RIT Press publishes an in-depth look at Will Burtin’s scientific approach to design

The contributions and relevance of a pioneering 20th-century information designer are the focus of a new publication from RIT Press.

Communicating knowledge visually: Will Burtin’s scientific approach to information design, by R. Roger Remington and Sheila Pontis, offers contemporary designers, educators and students a masterclass in Burtin’s design philosophy.

Burtin’s work contrasted with the commercial art of the mid-twentieth century. His streamlined compositions explained the scientific and technological advances of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Using a scientific approach to design, Burtin combined observation, research and innovative materials in his “visual communication”. His pamphlet designs explained discoveries about human physiology – metabolism, visual perception, cells and the brain – while his participatory installations at pharmaceutical exhibitions translated these concepts into larger-than-life structures.

Communicate knowledge visually presents Burtin’s process through case studies and first-hand accounts of his ideas and theories. According to Remington, co-author and professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology, his writings and process work convey a philosophy relevant to contemporary design issues and practices.

“Information design is a major responsibility for today’s graphic designer,” Remington said. “Will Burtin’s design achievements, as detailed in the new book, serve as role models for emerging and practicing graphic designers. The book discusses the important history of graphic design – Will Burtin and many of his major projects – and how these examples illustrate useful information design methodology for designers today.

Born in Germany, Burtin apprenticed in a typography workshop and developed a design process using a scientific approach. The Third Reich sought out Burtin as director of propaganda, leading him and his wife, Hilde, to flee Nazi Germany. The couple emigrated to the United States in 1938. Burtin volunteered for the United States Army in 1943 and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services. He led a team that designed manuals for Air Force enlistees operating bomber gunnery. Research informed Burtin’s design solutions, and he trained as a gunner and parachute jumper while working on warfare manuals.

Burtin’s career spanned over 40 years. He worked as an art director for Fortune magazine and ran his own design business, with clients including Union Carbide, Eastman Kodak Co., the Smithsonian Institute and Upjohn Pharmaceuticals, for whom he designed Scope, a journal for physicians. He was also a guest instructor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Remington is an internationally renowned designer and expert on the life and work of Burtin. His scholarship includes Nine Pioneers of American Graphic Design with Barbara Hodik; Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin with Robert SP Fripp, son-in-law of Burtin; and Will Burtin: Displaying Visual Knowledge.

“I first heard of Will Burtin and his design as an undergraduate graphic design student at RIT in the 1950s,” Remington said. “My mentor, Professor Hans Barschel, knew Burtin and sponsored an exhibition of Burtin’s work at the RIT while I was a student.”

Burtin’s writings and process work featured in Communicate knowledge visually are housed in the Cary Graphic Arts Archive at RIT. The Will Burtin Archive was donated in 2000 by his daughter Carol Burtin Fripp and is the largest collection of the Graphic Design Archive within RIT’s Special Collections. Remington created the archive to preserve the process works and papers of influential 20th century designers.

Co-author Pontis is an information design researcher, educator, and practitioner. His work and research studies how people interact with information. Pontis teaches in the Integrated Design and Management Graduate Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a partner with Sense Information Design, a New York-area design consultancy. She is the author of Making Sense of Field Research: A Practical Guide for Information Designers.

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