Joy Division’s mysterious Unknown Pleasures album cover actually has a scientific significance.

It’s become a meme, but it’s a historical snapshot of the first reading of a pulsar in the 1960s.

Now it’s become a bit of a cultural artifact for riffing.

Even people who probably don’t know what it means recognize information lurking below the surface.

Maybe, when we eventually travel the cosmos, we’ll encounter others who’ve turned pulsar readings into skull tees…

…or epic back tattoos.

But now that you know the explanation, hopefully the image isn’t ruined for you.

Because it’s still a pretty incredible thing, in its own right.

Because it’s still a pretty incredible thing, in its own right.

Because it’s still a pretty incredible thing, in its own right.

The Data-Viz Story Behind Joy Division's Legendary Album Cover

In 1979, designer Peter Saville created an iconic album cover from an unlikely source: the first pulsar reading.

More and more every day, data visualization is proving its merits, not just as a cognitive crutch for comprehending a new world of big data, but for illustrating a point with grace. It shares the secrets of math and science while championing the aesthetics of the arts.

Over 30 years ago, designer Peter Saville crafted the album cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. It’s a somewhat stark set of packaging, but in the middle sits a mysterious series of lines and peaks. The small scrap of ink is oddly full of intent. You can almost sense the meaning—information hidden in plain sight—in its sporadic pattern, and so in an era when memes were tattoos rather than Reddit threads, the album cover became a cult icon.

In this fantastic short, Saville talks about creating the album cover, lifting the image verbatim from a science book depicting the very first reading of a pulsar from 1967.

There is another, guttural level of mystery to it all, though. When pulsars were first discovered, their measurable emissions were so strictly intervaled (ticking like a clock—hence the Pulsar brand of watches), that scientists couldn’t ignore the possibility that they could have been created by a distant intelligent species to serve as lighthouses across the cosmos.

So when someone looks at Unknown Pleasures and doesn’t really know what they’re looking at, they actually can re-create a very specific place and time in science, when the Universe sent mankind a signal that we didn’t yet understand.

The video is in promotion of the upcoming Visualized conference. Read more here.

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3 Comments

  • jason ledyard

    Really, it has little to do with Pulsars, since the image is about the device that measured input and how it represents data on a piece of paper.  Depending on how you want to read the data, a pulsar could look like anything.  

  • Inspired12

    Really dig the analogy Mark makes at the end there, somehow the void of meaning is one of the best things about the graph.
    I wonder what Tufte would say about this... :)

  • Al

    Lots of data squeezed elegantly into a small space, the meaning of which is incomprehensible without an actual person verbally explaining it to you: Tufte would love it. 

    And that's pretty much the key difference between Tufte's approach and modern best practice.