Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin

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

E. Roger Remmington and Robert Fripp. Lund Humphries, 2007 design-science-cover

I’ve just read Robert Fripp ((An important thing to know about Fripp is that he married Burtin’s only daughter, Carol Burtin.)) and Roger Remington’s illustrated biography of designer Will Burtin, Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin. An informal student of the Bauhaus school, Burtin was a well know designer in German, before he and his Jewish wife fled the country before World War II. Preceding his escape, he was requested by both Joseph Goebbels and Hitler to become the design director of the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda.


In the forties, Burtin was drafted in to the U.S. army and was tasked with creating illustrated how-to guides for aerial gunners, many of whom could not read. Still during the war years, he became the Art Director for Fortune magazine. Interestingly, the magazine pleaded that he should be discharged from the military— that his talents would better serve the nation’s interest in this role. In his time at Fortune, Fripp and Remmington say that Burtin founded many of the practices and principles of corporate identity in graphic design. In particular they consider Burtin’s ongoing work for the Kalamazoo based Upjohn Company ((Upjohn was later split and subsumed into the Pharmacia and Pfizer companies.)), including the publication Scope. In his writings and an exhibition Burtin explained his philosophy as a designer:

“To convey the meaning, to facilitate understanding of reality and thereby help further progress, is a wonderful and challenging task for design. The writer, scientist, painter, philosopher and the designer of visual communication, in commerce, are all partners in the task of inventing the dramatic and electrifying to a more comprehensive grasp of our time.” ((Burtin treatise Integration: The New Discipline in Design can be read in Looking Closer 3which available on Google Books))

Burtin designed packaging for Upjohn products. Photo of Design and Science.

Butin’s most grand and enduring work came after his time at Fortune, as he continued to use “art and design as a means of understanding science.” Throughout his career Burtin created and oversaw a variety of information graphics, but in the 50’s he also began to work with large-scale, multi-media installations that visualized scientific understanding of complex systems. The first of these was an Upjohn-sponsored walk-in exhibition of a human cell.

Fripp and Remmington consider several other projects, including large interactive exhibits on the human brain, human metabolism, and uranium atoms. Seeing these works and reading about how each project was designed and carried out, Burtin’s work seems visionary in how it communicates information using interconnected, multimedia elements that are—despite their complexity— so refined.

Image via
Image via

Fripp and Remmington’s narrative of Burtin’s life is crisp and flows well with the documents, photos, and artifacts of Burtin’s work. Several stories in the book are great. For instance, in an argument with architect Phillip Johnson over the lighting in the Johnson-designed New York State Pavilion, Burtin resolved the mater by shooting out the lights with a BB-Gun. Burtin disliked Johnson for his open pro-Nazi position in the 1930s.  Such anecdote are not overstated, though, as the authors’ weigh the Burtin’s legacy based on the influence of his design and ideas.

Other Readings:

  • Patrick Burgoyne discusses Burtin’s work and the book, Design and Science, in Creative Review.

One thought on “Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin

  1. Hi Steve,

    Thank you for your generous review of “Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin.” Your visitors can read more, including draft chapters, a timeline and reviews by leading design writers, at Menu> Books.

    Robert Fripp, co-author of
    “Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin.”

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