Muriel Cooper’s Lasting Imprint


MIT Media Lab

Marie Cosindas

by Margaret K. Evans

Jan. 9, 2018

The Media Lab and MIT Press celebrate the design pioneer whose work continues to inspire outspoken creativity and positive change.

On October 19, 2017, Muriel Cooper’s former colleagues, students, friends, and family gathered at the MIT Media Lab to celebrate the indelible mark she left on the field of graphic design. The event marked the 50th anniversary of Cooper joining the MIT Press as its first art director. 

The tribute also coincided with the release of Muriel Cooper, by David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger. It’s the first publication to benefit from the Press’s newly established Muriel Cooper Publication Fund, established to support innovative publications in the fields of art, design, architecture, and visual culture. 

During the tribute, oft-repeated phrases—such as “an architect of information” and “simply a great person”—painted a portrait of a brilliant designer and educator with a larger-than-life personality. In his welcome, Lab co-founder and director emeritus Nicholas Negroponte recalled Cooper “as one of our most colorful and important faculty members. I knew her since the early 1960s, and she had an enormous influence on me.”

Cooper, who died in 1994 at the age of 68, spent almost four decades in various roles at MIT, starting in 1952 as a freelancer in the Institute’s Office of Publications. In 1965, she created the MIT Press’ iconic logo, still used today. Its seven vertical white bars against a black background not only represent the initials MITP, but also invoke the spines of a stack of books. 

Cooper launched her career as a designer for print, and her work in that medium includes over 500 books, more than a hundred of them recognized with awards. She designed the now-classic 1969 MIT Press book, Bauhaus, about the modernist German design school. It’s her best-known book, closely followed in 1972 by Learning from Las Vegas, a manifesto of post-modernist design. Cooper’s design sense was characterized by simple forms, clean lines, and what became her signature typeface: “Helvetica—something rather Swiss and precise,” Negroponte told the audience. “It’s crisp. It’s incisive. It’s almost Cartesian.”

Cooper carried that style–along with a focus on interactive media design–into her next big venture when, in 1974, she co-founded the Visible Language Workshop (VLW) in MIT’s Department of Architecture. 

At the VLW, Cooper taught design using interactive media, a relatively new concept. VLW co-founder Ron MacNeil described the workshop as “the very grubby beginning of her third act. It was way before the Internet, way before the PC.”

MacNeil was not a computer programmer and neither was Cooper, though she was among the first to see the potential of computers as tools for inventing new ways to organize visual information. With MacNeil, she created a learning environment that shaped the future of interface design. The students came from diverse disciplines. They were architects, artists, graphic designers, engineers, computer scientists, teaming up on experimental design ideas. “It was a group of eager, very smart future designer-disrupters,” MacNeil said, “with Muriel as the lioness den mother teaching them the ways of disruption.”

Eleven years after its founding, in 1985 the VLW became one of the Media Lab's first research groups. Cooper, who was the first graphic designer on the MIT faculty, became the Lab’s first female faculty member to be awarded tenure.  

“Muriel really guided us,” said former student Lisa Strausfeld, who studied with Muriel in the 1990s. “She taught in a very unusual way. I didn't even know that I was being taught.” Strausfeld stressed that technology did not lead the work. “Muriel wanted there to be meaning. She wanted to communicate….She wanted the work to represent the content.”

Still, Cooper took advantage of the technology, such as computer-based typography and 3D text, which emerged in the evolving field of electronic communication. Her pioneering work on data visualization was on display at the 1994 TED5 Conference in California, where she presented Information Landscapes, a new interface that recast how designers perceived the possibilities of electronic media. Then-student David Small, who created the computer code for that TED5 presentation, told the audience at the Cooper event that it was one of the most exciting moments in his life: “I had no idea, going into it, what she was going to say. She never made a note or jotted anything down. She just talked and I latched on to everything she said as much as I could and tried to keep up with her.” 

Just a few months after Cooper’s now-legendary TED5 talk, she died suddenly of a heart attack.

“Not a day goes by when I don't think about somehow trying to live up to her example as a designer, as an artist, and as a mentor,” said Tod Machover, the Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media and head of the Media Lab's Opera of the Future research group. Machover joined the Lab in 1985, its first year. “I was a musician and artist, and Muriel understood that it wasn't so easy to be an artist in a culture like MIT. She never said too much about it, but she always found time to check in just to see how I was doing.”

For Jonathan Jackson, Cooper’s nephew, the caring was close to home. “She was my mentor, my idol, and my best friend. She was cool. She was loud. She could be brash, and she was a big part of why I became a designer.”

Jackson, Machover, Small, and Strausfeld are just four of the countless creators Cooper mentored who now personify her legacy—a legacy that led  The New York Times to call out Muriel Cooper as the unsung heroine of 20th-century design.

Information is only useful when it can be understood.

We’ll leave the last word on her design philosophy to Cooper–who was never shy about expressing herself. “Electronic is malleable. Print is rigid. I guess I’m never sure that print is truly linear….Designers know a lot about how to control perception, how to present information in some way that helps you find what you need, or what it is they think you need. Information is only useful when it can be understood.”