Monday, November 17, 2008

Will Burtin, or why good designers are good at everything they do

Born in 1908 in Cologne, Germany, Will Burtin was a design pioneer of the 20th century. His design theories and processes affected every area of his life, which brought him great success.

Forgoing formal education after grade 8, Burtin began his career as a typesetter's apprentice during his teens. Realizing early on that methods of communication were changing, he explored new design techniques using sans serif typefaces and asymmetric layout.

Having become a prominent designer in Germany, the Nazis attempted to commission him as the house designer for Hitler. With a Jewish wife, Hilda, and no sympathy for the Nazi regime, Burtin and Hilda fled to the US where they were sponsored by relatives.

Burtin began teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and was soon drafted into the US Army. There, he designed gunnery training manuals for soldiers. His ability to convey complex instructions using dominant graphics helped keep the lives of many pilots safe.

In the following years, Burtin developed a design philosphy called Integration, in which the designer conveyed information with visual communication that is based on four principal realities.

The four realities:
the reality of man as measure and measurer
the reality of light, color, texture
the reality of space, motion, time
the reality of science

Using this approach to design problems was essentially the birth of what later became known as multimedia. By integrating all four realities into a design solution, Burtin could solve seemingly insoluble puzzles.

Burtin worked with many clients throughout his career, but two of the most notable were Fortune magazine and Upjohn pharmaceuticals.

While working as art director at Fortune, Burtin brought many new design approaches to the field. Competition for readers during the Depression era inspired great advancements in design and use of new techniques.

His copy and illustrations were not just neatly organized, but were presented in counterpoint to each other. One could get the gist of a story by simply following the layout. The text acted as clarification and enforcement of the concepts explained.

Through unprecedented integration of type and image, Burtin was able to graphically communicate complex scientific phenomena and theory.

After his tenure at Fortune, Burtin was the design consultant for Upjohn. Not only pioneering the concept of corporate branding by creating consistent logo and packaging appearance throughout company materials, he also propelled publication design and scientific visualization forward with his work on Scope magazine. Scope presented new scientific and medical developments to physicians simply and clearly.

In addition to his work with Scope, Burtin continued his scientific visualization work with the creation of The Cell, an exhibit/model of a human cell magnified one million times. Scientists were only able to see 2D images of cells through microscopes, and Burtin set out to figure out what a cell looked like in three dimensions.

"Assisted by urgent needs for a better understanding of complex problems in medical science and related research, and supported by a progressive manufacturer, it became possible to select themes and to design educational models of some of the more significant structures and processes of life that had been revealed by science in recent years. The primary value of such models - as well as graphic design work preceding and following them - is that they reduce the time necessary for the study and understanding of a science problem. The secondary value is not less important than the first. It lays in the opportunity to provide a physical and optical orientation that facilitates a better grasp of the inter-relatedness of all parts that make a basic cell - for example - so important for the various chemical functions on which life and health are based."

Will Burtin in Design Responsibility in an Age of Science, typed manuscript pp. 12-13.

His timing was impeccable, as researchers and doctors at the time believed that understanding the anatomy of living cells was key to discovering what ailed them, like cancer. No two scientists agreed on what a three dimensional cell might look like, so Burtin took his comprehensive research and developed a resolution that became wholly respected by the medical community.

Cytology was the "in" science of the time, and the public was fascinated with Burtin's exhibit. His translation of scientific research into a real world model that clearly explained the idea of a cell was immensely successful and did great service to the field of medical research.

What these projects hold in common is clear: through Burtin's intense desire to teach and clarify ideas, he used deep research, intuition and his own theories of integration to make complex information intelligible.

Burtin was so successful in such varied media communication because his thorough research allowed him to make appropriate methodology decisions after a complete evaluation of a problem. Comprehensively understanding the message to communicate allowed Burtin to select the proper materials and processes.

Burtin's contributions to the capabilities of human communication prove that good design can spur serious advancement in any field. And as designers, we can use Burtin's theories and methodologies to inspire our own progress in all areas of life.

Remington, R. Roger and Robert S. P. Fripp. Design and Science: the Life and Work of Will Burtin.

Remington, R. Roger and Barbara J. Hodik. Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.

Other neat facts:

Burtin's second wife was Cipe Pineles.

Burtin is credited with bringing Helvetica to the states.

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