Behind Bars

Interbrand’s Forest Young is arrested by the rhythmic simplicity and dynamic symbolism of Muriel Cooper’s MIT Press colophon. 

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Muriel Cooper designed the MIT Press colophon in the fall of 1962, the same year that MIT became an independent publishing house and she became its first art director. Committed to a bold exploration of the frontiers of the world, Cooper's mark embodies the stature of the press along with its visionary spirit of inquiry. 

The colophon exists both as a logotype and a symbol. Four lowercase letters (m-i-t-p for MIT Press) are abstracted into seven vertical bars — pictorially likened to book spines resting on a shelf, retaining only the t's ascender and p's descender as vestiges of the original, implied letterforms. Reading as a striking, percussive notation, this rhythmic tally embodies both an improvisational moment and a type of machine-friendly language. 

The mark echoes the best of Cooper's 1960s contemporaries — the Reid Miles cover art for Freddie Hubbard's Hub-Tones jazz album, for example, and ancient predecessors like the I-Ching trigrams. All are symbolic attempts to capture the fluidity between structured and unstructured time.

Viewing the colophon on a square grid, one can observe a designer's maddening precision. The gaps between the stripes are half the width of the bars themselves, but the descending stripe is a single unit longer than the ascending stripe. This gives the mark a unique dynamism and asymmetry that keeps it from feeling flat or contained.

Given the global distribution and potency of the mark, the MIT Press colophon is seen with greater frequency, and perhaps more widely recognised, than the official seal of the university. The colophon embodies two oppositional notions of concretising ideas while simultaneously asking questions. It is a functional mark that leaves room for the reader to decode; the perfect ideogram for MIT Press.