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Design and Science: the life and work of Will Burtin

Will Burtin. Photo by Arnold Newman, 1948

‘Design and Science: the Life and Work of Will Burtin’ ~ Cover photo by Arnold Newman, 1948

Design and Science: the life and work of Will Burtin

Robert Fripp and Roger Remington wrote Design and Science as a definitive monograph about Will Burtin, a leading twentieth century designer. A design innovator, Burtin pioneered the modern “infographic”. He integrated design and science in solid models and graphics to explain scientific and biomedical functions. Burtin pioneered multimedia—which he called “Integration”—in visual displays of complex processes. He was the “father” of corporate branding and an early proponent of Helvetica in North America.

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Reviews of Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin

“2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Will Burtin (1908-1972), one of the foremost graphic designers of the 20th century. During his career, he had an enormous influence on the character of modern design; more specifically to the point of this column, he was an early developer of what has come to be called scientific visualisation.”~ Howard Wainer, Springer Link

Readers’ comments, from Publishers’ Review Pages

Design and Science ... Will Burtin

Will Burtin

Design and Science …’ is full of beautifully presented examples of Burtin’s amazing work. Its prose is as breathless as the speed and urgency of the work that Burtin effected, punctuated with moments of great sweetness and dignity about family life, exile, love, philosophy of design, and both the hardships and triumphs of mid-century creative life. It’s rare to find monographs about designers–Buy this book and learn from a master.’ ~ Martha Fleming, Visiting Senior Research Fellow Materials Library, Department of Engineering King’s College, London 

‘… the book [Design and Science] is a meticulously researched and engagingly readable account of Burtin’s life … Design and Science is an important study … we are lucky to have it.’ ~ Creative Review

‘I think “Design and Science: the life and work of Will Burtin” will be seen as an important book in the arena of American design culture, a first!’~ Michael Burke, Professor of Graphic Design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Schwabisch Gmund, Germany 

[‘Design and Science‘] comes as a welcome addition to the growing list of books dealing with landmark graphic designers … well-produced, and has an appearance and typography that harmonize very well with Burtin’s own understated taste. In short, this is a crucial work for understanding the major figures in 1950s design … Essential.’ ~ Choice 2008

‘… this detailed monograph is definitely overdue.’ ~ New York Times 2008

‘Will Burtin invented modern information design. What is now a staple in newspapers, magazines, and on the web—not to mention museums and exhibitions—can be traced to his deftness with transforming complexity into understandability. He never designed down, yet opened a window for the laymen to understand science.’
~ Steven Heller, on RIT’s chapbook, ‘Will Burtin: The Display of Visual Knowledge’, 2009

More about Will Burtin

Useful ‘Will Burtin’ search terms

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Will Burtin, a post-script, ‘All in the family’

Will Burtin married Hilda Munk in Germany, in 1932. During their German years and their first years in New York, Hilda was Will’s commercial photographer. In 1960, Hilda died of asbestos-induced cancer (mesothelioma). Will married again, to Cipe Pineles, a prominent designer in her own right. Cipe had been widowed by the death of her first husband, William (Bill) Golden. Bill Golden, the art director at CBS, is credited with designing the CBS Eye. Younger family members of the Burtin-Pineles-Golden triad have wondered for decades why CBS (and other major corporations) have seen fit to bury their history—in CBS’s case, that includes the origins of the company’s iconic Eye logo.

Readers had a recent opportunity to discover the CBS Eye, and its past. In September 2015, CBS News sponsored an exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum. Its theme, ‘A look back at the CBS Eye and its influences‘, has a more formal title, too: ‘Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television’. CBS News has now published its own story, by Lisa Cavazuti, ‘After 64 years, the CBS Eye still resonates‘ (October 23, 2015). The CBS Eye is an Eye-con again.

What has this to do with Will Burtin’s career—excepting that Will married Bill’s widow? In July 1938, on the day the Burtins fled Germany, the only professional paper they were able to stuff into their overnight bags—suitcases would have betrayed their intention to escape—was a style-sheet for the font, Didot. Will and Hilda kept this in New York as a souvenir. One day, Bill Golden asked Will if he would suggest a font CBS should adopt as its standard. Without pausing, Will replied, ‘Didot,’ lending Bill the Burtins’ Didot style sheet. CBS used Didot as a standard for decades. It aligns beautifully with the CBS Eye.

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The eulogy on Will Burtin, delivered by Saul Bass, follows “Will Burtin Timeline“. It is published in full in the published edition of  ‘Design and Science: the life and work of Will Burtin’.

Will Burtin Timeline

(* If you prefer, you can download this PDF-5 page Timeline )

1908. Born Cologne, Germany, to August and Gertrud Burtin (17 January)

1922. Studied typography at Handwerkskammer Köln (1922-26), and graphic and industrial design at the Kölner Werkschulen (from 1926) with Richard Riemerschmied and Jacob Erbar.

1922-26. Apprenticed in typesetting studio of Dr. Philippe Knöll, Cologne, while studying typography and art. 1926. Worked for Philippe Knöll on exhibitions for Gesolei in Dusseldorf.

1927-38. Opened design studio in Cologne, creating booklets, posters, type books, exhibitions, displays, advertising and movies for German, French and other clients.

1931. Met art student Hilde Munk from Osteröde, East Prussia, while teaching in Berlin.

1932. Married Hilde Munk (1910-1960).

1937. Required by Josef Goebbels to become director of graphics at the Propaganda Ministry. Burtin stalled for time. Hilde Munk Burtin wrote to her cousin, wind-tunnel pioneer Max Munk, requesting sponsorship to the United States.

1938. Hitler repeated Goebbels’ demand that Burtin become Propaganda Ministry’s design director. Pressure to accept this position triggered hasty escape to United States. Entry to U.S. sponsored by Max Munk, aeronautics pioneer and pioneer developer of the wind tunnel.

1938. Designed FlexOprop logo, trademark of Munk Aeronautical Laboratory. Won contract to design Federal Works Agency Exhibition for U.S. Pavilion at New York World’s Fair.

1939. Supervised 80 people to create the Federal Works Agency Exhibition. Designed cover for New York World’s Fair issue of The Architectural Forum magazine. Established design practice in New York; created advertisements, booklets, magazines, covers and exhibits. Awarded New York Art Directors Club medal for cover design.

1940. Designed booklet Vesalius, perhaps his first project for The Upjohn Company. Assignments for Architectural Forum led to work for other Time-Life titles.

1939-43. Taught communication design at Pratt Institute, New York.

1941. Medal from New York Art Directors’ Club. Designed cover for Upjohn’s first Scope magazine. Cover featured a “test-tube baby” decades before the concept became reality.

1942. A-D magazine issue printed supplement featuring Burtin’s work from 1930-40. Publication featured first work for The Upjohn Company and Fortune magazine. The Burtins’ only child, Carol, was born on October 10.

1943-45. Drafted into U.S. Army and assigned to Office of Strategic Services (OSS); designed visual presentations of “strategic subjects” classified by OSS. Family moved to Washington, D.C., living with Max Munk and twin sister, Thekla. Designed gunnery manuals for U.S. Air Forces aerial gunners.

1945-49. Fortune magazine asked the Army to discharge Burtin, then recruited him as art director. His contract permitted freelance work, and assignments for Upjohn and other clients grew in number. He resumed teaching at Pratt. Several awards from the New York Art Directors Club.

1948. Burtin’s exhibition, “Integration: The New Discipline in Design” ran at The Composing Room, New York. Continued major work for The Upjohn Company, Kalamazoo MI. Burtin began working on a never-completed Will Burtin Book.

1949. Will Burtin Inc. opened offices at 11 West 42 Street. Burtin left Fortune in November. Burtin gave lectures about “Integration: The New Discipline in Design” in several cities, Chicago (the Bundscho Library) and Los Angeles among them. Graphis printed “Integration” as a short article. Burtin teamed with writer Lawrence Lessing to describe the seminal wartime gunnery manuals project for the OSS.

1949-71. As design consultant for Upjohn Company, Burtin and a growing team created the new Upjohn text-only logo; replaced Lester Beall as Scope magazine designer and occasional editor; unified design of all Upjohn packaging and printed materials. As one of the first American designers to propose a unified design concept, Burtin is known as the father of “corporate identity.”

1949. Appointed a director, American Institute of Graphic Arts. 1949- Worked as designer and consultant in advertising, industrial and editorial projects for major clients: Eastman Kodak, IBM, the Smithsonian Institution, Mead Paper, Union Carbide, Herman Miller Furniture, George Nelson Design, the U.S. Information Agency, several publishers…

1950. Was member of founding group for the International Design Conference at Aspen, Colorado. 1950s. Lectured at Parsons School of Design, New York, as well as at Pratt. Editor of the Architectural Forum, James Marston Fitch, appointed Burtin design consultant to the magazine.

1951. Commissioned new family home on South Mountain Road, New City, Rockland County, NY. James Marston Fitch, architect, designed it.

1952. Family moved from 13 West 106 Street to South Mountain Road. Travelled with family to Ecuador on assignment for client Life Farmaceuticos. Family visited war-displaced Munk family members in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

1954. Print magazine featured Burtin and his work for Upjohn: “A Program in Print: Upjohn and Design.”

1955. Served with Saul Bass as program chair and speaker at International Design Conference, Aspen, Colorado. The New York Art Directors’ Club awarded him a medal.

1955. Will Burtin Inc. moved offices to 132 East 58 Street. Was active in the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA).

1956. Mounted an exhibition for a relatively new material: ‘Plastics in America’. Designed by Burtin for the United States Information Agency. Photographer: Ezra Stoller © Esto.

1956. Program chairman with Saul Bass again at AIGA, Aspen.

1957. Began design of a walk-in Cell exhibit for The Upjohn Company. Designed travelling exhibit “Kalamazoo – Window on America” for the U.S. Information Agency. Exhibit was shown in several British cities. The USIA requested a version for Germany.

1958. The Cell exhibit opened at the annual convention of the American Medical Association. The Cell gained wide national and international attention. The AMA awarded Burtin its Gold Medal; the Art Directors’ Club awarded a medal. Burtin chaired the First World Seminar on Typography at Silvermine. Designed the “Upjohn Pharmacy” exhibit for Disneyland. The German version of the Kalamazoo exhibit drew record crowds in Berlin. Will and Hilda Burtin saw samples of the new Helvetica font in Zurich, returning to New York with sample sheets.

1959. The Pratt Institute named Burtin professor and chair of Department of Visual Communications. He organized and chaired Typography USA conference, New York. The Cell exhibit arrived in London to become a television set for two BBC science specials, “What is Life?” Shell Oil’s film unit filmed it in the CBS studio and dedicated the film to the Royal Society. The Cell model travelled to Edinburgh before returning to New York.

1960. Burtin’s massive Brain exhibition for Upjohn opened, anticipating “multi-media” by thirty years. Created catalogue Designed for Silver for exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Upjohn exhibited the Brain in its hometown, Kalamazoo MI. Hilda Munk Burtin died on October 10, her daughter’s birthday.

1961. Burtin’s massive Uranium Atom exhibit opened in the lobby of the new Union Carbide building on Park Avenue. Burtin married art director and long-time family friend Cipe Pineles, the widow of CBS art director William Golden. Will and Carol Burtin moved to Pineles’ home in Stony Point, New York. The Brain exhibit toured major cities in Europe, including the USA Pavilion of Italia 61 in Turin, where Carol Burtin accompanied the Brain as a guide. The U.S. Information Agency shipped elements of the Brain exhibit to Moscow for display.

1962. Burtin designed a spread in Comment 200 publication using Ezra Stoller’s time-lapse photography from the Union Carbide Atom. Burtin’s touring exhibit and booklet Visual Aspects of Science exhibit included work for four major clients: Kodak, IBM, Upjohn and Union Carbide. Burtin’s friend Willem Sandberg enabled aspects of the Cell and Brain exhibits to visit Amsterdam. Presentations also reached London, Paris and Brussels. Burtin designed a proposal for Chrysler’s exhibit at the upcoming New York World’s Fair.

1963. Burtin designed a large-scale Metabolism exhibit for Upjohn. The Royal College of Art, London, hosted an exhibition of Burtin’s works.

1964. Will Burtin Inc. designed the Eastman Kodak pavilion and exhibit at New York World’s Fair, with a film and slide show by Saul Bass and Sy Wexler. Designed the Abraham Lincoln exhibit for the Fair’s Illinois State Pavilion, with a film by Saul Bass. The Brain exhibit moved into the New York State pavilion, and a multiple-projector slide show into the Hall of Sciences.

1965. Burtin organized and chaired his Vision 65 conference at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Futurist Buckminster Fuller served as consultant, inviting the conference to his SIU campus. Will Burtin, Inc. designed and fitted a large-scale Lobby Exhibit for Brunswick Corporation in Chicago. Burtin’s essay, “Design and Communication,” was published in Education of Vision, for the Vision and Value Series, Gyorgy Kepes (ed.). Burtin proposed a pavilion for IBM at Montreal Expo ’67.

1966. Will Burtin. Inc. designed the book, Story of Mathematics for Young People, for Pantheon, entirely in Helvetica. Upjohn released the exhibit Genes in Action (aka The Chromosome Puff) at the AMA convention; Life magazine featured an article, “Walk-in Portrait of a Gene at Work” about Burtin exhibits, including Genes in Action (July 8, 1966).

1967. Burtin organized and chaired his Vision 67 conference at New York University. He transformed Genes in Action into Heredity and You for display to a lay audience in the lobby of the Time-Life building in New York.

1968. Will Burtin, Inc. developed signage for the University Circle Development Foundation, Cleveland, Ohio. The studio began work on his final major exhibition for Upjohn, Defense of Life.

1969. Will Burtin, Inc.’s massive model for The Upjohn Company, Defense of Life, opened at the AMA convention at the New York Coliseum, accompanied by a film produced by Sy Wexler. Burtin designed the Defense of Life publication and associated materials.

1970. The AIGA awarded Burtin a solo exhibit for the following year. He proposed, and won preliminary acceptance, for an exhibition called The Biosphere, for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (the Earth Summit), Stockholm, 1972. Former employee Yves Zimmermann asked Burtin to contribute the keynote article for the first edition of a Spanish-language periodical, Documentos de comunicación visual, in 1971.

1971. Burtin’s article, Basta ya! was published in Spanish. Harvard University appointed him Research Fellow in Visual and Environmental Studies at its Carpenter Center; the Alliance Graphique Internationale elected him President, American Sector; the American Institute of Graphic Arts awarded him its medal; he spoke at The Roving Eye and The Constant Image conference, in Chicago. His one-man exhibition for the AIGA, The Communication of Knowledge, opened in New York. He continued teaching at Pratt. A change of client, combined with Burtin’s failing health, effectively cancelled his project for the U.N.

1972. Will Burtin died on January 18, in Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. Saul Bass gave the eulogy at a memorial in New York. In September, the United States Embassy in London hosted a memorial exhibition which ran for two weeks. The Cleveland Health Museum and Education Center housed the Cell, Defense of Life, the Brain and the Chromosome Puff as permanent exhibits.

1973. Cipe Pineles adopted Carol Burtin Fripp.

1980. The Journal of Typographics (March, Vol 7, No. 1) published an illustrated profile of “ ‘graphic innovator’ Will Burtin.”

1985. Burtin’s work was placed on display as the “Fortune’s America” exhibition, in the University of East Anglia Library.

1986. The exhibition was displayed in the Bevier Gallery at the Rochester Institute of Technology, along with William Golden’s work for CBS.

1989. R. Roger Remington and Dr. Barbara Hodik included a chapter about Burtin in their book, Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design, MIT Press. Professor Chris Mullen developed a Fortune magazine database in the U.K. as a learning resource at the University of Brighton. Mullen also sponsored annual editorial design projects, many inspired by Burtin’s work.

1991. The Rochester Institute of Technology received the Burtin Archive into the Wallace Library (along with the archives of Cipe Pineles and her first husband, William Golden the art director at CBS).

1995-2005. Professor Mullen administered a Ph.D. program at University of Brighton. A notable graduate, Dr. Jackie Batey, wrote her thesis “The Safe Cigarette,” inspired by Burtin’s Fortune magazine piece “The American Bazaar.”

1997. The Rochester Institute of Technology presented Burtin’s life and work as a major case study in an on-line course, “20th Century Information Design.”

1998. R. Roger Remington and Robert Fripp, Burtin’s son-in-law, proposed a Burtin monograph, Design and Science: The life and work of Will Burtin.

2005. R. Roger Remington wrote a case study article on the Burtin Brain exhibit, published in Information Design Journal-Document Design.

2006. A grant from the Getty Foundation facilitated archival organization of the Burtin collection at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Chapbook “Will Burtin, and the Visual Display of Knowledge” published by Cary Graphic Arts Press, Rochester Institute of Technology (2009).

2007. Book, ‘Design and Science: The life and work of Will Burtin’ by R. Roger Remington and Robert Fripp (Joint publishers: Lund Humphries, London; Ashgate,New York, September 2007). (ISBN 978-0-85331-968-9).

2009. R. Roger Remington publishes the chapbook, ‘Will Burtin: The Display of Visual Knowledge’. RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press.

2017. Unit Editions, London, will publish a follow-up to ‘Design and Science: the Life and Work of Will Burtin’. The book will feature a selection of Will Burtin’s writing on aspects of design.

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Will Burtin’s eulogy, delivered by Saul Bass

Saul Bass gave this eulogy at the memorial service for Will Burtin in the ecumenical chapel of the United Nations, New York, January 1972. This text is transcribed from Bass’s speaking notes. Burtin and Bass had worked on several major projects together. In addition, they had served several years together on the Program Committee of the Aspen design conference. This eulogy is printed on the final pages of  ‘Design and Science: the life and work of Will Burtin’. 

First I must say how utterly inadequate I am to the task of expressing what a man’s life was about (maybe nobody can really do that). And this is particularly true of Will’s life, which was so full of richness and accomplishment. Words come easily. But meanings come hard. A man lives a long life. Nobody gets more than a glimpse of it. Long as I have known Will…as much time as I have spent with him…all I know are a few fragments. I want to share them with you. Will was part of the cultural and scientific infusion which the New Order in Germany inadvertently gave us in the late Thirties. As such he brought with him the design currents developing at the Bauhaus and elsewhere in Europe.

Design and Science

Saul Bass gave Will Burtin’s eulogy

This gave him a unique historical role—one that he played out to its fullest potential.… His work in the 1939 New York World’s Fair…His famous design course at Pratt…His startling training manuals for the Air Force during World War II. His transformation of Fortune Magazine as its art director…And finally his explorations of visual techniques for the expression of scientific subject matter, culminating in the unprecedented “Cell”…followed by the brilliant series of successors, “The Brain”, “The Chromosome”, and “Metabolism”…all attest to this.

All these achievements (and many others) have been acknowledged by the vast number of significant awards, medals, and honors properly showered on Will. But beyond the meaning of this formal recognition of Will’s work is the impact of his work on all of us…who, in observing it—measured ourselves by it—and by the man from whom it came. Will’s work was perhaps more important to him than to most designers. In thinking about Will, it’s hard to separate him from his work. It seemed so much a part of him. It was characteristic that all conversations with Will seemed to be test-runs of his then current state of thought in general—or specifically in connection with an ongoing project. Over the years I had many opportunities to observe his work process. He began with a relatively elliptical, speculative, at times abstruse verbal formulation (the kind often made by people who deal in words exclusively). And then he proceeded (in a very simple workmanlike manner) to lay down, brick by brick…the specific data, the myriad ideas…patiently, methodically…Until it evolved in a spiral back to its apparent starting point. But now in some magical mix, (and I am thinking particularly of “The Cell” and the others) some magical mix of data and poetry…a magnificent concrete poetic form.

He was rigorous and disciplined in his work. He was hard on himself. In reaching his results he (like all of us) made wrong turns. But he spent little time in regretting these bad turns. In patching them up. Or clinging to them. The moment he became aware of his position he quickly  reached an assessment. And one could sometimes hear the quiet click…as he shifted gears…swept past the debris, and went down the new road. Sometimes the clicks were so quiet you couldn’t hear them. These battles were fought internally. They were not always visible (except in the expression of the conclusions). I remember a project we collaborated on, when he went through this process right in front of me. It proceeded so quietly, so much concerned with the correct path…(seemingly indifferent to consequences)…so calmly considered in the context of process…that it took me a few minutes to realize what had happened. In recent years we have experienced tremendous pressure towards newness and novelty in design…And in an atmosphere of nervous excitability where it seems so important to astonish the crowd every time out…Will hewed to his belief and dedication to coherence and clarity…unhurried, unpressured. By seeing what resulted he gave us a sense of balance.

Over the years I observed Will in professional situations. I was again and again struck by his toughness not only about his own work—but that of others. I personally experienced the form that his criticism took— in relation to my own work. And it was a sensitive probing for a form for expressing his thoughts without demolishing the creator in the process. His was not the “I must be honest with you” school of criticism. No. Will was first compassionate and within that context found a place for the truth as he saw it. In the years I spent working closely with Will on the Aspen conference, I learned how deeply he felt about the importance of our craft…how important it was to Will to see the decisions in our work as having moral implications…And how important he felt it was to anchor the designer to larger concepts. Yet this utter seriousness and formality (Will was a very formal man) did not prevent him from joyously and madly charging up and down the Aspen meadow (outside the tent) trying to get his kite aloft in the kite flying contest one year. (A memory I will always cherish.)

Finally: Will’s life was one of great achievement and great frustration. In this sense, Will’s was a complete life. As much as any life is complete. He was a beautiful man. A good example of the best of what is possible in us. There was a piece of us in Will…and there is a piece of Will in us. He was a teacher. A friend. A man. I loved him. I miss him.=

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A Will Burtin cover for SCOPE magazine