Will Burtin

Recognition

1971 AIGA Medal

Born

1908, Cologne, Germany

Deceased

1972, New York, New York

Recognized for a lifetime of devotion to communications as a spokesman, innovator, and designer

Will Burtin is something of an unsung hero among the many émigré designers who brought modernist design principles to the U.S. But while he may be less well known than his contemporaries, Burtin’s design legacy remains an indelible influence on how we continue to visualize increasingly complex information in the era of big data. Often considered the father of the modern infographic, Burtin was a pioneering figure in information design. His contributions to the design field spanned nearly half a century, ranging from editorial design and corporate branding to immersive, large-scale installations and exhibitions. But the thread that ran through all of his work was his ability to transform abstract concepts in science and technology into understandable visual form.

Born in Cologne in 1908, Burtin left high school when he was 14 to apprentice at a typesetting studio. He later studied graphic and industrial design at night while working at Dr. Philippe Knöll’s typography shop, and by 1930, he was teaching design and running his own commercial studio with his wife Hilde. He quickly built a wide client base in Germany and throughout Europe, designing booklets, posters, and exhibitions for the advertising and film industries. Biographer and RIT professor of graphic design R. Roger Remington recalled how Burtin’s early design work demonstrated his ability to “absorb the best of the European avant-garde, and it shows the kind of formal modernist foundation that he was able to bring to fruition in his U.S. years.”

His career in America was born out of necessity, fleeing from pressure to join the Nazis’ Propaganda Ministry as design director. While Hilde’s cousin, Max, worked to sponsor the couple’s immigration to the U.S., Burtin stalled Joseph Goebbels’ requests, tactfully replying that his schedule was too busy to take on new clients. By 1938, Hitler himself summoned Burtin to Berlin to design an exhibition on the impacts of Nazi culture in Europe. Burtin and Hilde, who was Jewish, both swore they would never work for the Nazis, and they escaped to the U.S. under the pretense that Burtin would enjoy a short holiday before returning to the Ministry. They left Germany with nothing but their overnight bags and a sample sheet of the typeface Didot.

Once in the U.S., Burtin’s first job was designing the Flex-O-Prop identity mark for Hilde’s cousin Max Munk, an aerospace engineer and inventor of the wind tunnel, at Munk Aeronautical Laboratory in Brentwood, Maryland. Soon after, he won a contract from the government to design the Federal Works Agency exhibition for the U.S. Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This allowed him to establish a design practice in New York, where he began illustrating and designing for Time and Life magazines and The Architectural Forum, while teaching communication design at Pratt. Remington recalls that Burtin liked to think of his time at Pratt as a learning experience for himself and his students. “He taught them how to communicate through design, while they taught him to speak English.”

Drafted by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1943, Burtin truly recognized the power of visual language over the written word when he had to design gunnery manuals for young soldiers in training. Knowing that many new recruits had limited education or were illiterate meant his designs needed to provide critical safety information in the simplest form. Burtin’s manuals cut training time down from six months to six weeks. He later told biographers Remington and Robert S.P. Fripp how he committed to designing for the safety of the gunner who “was engaged in serious business in which his life might depend on the swift functioning of his knowledge and equipment. He deserved dignified treatment and the clearest possible statement of facts.”

He was discharged in 1945 at the request of Henry Luce, the publisher of Fortune magazine, who stated it was in the national interest that Burtin bring his talents back to the private sector. Burtin’s art direction brought a renewed spirit to Fortune’s pages that reflected the economic optimism and scientific innovation of the era. As Fripp writes, “The postwar world was new: it had discovered rockets, missiles, atomic bombs, antibiotics, jet engines, insecticide, television and the first computers.” By combining dynamic photography with groundbreaking approaches to data visualization, Burtin expertly illustrated “these emerging technologies for the sophisticated business leaders and readers building a new society on postwar innovation.”

Not unlike his assignment in the army, his compositions told a visual story that allowed readers to understand the depth of an article before they would even begin to read. Looking back on his work nearly 70 years later, his spreads like the 14-page “American Bazaar” article in a 1947 issue of Fortune still stand out as some of the greatest examples of combined graphics and imagery in editorial design.

But he never strayed far from large-scale shows. In 1948 he produced an exhibition of his own work, titled Integration. In a 2009 article for Design Observer, Lorraine Wild writes, “The design of Integration, and Burtin’s metaphor of the designer as the fulcrum by which form, color, material, texture, and light can pivot to otherwise abstract concepts such as time, space, energy, and motion, was his entry to the next, and most remarkable, phase of his career.”

He left Fortune in 1949 to start his own design studio, working with a principal client, The Upjohn Company (a pharmaceutical manufacturing firm based in Kalamazoo, Michigan). Through their partnership, Burtin not only defined the new concept of corporate brand identity, but he also produced arguably his most innovative work as art director for the company’s biomedical magazine, Scope, and its educational exhibitions.

The Cell, completed in 1958 and the first of several traveling exhibitions, was intended to help visualize the biological processes that scientists were just beginning to understand. The 24 feet wide, 12 feet high three-dimensional model created an immersive environment, one which viewers could walk into and experience the relationships of the cell’s components up close. The success of The Cell allowed Burtin to produce similar projects, including The Brain (1960), Metabolism (1963), Genes in Action (1966), and Defense of Life (1969).

Burtin began all his design projects with extensive research; for the Upjohn exhibits, he consulted with a host of scientists and theorists, as well as structural engineers, lighting specialists, and model makers. Remington writes in Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design, “At an early stage of development [of The Brain] it became obvious that to be understandable, the form of the exhibit should not be based on the anatomy of the organ but rather on the thinking process itself.” This conceptual approach, combining image projection with kinetic light and color, would be a precursor to multimedia design.

Moving beyond exhibitions, Burtin’s experience as a design theorist and lecturer allowed him to organize and chair several influential design conferences throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA), as well as Vision 65 and 67. The Vision conferences brought together designers, architects, theorists, historians, and philosophers as a means of addressing the emergent challenges of the 20th century through cross-disciplinary collaboration. Attendees included Max Bill, Buckminster Fuller, Umberto Eco, and Jean Tinguely.

In 1971, a year before his death, Harvard University appointed Burtin as research fellow in Visual and Environmental Studies, but he was unable to fulfill the position after being diagnosed with cancer. In spite of his illness, he continued working on a massive exhibition on the Human Environment for the United Nations Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. Though he didn’t live long enough to complete the project, his design staff finished it in his stead.

In the end, Burtin is remembered for the artistry he brought to the world of science and technology, transforming diagrams, tables, and charts into avant-garde works of experimentation that remain thrilling yet accessible to the discoverer. Friend and colleague Saul Bass (1981 AIGA Medalist) gave the eulogy at his funeral, recalling Burtin’s work as “[a] magical mix of data and poetry... a magnificent concrete poetic form.”


Timeline:

1908 Born in Cologne, Germany

1922 Studies typography at Handwerkskammer Köln

1922–1926 Apprentices in typesetting studio of Dr. Philippe Knöll, Cologne while studying graphic and industrial design by night at the Kölner Werkschulen

1926 Works for Philippe Knöll

1927–1938 Opens own design studio in Cologne

1932 Marries Hilde Munk (1910–1960), an art student he met while teaching in Berlin

1937 Requests sponsorship to the U.S. from Hilde’s cousin, aeronautics pioneer and wind tunnel inventor Max Munk, after continued pressure from Joseph Goebbels to join the Propaganda Ministry

1938 Hitler summons Burtin to Berlin to design an exhibition on the impacts of Nazi culture in Europe, which leads to Burtin and Hilde’s escape to the U.S.

1938 Designs Flex-O-Prop logo, trademark of Munk Aeronautical Laboratory; the Burtins move from Maryland to New York, dropping the umlaut from Will’s last name (originally Bürtin), while Hilde changes her name to Hilda; Burtin wins contract to design Federal Works Agency exhibition for U.S. Pavilion at 1939 New York World’s Fair

1940 Begins working for lifelong client The Upjohn Company; designs for The Architectural Forum and other Time-Life publications

1939–1943 Teaches communication design at Pratt Institute, New York

1941 Receives medal from Art Directors Club of New York (ADC); designs cover for Upjohn’s first Scope magazine

1942 Carol, Burtin’s only child, is born on October 10

1943–1945 U.S. Army drafts Burtin to work in the OSS; designs instruction manuals for U.S. Air Force’s aerial gunners

1945–1949 Fortune magazine requests the Army to discharge Burtin and hires him as art director; he receives several more awards from the ADC; freelances for Upjohn while continuing to teach at Pratt

1948 Burtin’s exhibition, Integration: The New Discipline in Design runs at The Composing Room, New York

1949 Will Burtin Inc. opens its office in New York City; Burtin leaves Fortune; lectures extensively about Integration: The New Discipline in Design 

1949–1971 Replaces Lester Beall as Scope magazine designer and occasional editor; develops concept of “corporate identity” by unifying Upjohn’s branding

1949 Is appointed director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)

1949 Works as designer and consultant for major clients: Eastman Kodak, IBM, the Smithsonian Institution, Mead Paper, Union Carbide, Herman Miller Furniture

1950 Is a founding member of the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA), Colorado

1950s Lectures at Parsons School of Design, New York, as well as at Pratt; works as design consultant for The Architectural Forum

1955 Serves with Saul Bass as program co-chair and speaker at 5th International Design Conference at Aspen, Colorado; the Art Directors Club awards him a medal

1956 Works as program chairman (once again with Saul Bass) at the 6th International Design Conference at Aspen, Colorado

1957 Begins design for The Cell exhibit for The Upjohn Company

1958 The Cell exhibit opens and receives national and international acclaim; Burtin receives a gold medal from the American Medical Association (AMA) and another medal from the Art Directors Club; is integral in popularizing Helvetica in the U.S. after bringing sample sheets back from a trip to Zürich

1959 Pratt Institute names Burtin professor and chair of its Department of Visual Communications

1960 Burtin’s The Brain exhibition for Upjohn opens, anticipating the concept of “multimedia” by thirty years

1960 Hilda Munk Burtin dies

1961 Burtin marries art director and long-time family friend Cipe Pineles, widow of CBS art director William Golden

1963 Burtin designs a large-scale Metabolism exhibit for Upjohn; the Royal College of Art, London, hosts an exhibition of Burtin’s works

1964 Will Burtin Inc. designs the Eastman Kodak pavilion and exhibit for the 1964 New York World’s Fair

1965 Burtin organizes and chairs his Vision 65 conference at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, Illinois

1966 Upjohn premieres Burtin’s Genes in Action exhibit at the AMA convention

1967 Burtin organizes and chairs his Vision 67 conference at New York University; revises Genes in Action to Heredity and You, a teaching tool for the public, in the lobby of the Time-Life building in New York City

1969 The Upjohn Company’s Defense of Life exhibit opens at the AMA convention in the New York Coliseum, with a film produced by Sy Wexler and print collateral designed by Burtin

1970 AIGA awards Burtin a solo exhibit for the following year; he also wins a bid for an exhibition called The Biosphere, for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Earth Summit), in Stockholm, 1972

1971 Harvard University appoints him research fellow in Visual and Environmental Studies at its Carpenter Center; the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) elects him president, American sector; AIGA awards him its Medal; his one-man exhibition at the AIGA; The Communication of Knowledge, opens in New York; continues teaching at Pratt; Burtin is diagnosed with cancer and is unable to continue his project for the U.N.; his design team completes it in his stead

1972 Burtin dies on January 18; the Cleveland Health Museum and Education Center houses The Cell, Defense of Life, The Brain, and Heredity and You as permanent exhibits


Sources:

Bower, Steven. “From Pharma to Fortune, Designer Will Burtin Has Range.” AIGA Eye on Design, November 12, 2015. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/from-pharma-to-fortune-designer-will-burtin-has-range/.

Budd, Diana. “10 Unsung Graphic Design Visionaries You Should Know.” Co.Design, July 10, 2015. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3048238/10-graphic-design-visionaries-you-should-know.

Design Is History. “1940: Will Burtin.” http://www.designishistory.com/1940/will-burtin/.

Fripp, Robert S.P. “The Art of Illumination: Will Burtin, the Man Who Invented Infodesign.” Eye No. 82, Vol. 20, Winter 2012. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/the-art-of-illumination.

Re, Margaret. “Will Burtin (1908–1972): Transatlantic Information Design During the Cold War.” Transatlantic Perspectives, May 13, 2014. http://www.transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=161.

Remington, R. Roger and Barbara J. Hodik. Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design. The MIT Press, 1989.

Remington, R. Roger and Robert S. P. Fripp. Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin. Lund Humphries, 2007.

Wainer, Howard. Medical Illuminations: Using Evidence, Visualization and Statistical Thinking to Improve Healthcare. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wainer, Howard and Shawn Lysen. “That’s Funny… A Window on Data Can Be a Window on Discovery.” American Scientist Issue 97 (July–August, 2009): 272–275. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27859351?seq=1#fndtn-page_scan_tab_contents.


This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.