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October 21, 2008

Design and Science: on the work of Will Burtin

The book Design and Science: the life and work of Will Burtin, published just last year, is well worth picking up. It is a nicely illustrated account of the life and work of Will Burtin (1908-1972), an American graphic designer who gained notoriety for, among other things, his interpretations of scientific topics for the general public.

On my recent visit to the V&A's Cold War Modern (about art and design in the post- and cold war period of 1945 to 1970), I found Design and Science on sale in the exhibition gift shop. Fitting, since Burtin's work embodied (and probably advanced) the rising general interest in new technologies and scientific discoveries in the 1950s and 60s.

A good review of the book has been published by Eye magazine. Here I want to highlight some of Burtin's projects that I think exemplify his approach to design.


Among other clients, Burtin worked for the pharmaceutical company Upjohn from the late 40s. The company would fund many of his walk-through models, as well as the magazine Scope for which Burtin is well known. The covers (above) are notable for their particular aesthetic take on design for science. He also worked on layout and information graphics; the diagram below compares the impacts of penicillin, streptomycin and neomycin on bacteria:


Burtin's more expansive projects include the large-scale, three dimensional models which broke new ground in exhibition design. The Cell (1958) was a giant walk-through model of a 'generalised' human red blood cell. It illustrated the interrelations of cell functions through visual and tactile means, using light and newly available plastics.


Cell is described in the book as 'a huge plastic tent full of all the invisible components which made up a cell, shown imaginatively, clearly, and in a way which enchanted scientists and the general public alike'. The model was later shipped to London and featured in two BBC television science specials in 1959.

Then there is the exhibit Brain (1960), 'an impressive electrified model of how the human brain works', designed for physicians at the American Medical Association's annual meeting. In this model, which shows how messages travel along neural pathways, 'brain centres are represented by concave aluminum discs studded with electric lights… '. It was described by one physician as 'so well conceived that it makes neuro-anatomy and physiology comprehensible'. Later such model-exhibits would include Metabolism – the cycle of life (1963) and Genes in Action (1966).


Burtin championed a new kind of integrated design process, writing and speaking about the role of design in the sciences and in society more generally. He organised conferences in the mid-60s which centred around how communications could contribute to technological and social development. One of Burtin's later works again reflects his goal of using design for education: the book Story of Mathematics for Young People of 1966. This is an inspired volume that, although printed in two colours (orange and black) is strikingly modern and playful in its layout, presenting basic mathematics principles in various inventive ways.


October 8, 2008

Homage to the NatureTrail books

I have long admired the Usborne NatureTrail Books series and would like to present, for your consideration, a few examples taken from two volumes of the mid-70s, 'Trees & Leaves' and 'Garden Wildlife'. This series is an unsung classic of children's illustrated non-fiction that emerged in the golden age of Usborne's illustrated children's books.

I think that these earliest NatureTrail books are brilliant. Updated editions have recycled the images but reset the type and they are completely uninteresting. In the originals, the illustration and typography (in a nice nostalgic clarendon-like face) are well integrated and balanced.

Another classic book, 'How Your Body Works' (in which the human body is presented as a series of machines in cartoon drawings) might be the topic of a later homage…