Muriel Cooper

1925, Brookline, Massachusetts


When new land is sighted, the Corps of engineers is sent out to survey its hills, vales, caves, and treacherous rocky shallows. They take theodolites and plumb lines, the tools of their trade, and hike the terrain—one step at a time, with plenty of loose footings and clumsy backward tumbles—then stand in the baking sun measuring the features of the land. Later, they translate their notations into maps on which snaking contours and numerals will tell future travelers where to climb for pleasant views, where not to steer a boat, where fresh water may be drunk. When the map is made, few who use it think of the exertions of those who trod the slopes the first time, how they read the land before a path of symbols had been laid to follow. Their names are scarcely known; dedication to the tasks at hand diverts them from the limelight they might otherwise enjoy.

One such pioneer was Muriel Cooper, a designer and educator who charted new territory for design in the changing landscape of electronic communication. I had the great privilege of meeting Cooper in late April and early May of 1995 for this profile of her work as director of the Visible Language Workshop at MIT's world-renowned Media Lab. Those two occasions turned out to be her last major interview. Three weeks later, Cooper died suddenly of a heart attack, just as I.D. was arranging to send a photographer to take her portrait. Four hours' worth of tapes now seem both wretchedly meager—given how much more we could have discussed—but also, under the circumstances, an exceptionally valuable bequest.

The official history of the Media Lab by Stewart Brand (The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, MIT Press, 1989) makes scant reference to this remarkable woman who was, at the time of her death, the only female tenured professor at the lab. Three entries in the index lead to passing mentions but, despite chapter-length discussions of other departments at this latter-day Bauhaus, not one is devoted to the VLW.

And yet, when Cooper showed the latest work of the VLW at the TED 5 conference in February 1994, no less than Bill Gates of Microsoft personally asked for a copy of the presentation. As Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Media Lab comments, "The impact of Muriel's work can be summed up in two words: Beyond Windows. It 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."

"Muriel was a real pioneer of a new design domain," says Bill Mitchell, dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. "I think she was the first graphic designer to carry out really profound explorations of the new possibilities of electronic media—things like 3-D text. She didn't just see computer-graphics technology as a new tool for handling graphic design work. She understood from the beginning that the digital world opened up a whole domain of issues and problems, and she wanted to understand these problems in a rigorous way."

And in her last few months, with the triumphant presentation at TED5, she had the sweet victory of knowing that she had proven her case. "Her peers had really pooh-poohed her," says Ron MacNeil, cofounder of the VLW and Cooper's closest colleague for over twenty years, alluding to the skepticism among graphic designers about the "Brave New Dynamics" she had for so long talked about but, until then, not shown. "Conventional 2-D graphic designers use all kinds of tricks to create a sense of dynamics. We've got the dynamics. All those stuffed shirts were just brought to their knees."

Listening to the tapes after Cooper's death, I found myself laughing out loud again at the impish humor of this gentle, gray-haired lady in baggy black sweater and pants, paisley blouse, and blue-rimmed spectacles—a wardrobe that had changed in pattern but not palette when we met again the following week. And I could easily picture her—black-and-white ankle-socked feet up on her desk—giving long, meditative responses to my questions between bites on a hand-held chicken bone (her take-out version of that day's Sponsors' Lunch) while Suki, her omnipresent black poodle, settled in the kennel under a literature-encrusted desk.

"I have a profound disdain for answers," she told me, early on, winning my instant empathy. This would be no express ride via predigested sound bites along that gleaming mirage known as the Information Highway. "We do a lot of groping here," she said. "I don't think there are answers. I think there are thoughts."

We first met at the end of the week in which SIGCHI (Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction of the Association for Computing Machines) had just held its annual conference in Boston. The Media Lab, being tech-Mecca, still resembled Grand Central Station on Thanksgiving Eve, awash in international visitors for corporations and academe. Things were, thankfully, a little calmer when we met again the next week to talk further about the goals of the VLW, its evolution, the delicate but obviously rewarding relationship with sponsors, and the excitement of current research. "This year has been a good one," she said. "We're on the threshold of some very, very interesting ideas.

Part of the challenge of writing about the VLW (and about the Media Lab in general, as Stewart Brand also found) is that the pioneers of this new technological frontier speak fluently in a coded language replete with terms like "anti-aliased," "band-width," "territory," "assertion rules" and "double precision floating point numbers," to name but a few. The uninitiated visitor sits before the screens in the penumbral workshop, watching hypnotized as words stretch, yawn, and flex, simultaneously emitting a baby's nursery yowl, or some other perfectly synchronized sound; as interpenetrating planes of financial data revolve and zoom in Star Trek-style deep space; as freestanding lines of type hover in this velvety-black computer universe, then come close, revealing behind them a fuzzy colored mass that proves (on further zooming) to be another chunk of text? scarcely in focus when yet another typographic nebula looms into view in the infinite beyond.

The elegance and apparent effortlessness of these demonstrations are easy to take for granted. Bu the more one learns, the more complicated it gets. Only when one catches a VLW graduate student switching back and forth on-screen between the demo and its underlying "code"—those hieroglyphic knitting patterns that make things actually happen on a $250,000 Silicon Graphics Inc. Onyx computer with two SGI Reality Engines attached, or a 16,000 microprocessor Connection Machine II—does one begin to appreciate the effort that goes into producing these visual feats. That process—making lucid what has hitherto been conceptually and visually opaque—is very much at the heart of the VLW's work.

It would be easy to see Muriel Cooper's career as having been divided into two parts: the conventional print-based graphic designer, followed by the computer graphics cartographer. Certainly, by the time she took up the computer at age fifty-two, Cooper had established a distinguished reputation as a print designer. Among many awards, she received the second AIGA Design Leadership Award for design excellence at MIT, where she worked from 1952 to 1958 and then from 1966 to 1994. There she founded the MIT Office of Publications (now Design Services), and was the first Design and Media Director of the MIT Press logo—an abstract play on the vertical strokes of the initial letters—in 1963, while running her own design studio.

But rather than a change of course, Cooper's shift toward computers can be seen as the continuing pursuit, via new technology, of an abiding interest: the relationship of dynamic to static media. She was, as she recalled, "always trying to push some more spatial and dynamic issues into a recalcitrant medium," namely print. Having designed the epic Bauhaus book for the MIT Press (published in 1969), she later made a film version that attempted a visual speed-reading of the material to escape the sluggishness of the printed page. And in recent work at the VLW, she was beginning to grapple with the converse: how to translate an interactive experience with a computer onto paper, "without just dumping"—an area known technically as "transcoding." In other words: how to turn time into space.

"Electronic is malleable. Print is rigid," she told me, then backtracked in characteristic fashion. "I guess I'm never sure that print is truly linear: it's more a simultaneous medium. Designers know a lot about how to control perception, how to present information in some way that helps you find what you need, or what it is they think you nee. Information is only useful when it can be understood."

The primary mission of the VLW is to develop devices and design strategies for manipulating information under constantly changing conditions. Underlying many of these "computationally expressive tools" (to quote the somewhat cumbersome VLW-speak) are the concepts of transparency, adaptability, and blur. Translated into everyday language, these terms imply, respectively, that 1) you can see right through the data, as if it were printed on glass, to sequential layers behind; 2) that if there's a change in back ground color in a dynamic environment, the type "knows" to adjust its own hue so as to remain legible against it; and 3) that fuzzy fields of information come into focus, and therefore become readable, as you approach them.

The nursery sound I "saw" is just one prototype of a typographical tool that opens up a whole new area of design: the conjunction of image and sound. Using this tool, the shape, size, color, and translucency of type can be made to change in correspondence with a given sound and its temporal duration. A very fast set of algorithms is used to create the number of sizes required for the type to expand and contract, or what Cooper called "on-the-fly scaling." Meanwhile, under the rubric of "behavioral graphics," the VLW has developed a species of "intelligent" type, endowed with its own inherent, but adjustable, physical attributes, such as gravity and bounce, for animation purposes; and "paper" whose "fibers" have differential rates of pigment absorption, allowing variable diffusion of color across its surface—physical characteristics that the computer can model, but that cannot actually be physically produced in the "real world."

A lifelong animation enthusiast, Cooper regards this technique as a "key component to an overall set of communication vocabularies. Not as in video, not as in scientific visualization or computer animation. Just animation." Asked what is so compelling about it, she began by stating the obvious: "It moves, it tells you much more. I'm more interested in motion than character animation, though that is important as well. Did I love Disney, you mean? Was I turned on by Pinocchio as a child?"

Grinning, she paused for a moment, then revealed a rather different inspiration. "One of the most important animators in my view was Norman McLaren. In the early years of the Canadian film Board, McLaren made images that moved by doing this linear scratching on the reel, among other things. He also did soundtracks. They were quite marvelous."

The work shown at TED5 represented a leap in computer typography, a way of superseding the long-standing cliché of interface design. Instead of having opaque panels of information layered like a deck of cards (the accepted convention of windows-based software), now, with three-dimensional graphics capable of changing size and orientation in real time, the screen turns into a cockpit windshield, admitting onto a landscape of data, navigated with the press of a button. In late 1993, Silicon Graphics Inc. loaned the VLW a Reality Engine, high-powered machine that propelled Cooper and her team into a new phase of experimentation with type in motion. "On this quarter-of-a-million-dollar computer, you can have a few hundred words on the screen and still do thirty frames per second," says David Small, VLW Research Associate. "If it's that fast, it physically feels three-dimensional. Below that, and you lose the whole visceral feeling."

That feeling, as the TED5 delegates recognized, is just like flying. "Not literal flying," says Small, "but the kind of flying you do in you dreams." Looser, less controlled. A corporeal yet out-of-body experience.

"When Muriel got her hands on a SGI Reality Engine, that really was a turn-around," says professor Steven Benton, head of the Media Lab's Information and Entertainment division, which incorporates the VLW. "She started using it for three-dimensional graphics and the infinity zoom just blew her away. She was absolutely fascinated by being able to zoom in and out by factors of thousands, like some kind of hovercraft. Once somebody showed her what it could do, she didn't stop playing with it."

Here was a woman, hooked on computers and what they could do, yet she herself could not write "code." "I've tried to learn to program many, many times, and it frustrates the living hell out of me," she confessed. I asked several people whether it was significant that she was not a code writer. "No. Nor is Marvin Minsky nor is Seymour Papert nor am I," came the emphatic reply from, aka Nicholas Negroponte, referring to two Media Lab colleagues. "Muriel's difference was as a person, not that she was not a computer scientist. She saw things differently. That perspective is worth the world."

"Not only was she not a coder," ways Benton, of the Media Lab, "she was not mathematical. All she knew was what she wanted to see, and she couldn't know that until she saw it." Ron MacNeil adds affectionately, "She was a klutz! I was the guy that built the tools, the technical underpinning. She was the design brilliance and administrative muscle. She had learned how to think visually, to create multilayered schemes of possibilities in her head, which is what writing software is. Because she was a completely original thinker, she just refused to learn somebody else's symbology. It was just anathema to her."

Cooper's first encounter with computer programming was a summer course run by Negroponte around 1967, while she was a conventional print designer at the MIT Office of Publications. It was not a promising start. "I nearly died," Cooper said. "We were in this big room with these teletype machines doing Fortran and there was nothing visual about anything. You had to translate any idea you had into this highly codified symbolic language that didn't make any goddamned sense to me, and I was crazy." However frustrating and bewildering that course, Cooper came out of it with "a conviction, naïve as it could be, that there lay in computers the possibility of a huge amount of flexibility that the publishing procedure did not have. It was very clear to me that there was a huge potential."

What Cooper brought to the Media Lab was a background not only as a practicing designer, but also as an art school teacher. The atmosphere of an atelier permeates the VLW; its open-plan physical layout (and hence, social organization) was related to Cooper's idiosyncratic teaching style, as Small recounts. "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 student 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 appreciated the skills of designers and programmers in equal measure, and nurtured a cadre of people possessing both. "My model is very much more an art school, or a design school, where you don't give recipes for things," she said. "But it's not purely a studio, because there's a lot of rigor in making a machine do something you want it to do. The electronic environment seems to me to have significantly different characteristics than any medium we've communicated in before."

Driving to her house, to fetch tapes she had forgotten to bring in for a colleague, Cooper talked about several epiphanies that changed the direction of her career. There was the spring-cleaning when she went through a closetful of carefully saved pieces of graphics, and realized that she didn't care about any one of them "because they didn't have much content." That propelled her move from graphic design into editorial design, but in time, she grew frustrated by book design as well. "Too often, the role of the designer is to clothe a set of messages they've had no participation in. Here is a book. You didn't write it. You don't change it except insofar as you present the information somebody else has generated. You're not really collaborating, either, because the stuff is here, and accomplished fact. I decided I had to wash that out of my head and impose my own problems."

After several years gestating a text, authors tend to have their own view of what their book should look like, which can lead to some interesting battles of wits. "I had that experience in spades with Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi," Cooper recalled, speaking of the original edition of Learning From Las Vegas, published by MIT Press in 1972. Cooper even proposed a bubble-wrap cover, in homage to Las Vegas's glitz—a suggestion the authors firmly rejected. "What they wanted most was a Duck, not a Decorated Shed. I gave them a Duck," Cooper went on, referring to the dichotomy between two types of symbolic architecture posited in the book, the former being a literal representation of its function. "I thought: 'Boy, this is wonderful material. I'm not gonna let them screw it.' Hah! You should have seen it! Well, they hated it! I loved it."

I wondered whether Cooper had writing ambitions of her own. "Yes, I would like to write a book. I always use Gyorgy Kepes's The Language of Vision as a model." What would it take for her to write the book? Without missing a beat, she answered with another question: "A brain transplant?"

On the way back to the lab, Cooper reminisced about early teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art, where the students "froze" when faced with unfamiliar technology, but sprang to life in a class doing interactive printmaking—rotating the plates, changing the fonts and the inks as it moved through. That experience clearly catalyzed her belief in using technology as "a partner in the creative process." She also talked, hesitantly, about what it was like to be a woman in what is still predominantly a man's world.

"I think that's been something of a problem in the Media Lab, though it's changed a lot. You start a meeting and—unless you're much stronger than I am—the conversation almost inevitably dissipates into equipment discussion. And they couldn't be happier. But I'm a terrible toy freak, too. I love little computers, lots of audiovisual equipment, you name it. As one of my old friends used to say, 'Remember, there's no depression so deep that it cannot be solved by a new piece of equipment."

At one point I asked if she minded telling me her age. "No. Sixty-eight. Much to my surprise."

How old did she feel? "About thirteen. I don't know. I'll walk down the street and look at myself off chance in a reflection in a mirror or someplace, and I'll think, 'Oh, my Jesus, who is that person?' It has very little relation to how I feel. Most of the time." She suddenly grows pensive. "Does it matter? I don't know." She paused. "Do I have to have this in the article?"

I said it was up to her.

"Well, I'm a little superstitious. In the sense that there is an awful lot I'd like to do. The worst thing about age, never mind the small indignities of wrinkles and bone loss and possible glaucoma, is that"—and here she raised her voice to a clarion call, addressed to herself—"you damn well better get going. Because you don't know what's going to happen."

Did she consider herself a success?

"On occasion. Has it made a difference? Some days I think it might have. Other days, I think not at all. There's a lot to be accomplished."

Reprinted from I.D. Magazine by permission of the author. Copyright 1994 by Janet Abrams.