Muriel Cooper: a graphic design pioneer who anticipated the digital revolution
I guess I’m never sure that print is truly linear.1
Designers and artists rarely exert a decisive influence over the styles and movements of their times more than once in their careers. Muriel Cooper, who worked almost continually at MIT in Boston from 1952 to 1994, is one such exceptional individual. Her work ranged from editorial design and art direction to new methods of teaching design and innovative approaches to data visualization using computer technology. Cooper’s work as art director for MIT Press is evidence of the close links that have always existed between visual communication and ongoing developments in technology and production methods. Between 1952 and 1974, she designed more than 500 publications for the university publishing house. File Under Architecture (1974), for instance – a quirky manifesto by the then-27-year-old theorist Herbert Muschamp – was printed entirely on brown Kraft paper and typeset on an IBM Selectric, a totally new kind of typewriter that made it possible, for the first time, to change type faces and sizes within a single document, and which could store 8,000 characters in its memory – roughly the length of this article. As a result, book layout was now completely in the hands of the designer and not, as had previously been the case, in those of a commissioned typesetting firm. The typography Cooper opted to use in File Under Architecture, for example, was dictated by the fonts on the typewriter’s ‘golf ball’ elements.
Although not all of the publications designed by Cooper were so elaborate, they did share a rigorous stylistic and conceptual orientation, mostly with a focus on architecture, design and art history, and a preference for information graphics as an element of the cover design. The biggest influence on Cooper’s work was New York graphic designer Paul Rand, who developed the IBM and UPS logos, among others. In 1958, Cooper also spent time on a Fulbright grant in Milan, a city whose design scene was one of the hotspots of International Typographic Style, a kind of postwar New Objectivity. Works associated with this movement include the famous MIT logo designed by Cooper in 1963, its bars simply a graphic abstraction of the publishing house’s acronym (MITP) echoing the relative lengths of the ascenders and descenders.
Cooper’s greatest strength was her constant questioning of the processes and tools involved in the creation of new designs. Moving from MIT Press to take up the first graphic design professorship at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) in 1975 allowed her to develop these experiments in greater depth. She set her students tasks in workshops that questioned the benefits of individual authorship over a collaborative end product. The first project that Cooper explicitly described as ‘participatory design’ called on those involved to reproduce found graphics using transparencies and to assign a process colour to each. Using a single printing plate, with continual changes of colour and random overprinting, the students created abstract compositions based on a wide range of source materials: ‘deliberate’ misprints that represented collectively created design. During my research for this article, I stumbled upon some boxes in the institute’s archive on campus that contained the original transparencies Cooper used to demonstrate to her students the kaleidoscopic diversity achievable through simple layering with this modular design process.
By the time the interdisciplinary MIT Media Lab was founded in 1985, when Cooper was 60, media and design were increasingly adopting new technologies and, as director of the Media Lab’s Visible Language Workshop (VLW), the designer focused exclusively on digital tools. In the years that followed, at Media Lab as well as in other MIT departments, there were ground-breaking developments in both software and hardware, dealing with virtual reality, eye-tracking, intelligent software agents and human−computer interfaces. In the late 1980s, when Cooper was still VLW director, the properties of images and texts changed: they became digitally copyable, rendering them ‘fluid’. In contrast to postmodernism’s culture of memory, the MIT Media Lab declared, in the words of co-founder Nicholas Negroponte: ‘Don’t dissect a frog: build one!’ At the time, there was no institution in the world that could compete.
Cooper was interested not so much in the future of traditional editorial and book design as in working towards concrete possibilities for the first virtual spaces of information design or, as she referred to it in one research project, ‘information landscapes’. Her main focus was on creating systems for ordering information and then using the results to question existing approaches to design. Seen in this light, the course of her career path – which took her from book design to multidimensional digital visualizations of information – as well as her preference for translating content into visual systems, appears linear. As early as 1978, Cooper, together with Negroponte and MIT Physics Professor Richard Bolt, submitted the first proposal for a virtual book to the US National Science Foundation. The trio’s main concern seems to have been how to implement browsing: illustrations show a model based on a full-format animation with bookmarks, although without the kind of hypertext system that would come to form the basic architecture of the web in the early 1990s through software like the browser Mosaic and its successor, Netscape.
In 1994, Cooper and her workshop presented the information landscapes at the seminal TED5 conference, where fellow speakers included Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It was here that animated typography and navigable virtual spaces were shown to a broader public for the first time, with architectural attributes used to present complex content without taking up any actual physical space. The information architect Lisa Strausfeld, whose mentor was Cooper, arranged levels of typographic information within the virtual space of the screen, placing them in the foreground or background of a ‘layered’ data structure depending on how the content was organized. By tilting and turning this structure, an almost infinite number of possible new connections could be created. Unsurprisingly, the first functional deployment of the model involved financial data. Today, graphic presentations of this kind are used in many and varied disciplines: to visualize global transport routes and energy supply chains, for example, or in multidimensional navigation apps for smartphones.
Ultimately, the most fascinating fields of research and innovation in design were those opened up by greater computing power. Alongside Cooper’s VLW, other groups at the Media Lab were working in the fields of electronic music and holography as well as exploring new possibilities for man−machine interfaces. The terms ‘interface’ and ‘interaction’ became prevalent in academic research. New devices enabled new methods: during the Gulf War of 1990–91, the us military employed helmet-mounted displays for bomber pilots over Baghdad, exploring the new possibilities of ‘virtual’ information landscapes; using eye-tracking, pilots could aim at their targets from thousands of metres above ground, leaving the rest of the operation to the planes’ on-board computers.
A few months after the TED5 conference, Cooper died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Her death left a great void at MIT. The designer John Maeda – who had originally studied software engineering at the Institute, and who had become increasingly enthusiastic about Cooper’s work – took the Media Lab in a new direction with a focus on images and animations written using code, providing the basis for what we now take for granted everyday both on websites and in smartphone apps. As Cooper herself presciently declared: ‘This new world demands a new kind of designer who will provide opportunities, pathways and processes for a more independent user, a designer who will create rich structures for users who will be able to acquire, browse and gather information on their own terms.’2
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
1 Janet Abrams, ‘Muriel Cooper’s Visible Wisdom’, i-D magazine, September–October 1994, pp. 48–55, 96–97
The exhibition ‘Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT’, curated by David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger, is at Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Columbia University, New York, USA, from 25 February until 28 March. The exhibition travels to MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, USA, in September. An eponymous book, edited by Reinfurt and Wiesenberger, will be published by MIT Press in 2016.
is the founder of the graphic design studio Surface (Frankfurt/Berlin, Germany) and a Professor of Graphic Design at Bauhaus University, Weimar, Germany.
Paul Schneider-Esleben’s work is the subject of retrospectives at Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität, Munich, Germany, until 18 October, and M:AI and Haus der Architekten, Düsseldorf, until 25 September.
First published in Issue 161