a social current that twists and turns; words, grammar and structure can be overwritten or replaced. After ten millennia, even the most carefully formulated message could be misread – and this is one message that has to get through. The same holds true for the signification of symbols, which relies on acquired knowledge. Take the skull-and-crossbones symbol universally used on bottles containing poison. This has had to be reconsidered, because children were misinterpreting it as something to do with pirates, and hence exciting. And although ‘Mr Yuk’, an alternative designed by the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in 1971, does naturally repel many children, it has had to be backed up with a song, underlining the limitations of visual communication in conveying life-and-death messages.
The team has thus had to venture into more esoteric fields of communication. Could they devise a signage system that extends beyond typo / graphic symbols? Something more fluid, that might engage the human need for storytelling and tradition, like a complex myth that could be woven into the common knowledge and folklore of a culture, backed up by rituals inseparable from the place?
Or perhaps even a whole way of life – in this case, breaking with traditional uses of land and making digging taboo? But such approaches would still be vulnerable to social revolutions or ecological changes, and to an inevitable distortion over time.
The alternative was to look at an even lower common denominator, the primal levels of sense and instinct. This is knowledge so deep we do not have to acquire it, and which is beyond temporal contexts. What if the team were to exploit the physical limits of human beings? We could create surfaces so hot that we cannot walk or settle on them; spaces that induce so violent a reaction that we can go no further; a landscape rendered unbearable by the sound of the wind blowing through it. Such proposals take the space provided by the wipp and use it in a sculptural way to create experiences, rather than content / meaning. This would be closer to Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin than to the Rosetta stone. By not attempting the impossible task of bridging the gap between one communication system and an unknown other, might they be able to ensure that the signs function over an extremely long period?
Such speculative forms of communication seem to be too experimental for the us Department of Energy. The project is currently testing a combination of two strategies planned to incorporate the entire space of the landfill, both horizontally, across sixteen square miles, and vertically to a depth of 2150ft, by using layers of signs / messages of increasing degrees of complexity, from outside in. Thus, the strata of the cave-like structure housing the nuclear waste will contain detailed explanations, in various languages, of what is buried there, how it got there and what its dangers are. An archive and information centre, so to speak. The layer above will consist of small buried markers, and, above that again, huge monolithic structures placed regular distances apart, each engraved with symbols inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the skull and crossbones, in the hope that these depictions of humans in pain will express the physical menace embedded in the ground. On the surface and around the site’s borders will be more traditional information signs. All must be difficult to remove, resistant to vandalism, unattractive to thieves, and able to endure as long as it takes for the nuclear waste to lose its toxicity.
The ‘passive institutional controls’ developed by the project will become the basis for a universal signage system that identifies all future nuclear waste burial sites. Soon these marks will pop up on our maps, marking the ultimate non-places.
Yet the fact that not one single communication designer was appointed to the consulting team (which consisted of an archeologist, an astronomer, an anthropologist, a linguist, a material scientist and an environmental designer) says something about wider perceptions of our profession. We graphic designers consider ourselves experts in the transformation of immaterial messages into visual form and back again, yet no one invited us to help solve the biggest communication problem in human history. If what we do really is so important and relevant, and if we really are as good at it as we keep assuring ourselves, we should be engaging with projects of this importance and scale. We need to rethink the whole concept of signage, information design and communication. What roles do writing and materiality play? Should we embrace more tacit forms of knowing / communicating? Should the Carlsbad signage simply communicate the facts, or should it also offer something of human character – an apology, for example?
In the meantime, nothing has been decided in Carlsbad and most likely will not until 2035 when the burial site will be sealed. So, graphic designers, illustrators, typographers – you still have a good quarter-century to submit your proposals.
First published in Eye no. 62 vol. 16 2006
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.