“The Art of War Visualized” Translates Ancient Wisdom Into Fun Infographics

“I wanted to approach the text as a cartoonist and make this angry old book feel conversational and accessible and fun.”

Nearly 3,000 years after Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, super-agent Michael Ovitz relied on the ancient text to out-maneuver rivals and become the most powerful man in Hollywood, and fictional counterpart Gordon Gekko tapped the war wisdom to triumph on Wall St. Now, charts and graphs cartoonist Jessica Hagy has turned the leadership manual to her own purposes.


In The Art of War: Visualized, she updates Sun Tzu’s strategic advice as pithy infographics for contemporary readers. For example, where Sun Tzu writes “A wind that rises in the day time lasts long but a night breeze soon falls,” her infographic declares “Friday Night” and “Holiday Weekend” as the time “When bad news is shared publicly.”

Hagy, who earned degrees in journalism and business administration before starting her Webby-award winning Indexed blog in 2006, decided to update Sun Tzu’s ancient text after coming across The Art of War in the basement of the house she shares with her husband. “I expected the book to be more cruel: ‘Throw the other guy under the bus, who cares?’ But actually it was strategic and cautious,” she recalls. I wanted to approach the text as a cartoonist and make this angry old book feel conversational and accessible and fun.”

Speaking from her Seattle home, Hagy explains the virtues of duplicity and her loose translation of “enemy,” as illustrated in Venn diagrams and XY axis charts from The Art of War Visualized.


Defining the Enemy

Sun Tzu focuses his stratagems on an ever-present “enemy” as presented in a military context but Hagy pictured the opponent in more expansive terms. She says, “For me, the enemy is whatever problem you’re trying to solve. If you think of conflict resolution as problem solving and war as a big metaphor, then it’s about taking whatever you’re fighting and turning it into something silly or approachable. The enemy might be traffic or your annoying boss or in-laws who show up without calling. In the text, it’s always this amorphous ‘other’ so being able to make that metaphor fuller and thicker than just ‘war’ felt very natural to me.”

How to Outsmart Crazy Bosses

The Art of War directs its advice to generals, not foot soldiers, but Hagy set out to broaden Sun Tzu’s target audience. “Going through the book,” she says, “I started to think of the text as not being just for management who are ordering people around but also for those who are being ordered around and want to know how to avoid crazy people: ‘Here’s how I can skirt around them using this kind of information.’ I approached each situation in the text from all angles so that it’s not all about looking down your nose at underlings; it’s more like dealing with the question: ‘In any given interaction, who’s going to do what?’”

Conquering New Territory

The Art of War devotes much attention to territory. How to conquer? How to defend? Hagy says “when Sun Tzu talks about terrain, it’s ‘Don’t get gangrene and don’t get stuck in the mud or jump out where somebody can see you, that felt the most like business strategy to me. He’s basically saying ‘Be mindful of where you are.’ If you try to jump into this new area with the same things you did last time, that’s not going to work. You have to re-evaluate every step you take and make sure what you’re doing is appropriate to where you are. The Art of War makes that lesson feel really tactile because Sun Tzu’s talking about mud and dirt and crud.”


Transparency versus Deception

Sun Tzu recommends deception as a means to victory. In an era that theoretically values “transparency” as a virtue, Hagy believes duplicity deserves a fresh look. “‘Transparency’ gets thrown around as if you’re being completely honest with all people at all times, and yet when you go into the bathroom you close the door. You don’t tell everyone about all your terrible secrets or lies. It’s a form of decorum and that kind of duplicity is as much a lie as anything else.”

The Art of War champions deliberate misdirection as common sense survival tactic. “Keeping some things not for public consumption is a wise tack in any route you take,” says Hagy. “You could argue the semantics of transparency versus duplicity but when you deal with a question like ‘Should I share this with the team?’ the distinctions can get really fuzzy really quickly.”

“There’s a Llama in the Basement”

Using Lionel Giles’s 1910 translation as her foundation, Hagy assumed plenty of poetic license in putting her own spin on the material. “Sun Tzu is almost like Homer. He’s this apocryphal ‘author’ in quotes. It’s like you’re playing telephone with 3,000 years worth of ideas: somebody jotted this down, and that got added, and somebody translated it into this language. For me it was fun to take this translational liberty and say, ‘This is probably light years away from the intention of someone 3,000 years ago but that’s okay because there’s so many steps in between. If you went all the way back, it’s probably some guy saying ‘There’s a llama in the basement,’ and at the end, it becomes ‘Know your enemy, know yourself, and you shall win.’


An Artist’s Rendition

“The one word I kept coming back to when I was working on this book was ‘Rendition,’ Hagy says. “You have the artist’s rendition, meaning a version, and then you have the scary military dark definition of rendition where you go into someone’s house in the middle of the night and throw a bag over their head and put them to a foreign country.”

“In this book,” she continues, “I did both of those things. I got sort of bossy about the text and basically took the content and said ‘This is mine, I shall now do with it what I want.’ I fed Sun Tzu well and he had cookies and things but he definitely had to sit in my room and work with me while I got this set of information.”


About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.