Brain Pickings

Lessons in Design and Strategy from China’s First Emperor

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How to standardize, enforce accountability, and employ design thinking in coining your image and legacy.

The questions of what makes good design, what it should aspire to be, why it’s essential to culture, and how it harmonizes with human life have long occupied modern thinkers and pundits. That’s precisely what Herald Tribune design critic and writer extraordinaire Alice Rawsthorn sets out to answer in the newly released Hello World: Where Design Meets Life.

Rawsthorn begins with a necessary definition of the essence and cultural significance of design, so often misunderstood and diminished to mere decoration:

Design is a complex, often elusive phenomenon that has changed dramatically over time by adopting different guises, meanings and objectives in different contexts, but its elemental role is to act as an agent of change, which can help us to make sense of what is happening around us, and to turn it to our advantage. Every design exercise sets out to change something, whether its intention is to transform the lives of millions of people, or to make a marginal difference to one, and it does so systematically. At its best, design can ensure that changes of any type — whether they are scientific, technological, cultural, political, economic, social, environmental or behavioral — are introduced to the world in ways that are positive and empowering, rather than inhibiting or destructive.

One of Rawsthorn’s most illustrative examples comes from Ying Zheng, who took the throne as king of the Chinese State of Qin in his early teens in 246 BC and went on to become the first emperor of unified China in 221 BC. Today, he endures as one of the most formidable figures in world history, equally known for his military might and his uncompromising despotism, which included book-burning and burying scholars alive. Design, as it turns out, was his major ally, which he employed on various levels, from the practical to the tactical to the political.

One of his major feats, Rawsthorn tells us, was standardization:

The design of all weaponry was improved under Ying Zheng’s command. The optimum size, shape, choice of material and method of production for each piece was determined, and every effort made to ensure that weapons of the same type adhered to the chosen formula. The Qin army had used bronze spears for over a thousand years, but the blades were rendered shorter and broader. The dagger-axes were redesigned too. Putting six holes in the blades, rather than four, ensured that their bronze heads could be attached more securely and were less likely to shake loose in the frenzy of battle.

Even more important were the changes to Qin’s bows and arrows. Archers were critical in determining the outcome of every stage of combat in Ying Zheng’s era, but their weapons were made by hand, often to different specifications. If an archer ran out of arrows during a battle, it was generally impossible for him to fire another warrior’s arrows from his bow. Similarly, if he was killed or injured, his remaining ammunition would be useless to his comrades. And if a bow broke, that archer’s arrows risked being wasted. The same problems applied to more complex weapons like crossbows. The result was that an army’s progress was often impeded by weapons failure because its archers were unable to fight at full efficiency, if at all.

With standardization also came a new level of production accountability:

Ying Zheng’s forces resolved these problems by standardizing the design of their bows and arrows. The shaft of each arrow had to be a precise length, and the head to be formed in a triangular prism, always of the same size and shape. The components of longbows and crossbows were made identical too, and these design formulas were rigidly enforced. Each piece of government equipment was branded with a distinctive mark to identify who had made it and in which workshop. If a particular weapon was deemed substandard, the offending artisans would be fined, and punished more severely if the problem recurred.

But Ying Zheng didn’t stop at weaponry. Next, he rebranded his very persona, renaming himself Qin Shihuangdi, or “First Emperor of China,” and employed design in shaping various aspects of culture and commerce, from literacy to currency, even enforcing his own reputation by way of early propaganda design:

A unified system of coinage was introduced, as were standardized weights and measures, a universal legal code and common method of writing. These changes made daily life more orderly, and boosted the economy by making it easier for people from different regions to trade. They also had a symbolic importance in helping to persuade the new emperor’s subjects, many of whom had fought against his army in battle, or had family or friends who had died doing so, that they had a personal stake in his immense domain. Take the new coins. Every time a farmer or a carpenter used them, they saw a tangible reminder that they themselves were part of a dynamic new empire, and had good reason to feel grateful to its visionary founder and ruler.

[…]

He also made sure that the inhabitants of even the most remote regions knew of his power and achievements by ordering descriptions of his feats to be carved into mountains across China.

This use of design strategy, in fact, was a primitive example of the buzzworthy concept currently known as “design thinking”:

Qin Shihuangdi [identified] what he needed to do to secure the future of his regime, and to communicate the results to his subjects. There are parallels between his strategic use of design and its role in successful corporate identity programs, such as Nike’s, and communication exercises like Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns.

But Qin Shihuangdi’s greatest design feat was the application of design as a medium of self-expression, specifically in the preservation of his legacy. He commanded the construction of a monumental burial chamber — a massive underground palace spanning over twenty square miles on Mount Li, discovered there accidentally by farmers in 1974. Its construction was so demanding and grueling that many of the workers died in the process of it and were buried on the site. Rawsthorn explains:

Just as Qin Shihuangdi had deployed design with extreme efficiency to amass wealth and power during his life, he used it to secure what he believed would be an equally resplendent death, by creating the afterlife of his fantasies, which served a practical purpose too. Building such an outlandishly extravagant burial site was so eloquent a testimony of his might that it reinforced it as effectively as his celestially planned palaces, mountain inscriptions and the new imperial currency. But it was also a physical manifestation of the inner world of his imagination, a material expression of how China’s first emperor saw himself, and wished to define his place in history, which presaged contemporary design spectacles such as Olympic Games opening ceremonies, the Arirang Festivals in North Korea and the elaborate sets of Chanel’s haute couture shows at the Grand Palais in Paris.

[…]

Yet unlike latter-day design tacticians such as Apple, Chanel, Nike, Barack Obama’s campaign advisors and the despotic Kim dynasty, Qin Shihuangdi conceived and executed his design feats entirely instinctively.

Hello World is compelling in its entirety, spanning such varied yet interrelated illustrations of design as the London Underground and the breeding of dogs.

Coin photograph courtesy The British Museum

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