We rarely think of it this way, but the leaders of organizations are designers too. Organizational designers. By choosing the strategy, the budget, the culture and who they hire, they have more impact on whether good work is possible than anyone. CEO Alfred Sloan, who made good design central to his strategy for cars at General Motors in the 1930s, would never have called himself a designer. But his choices redefined how we think of a good car, as well as what the words design and designer mean for the world. We’re often told it’s people with great ideas or passion that make good work happen, but there’s a hidden and formidable truth. What makes good or bad design happen anywhere depends on who has the most power.
An organization could hire Maya Lin, Zaha Hadid or Bjarke Ingels, three legendary architects, but if their client ignored all of their suggestions, their skills would be rendered useless. When we see great works we often give the most acclaim to the designer, but as Michael Wilford wrote, “Behind every distinctive building is an equally distinctive client.” Designers and architects are often the center of attention when a work is finished, but along the way the client has the power to reject their ideas. Sometimes designers are hired as design theater, so the powerful can say “we have talented designers,” using their fame and reputation to help sell the project, even if that designer is mostly ignored.
Often there’s more than one person in power, and it’s their capacity to collaborate that defines what’s possible. Take, for example, the town of Missoula, Montana. It’s a small city with one very unusual characteristic: it has a city grid plan, but the central grid is oriented 45 degrees from the rest of the town. This makes it much easier to get lost, defeating a primary advantage of grids. What was the urban planner thinking? The answer is that there wasn’t just one plan, there were two, each led by factions that couldn’t agree.
In the 1880s, two landowners, W.M. Bickford and W.J. Stephens, owned property near an old wagon road that ran diagonally through the area. They formulated their own plan to align with it, with all streets running in a grid parallel to the wagon road (which still exists today, shown with the dashed line below). They imagined an entire town called South Missoula, with this as the core.
The problem was that another landowner, Judge Knowles, owned land to the north. He didn’t like the plan that Bickford and Stephens proposed. He thought the angled roads were a mistake, since they ignored the original master section plan that much of the surrounding area was using. But he also didn’t like the idea of there being a new town called South Missoula. He was able to get the Missoula government to agree to annex his property, and installed a true rectilinear grid plan.
At the time most of the area was undeveloped, so the official plan didn’t mean that much until more roads were built and more people settled the area. There was still a chance for Bickford and Stephens to have their design become the dominant one. The pivotal factor was that an old bridge on the Clark Fork River, the Higgins Bridge, needed to be replaced. Depending on how it was positioned, it would support one grid plan over the other. Whichever road the bridge fed out to would become the primary thoroughfare.
The Higgins Bridge was named after one of Missoula’s founders, C.P. Higgins, who just happened to be friends with Judge Knowles. They agreed to back the north-south alignment that Knowles had planned for, and worked together to influence citizens to take their side. Combined, they had far more influence than Bickford and Stephens, and when it came to a vote, the north-south alignment that Knowles wanted won. The citizens of Missoula would forever pay the price.
At each intersection where the two grids meet, the single street from the north-south grid has to divide into two streets, with different names. These five-legged junctions at odd angles make it unnecessarily complicated and dangerous to find your way. The worst intersection, nicknamed Malfunction Junction, had six legs, and until its recent redesign (which took eleven years to complete) it was one of the most dangerous and frustrating intersections in America.
This kind of design-by-politics is common, in cities, nations and sometimes even in products themselves. People in power often prioritize their own interests, which means good design to them is that which helps them protect their power. The concerns of the people who will deal with the consequences, perhaps citizens, are secondary at best.
Melvin Conway, a computer programmer, expresses this idea in a law that is named after him: “Organizations . . . are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”¹ In other words, the limitations of an organization’s politics are expressed in the design of the things they produce. When one landowner, or executive, doesn’t get along with another, the battle lines between them show up in the product itself, to the detriment of everyone.
This often surfaces in websites for large organizations, like government agencies or universities. Websites should focus on the most frequent things that people who visit need to do. Yet, leaders often assume that the view inside an organization is the best one to share with the world. But that’s like forcing someone who wants to watch a movie to think mostly about how it was made, the movie sets, the cameras, the lights and the producers, instead of experiencing the movie itself. Good movies work because of suspension of disbelief: they are crafted to make you forget about what went on behind the scenes, or that there were scenes, or sets, or lights, at all. Unlike the trap in chapter four, where the Segway project started with the technology first, this is a case of starting with the organization’s politics first. In both cases, it’s the people for whom, in theory, all of the work is being done who lose.
On a global scale, there are similar stories. At the end of World War I, the Allies worked together to decide what to do with the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which covered much of what we call the Middle East today.
The British and the French worked out a secret plan, called the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which divided up Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine into areas run by the British or French government. There were three problems. First, François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes were two mid-level diplomats acting on behalf of their European nations, who had their own agendas for the best use of these lands. Second, neither had a great a great understanding of the history of the people who lived on the lands they were redesigning. Third, the Arabs had been promised independence in return for their cooperation during the war and this pact broke that promise.
Nevertheless, they invented new nations and borders on top of hundreds of years of history and expected their new map, or nation design, to work.² Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, explains:
If you look at the Middle East today, there’s essentially five artificial nations that were created by Sykes–Picot, the most prominent ones being Iraq and Syria—and Jordan being another one. But anyone looking at Iraq and Syria today sees that the artificial borders that were created have now completely disintegrated . . . The lines crossed tribal lines. They divided up clans and sub-clans.³
After the act was ratified, riots and civil wars began. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it set in motion the Middle East we know today. In response to the unrest they had created, the British and French worked to take away the power that existing groups had. They gave it instead to weak leaders they could manipulate and who posed little threat of revolting. Britain and France did nothing to help soothe the ethnic, religious or linguistic divides they had intensified.
After World War II, the US and the Soviet Union inherited the responsibility from the British and French, maintaining many of the same nation borders using many of the same methods. And according to Anderson, it wasn’t until the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring, that the lid on the mess that Sykes–Picot had created by design finally came off.
Many wonder why the Middle East seems to always be in trouble. Or the borders between India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, or Nigeria and Cameroon. While there are many factors, one compelling lens is that people in power, often foreigners, chose the borders to be where they are. And powerful nations exert their influence on other countries for their own reasons, without understanding the history of why those efforts often fail.4
Americans don’t have to travel far to see the power of mapmakers. Gerrymandering, where politicians in office change voting district maps to keep themselves in power, is common practice. More disturbing is the way the US government, after WWII, chose home ownership as the way to rebuild the economy and shore up the middle class for the sixteen million Americans returning from the war (including one million African Americans).5,6 The Federal Housing Administration defined who could get loans, and their manual stated that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”7 They made maps of which neighborhoods could get loans: green for yes, and red for no (thus the term redlining).
Through these policies, poor and black neighborhoods were denied loans, as well as the right to move to neighborhoods where loans would be made available. Most Americans assume the free market decides the fate of neighborhoods, and is why some struggle and others thrive, but that’s often not true. Rey Ramsey, former chair of Habitat for Humanity, explains that despite the history, “people are lulled to sleep thinking that certain things happened by default, rather than by design.”8
- A broader discussion of Conway’s Law can be found on Wikipedia.
- The Sykes–Picot map and a discussion of the agreement can be found on Wikipedia.
- Scott Anderson on Robert Siegel, host, All Things Considered, NPR radio program; transcript posted May 13, 2016.
- Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books, 2007).
- US Department of Veterans Affairs, “America’s Wars,” pdf fact sheet.
- Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What Was Black America’s Double War?,” PBS.
- Terry Gross, “A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the U.S. Government Segregated America,” NPR, May 3, 2017.
- Rey Ramsey in Giorgio Angelini, director, Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, 2018 film.
This is an excerpt from How Design Makes the World, published in May 2020, lightly edited for Longreads.