to start his own studio in 1949. After redesigning their corporate identity, he turned his attention to
, their pharmaceutical journal. While the design of
, Burtin re-defined his practice beyond the confines of the advertising or publications art director, as his design was so integrated with the editorial side of the journal.
Integration: The New Discipline in Design
, an exhibition that Burtin put together about his own work (which opened at The Composing Room
in 1948), implored designers to step up to social engagement through the use of their skills to clarify and explicate a rapidly-changing world to an audience hungry for understanding. The exhibition had an impact beyond its specific venues, since Burtin’s text for it was published in Graphis
, and he was invited to lecture on this work extensively. The design of Integration
, and Burtin’s metaphor of the designer as the fulcrum by which form, color, material, texture and light can pivot to otherwise abstract concepts such as time, space, energy and motion, was his entry to the next, and most remarkable phase of his career, in which he engaged in the design of large-scale public exhibitions requiring the translation of scientific concepts into three-dimensional models.
It was Burtin who proposed the first of these projects, The Cell (1958), in part as a challenge to his longtime client, Upjohn. (He sensed that Scope was losing its audience, but he also was responding to his own increased passion for research.)
In order to design a plausible model of a human blood cell (and to respond to the relatively new focus on cytology as the engine for future developments in biology and medicine, four years after Watson and Crick), Burtin threw himself into research and consulted with scores of scientists working at the most speculative edges of their fields. Burtin’s conversations and questions were all directed toward the goal of creating a visualization that would, through its three-dimensional translation, give the research back to the scientists in a way that they themselves had not gotten to “see,” and which would also work as a teaching tool for the public. It is important to realize that Burtin’s gigantic structures (x 1,000,000) were not literal enlargements of microscopic images already available, but rather, were diagrammatic — and kinetic — depictions of processes and functions that were only beginning to be understood. This was equally true in his subsequent large-scale exhibits for Upjohn, The Brain (1960), Metabolism (1963), Genes in Action (1966) and Defense of Life (1968), all produced with the Director of Special Projects at Upjohn, Dr. Bruce McLeod. In addition to consulting with many scientists, Burtin was engaged with lighting consultants, electricians, model-makers, photographers, and his own staff, so these models were truly massive collaborations. Even so, they remained a reflection of Will Burtin’s specific vision of design as a vehicle for understanding.
Cell exhibition, Carol Burtin poses in front of model to show the scale, 1958
The most remarkable passages in Design and Science
describe the process by which the exhibition team (in the presentation of potential visual translations of concepts derived from their interviews with disparate scientists working on similar subjects) was able to reconcile —and even assist in — the advance of several important ideas through the design process. Their method was to “float” several versions of visual translations of concepts to the scientists in an effort to help bridge conceptual gaps in the scientists’ own thinking. So while the exhibits, on the outside, were presented as brilliant expressions of corporate enthusiasm, the models went way beyond the traditional realm of public communication, to get to the core of a participation in the very development of the science. The fact that several of these models had long runs as public exhibitions is a testament to their extraordinary communicative value.
Burtin’s career is a difficult one to encapsulate as he was engaged in such an active and complex range of activities. Clearly, ego was not a problem for Burtin: he had a high regard for his own gifts and the confidence (despite the limits of his trade-school education) that as a designer, he could participate meaningfully in the highest realms the post-war culture. His own practice had transcended the “commercial art” model most common in the 1950s and 60s, and had gone on to synthesize design thinking with education and technology.
Burtin also engaged in early efforts to expand the ways that design was understood, both within design culture and across the profession into business and education. He was among the founding members of the International Design Conference at Aspen
, a forum that established the template for intense cross-disciplinary exchange. Two more remarkable events chaired by Burtin and sponsored by the Aaron Burns’ International Center for the Typographic Arts, the Vision 65
and Vision 67
conferences, included lists of participants that crossed all boundaries, including Max Bill, Buckminster Fuller, Umberto Eco, and Jean Tinguely. Such events hint at the social, cultural, artistic and technological range that Burtin ascribed to design practice, which went far beyond the dictates of running his own office. (This was possibly the only aspect of his professional career that he seemed less inspired by: his office always seemed a means to a much larger and more interesting end than becoming profitable.)
We are facing a time within the design profession when there seems to be an unprecedented enthusiasm for the potential of design. Yet there is a general disaffection, particularly among more idealistic designers, with “conventional design practice” — an anachronism that may have transcended the old “commercial art” model but still describes a relatively static relationship between the designer who executes for a client who commissions. The disaffection with this model is timely, since the economic crisis seems to threaten this stasis. However, the paucity of alternative models draws many designers back to that culturally-approved model of creativity — the solo genius, the artist in the studio. When you combine this turn away from the conventions of practice with the rhetoric of authorship (that has had such a deep influence on designers in recent years), one finds the desire — and unquestionable ability — of designers to develop and use their “voice.”
The question remains as to what uses “voice” in design might have? To read the story of Will Burtin’s life work is to be reminded, in the most emphatic way, of another direction design activity can take — of what can happen when a designer “goes deep” into a subject through the visual expression of ideas, creating a scenario to support the ongoing project. The passion can begin in a personal, even idiosyncratic place, but design thinking pushes beyond the studio and toward a larger world. The resulting synthesis between times, tools, and relationships translated into form that engages an audience — whether a building, a product, an exhibition or a poster — describes the peculiarly social nature of what we ultimately recognize, even today, somewhat reluctantly, as genius in design.