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Photograph. Will Burtin at work with wife and collaborator, designer Cipe Pineles, n.d.
Photo by A.V. Sobolewski.

Photograph.  Burtin as young man, n.d.

Passport photographs.  Will and Hilde Burtin.  Deutsches Reich Reise-pass [Will and Hilde Burtin’s German passport], 1933.

Cover.  Deutsches Reich Reise-pass [Will and Hilde Burtin’s German passport], 1933.

Candid photograph.  Will Burtin, n.d.

Candid photograph.  Will Burtin, n.d.

Will Burtin and wife, Cipe Pineles, n.d.

The Will Burtin Collection documents the work of the pioneer information designer of the 20th century. Born in Germany, Burtin received his training in typesetting and graphic design in Cologne and opened a design studio there in 1927. By 1938, he became one  of Germany’s leading designers with clients throughout Europe, gaining the attention of Adolf Hitler. Facing pressure to accept the position of the Propaganda Ministry’s design director, Burtin fled the Nazis in 1939. After settling in New York City with his wife, Burtin opened a freelance design practice creating advertisements, booklets, magazines, cover designs, and exhibits.  That same year, he was commissioned to design a major exhibit for the United States Federal Works Agency in the U.S. Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. The exhibit featured four free-hanging displays representing education, libraries, recreation, and conservation. He also began teaching at the Pratt Institute, and subsequently became chairman of the Department of Visual Communication.

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, Burtin designed gunnery manuals for the U.S. Air Force B-29 crews and visual presentations of strategies and other materials for the OSS. These manuals were extremely important due to their ability to communicate complex, critical information with economy of means and clarity.  Burtin was committed to 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.”

Following World War II, he returned to freelance  design and teaching.  He became Art Director of Fortune magazine (1945-1949). As Lorraine Wild writes in Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, “during Burtin’s tenure the magazine took on an innovative modern look that matched its audience’s aspiration...Burtin used excellent photographers, and he employed imaginative designers and illustrators to tackle the vast numbers of charts, maps, and other features, dealing with quantified data that were integral to Fortune.”  Burtin  employed important artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Ben Shahn, as well as influential designers Lester Beall, Gyorgy Kepes, and Arthur Lidov to assist in the design process. He also used the work of key photographers including Walker Evans and Andre Kertesz.

In 1949, he opened his design studio in New York City—Will Burtin, Inc. Until his death in January 1972, he served as designer and consultant in advertising for industrial and editorial projects for clients such as Eastman Kodak, IBM, the Smithsonian  Institution, Mead Paper, Union Carbide, Herman  Miller Furniture, and the United States Information Agency.

The principal client with whom he was associated from 1949-1971 was the Upjohn Company. Burtin served as Art Director of  Upjohn’s publication  Scope,  to assist doctors  in understanding medical, scientific and pharmaceutical information for over 15 years. Among the many projects Burtin executed for Upjohn were three famous walk-in exhibits: The Cell, The Brain, and The Chromosome, models of which are included in the Collection at RIT.  The Cell, completed in 1958, was developed by request from Upjohn, as Burtin says, “to recommend a visual method of explaining new knowledge about organic structure to the professional and general public…One of the first conclusions reached was that the entire structure should be built in a size large enough to enable the viewer to walk inside it, so that he would get a most intimate and dramatic close-up view of all the relationships between various parts of the cell and the whole.” The 24-foot three-dimensional model was built with  consultation from leading American scientists including Dr. Porter and Dr. Moses of the Rockefeller Institute, Dr. Hamilton of the Sloan-Kettering Institute, and many other scientists throughout the country.  The Cell  was an immediate success, traveling throughout several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Kalamazoo, New York City, and  Chicago. The exhibit also traveled to England. With over 2 million people visiting the exhibit, it was reviewed in Newsweek and Life as well as numerous other publications in the design field.

The success of The Cell generated many similar projects for Upjohn, most notably The Brain. As Roger Remington, RIT Professor of Design, writes in Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design, “Burtin defined the design problem as a search for an audiovisual mode of demonstrating the sequence by which the main product of the brain, a thought, evolves. He consulted with structural engineers, physicians, physicists, chemists, and others to ensure accuracy in the presentation while preserving simplicity and clarity of communication. At an early stage of development 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….The Brain, completed in 1960, was a precursor of what was to become popular as the “light show” or multimedia event. Through projected image, sequence, lights and color – among the components of the exhibit were 45,000 lights and 40 miles of wire – Burtin conveyed the working of the mind in a way never approached before.”

Burtin wrote in 1964, “In retrospect, the most profound experience of working ‘The Brain,’ was the idea that the problem of how we think about thinking had become a design problem as well. In tracing the logic by which awareness of reality and dream is established, I felt often as if I were looking into the  reasoning of creation itself.”  Due to its immense popularity, a second Brain exhibit was created for travel in Europe where it was displayed in Turin. It then became part of a traveling exhibit of Will Burtin’s work entitled Visual Aspects of Science which went to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, then to the Royal College of Art, London and to the Palais de la Découverte, Paris.

Burtin was a design theorist, lecturer and educator, as well as conference planner.  He planned two large influential conferences on design and communication theories. The 1965 conference, Vision65: World Congress on New Challenges to Human Communications, sponsored by the International Center for the Typographic Arts in cooperation with Southern Illinois University, brought architects, designers, film producers, art historians, music theorists, scientists, philosophers and social commentators together to discuss “the broad emergent problems of communications and challenges posed by the technological and social developments in ways which will significantly stimulate the individual and the community.”  The conference was such a success that is was repeated in 1967. Vision 67: Survival and Growth Through Human Communications was held in New York and sponsored by The International Center for the Communication  of Arts and Sciences at New York University and the International Center for the Typographic Arts. Speakers at the 1967 conference included Buckminster Fuller, Umberto Eco, Jean Tinguely, Charles Siepmann, Victor Vasarely, as well as many scientists, psychologists, and scholars from other disciplines.

In 1971, Burtin received the highest honor of the graphic design world, the Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), in recognition of his many contributions to American graphic design as an influential innovator, a gifted visual problem solver, and notable communicator. The AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements, services or other contributions to the field of design and visual communication.  Shortly after receiving this award, Will Burtin was appointed as Research Fellow in Visual and Environmental Studies at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University. Unfortunately, he was unable to fulfill the appointment due to illness. Despite having cancer, he continued to be engaged on a monumental exhibit for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment to be held in Stockholm, Sweden.  The project was realized by his design staff after his death on January 18, 1972. 

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