Theses Doctoral

Print and Screen, Muriel Cooper at MIT

Wiesenberger, Robert

Muriel Cooper (1925–94) worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for more than four decades as a graphic designer, an educator, and a researcher. Beginning in the early 1950s, she was the first designer in MIT’s Office of Publications, where she visualized the latest scientific research in print. In the late 1960s, she became the first Design and Media Director for the MIT Press, rationalizing its publishing protocols and giving form to some of the period’s most significant texts in the histories of art, design, and architecture, among other fields. In the mid-1970s, Cooper co-founded the Visible Language Workshop in MIT’s Department of Architecture. There she taught experimental printing and explored new imaging technologies in photography and video. And from the 1980s until her death, Cooper was a founding faculty member of the MIT Media Lab, where she turned her attention to the human-computer interface. Cooper helped cultivate a design culture at MIT. And before her premature death, she established some of the metaphors and mentored some of the designers that have shaped our contemporary digital landscape.

Few 20th century designers have made significant contributions in both print and digital media, or helped to navigate the epochal transition between the two. Yet Cooper, in designing and redesigning roles for herself within new fields at MIT, did just that. Over her career and across multiple media, Cooper’s concerns remained quite consistent: She focused on developing both design tools and user experiences that would provide greater control and quicker feedback, eventually to be aided by machine intelligence. She sought to create experiences that were dynamic rather than static and simultaneous rather than linear, ones that engaged multiple media and a range of human senses. Cooper applied her knowledge of print design to software, and considered print and the process of its production as a prototype for the experiences that she would seek on screen. She also borrowed freely from media such as photography and film to inspire some of the effects she would later explore in new media. Cooper’s career traced an arc, in her practice and her pedagogy, from a focus on objects to one on systems. And her relationship to the digital evolved from a set of effects to be emulated in other media to seeing the computer at first as a tool, then as an assistant, and finally, as the medium itself. At the same time, she participated in a broader shift during this period from the paradigm of the humanist subject to the digitally augmented, “posthuman” condition of the present. In her interests and her achievements, Cooper exceeded any traditional definition of a graphic designer. At the same time, her work has defined the present state of the field. This dissertation, the first dedicated to Cooper, charts her pathbreaking career at MIT while also shedding new light on vital moments in the history of art, design, architecture, and media in postwar America.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Bergdoll, Barry George
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 6, 2018