Will Burtin: An Overlooked Designer Whose Legacy Is Still Relevant Today

R. Roger Remington and Sheila Pontis


Will Burtin was a designer ahead of his time and should have a prominent place in design history. However, his genius has been largely overlooked by industry leaders, current practitioners and design educators. Asked to name a few well-known 20th-century designers, today’s design practitioners would likely mention Saul Bass, Charles and Ray Eames, Milton Glaser, William Golden, Paul Rand, Stefan Sagmeister and Ladislav Sutnar; but only a few would name Burtin, despite his outstanding 40-plus-year career as an art director, graphic designer, exhibition director, educator and consultant.

What made Burtin stand out was his logical and functional approach to design, which stood in contrast to other designers of his time. Today, Burtin’s approach would be described as that of an information designer, a term used to describe the design practice aimed at facilitating understanding. His work focused on explaining rather than simply creating persuasive or aesthetically pleasing solutions. Like information design itself, Burtin’s work emphasized clear communication and functionality.


Burtin began his graphic design career in Cologne, Germany, as an apprentice in a typography shop. He was greatly influenced by European avant-garde designers and artists before emigrating to the United States in 1938.



Many immigrant designers, used to the rich history of European design, pictured the design scene in America as being undeveloped, crude and even a “blank slate.” Burtin, however, was pleasantly surprised: “In the U.S., I found conditions which made the continuation of studies possible: people less biased by narrow interpretations of tradition; devotion to high productivity; a great industrial apparatus.” Burtin had found ample room for building a new design career.


With family help and supportive professional contacts, such as Dr. Robert Leslie at The Composing Room Inc., Burtin’s career soon flourished in New York. He designed exhibitions for the New York World’s Fair in 1939; produced print materials for the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company; designed covers for The Architectural Forum magazine; and, after entering the military, worked for the U.S. Army designing Air Force instructional manuals. Burtin also taught graphic design courses to undergraduates at Pratt Institute: “I taught them design; they taught me English.”


Will and Hilde Burtin’s only child was born in 1942. As the war years were winding down, America experienced a dynamic revitalization in business and industry. The factories and industries that had been marshaled for America’s “arsenal of democracy” were now available for consumer goods and more.



In the mid-1940s, Fortune, America’s premier business magazine with a circulation in 1937 of around 460,000, was searching for a new art director. Burtin had worked as adviser and designer for Time, Life, The Architectural Forum, and Fortune before he went into the army in 1943, and was therefore a known entity to magazine editors.


With more than 20 years of experience in the design field, he was well-versed in scientific, industrial, economic, geographic, and social topics. These qualities made Burtin a strong candidate, not unnoticed by Fortune’s managers. In 1945, Fortune approached the military to ask that Burtin be released from his service commitment to serve “the national interest” in a different way, by leading the magazine in these demanding new economic times. Fortune’s managers explained to the army that Will Burtin was “without question the man best fitted for the position.” The army agreed, Burtin accepted the position, and he worked as art director of Fortune magazine from 1945 to 1949.


Following his time with Fortune, Burtin opened his own design firm in New York. In 1949, Burtin became the chief designer for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Upjohn became his major career client and he continued working there until his death in 1971.



Hilde Burtin passed away in 1960, and roughly one year later, Burtin married designer Cipe Pineles, who had been a close family friend. Pineles was the widow of graphic designer William Golden, who had died in 1959. She was one of the few prominent women designers of her time, working as art director for Seventeen and Glamour magazines.


Burtin’s mature years of designing graphic and exhibition installations for Upjohn gave him the chance to develop innovative ways of explaining complex content. In this pioneering work, Burtin bridged the fields of design and science, becoming one of the first graphic designers to employ an information design mindset.


This is an excerpt from Communicating Knowledge Visually: Will Burtin’s Scientific Approach to Information Design (RIT Press) by R. Roger Remington and Sheila Pontis, PhD. It’s published here with permission.


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Images courtesy of RIT Press
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