« Homage to the NatureTrail books | Main | Maps and landscape: the work of Ronald Lampitt »

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.



That Cell exhibit looks amazing. Reminds me of the Exploded Shed piece (Cornelia Parker).

Is it wrong that it also reminded me of that Fantastic Voyage Journey, when people shrink inside the body of a Soviet agent? (I wonder if Burtin influenced the set designers, or they were just going for a similar aesthetic?)

I think you're on to something there, though Burtin might be the one playing with a popular sci fi theme! Actually the shrinking theme you could trace back to Alice in Wonderland, and probably earlier, though Alice of course wasn't microscopic…

As for the aesthetic of the set design, I don't know who influenced who, but it is possible that the new lighting and plastic technologies were influencing everyone into a vaguely similar look?

(I'd love to see Burtin's exhibits reconstructed as part of a retrospective; they are still original and would draw crowds!)

Ah, Alice and Microscopic.

That promps me to get on with that post on Japanese Museums...

I *must* upload those bleeding photos!