This Stands As A Sketch For The Future: Muriel Cooper’s Messages and Means

Muriel Cooper, self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, video imaged and printed at the Visible Language Workshop at MIT, c. 1982.


Glance at the bookshelf of many an art or architecture historian and you’re likely to see something designed by Muriel Cooper (1925-1994)—if not the cover or layout of a particular tome, then the distinctive seven-bar logo of the MIT Press. Originally hired by György Kepes, professor of visual design and founder of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Cooper started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a freelance designer. She went on to a remarkable career at the school: she created the iconic colophon before becoming the press’s first art director, designing print publications including The Bauhaus (1969) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), and cofounded and directed the school’s Visible Language Workshop (VLW), an experimental design laboratory that did pioneering work in computer graphics and digital interfaces.

Though her work is certainly well-known, Cooper herself is perhaps too often uncredited and underappreciated, especially given the extent of her legacy as a designer (her portfolio includes over 500 books alone) and the prescience of her experimental research, which probably reached its apotheosis with “Information Landscapes,” a lecture given at the fifth TED conference, in 1994. Showcasing a computer interface in which the user explored three-dimensional space filled with “intelligent type,” the lecture still resonates with much of contemporary interaction design.

Hence the much-needed historical corrective of “Messages and Means,” an exhibition at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery. On view at Columbia through Apr. 17 before traveling to the MIT Media Lab in the fall, the show spans Cooper’s career as it transitioned from print to the digital age, and is organized by graphic designer David Reinfurt, of O-R-G and Dexter Sinister, and Columbia art history doctoral candidate Robert Wiesenberger.

Reinfurt and Wiesenberger chatted with A.i.A. over e-mail about “Messages and Means,” recounting their first encounters with Cooper’s work and examining her lasting influence.

MATTHEW SHEN GOODMAN What were your first experiences with Cooper’s work? Were you aware of her as a graphic designer, or mostly just familiar with her more famous works?

DAVID REINFURT When I started working at the design firm IDEO in the spring of 1995, interaction design itself was a brand-new discipline. One year before, at the fifth TED conference, Muriel Cooper had delivered a lecture called “Information Landscapes” about the Visible Language Workshop’s work in immersive interface design. The presentation resonated throughout that small community of interaction designers and appeared more broadly in the design press at large, with stories in magazines including ID, Eye and Communication Arts. The work was in the air and I assumed it would remain so—it was a taunt to lazy assumptions about what happens to typography when it is native to an electronic environment. I am still surprised this line of thinking has not been more thoroughly pursued.

SHEN GOODMAN Not to draw too clear a line between artistic and design practices, but I was struck by the experimental nature of what’s on display, especially the later work with the Media Lab. Did her willingness to experiment make Cooper an outlier in the profession at the time? Did she have contact or relations with the contemporary art world as more traditionally defined?

REINFURT She was on the fringes of graphic design for sure. This may be in part due to her allergy to professional design associations or to any easy acceptance of what graphic design is or does, based on professional practice. It’s instructive to think about how she worked in a university context and was therefore isolated from the more grisly details of commercial work. This was a supportive community that provided a productive discourse, but academia was also relatively insular.

This is no accident, as she was, if nothing else, restlessly interested in exploring and pushing at the edges of what constitutes graphic design. These boundaries are negotiated and change over time. This is why I like her offhand closing to a letter—included in the exhibition—where she writes, “This stands as a sketch for the future.” It seems to embody an approach in her work that is as explicitly stuck on working now as it is on examining what will be useful soon.

WIESENBERGER The work from the Visible Language Workshop in the mid-70s is definitely messier and more experimental than most people would expect, having only seen some of Cooper’s more austere designs for the Press. And her animated experiments with soft copy [electronic copies of data] from the Media Lab in the mid-80s are also surprising from that standpoint, with type twisting, stretching or making sounds, and changing color to adapt to its surroundings. Cooper wanted to make systems in which soft copy was legible, which it had barely been at that point, and as communicative as possible.

As for influences, it’s clear that some of this was in the air, and that Cooper was in dialogue with her peers in various disciplines—but also that her work was fundamentally self-directed, and leaps and bounds ahead of its time. That’s why she started an R&D division at the MIT Press, founded the VLW, and explored the potential of computers in design at the Media Lab. Her research practice was to pursue problems of interest rather than wait for commissions in the traditional client-services model.

As for currents in art, Cooper was certainly aware of what her colleague Otto Piene was doing at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the VLW’s down-the-hall neighbor for many years. Piene succeeded György Kepes as the director of CAVS in 1974, and brought in an amazing group of contemporary artists, especially in new media, and printed his posters at the VLW.

But as much as any art practice, her exposure to the scientific community at MIT was essential. Cooper’s peers there started as friends and authors at the MIT Press, then became colleagues in the department of architecture and eventually in the MIT Media Lab. These figures, like Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert and Marvin Minsky, were interested in cybernetics and artificial intelligence, which Cooper applied to graphic design. This material was also of great interest for artists, as documented in shows like “Cybernetic Serendipity” at the ICA London (1968), “Software” at [New York’s] Jewish Museum (1970), and “Information” at [New York’s] Museum of Modern Art (1970). But again, Cooper was really doing her own thing. She would’ve been aware of contemporary art practice, if not terribly concerned about it.

SHEN GOODMAN Do you feel that she’s received her due from the many communities she was involved with?

REINFURT Her students are emphatically committed, as are her friends and colleagues. The design community at large seems not to have recognized her to the degree I would expect (or, that I would have expected in 1994).

WIESENBERGER Part of the motivation in mounting this show is that Cooper’s work is virtually unknown, despite its huge influence. Even if some designers are aware of her, so much of the work hasn’t seen the light of day, or has been moldering in boxes or obscure media formats. It’s also that Cooper wasn’t much of a self-promoter, that her work was process-oriented and primarily noncommercial, and that it was done in a close-knit, experimental environment.

More broadly, graphic design is still understudied. This work straddles the boundaries of art, design and architectural history, as well as the history of science and technology. And while you see more and more coffee table books about design greats, none of them span this essential moment, of the transition from print to digital media.

SHEN GOODMAN I was also struck by her work with nascent forms of image processing, data visualization and interaction design—the Books without Pages project (1978-79) seemed such a precursor, if not outright contemporary, to so many digital interfaces used today, that I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about her within that context.

REINFURT The key, I think, to understanding her interface design work is to look at much of her graphic design work that comes before. She was relentlessly interested in design systems that were responsive. It’s important that this instinct was much less to do with any kind of imperative for speed, but rather was concerned with how to incorporate feedback into the making process. It was a cybernetic loop as a self-righting design system that was her base concern, I think.

WIESENBERGER Absolutely. I’d add to that her formal interest in simultaneity and non-linearity, which first became visible in her designs for print. Cooper tried to conjure dynamism into static media whenever she could, often using cinematic metaphors. She also tended to layer information, whether on the dust jacket of Learning from Las Vegas or in her rotation prints at the Visible Language Workshop [in which the print would be rotated and printed on again]. So actual motion became possible and the infinite depth of the screen let her layer information, which could advance or recede in space. Some of this work looks like three-dimensional film title sequences, except that here we’re talking about interfaces. The “viewer” is now a “user.”

SHEN GOODMAN Given your immersion in her career, it’d be nice to hear about a particular favorite of her works.

REINFURT For me, the MIT Press colophon remains mystically potent. Likely it was the first thing I was aware of in her work, and remains the most confoundingly prescient. Its form suggests that it might be read as much by a machine as by a human.

WEISENBERGER Agreed. As the start to a series of objects, The Bauhaus book (1969) is also pretty significant for me. It’s a 700-page monument to the school, still in print and well known to most art historians for bringing together a couple hundred primary documents. Cooper flattens the archive, giving it equivalent treatment within a rigorous grid. And her design is purely typographic. Helvetica was quite a new typeface in America at the time, and unlike the earlier German edition on which this book is based, which used Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Staircase on its cover—the ultimate image of Bauhaus nostalgia, painted after he’d left the school and just before it would close—Cooper’s approach is consistent with Mies van der Rohe’s epigraph in the new edition: The Bauhaus as an idea. More than a style, the Bauhaus idea was pedagogically significant for Cooper, and alive in a different but recognizable form as she came up in Cambridge, Mass.

But The Bauhaus also served as a kind of model or prototype for Cooper, which she restaged in different media. She made a film of it, shooting three frames for every page spread, so you can “scan” the book in less than a minute, and showed it to her students to demonstrate page flow and her filmic approach to print. She also made a poster, with a mosaic of spreads from the book, as a simultaneous presentation in space against the film’s linear presentation in time. For an exhibition, she presented the manuscript of the book as two massive stacks of paper, raw data to be filtered and surfaced by the design process. And later still, she speculated about The Bauhaus book being on-screen, navigable by hypertext, with multimedia bibliographic information and collaborative editing. In other words, a book that offers greater feedback.