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Peter Saville,who had previously designed posters for Manchester's Factory club in 1978, designed the cover of the album. Sumner chose the image used on the cover, which is based on an image of radio waves from pulsar CP 1919, from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. Saville reversed the image from black-on-white to white-on-black and printed it on textured card for the original version of the album. It is not a Fourier analysis,but rather an image of the intensity of successive radio pulses, as stated in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia. The image was originally created by radio astronomer Harold Craft at the Arecibo Observatory for his 1970 PhD thesis.
This image became well-known, featuring on T-shirts (even parodied by a quickly-withdrawn Disney shirt). When reviewing the 2007 remastered version of Unknown Pleasures, Pitchfork Media critic Joshua Klein described the cover art as "iconic".
Susie Goldring, reviewing the album for BBC Online said, "The duochrome Peter Saville cover of this first Joy Division album speaks volumes. Its white on black lines reflect a pulse of power, a surge of bass, and raw angst. If the cover doesn't draw you in, the music will."