German-born Burtin never graduated high school. Instead, he studied typography at Handwerkskammer Köln for four years before attending design school. But at the onset of WWII, he and his wife Hilda Munk, who was Jewish, fled to New York City. In 1943 he was drafted in the United States Army and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services alongside cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg, where he created gun manuals for the U.S. Air Force and Army Air Force. Following the war, publisher Henry Luce hired him as the art director of Fortune, where he remained from 1945-1949. He went on to work for myriad U.S. companies, including the Upjohn Company, Eastman Kodak, IBM, the Smithsonian Institute, Mead Paper, Union Carbide, Herman Miller Furniture, and United States Information Agency.
At Upjohn, Burtin became the art director for Scope, a medical and pharmaceutical industry magazine, while still art directing for Fortune, which he left in 1949 to start his own design studio. Beyond his work in information design, editorial design, identity, and posters, he also created exhibitions for science shows on subjects like human blood cells and the brain. He personally conducted intensive research and consulted with scientists, model-makers, lighting consultants, electricians, and photographers on popular exhibits that were attended by thousands and reviewed by magazines such as Life and Newsweek.
In a 1949 issue of Graphis, Burtin wrote, “Man is the total sum of his experience. His scale and focus change continuously as he studies, grows, and develops. Therefore, in designing, we must realize that steadily changing conditions confront us, to which we can only adjust ourselves by:
- constantly developing better and more precise ways of expressing ideas;
- investigating anew with each new assignment the entire range of approaches;
- understanding the mechanics of vision;
- understanding space and time relations is a main requirement in visual organization.”
The AIGA Design Archives holds 15 of Burtin’s works, a collection that merely hint at the breadth and scope of his full portfolio. In addition to editorial work and advertising materials for pharmaceutical companies, for example, Burtin also experimented with holographic films and television media. His work was shown in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Royal College of Art in London, as well as many other international museums. He was one of the founders of International Design Conference at Aspen he taught design at Pratt, and was inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 1974. A monograph of his work Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin by R. Roger Remington and Robert S. P. Fripp was published in 2007.