The Design of War

by New Idiom


Read Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”- Gordon Gekko to Bud Fox in the movie Wall Street.

Executives have long touted the relevance and applicability of the lessons from The Art of War to business (Google “Art of War” and “business,” and you will see what I mean.). So with design moving into the business world, can design draw parallels to war principles just as business adopted strategies of war in their everyday practices? I’d say “yes.” However, for my comparison, I’d like to turn to something more recent and relevant to today’s world—the Powell Doctrine, named after Colin Powell during the run up to the first Gulf War.

The Powell Doctrine basically lays out a framework that consists of questions the U.S. government should ask itself before entering a war:

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?

3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?

5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

7. Is the action supported by the American people?

8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

Similar to The Art of War, you’ll notice that these questions help one plan and strategize not in the sense of working through a to-do list, but of responding appropriately to new and changing circumstances.

While there is hardly enough room to discuss how each of the questions within the framework relates to design in any detail, some of the similarities are obvious based on our prior experiences. I’ve seen many projects at school try to tackle non-design issues (#1). From my past summer experiences at design consultancies, there were often projects with no clear objectives or risk assessments because the client or project was deemed a “must have” (#2). How often do we see designers iterate or tweak their products endlessly because they don’t know when to stop (#5)? Is our work based on user needs (#7) and do we have full support from other stakeholders (#8)? And I’m sure the comparisons don’t stop there.

Of course, not every design decision is ever crystal clear. As many students and practitioners of design thinking have already witnessed firsthand, the landscape is ambiguous at best and solutions can lie beyond our imaginations. But we must also recognize that not every problem can or should be tackled. Accepting a project is not always right, designing for a target user is not always useful, and just because a need is unmet doesn’t mean it has to be fulfilled. The results of what happens when we fail to meet the criteria set forth can be very damaging or deflating. Whereas the military are faced with a Vietnam or the crisis in Lebanon in 1983, designers can be left with strained client relations, incohesive or incomplete solutions, and disenchantment within the team, among other results.

Lastly, I wish to say that I do not mean to equate war and design. War kills people. Its consequences are much more dire, the effort much more taxing and complicated, and the thought much more deplorable.  However, comparing the chain of decisions leading to a war and chain of decisions leading to a design is interesting. And of course, the discussion gets even more interesting based on the recent Iraq War, Powell’s opposition to how it was planned and executed, and General Petraeus’s rejection of the Powell Doctrine in today’s climate of conflict. Will the design landscape also change?