Will Burtin - neglected giant of design
Invited to be the Nazi party’s ‘Design Director’, Will Burtin did what all right thinking people would do. He emigrated.
Will Burtin might be the most important designer you’ve never heard of, and like so many visionaries, he was ahead of his time. As the authors of this new book, Will Burtin: Journey to Understanding, state: ‘Will Burtin’s contributions to design can be characterised as important as Albert Einstein’s contributions to science. While his brilliant discoveries in physics gave Einstein his reputation, Burtin’s scientific approach to design should have also given him a revolutionary place in design history.’
The design writer Rick Poynor has written: ‘Everything I heard about Burtin convinced me that he was a figure as significant in the history of 20th-century graphic design as the handful of heroes we tend to obsess over – Paul Rand, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Wim Crouwel (still alive, of course) – and in some respects even more interesting.’
Without Burtin’s contribution to the evolution of information design, this vital component of modern visual communication would not have developed so rapidly, nor would it have reached its current heights of sophistication – especially in the area of communicating scientific discoveries. Burtin was fascinated by science and devoted his life to explaining and simplifying complex scientific information.
Burtin’s intellectual and creative powers meant that he was able to function on an epic scale. The giant installations that he produced for the Upjohn pharmaceutical company were complex works of three-dimensional information design. They were extensively exhibited, and attracted huge crowds. Over 10m people visited his walk-through model – The Cell.
Burtin was also a sophisticated and articulate graphic designer in two dimensions. He produced a magnificent body of printed work, which included designing covers for Fortune magazine. The designer Lorraine Wild has written: ‘Every issue of Fortune explodes with visual intensity … combining documentary photography, conceptual illustration, graceful and sober typography, and an amazing array of approaches to charts, graphs and technological diagrams.’
He also designed the pharmaceutical journal Scope, and numerous other publications, including military manuals. He was one of the pioneers of Helvetica in late-1950s America.
Will Burtin – a short biography
Will Burtin was born in Cologne, Germany in 1908. He studied typography and served an apprenticeship in a typesetting studio while continuing his studies. In 1927 he opened his own studio in Cologne and worked on technical brochures, exhibitions, advertising and posters for films.
Over the next few years his reputation as a designer grew to such an extent that in 1937 he was contacted by Josef Goebbels and asked to become design director at the Propaganda Ministry of the ruling Nazi party. Burtin stalled for time, but when Hitler repeated Goebbels’ demand, Burtin and his wife, Hilde Munk, fled to the USA.
In New York, Burtin began work immediately. In 1940 he started working for the Upjohn pharmaceutical company – the company was to remain an important patron for the rest of Burtin’s life. He was featured in A-D magazine and his reputation grew rapidly. During WWII, he was drafted into the US army where he worked on designing his legendary gunnery manual, a feat of information design that enabled untrained conscripts to master their weapons prior to being thrown into combat.
He worked for Fortune magazine until 1949, after which he set up Will Burtin Inc, in New York, working as a design consultant for the Upjohn company and other leading American corporations. He also lectured extensively, taught at the Pratt Institute and was a founding member of the group that started the International Design Conference at Aspen, Colorado. In the coming decades Burtin designed the giant three-dimensional installations that form a lasting monument to his genius as a designer of complex scientific information.
Burtin’s wife Hilde died in the 1960s when their daughter Carol was aged 18. In 1961 Burtin married the celebrated editorial designer Cipe Pineles. Burtin emerged as an influential design thinker and in 1965 he organised the Vision 65 conference. Throughout the 1970s his reputation as an intellectual designer grew. He was admired and befriended by many of the most influential designers of his generation.
Burtin died in 1972. Saul Bass gave the eulogy at his funeral. He said: ‘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.’
The book is written by R. Roger Remington and Sheila Pontis. In their respective texts, they bring an abundance of contextual and historical insight, which enables us to view the extraordinary life and work of Will Burtin with clarity.
They cover the full range of Burtin’s career in design, which spanned over forty years. They describe in depth his scientific approach to design; an approach and methodology that led to him acquire international recognition asone of the genuine pioneers in design, particularly in what we know today as Information Design.
The book comprises 11 chapters dealing in detail with all the key aspects of Burtin’s work. The text is extensively illustrated with carefully chosen examples of Burtin’s 3D and 2D projects. We are also given insight into his role as a design thinker.
For those new to Burtin, the writers encourage the reader to discover his genius. For those familiar with Burtin, the book offers a deep and thorough appraisal of his contribution to the evolution of visual communication.
Journey to Understanding is sensitively designed by James Goggin. As a long time Burtin admirer, James brings enthusiasm, skill and flair to the presentation of Burtin’s work in ways that reveal him as a unique voice in graphic design history.
To produce and publish a book that does justice to Will Burtin’s vast body of work, we need your help. Here are details of the book’s design, format and editorial content.
200 x 270mm
CMYK throughout + 1 special colour
Cover stock: Multi Grey (outer) Chromolux red (inner)
Book: Magno Volume 1.1 90gsm
Binding: Threadsewn Cold Glue Otastar
R. Roger Remington is the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design and Director of the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York. He is an educator with critical interests in graphic design history, research and writing. His deep commitment to design history and preservation has led him to bring the archives of designers of the American Modernist generation to RIT. The Cary Graphic Design Archive contains more than 35 collections, including those of Will Burtin, Lester Beall and many others. In 2010, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, which houses the career archive of designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli along with 15 additional contemporary designers.
Sheila Pontis is an information designer bridging theory and practice with nearly 18 years of experience combining design research and design thinking with information design in education, healthcare, research, and transportation. She is a partner at Sense Information Design LLC, a New York-area design consultancy that helps bring focus and clarity to fuzzy situations. She received a PhD in Information Design from University of the Arts London, and currently teaches courses about information design and design thinking at Princeton University. Previously, she taught at Ravensbourne College and Goldsmith University in the UK, and Rutgers University and Parsons School of Design in the US. She is trained in design and ethnography, and has a deep interest in understanding people, and creating solutions to address their needs and behaviours.
James Goggin is a British and/or Australian graphic designer from London via Sydney, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Auckland, Arnhem, and Chicago. He received an MA in Graphic Design from the Royal College of Art in London and currently teaches on the Graphic Design BFA and MFA programmes at Rhode Island School of Design. He previously taught at Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, The Netherlands, and at ECAL (Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne) in Switzerland. James, alongside his studio, Practise, has worked as a consultant to Tate Modern and Tate Britain; Art Director of British avant-garde music magazine The Wire; and Director of Design and Publishing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. He designs type for various projects and clients, with a number of fonts available from Swiss type foundry Lineto. He is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale. Works by him are included in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Design Archive.
Unit Editions - the publishers
Unit Editions is an independent publishing company, producing books for an international audience of designers and followers of visual culture. The company was formed in 2010 by Tony Brook, Patricia Finegan (both Spin) and Adrian Shaughnessy.
High quality design and production standards are partnered with insightful texts and informative commentaries to produce books on a wide variety of subjects that are either neglected or ignored by mainstream publishers.
To date Unit Editions has produced over 35 books and publications. Titles include: Paula Scher: Works (2017); Lance Wyman: The Monograph (2015) and Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer 1918–81 (2010).
Unit Editions books are only available through their website and a handful of specialist book shops. Our books are shipped postage free to anywhere in the world. Superior protective packing is used to ensure that books arrive undamaged, and all large format books are shipped with protective corners.
Here’s what people have said about Unit Editions:
Unit Editions are always high on our list for their stunning publications on contemporary design and visual culture, beautifully realised with awesome attention to detail.
Form Fifty Five
The partnership for Unit Editions has been a fortuitous one, especially in the context of epic battles between a certain e-commerce monolith and traditional publishers—not to mention the persistent notion that the death of print is nigh. The venture has smartly sidestepped the whole messy rigmarole by self-financing, which has allowed them to work to a standard instead of a schedule. The result has been magnificent: critical acclaim for their volumes, a regular selling-out of copies and a resounding affirmation of the vitality of print.
Human Being magazine
With books on the likes of FHK Henrion, Lance Wyman and Total Design, as well as graphic stamps, corporate manuals, and punk records under its belt, independent publisher Unit Editions has established itself as the go-to source for cultivated and rigorous books on design. Formed in 2010 by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, both graphic designers who were equally disillusioned by the mechanisms of the mainstream, Unit Editions quickly became proof of what can be achieved when you do things differently.
Eye on Design, AIGA
Risks and challenges
Unit Editions has successfully completed four Kickstarter campaigns to date, and is in the final stages of fulfilling the most recent campaign (Vaughan Oliver: Archive). All campaigns have exceeded their funding targets.
Unit Editions is hugely experienced in the production and delivery of books and publications of all kinds. We only use high quality suppliers (printers, binders, etc.), and we distribute globally on a daily basis.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)