Will Burtin


Transatlantic information design during the Cold War

Typographer, designer, and educator Will Burtin is considered one of the founding fathers of information design, the research-based practice of presenting information through primarily visual means. Building on a transatlantic career and his personal background, Burtin was uniquely qualified to act as a cultural interpreter, indirectly mediating the postwar German and American relationship. The United States government employed Burtin and other designers with similar backgrounds and skills, such as the architect Florence Knoll, not only for specific design projects, but also with the intention of transforming political discourse.

Will Burtin was one of the most prominent graphic designers of the postwar decades. Renowned for the clarity and immediacy of communication that he brought to complex subjects and for his ability to convey information through innovative and easily understood means, he is best known for his visualizations of scientific processes. His work, which encompassed print, advertising, packaging, corporate identity, and exhibit design was commissioned by a client base that consisted of major publications (Architectural Forum and Fortune magazines) and pharmaceutical companies (UpJohn and Scope), as well as international corporations (Union Carbide and Eastman Kodak). While the majority of Burtin’s professional life is well-documented, less research has focused on the fact that a significant portion of Burtin’s work was either commissioned or used by the United States government as a means of conveying information about the United States and its political, cultural, economic, and technological developments to an international audience.

Background in Weimar Era Design Modernism

Born in Cologne in 1908, Burtin emigrated to the United States in 1938 with his Jewish wife and partner, Hilde (née Munk) Burtin (1910-1960), in response to repeated demands by the Nazi government that he serve as design director for the Ministry of Propaganda. Burtin, despite a lack of formal education, completed a four-year apprenticeship in typography at the Handwerkskammer Köln in 1926 that he supplemented with coursework in graphic design at the Cologne Werkschulen. Two years later, he opened a design studio, Entwürfe Bürtin and began to teach design. Burtin’s extant work from this period—primarily promotional materials for the construction industry, a collection of which is now housed in RIT’s Burtin Archives—includes a booklet entitled “The Window” that contains technical data about the application of glass in modern architecture with text by Bauhaus directors Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and architect Adolf Schneck.

Burtin was one of many émigré designers to contribute to the expansion of design modernism in the United States. Among the surviving personal items that Burtin brought with him are Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie (1928) and Eine Stunde Druckgestaltung (1931). In these publications, Tschichold distilled the principles behind New Typography, a movement that merged the principles of Russian Constructivism with those of the Bauhaus as it argued against ornament, promoted the use of san serif typefaces, asymmetry, and expressed the need to consider fitness of purpose in everyday printing. Tschichold first summarized these ideas—introduced to him on a visit to the 1923 Weimar Bauhaus exhibit—in an October 1925 issue of typographische mitteilungen, a printing trade union magazine. As a forward-thinking designer whose work was published in Gebrauchsgraphik, a widely read German-English design magazine that featured the work of Bauhaus members, Burtin would have been familiar with typographische mitteilungen. In a 1954 edition of Print magazine, Burtin acknowledged his debt to the new typography and the Bauhaus when he wrote, “The great advances in basic design theory and visual-graphic techniques during the Stijle (sic) and Bauhaus period highlight the towering achievement of those exuberant twenties. Much of our present design teaching and practice is still performed in the shade of this tower. …” (Quoted in Remington 2009: 45).

Communication and Science: Designing for the U.S. Government and Corporate America

Burtin began his American career designing a logo for his immigration sponsor and cousin-in-law Max Munk, an aeronautical pioneer and fellow émigré. As his first significant job in the United States, he secured a government contract with the Federal Works Agency (FWA) to design the Agency’s 1939 World’s Fair exhibit. Burtin’s challenge was to create a single exhibit that highlighted all of the FWA’s accomplishments. The exhibit was intended to travel and tasked Burtin—who had previously typeset information for Dusseldorf’s 1926 GeSoLei exhibit dedicated to healthcare, social welfare, and physical exercise—with designing a modular system that was easy to assemble and disassemble, crate, and transport. The World’s Fair exhibit introduced Burtin to a skill set that proved useful throughout his later professional life as he went on to design major exhibits that circulated both nationally and internationally.

Drafted into the United States Army in 1943, Burtin was assigned to the presentation branch of the Office of Strategic Services where he was charged with designing training manuals for U.S. Air Forces aerial gunners. These manuals visually explained complex technical three-dimensional variables related to space, time, and motion and thus taught recruits, who were often semi-literate or illiterate, how to both attack and defend themselves from opponents. Renown for the simplicity and immediacy with which they trained their audience in the use of weapons, these manuals gave instruction in the form of image-dominant composites constructed using photographs, silhouettes, and line drawings that used dramatic changes in scale to suggest proximity and thus show the subject’s relationship to the reader.

Burtin’s postwar career initially remained in publishing, as the art director of Henry Luce’s Fortune Magazine. Discharged from the military in 1945 at the publisher’s request, Burtin created layouts in which photographs, illustrations, headline typography, and other graphic elements were overlaid and sequential imagery was used to imply space and time. Contrast, which allowed for different elements to be read clearly and established depth, was made through changes in scale, reproduction methods, and color. These elements worked together to capture the attention of the readers, typically members of the managerial class, and provide them with a visual summary before entering the story itself. A prime example of this can be found “The American Bazaar: A picture gallery of the chief activity of Americans—selling things to one another” (1947). In this essay, Burtin manipulated type and image in order to create a series of spreads that conveyed a sense of what the accompanying text described as the art of American salesmanship and its frenzied antics.

Man, as “… a measure and measurer” according to Burtin (1949: 230), was the most important element in the design process because effective visual communication depended on the audience’s physical, emotional, and intellectual response and comprehension. He formally expressed this design philosophy throughIntegration, the New Discipline in Design—an influential 1948 traveling exhibit that linked art with science. Considered dynamic because of its innovative use of new materials including steel, lightweight transparent colored plastics, and close up photographs that detailed texture and shadow, the exhibit showed the design aesthetics and influences of avant-garde European design. Shortly after Integration opened, Graphis, a Swiss design magazine with an international readership, published an essay by Burtin with the same name. In this essay, Burtin declared that, besides man as measurer, effective visual communications was based on three other principles: the reality of light, color, and texture; the reality of space, motion, and time; and the reality of science.

Cold War Traveling Exhibits

Burtin left Luce’s employment in 1949 to establish Will Burtin, Inc. Clients of his new firm included Fortune 500 companies and the United States government. The studio designed a number of science exhibits that circulated within the United States and internationally (including Union Carbide’s Atom, Upjohn’s Brain and Cell, and the USIA-sponsoredVisual Aspects of Science). Two frequently-overlooked exhibits that made important contributions to the European transatlantic understanding of American life and political system are Containers & Packaging (1951) and Kalamazoo—and how it grew (1957). Used as emissaries of change, these exhibits were contracted by the U.S. government’s Traveling Exhibition Service (TES). The objects contained within them were intended to furnish material evidence of the benefits of democratic government and to promote the growth of democracy in postwar Europe.

Containers & Packaging showcased innovative packaging solutions developed by American manufacturers to transport goods and to promote the contents held within them. This was part of the manufacturer’s goal of creating market share for itself by attracting customers, signifying brand, and building value. The exhibit circulated throughout West Germany via the America House program, a set of information centers established by the U.S. government as a means of introducing American culture and democracy abroad. As a precursor of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the TES modeled exhibits like Containers and Packaging at New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Good Design exhibits, a program that joined art and commerce in the promotion of modern design. The MoMA itself, it should be noted, was also influenced by the Bauhaus. The TES, which was headed by German émigré art historian Annemarie Henle Pope, contracted with Burtin again in 1957 when the United States Department of State commissioned the design of Kalamazoo—and how it grew. The multimedia exhibit aimed to present a representative example of middle-class life in a mid-sized, Midwestern American city to visitors in England, Scotland, and Wales and then at Berlin’s 1958 Industrial Fair. A scaled-down version was also circulated through the America House program.

Burtin recognized education as a goal that could bring together students of design, science, and other disciplines in the spirit of collaboration, communication, and the advancement of knowledge. Burtin continued to share his convictions and concerns, as well as to influence the way in which design was understood in subsequent years through his work, writings, and teaching. He also chaired and organized a number of conferences, including the 1955 and 1956 International Design Conferences at Aspen (IDCA). The latter conference was founded in 1949 by businessman Walter Paepcke (president of the Container Corporation of America) and former Bauhausler Herbert Bayer with the purpose of bringing together leaders in design, business, and education to increase the understanding of design’s economic value. Burtin also organized and chaired the Vision 65: World Conference on New Challenges to Human Communications, which examined the impact of new technologies on society in response to concerns regarding the growth of mass communication. It was followed by Vision 67: Survival and Growth that, like Vision 65, had an international array of attendees. As an influential design educator, Burtin taught at New York’s Pratt Institute, where he eventually led the Department of Visual Communications and the Parsons School of Design. Harvard University also appointed him Research Fellow in Visual and Environmental Studies at its Carpenter Center.

Burtin never again took up residence in Germany after his emigration in 1938. At the time of his death, he was developing an exhibit titled The Biosphere for the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. While the exhibit was ultimately left uncompleted due to the lack of funding, the conference’s declaration issued by the United Nations echoed Burtin’s belief that “man is both measure and measurer” by proclaiming in its introduction that “Man is both creature and moulder of his environment…” (United Nations 1972). Will Burtin was survived by his second wife, the Austrian-born graphic designer Cipe Pineles (1908–1991), and by his daughter.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Will Burtin
  • Coverage 1908–1972
  • Author
  • Keywords Graphic design, information design, typography, design modernism, Neue Typographie, federal works agency, office of strategic services, union carbide, traveling exhibition service, MoMA, Eastman Kodak, UpJohn, Scope, Architectural Forum, Fortune
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 26, 2021