Blue Pencil no. 11—Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin

Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin
R. Roger Remington and Robert S.P. Fripp
Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2007

Designed by Chrissie Charlton & Company

Paragraphs in the book are not indented but set apart by line spaces. This makes reading the text very choppy. fi ligatures are not used, although they are available in Monotype Bulmer, the typeface used to set the text. For a book about a designer who was extremely fussy about typography such lapses are unfortunate.

fig. 1, p. 12 “Kristallspiegelglas is not translated

p. 13 repetitious phrase: “dismal years” (2nd paragraph) and “dismal decades” (5th paragraph)

p. 14 “At the age of 14 he [Burtin] enrolled in a grueling four-year apprenticeship in typography—Schriftsetzer Handwerk—at the Handwerkskammer Köln.”

The apprenticeship was in typesetting (composing) rather than typography. See Burtin’s introduction to Typography—U.S.A. (1959): “…European typographers have developed their ideas right in the composing room and it was mandatory for some time that a graphic designer go through an apprenticeship to enable him to shape a typographical image with his own hands.”

p. 14 “In 1926, Dusseldorf’s GeSoLei exhibition, dedicated to healthcare, social welfare and physical exercise, was ‘the event of the year’ that ‘brought every man, woman and childin Dusseldorf to their feet.’ Preparations for GeSoLei kept apprentice typesetter Burtin busy.”

What does GeSoLei stand for?—“The Gesolei exhibition held in Düsseldorf during the summer of 1926 was a major shop window for social hygiene and, potentially, for eugenics. The name GE-SO-LEI stood for Gesundheitspflege, soziale Fürsorge und Leibesübungen (health, welfare and exercise) which were popular catch-words.” See Health, Race, and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism 1870–1945 by Paul Weindling (Cambridge and New York: University of Cambridge, 1989), p. 414.

fig. 2, p. 15 “Burtin designed this Fanal Flamme-type specimen brochure for Schelter and Giesecke AG, announcing a new font.”

The image shows two weights of a typeface being displayed not a single face; no date is provided though the text implies it was 1927.

fig. 3, p. 15 “This 30cm x 22cm catalog from the early 1930s shows Burtin’s interest in experimental printing materials and techniques. Die-cut windows in a metallic paper cover let readers preview contents.”

The catalogue is from 1932; see the document reproduced on the recto page; the 1929 type specimen for Cassandre’s Bifur sported a metallic cover with a circular die-cut window.

fig. 4, p. 16

No date given for the image. The design is post-1927 since it uses Futura, but the title is hand-lettered.

p. 16 “Burtin’s 1931 brochure for the German Association of Glass and Mirror Manufacturers (Spiegelglas) conveys an instant sense of transparency.”

This is the work shown in fig. 1, p. 12 which is described there as being from the “late 1920s”.

fig. 5, p. 17 “…like other Burtin catalogs of the late 1920s, it [Kristall-spiegelglas (crystal mirror glass)] features tabbed sections for fast reference.”

Here the German is translated; but in the text on p. 17 the catalogue is described as “Glass in Building: Technical Potentials (Figure 5)” and dated as from “the 1930s”. The title in the image itself says “kristall-spiegelglas”. It is handlettered in a unicase style reminiscent of the experiments of Bayer and Tschichold.

There is no general discussion of design in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s other than a passing reference to the Bauhaus on p. 18. (Graphic Design in Germany 1890–1945 by Jeremy Aynsley (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000) is absent from the bibliography.) Burtin was born in Cologne and worked there but there is no mention of the state of graphic design in that city during his formative years—not even of the famous 1928 Pressa exhibition. Hans Arp founded the Cologne DaDa group in 1919 but was it still active a decade later and did it have any influence on Burtin?

How did Burtin come to the attention of Nazi officials, including Hitler and Goebbels, as a graphic designer? The authors only say, “Designs and brochures emerging from the Burtins’ studio were light-years ahead of the old gothic (fraktur) fonts and humorless ‘worker realism’ style. Nazi officials began asking Burtin to work for the cause, while trying to persuade him to divorce his Jewish wife.” p. 20 No year is given here, though 1937 is cited as the year that Goebbels “made an official request for Burtin to become the [Propaganda] Ministry’s director of design.” p. 20 The footnote does not cite a source but only tells us what assignments Burtin would have been involved with if he had accepted Goebbels’ offer. Also in 1937 “…Burtin was summoned again to Berlin, this time to meet Adolf Hitler. Pressed again to lead the design term at the propaganda ministry, Burtin mentioned that his wife was Jewish, an excuse that seemed certain to disqualify him from holding a senior position in the Third Reich. Hitler replied that posed no obstacle: Göring’s wife was Jewish, too.” p. 21 The footnote cites an interview given by Burtin in 1971 as the source for this story. This episode in Burtin’s career is one of the most fascinating in the book and cries out for more information. The notion that Burtin came to the attention of the Nazis because of his “advanced” design seems odd given the general view that the Nazis were against such work. But, then again, Burtin’s experiences—like those of Herbert Bayer—show us how much we need serious research into the status of graphic design during the Nazi years.

p. 22 “Burtin’s reputation had preceded him to the U.S. in the widely read pages of Gebrauchsgraphik.” p. 24 “After Germany’s Gebrauchsgraphik stopped publishing in 1934, The Composing Room created A/D (‘Art Director’) magazine to fill the gap.” p. 27 “The Burtins had had to abandon much of their German portfolio in Cologne: fortunately, Gebrauchsgraphik, which was widely known by New York designers, had published examples of that work.”

There is no other mention in the text, footnotes or bibliography of Gebrauchsgraphik articles about Burtin. How many were there, when were they published, and what were they about? Gebrauchsgraphik did not stop publishing in 1934 but continued until 1944.

fig. 16, p. 29 “Burtin’s choice of Bodoni for his Vesalius title complements stark, stylized muscle fibers.”

The typeface is a Didot not Bodoni.

There is no background on The Upjohn Company, the pharmaceutical manufacturer, even though Burtin’s career was entwined with the company from 1941 to 1971. Upjohn’s location in Kalamazoo, Michigan is not even mentioned until p. 79. In not looking at Upjohn in more detail the authors also fail to compare Burtin’s work for the company with graphics at either J.R. Geigy or CIBA, two Swiss pharmaceutical companies noted for their work. See Corporate Diversity: Swiss Graphic Design and Advertising 1940–1970 by Andres Janser and Barbara Junod (Baden: Lars Müller, 2009) for J.R. Geigy and Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography by Christopher Burke (London: Hyphen Press, 2008) for CIBA.

p. 24 “Before long, the Levys introduced the Burtins to Cipe Pineles, then an artist at Vogue, and her future husband, William Golden, who had moved from Condé Nast to CBS. This nucleus of friends was destined to last until death did them part.”

This paragraph and the next are examples of the poor writing that often plagues the book.

p. 30 “Upjohn’s Dr. Garrard Macleod thought highly of the test-tube baby graphic; so highly that he preserved the original. More than six decades later, his sons still treasure the dummy of Burtin’s graphic.”

fig. 20, p. 32 “Burtin designed this Christmas card for Fortune in December 1941, just after the outbreak of war. Searchlights stab the sky to form a Christmas star, merging symbols of peace and war.”

The symbol formed by the searchlights looks like a Jewish six-pointed star. Could Burtin have been making a subtle reference to the situation in Europe?

In looking at Burtin close-up the authors fail to place him in context with other designers of his time such as Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Saul Bass and William Golden. It would have been instructive to pair this Christmas card of Burtin’s with Rand’s covers for Directions magazine referencing the European conflict.

p. 40 “…The Composing Room and other typographic leaders had been raising the bar on standards in type since 1927, pulling the industry forward.”

What exactly had The Composing Room been doing in terms of typography? The firm is famous for holding exhibitions of the work of designers and publishing A/D and PM magazines, but nothing has been written about its work and its clients.

p. 40 “Somebody had to manage these burgeoning standards of excellence. Exit the layout man; step forward the newly-important art director! The 1930s saw the art director rise through the hierarchy to emerge near the top.”

The Art Directors Club was founded in 1920, implying that there was already a recognition of the need for art directors in advertising and magazines and that a nucleus of such individuals existed over a decade before the 1930s.

The discussion of Burtin’s contributions to Fortune magazine after being made art director in 1945 (pp. 40–52) ignores the work of contemporary magazine art directors such as Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar and Paul Rand at Directions. Also there are no examples of what Fortune looked like prior to Burtin’s tenure nor mention of any of the designers who did notable work for the magazine such as Thomas Maitland Cleland, Walter Buehr or Paolo Garretto. See Fortune: The Art of Covering Business by Daniel Okrent (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 1999) for a wide selection of Fortune’s covers—but not interiors—prior to 1945. Showing a sample or two of this work would make it abundantly clear how revolutionary Burtin’s work was.

p. 42 Burtin imposed what he would later call his ‘new discipline’ on design (Figure 26).… Simplicity, of course, was the whole point, as when he changed the font for the magazine’s title to Firmin Didot.”

None of the issues of Fortune shown in the book have Firmin Didot for its title. Those from 1946 and 1947 have a hand-lettered title—which predated Burtin’s hiring—and the one from 1949 (fig. 34) is set in Times Roman. Fortune: The Art of Covering Business, which stops at the end of 1950, does not have any issues with mastheads in Firmin Didot. The authors do not say when Burtin’s tenure at Fortune came to an end, only that he was still working for the magazine in 1949 (see figs. 34 and 35, p. 48) and being allowed to work for other clients. However, the AIGA website says that Leo Lionni became art director at Fortune in 1948.

p. 45 “In fact he [Burtin] drove his colleagues as hard as he drove himself.… Designers measure space in picas and points. [George] Klauber remembers designers at Fortune inventing a term to cover almost indiscernible adjustments on a page. They spoke sotto voce of ‘picas, points and Burtins’ as in ‘Move that headline just a Burtin to the right.’”

This is similar to the stories told about Hans Schmoller (1916–1985), art director at Penguin books following Jan Tschichold’s return to Switzerland in 1949, who was so fastidious about typographic details that he was nicknamed “Half-Point” Schmoller. “The only man who could distinguish between a Bembo full point [period] and a Garamond full point at 200 paces,” says Phil Baines in Penguin by Design: A Cover Story, 1935–2005 (London: Penguin, 2005).

p. 50 “[Lester] Beall has been called the father of branding; Burtin, of ‘corporate identity.’

There is no footnote for this claim. Many sources cite Peter Behrens as the first corporate designer for his work with AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft) from 1907 to 1914. O.H.W. Hadank’s work for Haus Neuerburg, a tobacco company, from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s also predated Burtin’s.

p. 53 “Burtin, as far as I [George Klauber] can see, discovered plastics [as a design medium.]”

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy experimented with plastics in his painting and photography as early as 1923. See

The discussion of Burtin as an exhibition designer—the bulk of this book—makes no mention of any predecessors or contemporaries in the field: e.g. El Lissitsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Herbert Bayer, or Charles Eames. This is an area of graphic design that is sorely lacking in the graphic design history books.

p. 59 “Will Burtin, Inc. prospered in the years after mid-century. Burtin worked as a designer and consultant in advertising with George Nelson’s studio, Parker Knoll Furniture, Herman Miller Furniture and Charles Eames; on book designs for McGraw-Hill, Random House and others; and on industrial and editorial projects for such clients as Eastman Kodak, IBM, the Smithsonian Institution, Mead Paper, Union Carbide, and the U.S. Information Agency.”

The book describes one project for Eastman Kodak (pp. 107–110, 113-114) and two for IBM (pp. 79, 135–136) but none for any of these other clients.

fig. 44, p. 61 “The Art Directors’ Club awarded Burtin the ADC Gold Medal for his Scope cover featuring gyotaku, Summer 1954.”

Gyotaku—the art of fish printing—is not explained.

The book is often marred by the inclusion of trivial family information. For instance, see:

p. 62 “Carol Burtin [Will Burtin’s daughter and the wife of co-author Robert S.P. Fripp] celebrated her twelfth birthday in Cologne.” or

p. 100 “In 1951, when the Goldens returned to their apartment with their infant son, Thomas, the Burtins were waiting to greet them: Carol recalls holding a large, white teddy bear.”

p. 65 “In 1957, Switzerland produced the Helvetica family of fonts.”

Haas, a Swiss typefoundry, produced Neue Haas Grotesk in 1957 in only one weight (bold). Other variants came out over the next fifteen years: 1958, regular; 1959, black and black expanded; 1961, italic and bold expanded; 1963, expanded, condensed, bold condensed and black condensed; 1965, compact, poster bold, poster bold condensed and poster compact; 1965–1967, black italic; 1966–1967, light; 1967–1968, light italic; 1969, bold italic; and 1972, light extra expanded. The face was not renamed Helvetica until 1960 when German Linotype and D. Stempel AG began making the typeface available for machine composition. See Helvetica Forever: The Story of a Typeface by Victor Malsy et al (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2009).

fig. 53, p. 72 “Here [Burtin’s walk-through Cell exhibition for Upjohn] was design innovation on par with the Isotype team interpreting public health standards in 1920s’ Vienna, and Herbert Bayer’s stylistic breakthrough in 1930s Germany.”

Some explanation is needed for “Herbert Bayer’s stylistic breakthrough in 1930s Germany”. What is being referred to?

fig. 54, p. 73 “Will Burtin, Inc. was Upjohn’s design department before outsourcing became popular.

There were designers who had long-running associations with clients without being on staff prior to Burtin and Upjohn. For example, W.A. Dwiggins did design work for Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.—that was not limited to book designs—from 1926 to 1956; and for the Limited Editions Club—also not limited to book designs—from 1929 to 1947. Fred G. Cooper worked for New York Edison freelance from 1904 until the early 1950s! See The Lettering and Graphic Design of F.G. Cooper by Leslie Cabarga (New York: Art Direction Book Company, 1996).

fig. 61, p. 83 “Max Miedinger and Edouard [sic] Hoffmann based Helvetica [Neue Haas Grotesk] on Akzidenz Grotesque, popular at the turn of the twentieth century.”

“Akzidenz Grotesque” should be “Akzidenz Grotesk”

This image is a specimen for Helvetica. The caption does not indicate who designed it or when but there is the implication it is the work of Burtin: “Will Burtin was among a select group of American graphic designers who championed Helvetica, the new sans-serif font, in the early 1960s.” A very similar design—credited to the Haas Typefoundry Ltd., 1968—is shown in Helvetica Forever on p. 56.

p. 84 “Haas-Grotesk” should be “Neue Haas Grotesk”

p. 84 “Edouard Hofmann” should be “Eduard Hoffmann”

p. 84 “When the Burtins returned to New York in the fall of 1958, they imported Helvetica with them.”

How did Burtin do this? Did he carry Neue Haas Grotesk—available only as foundry type—with him on the airplane from Switzerland to the United States? And if he did, how did he make use of it? Did he have his own printing press?

p. 88 “As Roger Remington points out….”p. 89 “Remington, who has made a fine study of the Upjohn Brain’s physiology….”p. 91 “Remington notes that….”fig. 81, p. 115 “Remington comments that this….”

This phrasing is a bit odd since one of the authors is Roger Remington.

p. 100 “…one of the last things the Burtins stuffed into a small suitcase when they fled Germany was a specimen sheet of the type Firmin Didot. When Bill Golden was developing his new identity for CBS he asked Burtin if he would suggest a typeface. Burtin loaned him that specimen sheet—and the logotype ‘CBS’ is still written in Firmin Didot.”

Freeman Craw, designer of Craw Clarendon and Craw Modern, told me over twenty years ago that he designed both CBS Didot and CBS Sans typefaces. Several websites say Craw’s design dates from 1966—though there is an example of it dating from 1965 online for “CBS Presents This Program in Color”. and theinvisibleagent, and The CBS logo from 1959—the year of Golden’s death—located online (from the promo for Peck’s Bad Girl) looks more like a Bodoni than a Didot. Perhaps Golden used Burtin’s Firmin Didot (probably the Ludwig & Mayer foundry version of 1930) and then Craw redesigned the letters and made an entire typeface several years later.

p. 102 Howard Mont is quoted: “…Will [Burtin] was such a fine designer, so creative and so precise, with his German Bauhaus training and everything else.”

The authors should correct this statement by Mont since they indicate that Burtin was not educated at the Bauhaus.

As regards Burtin’s supposed passion for Helvetica, see:

fig. 77, p. 105

The image from the 1963 Metabolism, the Process of Life exhibition shows a Trade Gothic-style sans serif. If Burtin was such an ardent adherent of Helvetica, then why was it not used here?

fig. 84, p. 120

The image for Vision 65: World Congress on New Challenges to Human Communications [book cover? poster?] is set in Trade Gothic.

fig. 80, p. 112

The title on the cover of Will Burtin Visual aspects of science (1963) is set in Akzidenz Grotesk (or Standard).

p. 113 “Why was the brochure for this traveling exhibition [Will Burtin Visual aspects of science] printed in Germany?… For this very personal project Burtin went back to his roots in German precision—with Helvetica [sic] throughout.”

This implies Helvetica was not available to Burtin in the United States.

fig. 88, p. 126

The Story of Mathematics for young people by James T. Rogers (1966) is the first image that unequivocally shows Helvetica. See the Will Burtin Archive for clearer images than in the book.

p. 127 Mont: “This was one of the major books that Will did. There was Standard [Akzidenz Grotesk] font size and there was Helvetica. And Will didn’t want to know from Standard, and Standard was on the machine [Linotype] and Helvetica wasn’t. So Standard had to go!”

Refusing to use a typeface because it was on the machine is odd since the usual complaint was that a typeface was not available in hot metal composition for text sizes. Anyway, by January 1965 Helvetica was available in New York as a machine face from Mergenthaler Linotype.

p. 127 “James Marston Fitch had a contract from the City of New York to improve urban esthetics, a task that included restoring city streetscapes and parks, including Central Park. Fitch, a pioneer and the leading practitioner of restoration architecture, asked Burtin to design new signage. Before long, new signs in Helvetica began to appear all over the city. (The fact that ‘Curb your dog’ was the first to require the Burtin touch caused the maestro some chagrin!) Other cities followed New York’s example. Arguably, urban signage did more to promote Helvetica in North America than good book design.”

This story is not documented and I have been unable to verify a single aspect of it. The Fitch archives at Avery Library, Columbia University have no information on such a project and there is no mention of it in the back issues of the New York Times. New York City street signs have never been set in Helvetica. The footnote to the paragraph says, in its entirety: “Burtin was impressed by the work of Masaru Katzumie, some of whose iconic symbols for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were later adopted into Japan’s modern urban and traffic signage. Katzumie, or one of thirty young volunteer designers working with him on the Olympics, created the universal wheelchair symbol, among others. Katsumie [sic] made a visual presentation at Vision 65.” What this has to do with Fitch, the restoration of New York City streetscapes and the use of Helvetica in the urban environment is unclear.

The “Curb your dog” sign set in Helvetica was designed not by Burtin but by Walter Kacik, a former member of Unimark International. It was unveiled in August 1967 as part of Kacik’s groundbreaking work for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Kacik used Helvetica (all lowercase!) for the typography on the Sanitation trucks. See “The Cities: New York Is New York—Alas” by John Lahr in Print XXII:II (March/April 1968), pp.55–56, New York Times August 8, 1967 and Communication Arts vol. 13, no. 4 (1971), pp. 24-31. What is odd about this discussion of Burtin’s role in disseminating Helvetica is that it overlooks a project of his involving Helvetica that is documented: signage for a Cleveland neighborhood c.1968. See Burtin’s contribution to “Transportation Graphics” in Dot Zero 5 (Fall 1968), pp. 18–22. Furthermore, the Will Burtin archives at Rochester Institute of Technology include boxes 19.1–19.3, 19.4, 239.1+, 241.1+, 262+, 227.1–227.2+, 239.2–240.2+, 243.1–245.2+ and drawer 53.2–53.3 related to the University Circle, Cleveland signage project—yet it is not mentioned in this book. See Will Burtin Archives Finding Aid

p. 128 “…the structure was neither simple not [sic] cheap to disassemble, transport and reassemble.”

p. 128 “Its [the model for Genes in Action] ‘informal preview’ Midtown before being trucked to Chicago marked the importance that several stakeholders attached to the impact of this latest large model.

Something is missing in this sentence.

p. 130 “Genes in Action [1966] shows Burtin’s fine command of typography, and of Helvetica.”

The authors are obsessive about Burtin’s relationship to Helvetica. However, here the image in fig. 91 supports their claim.

fig. 97, p. 137 “His [Burtin’s] plays on ‘two’ [the age of his grandson Eric] include Cologne’s dialectic [sic], zwo.”

p. 141 “The Sixties drew to a close with Burtin in high esteem. Harvard University appointed him Research Fellow in Visual and Environmental Studies at its Carpenter Center….”

No specific date is provided for this award. The RIT Will Burtin website says, “In 1971, Burtin received the highest honor of the graphic design world, the Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), in recognition of his many contributions to American graphic design as an influential innovator, a gifted visual problem solver, and notable communicator.… Shortly after receiving this award, Will Burtin was appointed as esearch Fellow in Visual and Environmental Studies at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University.”

fig. 104, p. 144

Burtin’s visualization of a quotation from John Milton about education is shown but not dated.

p. 148 “Burtin influences live on (Figure 108). Not surprisingly, they have evolved. Corporate identity blossomed; so has branding, the simplest definition of which is ‘giving products meaning’ [sic] His early and sustained advocacy of Helvetica in North America has been repaid, if the success of that font is any measure. Indeed, once it took root, Helvetica gained converts and impetus so fast that the many variants threw its specifications into disarray until Linotype acquired it, redrew it, renamed it Neue Helvetica and added a numbering system. Helvetica was among the first fonts to migrate to desktop publishing and personal computing, trends that even Burtin, a man ‘way ahead of his time,’ according to Aubrey Singer, could not have anticipated.”

This is a desperate attempt to polish Burtin’s legacy—which is sufficiently strong based on his work for Fortune and Upjohn alone—by yoking it to Helvetica’s popularity.

p. 149 “Their joint headstone declares, in superb calligraphy: In memory of / Hilde [sic] Munk Burtin / 1910–1960 / wife of Will Burtin / 1908–1972 / who married Cipe Pineles / 1910–1991 / widow of William Golden / 1911–1959.”

Although the stone was carved by the John Stevens Shop there is no photograph of it. It was most likely the work of John E. Benson. Given Burtin’s love of Helvetica the description of his gravestone seems ironic.