Muriel Cooper

Back when. There’s really no other way to begin this story except for, back when. You see, back when creative electronic communication was only foresight, Muriel Cooper made it real. Back when computers were rare and clunky, Muriel Cooper saw their potential. Back when digital text was one color on a black background, Muriel Cooper envisioned typography on the screen. Back when the future was far away, Muriel Cooper didn’t wait for it to come, she brought the future to us.

Muriel (1925-1994) was a pioneer in design. She was a freelance designer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of Publications, which eventually became MIT Press where she was the art director for many years. After overseeing the release of many titles she founded the MIT Visual Language Workshop with another designer, Ron MacNeil. Here she became further recognized for changing the landscape of electronic communication.

“Information is only useful when it can be understood.”

She believed that the digital medium was more than just monospace text on a black screen. Expanding her background in print design to the digital realm, she created immersive environments before virtual reality was a thing.

“[I’m ] always trying to push some more spatial and dynamic issues into a recalcitrant medium.”

Because the digital medium demanded a knowledge of basic programming, Muriel admired the skills of developers and designers equally. She would strive to improve these skills in tandem and encouraged her students to do the same. Her students would often explore typography that mimicked real-world environments in the digital medium. They created a form of smart text that reacted to virtual paper via perceived gravity, pigment, and water, if applied.

Speaking to this point, in an interview she states, “When you start talking about design in relation to computers, you’re not just talking about how information appears on the screen, you’re talking about how it’s designed into the architecture of the machine and of the language. You have different capabilities, different constraints and variables than you have in any other medium, and nobody even knows what they are yet.”

Muriel saw the big picture, she saw the future. In her efforts to bring design into the digital realm, she pushed the boundaries of electronic media and 3D text. She knew this medium was the beginning of something grand and fostered a generation of students, and a myriad of technologists to venture into this unknown space.

“The electronic environment seems to me to have significantly different characteristics than any medium we’ve communicated in before.”

Today we are rewarded by her efforts in every app we swipe, every typographical layout we scan on the web, and in every interaction that immerses us in the digital world.

Thank you, Muriel Cooper.

Learning from Muriel, I created a virtual reality web page of this post using the WordPress API and Mozilla’s A-frame.