If designer-household-namery were based on the quality of work, Will Burtin would be up there with the greats of the canon: his peers, friends, and contemporaries like Paul Rand and Saul Bass. Indeed, “Will Burtin might be the most important designer you’ve never heard of,” as publisher Unit Editions puts it.
Naturally, the publisher has its reasons for bigging up Burtin at the moment: it’s nearing the end of a Kickstarter campaign to launch the book that’ll hopefully sear his legacy into our collective consciousness once and for all, Will Burtin: Journey to Understanding. Written by the historian R. Roger Remington and data visualization expert Sheila Pontis, the book is designed by James Goggin, co-founder of Providence-based graphic design studio Practise and a teacher at RISD.
“Will Burtin is one of those designers who really deserves a book with great reproductions and extensive insights into the process,” says Goggin. “There’s still a lot that’s not broadly known about him, so it was exciting and a big responsibility to take on that task of communicating his work to others.”
The book is broken up into 11 chapters, covering all the key aspects of Burtin’s work, with many illustrations of his 3D and 2D projects as well as insights into his “design thinking.” Such thinking, and his groundbreaking work in information design, has since had a huge impact on how designers communicate complex scientific ideas visually, through simplified diagrammatic forms. But diagrams were far from all he did.
Burtin’s story is one that bears being told again—it’s fascinating. Born in Cologne, Germany in 1908, he studied typography and in 1927 he opened his own studio working across technical brochures, exhibitions, advertising, and posters for films. His excellent work didn’t go unnoticed, for better and for worse: in 1937 he was personally contacted by Joseph Goebbels and asked to become design director at the Propaganda Ministry of the ruling Nazi party. When Hitler repeated Goebbels’ demand, Burtin and his wife, Hilde Munk, fled to the U.S.
From his new home in New York Burtin began working with pharmaceutical company Upjohn, and designed for Fortune magazine until 1949, after which he set up Will Burtin, Inc. consulting for Upjohn company and other leading American corporations. He also taught at Pratt Institute, and worked across a number of those vast 3D installations that proved the power of good design to communicate complex scientific ideas. Later, in 1961, Burtin married editorial designer Cipe Pineles.
While there have been books about Burtin’s work—notably a 2007 monograph, also written by Remington—this new volume is set to be a whopper of a tome, delving into his practice over almost 600 pages and through extensive reproductions, with a few reprinted to scale. One of the most important factors to Goggin in his work is related to scale; the enormous installations that he produced for the Upjohn pharmaceutical company, for instance, were essentially 3D manifestations of information design, some of which were experienced by millions of people. Goggin tried to reproduce Burtin’s work to reflect its size. “On a practical level, that’s one way we can do justice to the work,” says Goggin. “We took the opportunity to show as many spreads as possible.” Nine of Burtin’s projects are to be explored in depth in the book.
Some of Burtin’s most forward-thinking work was in his installation pieces and exhibition design, though his graphics prowess is also made abundantly clear in editorial designs for magazines like Fortune and the pharmaceutical journal Scope. The AIGA Design Archives holds 15 of Burtin’s works, a collection that merely hints at the breadth and scope of his full portfolio.
For Goggin, the design of the book itself was a careful balancing act of wanting to reference Burtin’s approach to things like typography, layout, and rhythm, while “not stepping into pastiche.” Burtin was known as one of the earliest champions of Helvetica in the U.S., so Goggin decided to use its digitized version, Neue Haas Grotesk.
The timing of the book, Goggin feels, is especially apt. Discussions around publishing it began in 2016, around the time Trump was voted in and amidst no shortage of global political and social turbulence. “Burtin’s story was about standing up to fascists,” says Goggin. “He was radical in his principles. He simply believed in science, and sharing scientific knowledge.”
This love of the world of truth and scientific discovery was negotiated through conceptual means, too. It’s Burtin’s “four principle realities” that Goggin speaks with most passion about: “they’re almost not like graphic design, but conceptual measures of the realities of light, color, and texture; space and motion; and time and science. He was claiming intangibles around space, motion, and time as the principles and phenomena with which graphic design can communicate.”
So since his work and research was so far-reaching, why isn’t Burtin more well known? For Pontis, one of the main factors is simply because he wasn’t working in the fields of commercial graphic design—“he was just focused on trying to preach science to the public, and that’s not going to be a million dollar project,” she says. “His goal isn’t to sell or advertise.” Goggin adds, “his work is more of an ensemble, but when you see all the different projects he worked on set out in the book, you can see the connections to the same person.”
The words that come up again and again in discussing or reading about Burtin are “complexity” and “simplicity”—namely that he transformed the former into the latter. As such, this new volume is no coffee table book: instead, the design and content are conceived to work together more as a reference book with much attention paid to the materiality of the thing—with rough, tonal, and craft papers galore. “I wanted to imbue the book with a simple humility and honesty and get down to the work straight away,” says Goggin. “The unpacking of his process is what makes the book important.” As such, he used a soft cover with a recycled board outer and “very floppy paper, as lightweight as I can.” He adds, “I consider it to be a piece of industrial design.”
There’s much that any designer or design student will surely find hugely inspiring in Burtin’s work, not least of all his dogged determination to work for who he wanted, and make work that ultimately fascinated him. “For me, the reason his work was so effective and successful was he as working in a field [scientific development] he personally loved. He could talk on the same level as the scientists knowing the subject matter intimately,” says Goggin.
Burtin’s work and its impact on today’s designers and information design is vast, and thanks to Unit Editions’ project, will become vaster still. Hopefully, it’ll mean no more need for that “most important designer you’ve never heard of” tagline.