The Art (and Design) of War: Chapter 1 - Making of Plans

2013.08.18 - Art and Design of War

Photo by kanegen

This is the first article in The Art (and Design) of War series, and considers the first chapter of The Art of War: The Making of Plans. Sun Tzu effectively lays out the core principles that will bind his teachings throughout the rest of his work, and I do my very humble best to apply them to the modern world of Freelance Graphic Design.

Chapter One: The Making of Plans

Five Fundamentals

In his first chapter Making of Plans Sun Tzu outlines Five Fundamentals for deliberation, comparison and the assessing of conditions. 

He quite plainly states that he who grasps them, wins; and  he who fails to grasp them, loses. Simple! But alas, we are not fighting ancient dynasties and their armies, so how 

The Way

The Way causes men to be of one mind with their rulers; to live or die with them; and never to waver.

In war it is important to have the will of the troops behind you, but as a Freelancer you're very much a free-agent, so how does this affect us? Consider your personal brand or corporate identity as your army, where instead of troops you have all the different aspects that build into your brand: websites, social media, business cards, stationary, etc. Do they complement each other and portray you and your business in an effective and efficient manner? Sun Tzu has effectively outlined brand synergy, an essential concept for any freelancer AND their designs. 


Heaven is Ying and Yang; cold and hot; the cycle of seasons.


The Apple Logo: Past & Present

When considering what Sun Tzu calls Heaven he is effectively saying that we should be mindful of how external factors can affect our plans. For freelancing, and indeed all business, you should be aware of numerous external factors that can affect how you and your clients work: what is popular at the moment? What is unpopular? 

Often we are asked to design a timeless logo: a logo that will always be relevant, and never change. Simple! But who actually has a timeless logo? Several potential candidates quickly spring to mind, but let's consider Apple seeing as I'm typing this on a Macbook.

The rainbow apple was designed in 1976, and stood loud and proud for 22 years; that's a good run in the world of logos. Despite this the logo had to change, simply because it looked dated.


Earth is height and depth; distance and proximity; ease and danger; open and confined ground; life and death.

As opposed to Heaven, where we considered intangible external elements, Sun Tzu now focusses on the physical. For us this very much represents the medium that is going to display our designs. Is the design for print or screen? Adjust colours and resolution accordingly. If the design is to be printed, which print method and materials best complement the design? If the design is for screen, what devices are most likely to be used to interact with it? Getting this wrong will seriously hinder the effectiveness of any design.


Command is wisdom, integrity, compassion, courage, severity.

Unlike the previous fundamentals, the final two aspects do not directly relate to design, but do not underestimate them, as they are of equal importance.

Command offered guidance on how generals should lead their forces, but for us Freelancers this offers consideration to the way we conduct ourselves when interacting with clients.

  • When discussing a project with a client you need wisdom pertaining to the project, so that you are able to recommend the most effective design solutions to their problems.
  • At some point in time everyone will undoubtedly come across a client from hellnobody likes them, but they are inevitable. You will often be pushed to your limit with these folks, but sometimes you just need the integrity to let them go.
  • There are clients who might give you hassle over things such as payment, and you must stand your ground. But sometimes it is beneficial to have compassion and offer some leeway. As a basic guide I would direct you towards Jessica Hische's brilliant Should I Work for Free graphic.
  • There will be times as a Freelancer when all projects come at you at once, and you think to yourself oh, how I long for some time off! Then you finish your projects and let out a big sigh of relief... You subsequently realise that you no longer have any work, so you go looking for more... But no matter how hard you try, you can't seem to find any... You've hit a dry spell. They suck, and you need courage more than ever here. Thankfully they do not last forever, and soon you'll be swamped in new projects... and wishing that you just had a bit more free time again!
  • If you are managing physical reproductions, such as prints or merchandise, on the behalf of your client, you need severity if any issues arise (I say if, but sadly experience has taught that far too often if becomes a when.)


Discipline is organisation, chain of command, control of expenditure.

The need for organisation, and control of expenses, does not require the same degree of interpretation or translation as the other four fundamentals, so discipline is seemingly the easiest to understand. However for us creative types, sometimes things do seem to slip out of control as we get engrossed in a project.

Freelancing starts off as a magic place full of creative beauty, however it does not take long before reality strikes as you suddenly discover the business side of Freelancing. Invoicing, networking, and accounting, to name just a few seem to be nasty little creatures that just want to pull you away from doing what you want to do. This is where you need discipline, to sit down and crunch through the dull business parts, as they do in fact form the springboard that allows you to jump and design all the things that make Freelancing worthwhile.

Get a Copy

Penguin-the art of war

I own a fantastic little paperback from Penguin Classics with a rather charming cover design by Estuary English. This print uses John Minford's 2002 translation, so do be aware that there may be slight discrepencies in the text if you are using an alternative translation.

The Art of War is superbly inexpensive, and widely available in both bookshops and libraries, so if you want to get a copy for yourself there shouldn't be any hassle at all.

Comment Question

What do you think? Have you been influenced by The Art of War? Am I spouting complete nonsense? I am leaving the articles in The Art (and Design) of War series open to revisions, so please share what you think in the comments section below.

Designed by Jason Phillips. Based on Hydrogen by Behind the Rabbit for Sandvox.