March 15, 2021
Women in Design: The Digital Innovations of Muriel Cooper
Born in Massachusetts in 1925, Muriel Cooper received three degrees – two in education and one in design – by the age of 26. As a freelance designer, Cooper worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), before setting up an independent design firm in 1963. During this time, she created an innovative colophon for MIT Press made up of seven vertical bars, which both resembled a line of books on a shelf and abstractly spelt the publisher’s initials, ‘mitp’. The company continues to use the logo to this day. Four years after creating this design, Cooper became MIT Press’ first art director and went on to design the covers of over 500 books, most famously the offset CMYK colours of Bauhaus (1969). With a style focused on clean lines and simple forms, Cooper was passionate about creating designs in which the aesthetic value always supported the content and meaning being shared.
In the 1970s, MIT also brought Cooper into their teaching staff at the perfect time for her to recognise the role that emerging technologies could play in graphic design. Along with Ron MacNeil, she founded the Visible Language Workshop, where students from both design and computer programming degrees came together to experiment with digital art and create new ways of organising visual information to assist in communication. The course was one of the earliest to engage with more interactive elements of design, and although Cooper herself lacked technological skills, her dynamic way of teaching encouraged students to continue innovating throughout their own careers. Her confidence in her work also extended to her personality: as MIT Media Lab’s first female faculty member to be awarded tenure, she was known for standing with her foot on the desk while talking to powerful men, asserting her authority in the conversation.
Cooper was still an active professor at MIT when she died suddenly in 1994, and her influence on MIT programs has since been honoured at multiple anniversary events as well as in the Muriel Cooper Publication Fund, which supports books and other media about design and visual culture. Remembered as ‘an architect of information’ and ‘simply a great person’, Cooper’s dedication to communication is embodied in both her own design work and the way she passionately taught the next generation of designers.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to Casper Magazine to see more as we continue to celebrate innovators like Cooper throughout our Women in Design March Issue. For more context, you can also read our introduction to the series here.