The artwork for Joy Division’s first LP, Unknown Pleasures (1979), was handled by a young and relatively inexperienced designer, Peter Saville. He had made a mark on the local scene in Manchester with his posters for the Factory club in 1978 featuring an industrial symbol warning “Use Hearing Protection”, made quiet by his delicate use of typography, which had been inspired by the work of Jan Tschichold. Little was said about the vision thing. Nobody could have anticipated that the prescience and simplicity of the cover would continue to resonate 28 years down the line.

A contemporary perspective on Unknown Pleasures, therefore, might not appreciate that it came out of the blue. In 1979 the audience was, of course, aware of distinctive sleeve design, previous marriages between sound and image having been frequently lauded: the Blue Note label, Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Choose your own example. Few thought about graphic design as an expansive medium, especially when the lack of information on the cover might become the distinguishing feature. There were no coffee table design books and no committed publishers. The success of LP covers in disguising a multitude of musical sins was, nevertheless, well known, there being nothing unusual about buying a Yes album because Roger Dean had done the artwork.

When it came to punk rock, designers set out to demystify the process and unhinge the obvious connections with advertising and consumerism. It wasn’t the same then. Privatisation had yet to kill off the idea of public service, and pop video was still a nascent form. Great punk sleeves such as the Sex Pistols’ Holidays in the Sun were totemic, because here was a critical and independent voice, Jamie Reid, talking about mindless consumerism in the best journalistic tradition of art and mass-media culture while still achieving good packaging. Even if you were apart from this more aggressive aesthetic, it was impossible to boast immunity.The black-and-white, politicised Daily Mirror and New Musical Express were the popular, influential outlets, and magazines would have to wait for The Face for a style upgrade.

The elliptical grandeur of Roxy Music was overtaken at this point. Now bald instead of feather boa’d and alongside David Bowie (instead of Bryan Ferry), Brian Eno became a shadow player of glamour and helped to relocate the idea of Berlin to Warsaw, as if the film Cabaret and its celebration of Weimar decadence were on a double bill with Wajda’s Kanal. Next week, Performance might be coupled with The Man Who Fell to Earth. This interplay between the popular and an avant-garde spirit of resistance ushered in a brief golden period in which the status quo struggled to stay in touch. When the group Warsaw became Joy Division, Ian Curtis, Bernard Dicken, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris went for an interior direction, developing their sound out of circumstance rather than knowing how to tailor it for contemporary consumption. This “sound of music” came out of the socio-cultural landscape whose post-industrial premonitions are easy to spot now (being “corrupted from memory” – a line from Candidate, one of the tracks on Unknown Pleasures).

The songs questioned the public/private landscape, how the Second World War became the IRA bombing campaign, which would later fuel the idea of “the enemy within” and prefigure “the war on terror”, but in 1979 the situation was something else. The songs are not necessarily heavy, but are weighted towards a deeper inquiry than boy meets girl, or boy doesn’t meet girl. The dystopias of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, which had such an influence, taking William Burroughs and Brion Gysin into consideration, sat side by side in 1979 with the music business context of power pop, new wave and the popularity of The Police and even Dire Straits. (Joy Division initially made fumbling attempts to cover soul standards for RCA Records and its Manchester branch, because it would have been great to be on the same label as Iggy Pop and David Bowie – on a trans- Europe express out of Manchester.)

There is a perversity in the decision by Joy Division, or rather their manager Rob Gretton, to stay with Factory Records in Manchester – “the devil you know” – and the arrival of the group’s first LP, Unknown Pleasures, in the marketplace. Their marriage with Factory’s partner/producer Martin Hannett was tense and unequal, and at the same time some magical element seems to have been applied between No Love Lost on the early Warsaw recording of 1978 and Digital, as produced by Hannett, a few months later. Hannett had studied chemistry before he got into music production and he quickly realised that the band were “heaven sent”.

Factory Records’ Tony Wilson agreed. It is fortunate that Joy Division did stay with Factory, as it is likely that its cover design would not have been sanctioned by an established record company, in whose hierarchies a designer would have little chance to explore this curious, instinctive relationship with the sound’s production. Consider the tactile paper stock, no band name nor title on the cover – not even The Beatles got away with that on The White Album. Instead, an enigmatic blank slate, quietly centred with a sensual but also perfectly serene white radio waveform, pulsar CP 1919. The cover was black, the luxurious black of deep space.

Stephen Morris presented designer and now Factory partner Peter Saville with the image that he had earmarked from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy. I tried to contact Stephen and ask “Why that?”, but it is in essence a stupid question and he hasn’t got back to me. The legend goes that the band gave Saville an A4 folder which included the pulsar image, intending it to be printed black on a white background, and at the last minute he decided to do the opposite.

Saville was also presented with a newspaper clipping of some strange photograph of a hand reaching for a door handle, which was used on the inside cover (“This is the way, step inside.”). He was less than happy, some years later, when he was made aware that this was actually a well-known shot by Ralph Gibson. I remember being quite baffled myself when I saw it in the postcard racks at the ICA bookshop. So the genesis of the imagery on Unknown Pleasures is also one that opens up all the postmodern design and art world preoccupations with appropriation, spotlighted then by Jon Savage in his The Face article ‘The Age of Plunder’. Plunder was not a problem in the punk rock context, though it did cost Virgin a headache when Jamie Reid’s Holidays in the Sun cover had to be withdrawn from the shops for exactly that. This was all part of the on/off process of building up a precious relationship with the general public, for whom the picture sleeve gave added value to the music.

Where Unknown Pleasures deviates from conventional wisdom is to be found in a sudden convergence of independent idealism with something that looks expensive – an enigmatic inversion of luxury packaging enters the iconography of popular culture. There is a distinct presence to the printed piece, and it is this aspect that exhibits Saville’s particular aesthetic. It would have been easy to use CP 1919 as it appeared on the Warsaw bootleg two years later, full to the edge of the frame, its energy dissipated. Saville’s command of print media shows the power of “the reductive process”; it can also be seen as an early indicator of the current obsession with curation.

Saville has suffered and benefited ever since from being on the edge of the transitions between pop, art and fashion and their hybridisation into communications culture. Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville and Neville Brody would quickly be pinpointed as the key figures in graphic design’s elevation, but at this stage they were all either at college or just out of it. All three took on a distinct ambition to use graphic design as a means of “improving modern life”, and all three made their mark in the wider cultural context through non-commercial record cover design.

Suddenly, “the new wave equivalent of the Rolling Stones’ mouth” emerges, as Saville describes it now. The Unknown Pleasures design quickly became a T-shirt, developing into a brand you should really only be able to purchase at Comme des Garçons, but instead, you will find at any market stall from Brasilia to Bangkok. Just as John Pasche’s design for the Rolling Stones encapsulates the mouth/the voice/the attitude, so does pulsar CP 1919 express the outer-worldly dimension of Joy Division’s sound and space and, by proxy, every other emotional/ psychic conundrum that has followed in its wake.

If the listeners of Unknown Pleasures were able to project their own meanings on to the cover’s design, to fill in the spaces loaded within the mysterious waveform of the music, then Saville’s intuitive brilliance rests within the telescoping of the six elements – the four sides of the outer and inner cover and the two labels, “inside” and “outside” - into the same tight rectangular space, at the centre, harmonised like invisible plates placed one upon the other. Gibson’s Hand Through Doorway 1969 is of such a print resolution that it becomes graphic, and yet the overall impact of the six sides is as if it were one photograph, the frozen moment of the music.

CP 1919, this freezing of time over an unimaginable distance, has the most extraordinary afterlife once it enters the mainstream. Recently, it has infiltrated the fashion and art worlds as a signifier of the beyond, the source of something beyond the material world, but where exactly? This is supported by Joy Division’s title – what are these unknown pleasures they speak of? Certainly, CP 1919 and Saville’s design, as Paul Morley wrote recently, “helped to create the reality whereby the group could be perceived as truly great”.

The control room sequence in Ridley Scott’s Alien has the contours of the image flash up on the on-board simulation as the suggested terrain of an unknown planet. The qualities of Joy Division’s music do everything to support this “remote viewing”. It is a true achievement to present something concrete and untouchable in the same domain, before and beyond its time while rooted in a contemporary moment. CP 1919’s continued appropriation is a conversation with this distance/ratio/geometry. There is an inherent simplicity and naïvety in its ambition, but hardly one of modesty. “I like this, this is what I want to show” has been the credo of every work that Saville performed for Joy Division and New Order. Unknown Pleasures might be the only Factory release that the band ever had a real hand in, the major hand in terms of imagery, to the extent that it is credited in Peter’s book as having been designed by Joy Division and Peter Saville. The only one, yet the alpha and omega of a client relationship that has become a threshold for graphic designers (as “co-authors”).

Unknown Pleasures became and is an icon because all the various elements fused in a moment of mysterious harmony. (Look at the skin of a stingray.) What it manages to perform is a blending of the function that the sleeve “should articulate the music”, and possess an ability to stand apart as “something other” - while remaining a question to the viewer. Saville fully intended it to be “a thing, more like a 1970s Dieter Rams product” than the wrapper that enveloped this cellular music of Joy Division, their influences having been stripped down and then reassembled into a new DNA. It was a clarion call to all those who loved the potential of record covers to be obscure objects of desire as well as a commercial success story. A romantic and also idealistic, and yet classic vision, it has been an inspiration since the moment I first set eyes on it, one Saturday morning in Rough Trade in late June 1979. The record had just come into the shop. A box of some new delivery was opened on the counter, and out of it emerged this black enigmatic textured item. I bought it immediately.