The graphic design canon. Is there one? And if there is, who’s in it? Josef Müller-Brockmann? Paul Rand? Armin Hoffman? Milton Glaser? Otl Aicher? Alan Fletcher? You could make a strong case for each of these designers, and a few dozen others. But how many of them would be women?The question of female representation in the upper echelons of design is a finger-burningly hot topic. Various bodies such as Hall of Femmes and The Women’s Design + Research Unit (WD+RU) are making valiant efforts to redress the shameful neglect of women graphic designers. But a graphic design canon (itself a dodgy notion in these anti-authoritarian, postmodern times) wouldn’t be worth much if it didn’t include Muriel Cooper (1925-94).
In many ways, Cooper is a more worthy candidate for ‘canonisation’ than any of the designers named above. Experimentation and restless theoretical enquiry were at the core of her practice; where others developed a creative methodology and stuck to it, often without deviation, Cooper dedicated herself to perpetual reinvention and critical investigation on a heroic scale. In doing so, she developed three distinct stylistic and intellectually significant strands to her work, any one of which might have constituted a claim to greatness.
The first was her absorption of modernist design principles. This was no stylistic pose. For Cooper, the modernist design ethos represented the most suitable path for the clear transmission of information demanded by her early career as a book designer (she designed over 500 books). But she wasn’t a dogmatic adherent: “I was a modernist,” she said, “but I was an uneasy Swiss, if you know what I mean.”
The second strand was her ‘punk’ phase. In the 1970s, the ever-alert Cooper spotted the potential of new low-cost, easy-to-use technology to enable design to be created in a less inhibited, less formalistic and speedier way than before – what David Reinfurt has called the “quickening of the feedback loop between thinking and making”. Cooper used Polaroids, photocopies and rubberstamps, and in the IBM ‘golf ball’ typesetting machine she found a way to generate type that allowed her to function as both designer and editor in a way that paralleled the DIY ethos of the punk music scene. “The 70s was the period of alternative book art,” she said. “Xerox machines and corner copy shops were beginning to spread out, becoming more available.”
Thirdly, and most radically, Cooper was quick to spot the transformative effect of screen-based digital technology. And unlike most of her more famous male counterparts, she simultaneously immersed herself in it and theorised it to a highly sophisticated extent. Ahead of almost everyone else in graphic design, Cooper saw that digital technology required a wholesale rethinking of what it meant to be a communication designer: “The shift from a mechanical to an information society,” she noted, “demands new communication processes, new visual and verbal languages, and new relationships of education, practice and production.” These words might have been uttered yesterday; we regularly hear variants of them from today’s educators and practitioners: Cooper, however, made her statement in 1979.
All of the above can be seen in a small exhibition (Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT) currently running in New York. Curated by Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger, with exhibition design by Adam M. Bandler and Mark Wasiuta, the show is as sharp and unflabby as one of Cooper’s zero-fat book jacket designs. I saw the exhibition on an eye-wateringly cold day in late February, but Cooper’s fiery questioning spirit was enough to dispel the chill. Her genius is evident in all her work – from early book designs done for MIT Press to her experiments as a genuine pioneer of data visualisation.
Cooper trained at the Massachusetts School of Art, emerging with a degree in General Design. After graduation she undertook further study, acquired a teaching qualification, gained professional experience and started her own studio. In the late 50s she won a Fulbright Scholarship to Milan. She joined the staff of MIT Press in 1962, and a few years later was appointed its design director/media director. In 1974, Cooper made one of her most important moves when she co-founded (with Ron MacNeil) the Visible Language Workshop (VLW) in the Dept. of Architecture at MIT. She was to remain at MIT until her death, aged 68.
Prior to the establishment of VLW, Cooper had established her superiority as a graphic designer. Her MIT Press logo (1963-4) is a work of breathtaking graphic compression, and two books, both included in the exhibition, manifest her remarkable ability to design printed books with a prescient hint of the electronic future. One of her most celebrated designs was for The Bauhaus (1969), the first comprehensive English language study of the famous institution. “All of my books,” she said, “explored implicit motion – The Bauhaus was designed both statically and filmically with a mental model of slow motion animation of the page elements.”
Cooper’s design for the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas (1972) stands as a bravura display of graphic invention. As she noted: “I wanted to arrange visual and verbal materials spatially in a non-linear way to enhance the readers’ comprehension. Creating virtual time and space in two dimensions has always intrigued me.” Her design, however, failed to intrigue the book’s authors: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour took an early opportunity to dump Cooper’s edition and make a ‘de-sexed’ version that has remained the standard.
But it is in her work with VLW that Cooper was to form her most enduring contribution to visual communication. She used the workshop to stress-test the validity of traditional design principles in the new digital terrain: 3D modelling, real time data displays, hypertext, interactive media, and exploring the boundaries between 2D and 3D information absorbed her at a time when few graphic designers were thinking about such matters. As one of her early supporters, Nicholas Negroponte, remarked: “The impact of Muriel’s work … will be seen as the turning point in interface design. She has broken the flatland of overlapping opaque rectangles with the idea of a galactic universe.”
As with anyone admitted to a graphic design canon, teaching must be included in a candidate’s CV. Cooper was a great teacher. As the design historian Janet Abrams has noted: “She was a different kind of teacher: very reluctant to tell you what to do. Once you’ve started with the assumption that there’s no right or wrong way of doing anything, what becomes more important is getting students to think on their own. Muriel set up the right kind of environment for that: the space encourages interaction. Even naming it a workshop, not a lab, was important.” Cooper urged her students to ask good questions rather than looking for answers.
Like most prophets, Muriel Cooper has suffered neglect as a consequence of being too far ahead of the times she lived in. This small exhibition makes the case powerfully and eloquently for adding her to the canon of graphic design greatness.
Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer, writer and editor. He is the publisher of Unit Editions and a senior tutor at the RCA in London. Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT is at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Columbia University, New York until March 28. See arthurrossarchitecturegallery.org and messagesandmeans.com