Michael Ventura, founder of the creative agency Sub Rosa, is sitting in a conference room, a deck of eggplant-colored cards stacked in front of him. He lifts the top card and turns towards me. “What questions make you the most uncomfortable?” he says.
It’s an odd question for a friend—let alone an acquaintance—to ask. But that’s kind of the point. Ventura is showing me how to play a game called Questions and Empathy. “It’s like a highbrow Cards Against Humanity,” he explains. “It escalates you from small talk to big talk ultra fast.”
He’s right about the big talk thing. I grab the next card: “How do you stay grounded when the world becomes overwhelming?” And then another. “What motivates you to progress?” The questions are broad and deep, designed specifically to accelerate feelings of trust between a group of people. “How do we get people to share the big stuff fast and get comfortable in the exposure that creates?” Ventura asks. He’s betting that a games of cards will help. For Ventura, the cards are way to facilitate empathy, a trait that’s become something of an industry buzz word, but that Sub Rosa says is a bonafide strategy for its business.
Similar to what IDEO did with design thinking, Ventura is attempting to do with empathy—he wants to create a methodology for encouraging creativity and problem solving.
Sub Rosa began working on Questions and Empathy a few years back, during a time when the creative agency was trying to figure out how to distinguish itself from other marketing and design businesses. “If you look at the way one agency versus another talks about themselves, it’s all kind of same, same but different,” he says. “It’s all innovation, strategic, design-minded.”
Ventura believes Sub Rosa is all those things, but he also feels that innovation and good design are table stakes. Empathy, he realized, was a differentiating factor. “Understanding people and their desires, where they want to go in their life, and how they can get there, who they’re trying to reach and who those people are, that’s what makes good go-to great in terms of the work we do,” he says. “If we just sat in a room and shut this door and said, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ it wouldn’t be that fucking cool.”
And so Sub Rosa set out to craft something akin to a curriculum around strengthening empathetic skills. The designers came up with seven archetypes that comprise a wholly empathic person—everything from the inquisitive prober who asks the hard questions, to the sage, who is adept at being present in the moment. No one is wholly empathic, Ventura says, but everyone over and under indexes in at least one archetype. Using that as the baseline, the team came up with seven questions for each archetype with the idea being to answer the questions of the archetype you relate to the least, as a way to stretch your brain into new ways of thinking.
In a lot of ways, Sub Rosa’s cards are an extension of design thinking’s mantra of “human-centered design,” which has recently come under a more critical eye. We’ve heard stories about the death of design thinking for years, and during a recent talk at the How Design Live conference, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen dismantled the current fervor over the term. “Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their processes into a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem solving—claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problem,” she says. “This is bullshit.” Creativity is messier than that, she argues.
She’s right, of course. As big consultancies like McKinsey and Accenture snatch up design firms, and corporations like IBM pour money into design-led business initiatives, it’s hard not to be skeptical of companies who dress up design and creativity in a natty little suit. Reducing creativity to a workflow and Post-it notes has both solidified its place in the business world (and turned design into big business) while simultaneously draining it of the inventiveness that made it interesting in the first place.
In the same way, it’s easy to look at Questions and Empathy as an attempt to manufacture empathy for the sake of business. As design thinking purportedly dies out, it will inevitably be replaced with a better, or at least buzzier methodology. But framing Questions and Empathy solely as a business practice undersells what the cards can accomplish, which is to nudge you deeper—and faster—into intimacy. The cards ultimately act as permission slips, giving you the opportunity to ask questions that you might otherwise shy away from. The game can be uncomfortable, sure. And at times it can feel a little forced. Then again, no one said understanding another human was easy.