Cooper received her BA from Ohio State in 1944, and a BFA in design and a BS in education from Massachusetts College of Art. After her graduation, Cooper moved to New York City and attempted to find a position in advertising. She met Paul Rand, who was influential to her design "way of life".
In 1952, Cooper became the first art director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology office of publications originally known as Design Services, which later became MIT Press. After teaching at MIT for six years, Cooper left in 1958 to take a Fulbright Scholarship in Milan; this allowed Muriel Cooper to lecture and conduct research in a wide variety of academic and professional fields, and to participate in seminars.
When Cooper returned in 1963, she opened an independent graphic studio in Boston, Massachusetts. The MIT Press was among Cooper's various clients, leading to her design of its trademark logo, an abstracted set of seven vertical bars with a play on the vertical strokes of the initial letters. The logo has been called a high-water mark in twentieth-century graphic design.
In 1967, Cooper returned to a full-time position at the MIT Press. In addition to being the founder of the office of publications, Cooper took on the position of being the first director of design and media. Having influenced the design of the iconic book Bauhaus (published by MIT Press in 1969), she also made a film rendition of the book. The film attempted to give a speedy version of translating interactive experiences from a computer to paper. This endeavor was her response to the challenge of turning time into space.
As the longtime art director of MIT Press, Cooper promoted the Bauhaus-influenced, modernist look of their books and other publications. Cooper also recruited graphic designer and fellow MassArt alumna Jacqueline Casey to her own lengthy career at MIT, where Casey designed many posters and smaller publications in a modernist style.
Cooper maintained her position with the MIT Press until 1974, and oversaw the release of a series of titles in architecture, economics, biology, computer science and sociology that formed a critical discourse around systems, feedback loops and control.
Visual Language Workshop
At 49 years old in 1973, Cooper was already well known in the design industry. Cooper left MIT Press to become one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab, where she taught interactive media design as the founder and head of the Visible Language Workshop (VLW). Cooper was recognized as a pioneer in designing and changing the landscape of electronic communication.
At the VLW, Cooper pursued a constant examination of graphic production in multiple media, and led a team of graduate students and researchers in the search of new forms, methods and techniques for graphic design that were specific to the emerging context of text on a computer display. She taught and influenced a generation of students who later became prominent digital designers, including Lisa Strausfeld (a partner at Pentagram Design), and John Maeda, who succeeded her at the MIT Media Lab, and is president of RISD as of 2013.
In 1994, at the TED 5 conference in Monterey, California, Cooper presented a collection of work that had been recently done by her students in the VLW. The demos demonstrated experiments in dynamic, interactive, computer-based typography, themes which Cooper had been exploring through much of her career.
In addition to Cooper's involvement in the VLW and TED5, she also worked with groups such as the Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI) of the Association for Computing Machinery.