Graphic designers Muriel Cooper and Jacqueline Casey made MIT their creative home and strengthened its visual identity, while elevating design within the Institute’s intellectual life. Art school classmates before becoming MIT colleagues in the 1950s, they had much in common: they defied the era’s professional gender norms; they influenced countless young designers; and, when both died in the 1990s in their sixties, they left behind extraordinary bodies of work rooted in innovative European design principles.

Both arrived at MIT via the Office of Publications (aka Design Services). Casey went on to a long tenure in that office, while Cooper became the MIT Press’s first art director. She designed the Press’s memorable colophon (see gallery) and some 500 books. In the 1970s, energized by computers’ potential to shape graphic communication processes and vice versa, Cooper established the Visual Language Workshop, later a founding group of the MIT Media Lab, with Ron MacNeil ’71. Her experiments included an interface immersing users in a 3-D landscape of information. Meanwhile, Casey built a reputation for her striking posters promoting campus arts and academic events. She parlayed Swiss typography and simple graphic elements into designs as playful and brainy as MIT itself, capturing attention with visual puns, puzzles, and metaphors. By engaging viewers’ imaginations and endlessly chasing their own, both Casey and Cooper modeled what design could be at MIT: a true act of invention.

More words and images: Cooper and Casey

“‘Electronic is malleable. Print is rigid,’ [Cooper] 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 need. Information is only useful when it can be understood.'”
“Muriel Cooper’s Visible Wisdom” (I.D. Magazine, 1994)

“Imagine swooping into a typographic landscape: hovering above a headline, zooming toward a paragraph in the distance, spinning around and seeing it from behind, then diving deep into a map. A virtual reality that has type and cartography and numbers, rather than objects—it’s like no landscape you’ve ever traveled before, yet you feel completely at home. This is Muriel Cooper’s world. It is just one of the creations of MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, the research lab she directed for 20 years….”
“Muriel Cooper’s Legacy” (Wired Magazine, 1994)

“Muriel seems to have always had the newest gizmo, whether it was a special digital watch or the highest-resolution computer displays available outside NASA—and whether or not she always knew exactly how to use them (she was a bit of a klutz). It also seems that she predicted so much of our connection to interfaces and the need for them to be intuitive and anticipatory.”
“Muriel Cooper: Turning Time into Space” (Walker Art Center, 2014)

“My job is a constant learning experience. While MIT has its roots in tradition, the University represents all that is experimental, exciting, and future-oriented.”
—Jacqueline Casey, Top Graphic Design (F.H.K. Henrion, 1983)

“In particular, Casey’s posters stood out. As noted in the History of Graphic Design, the ‘posters generally consisted of a striking image or bold typography, accompanied by informational details in small text. She often used typographic wordplay and visual puns in her work.’ Speaking of her designs in 1988, she said: ‘My job is to stop anyone I can with an arresting or puzzling image, and entice the viewer to read the message in small type and above all to attend the exhibition.’”
“The Humanistic Designer: Jacqueline Casey” (MIT 2016: Celebrating a Century in Cambridge)

“Thérèse Moll, a young Swiss designer who had been an assistant in Karl Gerstner’s Basel office and who briefly worked in the MIT publications office in 1958, is the one person Casey credited with her introduction to the grid and its design philosophy: ‘She introduced the office to European typography … This use of proportions in designing publications series became a useful tool for developing MIT’s image.’”
“Woman at the Edge of Technology” (Eye, 2008)

“Nicholas P. Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Laboratory, recalling meeting Jacqueline Casey when he was an 18-year-old sophomore at MIT: ‘We had lunch together almost every day for four years. During this time I loitered in the offices of Design Services where I learned all I know about Graphic Design. I learned how a design could be at once Swiss in its cleanness, Italian in its imagination, and playful like Jackie herself… Jackie always says she cannot teach. Ha! She does not need to. She has already taught thousands of young designers through her work.'”
“History of Graphic Design: Jacqueline S. Casey”

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2 comments

  1. David S. Mundel, MIT '66 & '71

    I first met Jackie at MIT’s Design Services when I was a junior at the Institute in 1965. I worked with her and Ralph Coburn (one of her colleagues) during 1965-1966 when they designed the graphics — posters, programs, and other materials — for the 1966 MIT intercollegiate-conference — The Urban Challenge. Their designs contributed greatly to the success of the Conference, leading to its receiving the Institute’s Karl Taylor Compton Prize in 1967.

    Working with these wonderful designers and responsive partners was one of the highlights of my nine years at MIT, as an undergraduate and graduate student.

    Their designs were beautiful and expressive of the Conference’s attempt to highlight the need for interdisciplinary research and collaboration in attacking the problems then and now facing our country’s cities.

  2. Dietmar R. Winkler

    Not that my commentary changes a lot or even is attempting to take anything away from Jacqueline Casey’s extra-ordinary legacy, because she surely has plenty of successful work to show, but I remember Ralph Coburn designing the graphic image, not necessarily just for the poster for Sea-Grant Convocation (the third large image in the web-account) . . . cutting methodically with an exacto-knife following an outline from a photographic image of water reflections taken from the office files.

    Ralph Coburn is truly an unsung hero of the MIT Office of Publication.

    In the sixties, he was an established Minimalist, having decades before been a driving force behind the establishment of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, with Barbara Swan and Alan Fink, among many others. He also was a close friend and collaborator of Ellsworth Kelly. Some of his work is held in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

    Although his contributions to MIT Graphic Design are substantial, Ralph Coburn preferred to be known as a Minimalist, a movement that he represented in spirit and in deed. It was his true avocation. He played down his vocation as graphic designer.

    Both Muriel Cooper and Jacqueline Casey learned from him and his impeccable approach as well as his commitment to the highest of aesthetic standards. He was not just a colleague of these two successful women, but also a close friend and mentor. Cooper, Casey and Coburn were inseparable.

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