Wedged between white paper folders at MIT’s Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) archive, there’s a curiously emphatic black binder coated in dust. On the front cover, a series of black letters clunkily come into focus under the archive’s harsh bulbs. They read:
This binder is somewhat of a mystery, ACT archivist Jeremy Grubman says in a room packed with powder blue storage boxes and antiquated projectors. Compiled by the late designer and educator Muriel Cooper, the binder’s contents—along with a stack of tapes and projection slides stored nearby—are the most direct and obvious traces of the influential design research lab Cooper co-founded with photographer Ron MacNeil in 1973. In the 20 years that Cooper directed the Visible Language Workshop, the lab brought about an environment that would shape interface design as we know it.
Within the innocuous black binder, the carefully preserved pages of typewritten lessons, yellowed letters, and papery specimens reveal a past that was vigorously committed to the future. Flipping through it in 2017 over Skype, it’s clear that the VLW archive is also a unique glimpse into how the role of the contemporary, digitally literate graphic designer began to take its shape.
A legacy revisited
Cooper, who died in 1994 at the age of 68, was considered an influential and pioneering graphic designer during her lifetime, and she’s taken on somewhat of a cult status among a new generation of designers after her death. Tenured at MIT and a fellow of its Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), Cooper also founded the MIT Office of Publications, where she was known for bringing her Bauhaus-influenced style to book design and for creating the beloved MIT Press logo (a highly stylized ‘MITP’ that invokes a shelf of book spines). 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of Cooper’s appointment as design director of the MIT Press, which the school celebrated with an exhibition, symposium, and new monograph published by the press and written by art historian Robert Wiesenberger and designer David Reinfurt.
Along with her contributions to print design, Cooper is also widely celebrated for charting new territory for design in the emerging landscape of electronic communication. She did this not as a designer (despite attempts, Cooper never did learn to code) but as an educator. Through her own work and that of her students and fellow faculty at VLW, she was one of the first to see the incredible potential in computers for design, understanding them not only as a tool for engineering and calculation, as her contemporaries at MIT did, but as an inventive means for organizing information visually and for the design process.
In our contemporary life surrounded by screens, the work of VLW is “ambient and pervasive,” Reinfurt says, even if it’s not entirely “visible.” “Cooper and the VLW’s research is in the anti-aliased fonts that we read on screen,” he tells me. “[They] made possible the rendering of text on-screen which was readable and expressive. They imagined that reading and writing would increasingly happen across a network. You can see it in digital animation programs. You can recognize their approach to responsive, immediate interfaces in software design from Instagram to Photoshop.”
During the VLW’s run in the ‘70s and ‘80s, these things were mostly still ideas, and even within the archive the work is somewhat difficult to actually see. It feels a little anti-climactic that such vitally important and dynamic research was made possible because of the ideas and lesson plans recorded in this black binder’s decidedly static typewritten sheets. And even when the archivist Grubman shows me a plastic-clad cassette containing the groundbreaking TED 5 presentation Cooper delivered in 1994—where she revealed the VLW’s research into “expressive typography,” and afterwards none other than Bill Gates asked for a copy—it’s difficult for me to appreciate the significance. The hypnotic presentation zooms in and out of hovering bodies of text, which float Star-Wars-like in a velvety-black computer universe. The animated words stretch, yowl, yawn, and flex across the screen. It must have seemed magical and mysterious at the time—and, for me, it still does. How did could this cryptic presentation have had such a profound influence on the software design of today?
“A preschool playpen with a couple million dollars’ worth of toys”
When Grubman is asked in the ACT archive, located near the workshop’s former home in the MIT Media Lab’s Wiesner Building, he says that Cooper saw typography as a prime element for visual experimentation. Students and staff at the VLW developed a whole range of tools for creating “smart” type—type that could, for example, “know” when a background color changed, and adapt its pigment accordingly to remain readable. Throughout her career, Cooper was continually investigating how to infuse various media with visual dynamism—an approach that, in the book, Wiesenberger wonderfully calls “turning time into space.”
This malleable, experimental thinking was a staple of the workshop even before computers entered the picture. The first document in the VLW binder shows, in fact, is a poster produced by students in which each section appears to be charging static type with a sense of movement. The swirling formations of type were likely devised using the “The Rotation System,” which Cooper conceived of as an exercise for the VLW’s influential first course, “Messages and Means.” The technique involved running square sheets of paper through the press four times, rotating the paper and changing the inks with every pass. From time to time Cooper would create typographic compositions in this way—as in her famous “Message and Means” course poster—or use a similar technique on abstract shapes.
In addition to producing expressive typographic pieces, the exercise was also meant to encourage a direct and immediate relationship to tools, and it would influence the way that Cooper went on to think about computers in the years proceeding. As Reinfurt and Weisenberger suggest in their book, Cooper’s early print techniques are key to understanding her later interface design. Weisenberger writes that throughout her career, Cooper’s concerns “remained remarkably consistent: she turned reproductive technologies to productive ends; made or modified tools and systems to achieve quicker feedback between thinking and making; and dissolved the lines between design, production, and different media.” These concerns are visible in her early print work and they became “evident in her exploration of software starting in the mid-’70s.”
Even in its early, print-based set up, there was certainly no lack of machines in the VLW. The space housed facilities for reproduction processes like silk-screen, etching, gravure, lithography, gum bichromate, as well as two 30×30 copy cameras, plate-making facilities, a 3m color on color machine, two offset presses, and finally a IBM Composer, and staromat. “[It was] a bit like a family den or a preschool playpen with a couple million dollars’ worth of toys,” graphic designer and former Pentagram partner Lisa Strausfeld writes in the monograph’s forward. “[It] fostered community, encouraged collaboration, and supported personal risk taking.”
Dissolving lines in a “latter-day Bauhaus”
Cooper’s design work at the Office of Publications and MIT Press favored simple forms, clean visuals, and lots of Helvetica—a direct lineage of Bauhaus design style and Swiss modernism. Cooper’s admiration of the Bauhaus school was also apparent in the structure of VLW—nicknamed the “latter-day Bauhaus”—where Cooper brought in students of varying backgrounds, like architects, artists, graphic designers, engineers, computer scientists, to collaborate on experimental design ideas. The multidisciplinary environment produced a kind of hybrid design that presaged the role of contemporary and digital designers.
In 1985, the VLW became one of the original research groups of the newly founded MIT Media Lab, which would eventually be comprised of 13 departments—including telecommunications; film and video; speech recognition; and the cutting-edge Architecture Machine think tank. Cooper’s VLW lent tools to the other labs and worked together with them on various research projects. Her collaborative spirit was evident in her pedagogy throughout her time at MIT. She had an “open source” ethic before the term was coined during the free software movement; the code developed by VLW staff and students was available to classes of subsequent generations, allowing new students to pick up threads of research or a code base to develop new design work.
Cooper complemented the multidisciplinary intellectual environment with a modular physical environment, which allowed students of the VLW to fluctuate between editorial, platemaking, printing, typesetting, and, eventually, the various possible techniques afforded by digital tools. As early as the ‘70s, Cooper predicted that in the future, there wouldn’t be as many sole typographers or plate-makers or other design specialists. Rather, she imagined that a new kind of “design generalist” would take over the industry—a description that could be applied to many graphic designers working today.
In the monograph, Reinfurt quotes a conversation between Cooper and Steven Heller in 1989 that underscores this prediction. “I was convinced that the line between reproduction tools and design would blur when information became electronic,” Cooper said, “and that the lines between designer and artists, author and designer, professional and amateur would also dissolve.”
A vision of the future still coming into focus
Grubman shows me several posters by Jacqueline Casey via the Skype sccreen, another female design pioneer at MIT who Cooper recruited as her replacement at the Office of Publication in 1972. Inside a press booklet designed by Casey on the occasion of the Media Lab’s Wiesner Building opening, there’s a photograph of Cooper with her large ‘70s spectacles, vintage curly hair, and good-humored smile standing surrounded by her students. This is how she presented herself, as a member of her own workshop—one mind among many others who were driven by the special energy of her vision.
Casey’s work carries an echo of Cooper’s special brand of ‘70s Swiss modernism, which, as Grubman points out, is a legacy that permeates through the general look of contemporary MIT. Stepping outside of the Wiesner Building, Cooper’s design style traces through the campus: It’s especially clear in the Helvetia wayfinding. But one can also appreciate her invisible traces, the less obvious and less tangible work that took place in this building and that has carried far beyond this campus—into the ethos and ideas of digital design, and even to the screen inside our pockets.
The alarm on my phone suddenly rings to tell me it’s time to wrap up the call, and with a swipe right the interface immediately responds to my touch. What we consider good design today, precisely because of its invisibility and unobtrusiveness, was just beginning to be broached with the VLW. Within the new multi-layered design landscape that Cooper anticipated, her thinking continues to resonate as new minds expand her ideas and converse in a language Cooper helped invent.