Joy Division's Iconic Album Cover Is Actually a Data Visualization

Designer Peter Saville reveals the inspiration for the cover of 'Unknown Pleasures.'

Everyone and their uncle (particularly the kind of uncle who was into new wave back in the day) has seen the iconic cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, which has become one of the most identifiable pieces of cover art of its age and beyond. But have you ever wondered how this textured virtual landscape came to be? As part of their upcoming conference in New York, Visualized interviewed graphic designer Peter Saville about how this legendary cover became the image to represent Joy Division.

Throughout his career, Saville created cover art for New Order, Roxy Music, Pulp, and several others from the era, but Unknown Pleasures remains his most well-known work. In the interview, he described the band coming to him with the image below, which they found in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy.

As funny as it is to imagine the band huddled around a dusty old volume in the back of a library, the story behind the image itself is actually quite fascinating. Saville describes it as a “comparative path demonstration of frequency from a signal of a pulsar.” Each horizontal line, reaching a series of peaks close to the middle of the graph, is observed data from a this pulsar, and there are several of them stacked together. Saville goes on, “What you’re seeing is a comparative chart of the frequency and the accuracy of this signal.”

So this image, perceived as so simple, is not really simple at all but the result of astronomical readings that led in part to humanity’s understanding of this one component of the cosmos. Heavy. Who knew Joy Division had a penchant for data visualization?

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This revelatory interview is part of a series of videos that will premiere at the Visualized conference next month in New York, covering other fascinating stories “at the intersection of big data, storytelling and design.” Our very own Hosi Simon, General Manager of VICE, will be speaking at the conference as well, so if you’re attending, be sure to check out his talk.

This post also appears on The Creators Project, an Atlantic partner site.

Abdullah Saeed is Associate Editor of The Creators Project, currently based in New York.

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