Visible Language Workshop (VLW)

In 1974, Muriel Cooper had partnered with designer, artist and technician Ron MacNeil to teach a new graphic design class at MIT School of Architecture called Messages and Means. Ron had come to MIT in 1966 as Minor White’s technical assistant while setting up the Creative Photography Program. He completed his degree in 1971 and apprenticed himself to the Architecture Machine Group established by Nicholas Negroponte to learn computer programming. In the next three years, Ron acquired and installed two single color sheet-fed offset printing presses at the school in an empty room with double-wide doors next to the photographic darkroom. With overlapping interests and mutual friends, Muriel and Ron met and the idea to teach a design class together centering around these printing presses emerged.

Muriel had already been teaching at Massachusetts College of Art, but she was frustrated at how undergraduate design students froze when beginning an assignment. As soon as they were put into a situation of hands-on production such as using a photocopier or making monoprints, they became considerably more free. Muriel was convinced that a workshop environment, where teaching happens in a feedback loop with hands-on production and design would work well. Ron’s significant technical background in printing, photography and, increasingly, computer programming plus access to an offset printing press made this possible. Muriel described the goals of the Messages and Means course as:

... design and communications for print that integrated the reproduction tools as part of the thinking process and reduced the gap between process and product.


Visible Language Workshop (VLW)

Visible Language Workshop

Visible Language Workshop (VLW)

Left: Flat files at the MIT Museum Archives, Right: Detail from a Means and Messages class poster


Messages and Means students learned in a workshop environment how the printing press works by using it. Opening up access to this instrument, students were able to explore an intimate and immediate relationship to the means of production for their design work. The inevitable result was a merging of roles and blurring of specializations. In the workshop, students became editors, platemakers, printers, typesetters and designers all at one time, in overlapping and iterative configurations.

They used the offset printing press as an artist’s tool: they collaborated on platemaking and they altered the application of inks—they rotated the paper to make printing an interactive medium.

In Messages and Means, Muriel and Ron introduced production-led assignments literally centered around the printing press that occupied most of the classroom. Students were asked not only to design their assignments, but also to work with the printer, darkroom and typesetting machines to produce their project. For example, students made “one-night prints”, skipping the traditional stages of design, paste-up and pre-press by working with presstype and photostatic cameras or exposing the printing plate directly. Students were independent, motivated and empowered to realize their projects as they wished. As a result, the course was consistently over-enrolled.

Messages and Means students constantly circulated between the offset printing press room and the adjacent photographic pre-press room. The trip required leaving one room, walking twenty feet down the hallway and entering the other only to arrive on the other side of a shared wall, five feet away. During the Independent Activities Period of January 1976, a group of (perhaps) over-zealous students took matters into their own hands to re-model this unfortunate architecture, demolishing a wall that stood between the two rooms. Literally tearing an unsanctioned hole through the middle of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, the students fused these two spaces into one. The combined workshop mixed the inks, noise, paper and mess of offset printing with photographic enlargers, typesetting machines, chemicals and increasingly elaborate electronics and computer systems. In this space, the activities of designing, teaching and producing became increasingly indistinct. This was the Visible Language Workshop.

The Visible Language Workshop, a unique interdisciplinary graphics laboratory, was founded to explore verbal and visual communication as information and as art on both personal and public levels. The synthesis of concept and production processes is informed by tradition and technology.


Visible Language Workshop

Left: A student in the Visible Language Workshop, 1981, Right: Wall-Painting Workshop at the Bauhaus, Dessau, 1927


Ron MacNeil recalls that the Visible Language Workshop name came almost immediately on beginning the course. Together with Head of the Department of Photography, Jonathan Green and Head of the Department of Architecture, Donlyn Lyndon, the full name was set in 1974. The naming of the Visible Language Workshop was important—it connects explicitly to two trajectories, one past and one present through the terms “Visible Language” and “Workshop.” These combined to outline a set of interests that would follow the VlW through its twenty year course and three physical spaces. Calling the facility a “workshop” made an immediate correspondence to the workshops of the Bauhaus with which Muriel was particularly well-versed. Further, its legacy was alive in Cambridge with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius now leading the Harvard Graduate School of Design. At the Bauhaus, all studies were rooted in the workshop, where design and production were integrated. Students enrolled in the school became contributing members of one workshop or another.

For example, from 1925–1933 the Wall-Painting Workshop at the Bauhaus directed by Hinnerk Scheper produced experimental color schemes, paint techniques and environmental combinations. In the workshop, new technologies were developed, historical painting styles practiced, chemistries tested and new colors invented. Further, the students applied their learning directly to the school, painting the walls of the Bauhaus in any number of experimental schemes developed in the workshop. The ceilings of some rooms of the master’s houses were even painted black.

Fifty years later, the Visible Language Workshop continued this tradition in both name and spirit. The VLW pursued new forms of graphic communication by developing an intimate relationship to the tools of production in a workshop setting — offering an introduction to graphic design for graduate architecture students by providing direct access to printing presses, a darkroom, early computer typesetting and electronic paint programs. Like the Wall-Painting Workshop, the work of the VLW also practically permeated the School of Architecture — they designed, produced and printed the event and exhibition posters hanging on the school walls. “Workshop” described a space of production that was integral to the space of teaching and of design. By offering access to the tools of reproduction, students were able to understand the technical consequences of design decisions, immediately and the combined setting allowed for the creation of media in an increasingly direct, responsive, even interactive environment. If the Bauhaus workshops were an attempt to come to terms with the conditions of industrialized production, then the Visible Language Workshop was an attempt to confront informationalized production.

The shift from a mechanical to an information society demands new communication processes, new visual and verbal languages, and new relationships of education, practice and production.

Calling the new center a workshop also had implications on its physical layout. Each of the three homes of the VLW physically emphasized fluid spaces, where hierarchies and relationships were immediately eroded. In Building 5, two rooms were joined and oversized machines forced an intense overlapping of function and practice. In Building N51, the workshop exploited a larger space to expand its activities to include exhibition as well as production and teaching. And at the Media lab the VLW’s absence of cubicles and open plan reflected its teaching philosophy and provided a counter to the corporate-research-lab baroque of the rest of the building.

Calling the new center a workshop also had implications on its physical layout. Each of the three homes of the VLW physically emphasized fluid spaces, where hierarchies and relationships were immediately eroded. In Building 5, two rooms were joined and oversized machines forced an intense overlapping of function and practice. In Building N51, the workshop exploited a larger space to expand its activities to include exhibition as well as production and teaching. And at the Media lab the VLW’s absence of cubicles and open plan reflected its teaching philosophy and provided a counter to the corporate-research-lab baroque of the rest of the building.

If “Workshop” connected the VLW to a rich heritage, then “Visible Language” connected it to a contemporary discourse. Visible Language was the name of a then-new journal published by Rhode Island School of Design and committed to the principle that reading and writing together form a new, autonomous language system. Founded in 1967 as The Journal of Typographical Research, the journal changed its name to Visible Language in 1970. Self-described as “The Journal for Research on the Visual Media of Language Expression”, Visible Language was at the center of an emerging discipline which mined all forms of visual writing. Every issue of Visible Language was produced together with a guest editor. Visible Language XI 2 from spring 1977 was guest-edited by Aaron Marcus and collected contributors across a range of disciplines. Contributions to this issue included graphic designer Dan Friedman’s visual writing exercises; author Herbert W. Franke writing about practical visual languages; computer programmer Ken Knowlton of Bell Laboratories on computer-produced grey scales; artists Richard Kostelanetz with a series of numerical poems whose syntax and semantics are mathematic, visual and verbal; Ian Hamilton Finlay with a concise concrete poem; and critic R.C. Kennedy exploring the diagrammatic languages of Marcel Duchamp. The journal’s broad scope and ambitious mission together with its specific engagement in technical and practical considerations made it close in spirit to what the Visible Language Workshop would become. In fact, the shelves in the last home of the Visible Language Workshop at the Media lab are still filled with back issues.


Visible Language Workshop

Left: An issue of Visible Language photographed in the former VLW, Right: Ron MacNeil standing in front of The Airbrush Plotter at the VLW, 1981


As a name, the Visible Language Workshop was almost perfect — joining the legacy of the Bauhaus with the contemporary concerns of a graphic design practice in the midst of substantial change.

Muriel Cooper was appointed Associate Professor in the School of Architecture in 1981 and after seven years in Building 5, the VLW was offered a bigger space Building N51 with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies and Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group. Five years later, the VLW moved again into Building E15, the MIT Media Lab.

With the establishment of the MIT Media Lab in 1985, Nicholas Negroponte convinced Muriel to join as one of several principle research areas within the ambitious aventure. Negroponte was insistent that the VLW take on a different name as the Media Lab was to be a place for developing new media, its new forms, new consequences and new possibilities. Muriel refused—the concerns of the VLW were precisely the same within the Media Lab as before, even as the context for their work was shifting from the printed page to the computer screen.

The final version of the VLW in the Media Lab was explicitly focused on developing new computer interfaces. Although from the beginning, computers and software were an integral part of the workshop.

A series of large-format Polaroid prints offers an immediate clue to the ways that computers were being used at the VLW throughout its history. With Polaroid Corporation literally around the corner from Building N51, the workshop had immediate access to a new way for making large and quick images. The VLW was given supplies of large-format Polaroid film (20 x 24”) and a primitive large-scale digital color printer cobbled together from a CRT monitor and photographic enlarger.

The catalyst for much of the early computer work at the VLW was a large-format printer designed by Ron MacNeil. Called The Airbrush Plotter, this printer could produce billboard-sized prints from digital files. Ron secured $50,000 from Outdoor Advertising Association of America in 1979 to build a prototype and it was already working six months later. After four years, the total project funding was around $500,000. (Computers were much more expensive then — Ron recalls spending $125,000 on a Perkin Elmer 32bit super mini computer!) This funding buoyed other pursuits as the VLW moved into a much larger facility in Building N51.

Also by 1979, Ron MacNeil and graduate students Mark Abbate, Rob Faught, Mike Gerzso and Paul Trevithick were hard at work on a software platform for image and text manipulation. Called SYS, this proto-Photoshop program developed the functionality of large and expensive “Paintbox” programs in a more immediate manner. Workshop members began to use it, and the proximity of the users of SYS and the makers of SYS allowed for short cycles of refinement and development with powerful feedback loops.


Visible Language Workshop (VLW)

A student producing a large-format Polaroid print in the VLW, 1981


Cobbled together with help from students in Electrical Engineering and the Architecture Machine Group, SYS was a hard disk and a computer memory management scheme that yielded an image workspace of 8,000x2,000 pixels. SYS also included a single line scanner built to capture the high-resolution images needed for billboard-sized output on The Airbrush Plotter. Ron recalls, “it could take many minutes to scan an image and the subject had to stay completely still (sound like the early years of photography?)”

Building on previous digital printing experiments, the VLW developed a remote digital printing technique called SLOSCAN. However, it was more like an oscilloscope than a photograph — where the CRT printer instantly exposed an image on the screen to the paper, SLOSCAN slowly built up the image by scanning one line at time onto the photographic paper from an electronic file. The communication between machine and printer was necessarily slow, requiring a minimum of bandwidth. As a result, transmission of these images would be possible over long distances between a sending computer and receiving printer. SLOSCAN prints were transmitted from Boston to Sao Paolo, Vancouver, Tokyo and elsewhere.

What began as an experiment in digital printing had become a transmission medium, pointing the way forward to a very near future when digital images were no longer made for printing, but instead created for distribution through electronic networks.


Visible Language Workshop

20 x 24” SLOSCAN transmission digital print


As an MIT undergraduate UROP student in 1985, David small constructed the first version of the SLOSCAN printer. Small eventually received three degrees from MIT and was a critical member of the Visible Language Workshop for ten years. David now runs a successful design firm.


Visible Language Workshop

Small Design Firm Inc., the office of David Small


In a storefront on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, halfway between the campuses of MIT and Harvard, is the office of Small Design Firm Inc. I have come to speak to David Small after hearing that he had a “closet full of Muriel Cooper things.” As a student, researcher and collaborator in the Visible Language Workshop, David contributed extensively to many of its most important projects. He began as an undergraduate in 1985, joining the VLW in 1987 and completing his PhD in 1999.By 1985, the Visible Language Workshop had become one unit in the ambitious new Media Laboratory chaired by Nicholas Negroponte. Negroponte described the goals of the Media Lab in Design Quarterly 142, guest-edited by Muriel Cooper in 1989:

The Media Laboratory is a pioneering interdisciplinary center that is a response to the information revolution, much as the Bauhaus was a response to the industrial revolution.

On moving into Building E15 in 1985, Muriel and Ron found a space which was considerably more corporate than their previous home in N51. E15, also known as The Jerome Wiesner building, was designed by I.M. Pei and looks much more like a suburban low-rise office (wrapped in a multi-colored ribbon by artist Kenneth Noland) than it does a university laboratory. Inside, relatively low drop-ceilngs, wall-to-wall carpeting, SYStems office furniture and an atrium lobby amplify the effect. Muriel insisted that the VLW would be organized differently. Davids mall remembers how the physical space mirrored Muriel’s teaching style:

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.


Visible Language Workshop

Muriel Cooper in a self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, video imaged and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, 1977


The Visible Language Workshop at the Media Lab would eschew the low-lighting and cubicles of the other units, opting instead for an open-plan to house the ad-hoc collection of computers, typesetters and offset presses that had accumulated in the previous 11 years. Large power drops even hung from the conference room ceiling waiting to power the offset printing presses which never arrived. Already the concerns of the workshop were moving increasingly into software and communication patterns that remained completely within the architecture of the computer. Ron MacNeil recalls:

In time, images stay on the screen. And now they travel through networks. I think what Muriel finally discovered was the act of communication design in the process of radical change away from creating single artifacts to creating design processes that need to have a life of their own over these networks.

Previous projects had begun to make it clear that electronic communications moving fluidly through networks of readers, writers, users and makers offered the communication space that Muriel had been trying to find for years. The workshop continued to explore the relationships between what gets said and how it gets said, but in their new home, the VLW left behind the printed page for the fluid space of the computer screen.

You’re not just talking about how the 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.

The Visible Language Workshop began to design interfaces which offered routes, pathways or even self-guided tours through this soft architecture.

In the early days of MIT Press, designers had worked hard at understanding how to direct the viewer’s eyes in two dimensions: X and Y. The computer posed the challenge—and offered the opportunity—for the designer to create more complex pathways through multi-dimensional information. This had been the distant gleam in the eye of past workshops and it was realized here.

The most successful of these interface experiments were the information landscapes presented in 1994 at the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference organized by Richard Saul Wurman in Monterey, California. These information landscapes were immersive three-dimensional environments populated not by buildings but by information. The user’s mouse navigated through text organized in three dimensions, allowing complex, non-linear and multi-hierarchical spaces in which the user, rather than the designer controls the sequence and meaning of its contents.

I was convinced that the line between reproduction tools and design would blur when information became electronic and that the lines between designer and artist, author and designer, professional and amateur would also dissolve.

In an information landscape, the user appears to fly effortlessly through the infinite zoom of a textual space, reading along the way, creating connections and making meaning. David Small recalls that the information landscapes were first imagined, appropriately enough, on an airplane with Muriel Cooper and Suguru Ishizaki returning from Tokyo. Nicholas Negroponte described this last and likely most radical interface design project of the Visible Language Workshop:


Visible Language Workshop

Screen from Information Landscapes, 1994


She has broken the flatland of overlapping opaque rectangles with the idea of a galactic universe.

For the next three months after the TED conference, 68-year-old Muriel excitedly showed this new interface to sponsors, programmers, software companies and other designers. The day after returning from a presentation in Cambridge, England, Muriel Cooper died unexpectedly.


Visible Language Workshop

File box number MA16-2 from The Muriel Cooper Archive


Finally, we arrive where I probably should have begun—The Muriel Cooper Archive at Massachusetts College of Art. The small room at her alma-mater is stacked with banker’s boxes too tall to reach and a set of flat file drawers with oversized materials. Among the totally mixed contents of each box — file notes, sketches, slides, production schedules, mechanical artwork — I’m reminded that Muriel’s greatest asset may have been her refusal to specialize. She recognized that the discrete roles which industrialized production of the assembly line had delegated to its workers were beginning to dissolve. Desktop publishing softwares had opened up professional-level graphic production to a much wider audience, and designers were left with room to expand their practice:

Among these boxes, I found an original copy of the piece that Muriel Cooper and the Visible Language Workshop produced in 1980 for PLAN, the journal of the MIT Department of Architecture. When asked to submit an article about the Visible Language Workshop, Muriel responded instead with a 12-page visual essay produced together with students in the workshop, using the tools of the workshop. The first page of the article reproduces a letter that Muriel wrote to the editor describing the VLW’s submission. She lists a series of four numbered points that describe the goals of the visual article that follows, but she may as well be describing the forty years of her own practice:

July 15, 1980

It would make use of the tools, processes and technologies of graphic arts media as directly as possible and the tools would be integrated with concept and product. Many of these are in the workshop.

  1. The author would be the maker contrary to the specialization mode which makes the author of the content the author, the author of the form the designer, and the author of the craft the typographer / printer.
  2. Visual and verbal representation of ideas would be synthesized rather than separate.
  3. Time would remain as fluid and immediate as possible, leaving room for feedback and change.

Muriel concludes the letter cordially, signing off with a promise:

This stands as a sketch for the future.

This stands as a sketch for the future. MURIELCOOPER AND THE VISIBLE LANGUAGE WORKSHOP by David Reinfurt

This text is the result of a one-year Research Affiliate position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Visual Studies. It is a work-in-progress—a first draft, offered in public before it is finished. Muriel Cooper always sought more responsive systems of design and production, emphasizing quicker feedback loops between thinking and making, often blurring the distinction between the two. As a result, she always left room for the reader. This text is an attempt to do the same.

2018 History Graphic Design

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