Muriel Cooper: “The Design Heroine You’ve Probably Never Heard of”

Muriel Cooper, an influential twentieth century designer best known for her pioneering in book design who also engaged in digital design, design research, and education, was born 1925 in Brookline, Massachusetts. Cooper would take her first steps into the world of graphic design during her time at Ohio State University, where she studied to receive a Bachelor of Arts, which she received in 1944. She continued her studies in the field of arts, obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Design at Ohio State in 1948, and then going on to study at Massachusetts College of Arts to earn a Bachelor of Science in Education 1951. After her long stay in academia, Muriel Cooper moved to New York City in hopes of getting a job in the field of advertising and happen to cross paths with esteemed graphic designer Paul Rand, who became one of Cooper’s earliest and most substantial design influences, acting as a source of inspiration for her person design philosophy. Shortly after Cooper took a freelancing job as a designer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of Publications and became head of the office in the MIT Office of Publications soon after. During this period of time at MIT Muriel Cooper collaborated with other influential graphic designers such as Jacqueline Casey, Dietmar Winkler, and Ralph Coburn, along with the professor of Visual Design at MIT, Gyorgy Kepes, with the primary goal of making advancements in the realm of typography. Such collaboration went on to influence the utilization of modern Swiss-style typography in the MIT Press. After working at MIT for six years Cooper left her position to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship in the European city of Milan and, upon completing her international studies, returned to the United States to establish an independent graphic design studio at Boston, MA in 1963. Paul Rand would again act as a large influence in Coopers life, though not in the form of artistic inspiration: he recommended Cooper to MIT for graphic design work, which resulted in her creating the MITP’s iconic trademark logo of seven highly abstracted vertical bars spelling out the initialism MITP.  In little time after her work for MIT, she would find herself back at MIT in the full-time position of the first Design Director of the MIT Press in 1967. It was during her time in this position when she would produce the graphic design work in the 1969 book Bauhaus, the work which arguably would go on to establish her as an important figure in the world of design, on the 50thanniversary of the founding of the German art school upon which the book’s name was based . The creation of Bauhausinvolved the redesign and revision of the original German version of the book, which Cooper did through application of the Helvetica typeface and a modernistic, grid-based page layout. She would also influence the production of Bauhaus-influenced and modernist-based book designs for subsequent MITP published books, and even spent time creating a film version of the Bauhausbook in an both an attempt to translate interactive experiences from the medium of a computer to the medium of paper and an attempt to take on the challenge of translating time-based design to space-based design. Cooper occupied her position at the MIT Press for several years afterwards, overseeing several more publications, such as the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas(1972) and making strides to develop digital design, until leaving the position in 1974. By this time, at about 50 year of age, Muriel Cooper had become well known by those in the design industry for her work. She left MITP in order to become one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab, where she taught concepts of interactive media in the Visible Language Workshop; she was also the first woman granted tenured in the MIT Media Lab. From this point onward in her career, Muriel Cooper would focus her design efforts on digital projects, leading graduate students in the research of new graphic design techniques and forms specific to digital text in the VLW. During her first few years as head of the VLW Cooper did some little-known experimenting with SX-70 instant color cameras, along with larger-format Polaroid cameras and film, which lead to her pioneering the development of large-scale printers capable of producing billboard-sized graphics in high-resolution during the 1980s. However, Cooper’s main focus at this time was on encouraging her students to exercise flexibility and experimentation in design tasks. The work done by Cooper and her students in the VLW would be displayed for others at the 1994 TED 5 conference in Monterey, California, in the presentation “Information Landscapes.” This work demonstrated their experimentation in computer-based typograph built around themes of dynamism and interactivity: the pioneering of computer-graphics design that was under pursuit by Cooper and her students was received fairly positively at the TED 5 conference. Along with her involvement in the MIT Media Lab’s Visible Language Workshop, Muriel Cooper spent time working with the Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction of the Association for Computing Machinery as part of her exploits in trying to explore the possibilities of computer-based typography and graphic design. Then, on May 26, 1994, Muriel Cooper died from what was most likely an unexpected heart attack in the New England Medical Center in Boston. The Design Management Institute went on to create an award in 1997 based on her name, as a prize that “honors an individual who, like Muriel herself, challenges our understanding and experience of interactive digital communication.” Although Cooper was never a computer programmer, trying and failing to understand computer programming multiple times, she saw there was potential in computers as tools that could be used to visualize information in radical new ways. Muriel Cooper’s experiments in digital design and typography were anticipatory of later developments in user interface design on desktop computers, laptops, and smartphones, and her design legacy still holds influence on digital design practices in visualizing information today.



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