Scott Berkun | Books

The Powerful Decide

Map of Sykes–Picot 1916 division, Stanfords Geographical Establishment London, Map to Illustrate the Agreements of 1916 in Regard to Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Public Domain.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of How Design Makes The World by Scott Berkun, reprinted with permission from the author.

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.

Hand drawn map of Missoula, Montana, Tim Kordik.

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.

Hand drawn map of Missoula, Montana, Tim Kordik.

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.

Hand drawn map of Missoula, Montana, Tim Kordik.

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.

Hand drawn map of Missoula, Montana, Tim Kordik.

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.

Hand drawn map of Malfunction Junction, Missoula, Montana, Tim Kordik.

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.” 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.

To finish reading the chapter, you can buy a copy here.

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