Making Joy Plots with GIS

Caitlin Dempsey

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The album cover of Joy Division’s 1979 album Unknown Pleasures contained a graphic inspired by radio astronomer Harold Craft who plotted the intensity of successive radio pulses in his 1970 doctoral dissertation.  Peter Saville, a co-founder of Factory Records, saw the graphic reproduced in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy and was inspired to flip the image so that it was on a black background.

To the casual observer, the diagram can appear to be a map showing ridge lines. And indeed, the creating of these styles of maps has been introduced as a cartographic technique. Coined Joy Plots (after the rock band) this type of cartographic styling is also known as ridgeline plots. This type of diagram visualizes changes in time and space. For cartographers, this frequently is used to show changes in topography over a landscape.

Peak Map

For a simple online tool, Peak Map developed by Andrei Kashcha lets users pick an area of world to generate a Joy Plot showing ridge lines created from elevation data.

The maps can then be downloaded in PNG or SVG format.


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A Joy Plot of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Created using Peak Map.
A Joy Plot of the San Francisco Bay Area. Created using Peak Map.

The maps are created using the elevation data API from the MapBox and users can also access the  source code.

Making Joy Plots Using QGIS and R

Travis M. White outlines how he created joy plots using QGIS, R, and Photoshop in an article published in Cartographic Perspectives: “(1) QGIS to create and prepare the transects, (2) R to plot the transects, and (3) Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop to stylize the transects.”

White, T. M. (2019). Cartographic Pleasures: Maps Inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures Album Art. Cartographic Perspectives, (92), 65–78. https://doi.org/10.14714/CP92.1536

If you just want to try and make a joy plot only using QGIS, Nicholas Duggan has a short tutorial: Creating Album Covers with GIS.

Making Joy Plots Using ArcGIS Pro

Esri cartographer Kenneth Field also has a write up explaining how to create joy plots using Esri’s desktop GIS. More: Joy Plots in ArcGIS Pro.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.