Will Burtin in the Present

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The designer Will Burtin’s intellectual and creative powers allowed him to function on an epic scale. The giant installations that he produced for the Upjohn pharmaceutical company were complex works of 3D information design. They were extensively exhibited, and attracted huge crowds. More than 10 million people visited his walk-through model, The Cell. He was ahead of the curve in what is now called “information design” and ahead of the Nazis, escaping after he’d been invited to assume the role of art director in the The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. R. Roger Remington has already published a book on Burtin’s interest in science; a new volume to be published by Unit Editions is now in the Kickstarter fundraising process. I talked to Remington about the advantages of this new (and I believe essential) volume.

You have already published Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin, a very thorough book. Why are you doing this new, much larger volume?The first Burtin book Design and Science was an overview of Burtin’s, life, career and work. This new expansive book on Will Burtin is titled Journey to Understanding–Will Burtin–Pioneer of Information Design. It is focused on Burtin’s unique contributions to information design through a detailed presentation of many key Burtin projects. These are coupled with content on information design that is useful for students and practicing graphic designers today and in the future.

Why is Burtin important enough to graphic and information design that he deserves this closer look?Even though at the time it was done it was not called information design, Burtin’s work consistently evidenced his special skill at translating complex subjects into understandable form, whether in three or two dimensions. This book exposes in depth much of this key work [that] has not been seen before and not presented in the context of information design.

Your RIT Archive, which you’ve managed so brilliantly, must have a huge amount of material. What goes in and what stays out?The Cary Graphic Design Archive in the RIT Library, begun in 1983, originally specialized on acquiring work of the American modernist generation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Once the majority of these pioneers were in house, the collection policy was broadened to include more contemporary designers. Presently there are 45 collections at Cary. Eventually this project led to the acquisition of the Vignelli Archive, which was so extensive that it required its own building, the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. Since its dedication in 2010, the Vignelli Center has added fifteen additional collections of graphic and product design from around the world. The goal of all this is simple—to preserve the works and archives of designers of excellence for reference by students, teachers and researchers.

How would you describe the direction you’ve taken this new book. Is it biography, analysis or critique, or a combination.? And is it meant for designers or beyond?It is a book about a pioneering designer from the past in the context of information design content that is useful for designers today and in the future.

This is an eternal question. We believe that history defines the design field. In this changing field how much more important is this chronicle of a canonical figure such as Burtin?Students and design professionals have a responsibility to know about the history of their field. The field of information design (shaping clear messages) is more important than ever in today’s world. In this case, the more one studies and analyzes Burtin’s work, the more obvious it is that there is a unique relevance, appropriateness and timelessness that is instructive and important.

The deadline for the Regional Design Awards has been extended, but only until April 30.

Your judges: Sagi Haviv, Rebeca Méndez, Nancy Skolos, Alexander Isley, Chad Michael, Gail Anderson and Justin Peters.


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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →