Visualizing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Visualizing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

This is a repost from Harvard Business Review.

Jessica Hagy is a professional writer and illustrator well-known for her minimalist ink-on-index-card illustrations, which are found at her site Indexed. Hagy’s typical card is a venn diagram or x-y plot of a deceptively simple idea with a punchline. Like this:

One day, when Hagy was cleaning out her bookshelves, she noticed that she owned three copies of The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s legendary primer on winning military strategy. Hagy knew what it was — who hasn’t heard a coach or executive quote it at some point — but she had never read it. So she did.

She was struck with a jolt of inspiration. Each of Sun Tzu’s dictates felt like a caption, like something she could illustrate in her style. After posting a few efforts to her site, her agent called and suggested that she illustrate the entire book, which resulted in the upcoming The Art of War Visualized: The Sun Tzu Classic in Charts and Graphs.

Hagy’s book may appeal to managers in a way the original doesn’t because she’s taken what has always been considered metaphorical business wisdom and visualized it, sometimes literally, as business wisdom. For example, in your next meeting, you can flash a quote of Sun Tzu’s tenets on maneuvering, on “the art of husbanding one’s strength” and “the art of studying circumstances” and explain what that means to the team. Or you can show Hagy’s interpretation of it:

Hagy eschewed her typical index cards for a much bolder style that echoes propaganda posters (and what she interpreted as a propagandist tone in Sun Tzu’s dictates). She achieved an organic feeling by brushing India Ink onto large rag paper. She then made high-res scans of the pages and added text digitally. “Art is in the title,” she says, “it had to be artful to me. The blend of tools felt right: a logical layer on top of an emotional base, like any strategic plan tends to be.”

The choice to work that way reflects what she learned reading the book, too. The digital media layer, for example, is a maneuver, the kind Sun Tzu describes here: “When you surround an army leave an outlet free.” Hagy explains: “Sun Tzu taught me to think about as many angles as possible. The digital text can be manipulated while the graphic structures done in ink remain consistent, thus removing a publisher’s hesitation to take on translating the book.”

Hagy continues in her tradition of using primarily simple venn diagrams and x-y plots with a singular insight or punchline. Her interpretations are sometimes straight, what she calls visual synonyms, and sometimes they’re new and wry interpretations of the text, what she calls visual redirects. The mix of these two is meant to give the book the “cadence of a conversation,” she says.

For example, she goes with a reasonably straight visual synonym for Sun Tzu’s text on an the risk and reward of attacking:

These direct translations may have managers nodding in affirmation. The visual redirects may make managers laugh. For example, Hagy puts a modern office politics spin on Sun Tzu’s meditation on weak points and strong points:

Other times, she thinks from the leader’s perspective, taking on big ideas. From one of Sun Tzu’s more melodic ideas about maneuvering, Hagy was moved to think about the nature of strategy:

Still, Hagy purposefully didn’t think of the book as something for leaders only. “I tried to make the book resonate at all levels. Are my readers CEOs with a 30,000 foot view of the competitive landscape, or are they independent contributors deep in the weeds of office life, fretting about whose turn it is to make the next pot of coffee?” That’s why not all the visuals speak only to the leader. Sun Tzu may have been warning generals about the “utter disorganization” that results when a general is “weak and without authority,” but Hagy sees it, delightfully, from the workers’ perspective:

“The Art of War works so well in part because it treats each conflict as important to overall success,” says Hagy. “Awareness of all levels of strategic behavior is key. Strategy happens at every elevation. I did my best to honor that sentiment.”

June 2, 2015 / by / in , , , , , , , , , ,

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