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The Most Important Information Designer You’ve Never Heard Of

After escaping the Nazis, Will Burtin went on to become an early pioneer of infographics in the U.S.

You’ve probably never heard of Will Burtin, a German information designer who pioneered human-centered design principles before they were a buzzword. Now, a new book about Burtin’s work hopes to give him his due.

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“Will Burtin’s contributions to design can be characterized as important as Albert Einstein’s contributions to science,” write the authors R. Roger Remington and Sheila Pontis in the volume, entitled Will Burtin: Journey to Understanding which is currently on Kickstarter. “While his brilliant discoveries in physics gave Einstein his reputation, Burtin’s scientific approach to design should have also given him a revolutionary place in design history.”

The Brain exhibit. 1960. For the visitor, the Brain exhibition journey began with an audio-visual display of a moment at an opera projected on a screen. The exhibit came alive showing the visitors how a brain processed sound and image. [Image: Remington, R.R. & Fripp, R. (2007) Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin. Lund Humphries/ courtesy Unit Editions]

Born in 1908 in Cologne, Germany, Burtin, an information designer, had his own studio in the city when Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda director, asked him to head up the Propaganda Ministry’s design team in 1937. Rather than support the Nazi regime, Burtin and his wife fled Germany and came to the United States, where he worked for a pharmaceutical company called Upjohn. Then, he joined the U.S. Army, where he drafted gunnery manuals that aimed to help new recruits understand the complex interiors of aircraft and how to use the planes’ weapons in combat. After the war, Burtin worked at Fortune magazine and then set up his own consultancy, where he became famous for creating three-dimensional models to help laypeople understand new developments in science.

The Gunner’s Information File Project, Gunnery in the B-29, manual, 1944 – the most notable of his manuals in this series, where explanatory graphics accompanied wide columns of excessively leaded sans-serif text type to enhance readability. [Photo: courtesy Unit Editions]

“Then, no one was talking about human-centered design, or user research,” Pontis tells Co.Design. “He really spent time going to the source of the problem, talking to the people, understanding the problem, and finding a way of communicating that.”

The gunnery manuals are one of the best examples. Pontis explains how Burtin decided to learn how to operate the planes himself so he could accurately represent information that would prepare young cadets quickly. He only decided on the form the information would take after he’d done the research, and he toyed with video explainers before settling on a small pamphlet for each plane he was demystifying.

“Burtin’s approach was: ‘What do you want to achieve at the end? And then I’ll find the best way of achieving that goal,'” says Pontis, who is herself an information designer. “It’s so relevant today. There’s so much people could learn from him.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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