“I’m Michael Ventura. I’m based in New York and spend most of my days making up ideas and finding ways to bring them to life.”
Q&A with Michael Ventura:
What is your current job title? Please tell me where you work and explain what your job entails.
I’m the Founder and CEO of Sub Rosa – a company focused on strategy and design for clients and new ventures. My day typically entails a healthy mix of thinking, writing, and making ideas that can help companies behave more like humans.
How do you describe the kind of work you do as a creative agency?
I look at the work we do through the lens of commercial art. We aren’t “fine artists” – which is often a slippery slope creative agencies succumb to. Instead we view our assignments as opportunities to put great ideas out that satisfy both our clients and our own creative and intellectual curiosities.
Are you working on anything else creative outside of your work at Sub Rosa? Any classes or other projects you’re working on? Please explain.
In addition to Sub Rosa’s main efforts around clients and new ventures, we also own and operate a gallery space and a retail shop in our new building in the West Village. From here, we’re able to do projects and display products we create with a bit more freedom. Developing products (lighting, furniture, and other home décor) with my wife Caroline is something I love spending free time doing.
How did you get to where you are today? What has been career path?
Well, it’s a funny answer. I started Sub Rosa when I was 23 after being laid-off / “downsized” from an ad agency I went to work for when I graduated college. So effectively, Sub Rosa is really my only substantive work history. This is interesting insomuch as everything I’ve learned, every mistake I’ve made, and every success I’ve had in my career has happened from within this company. It’s sort of surreal to think back on 10 years of work and realize it’s all been here.
How did you figure out what you wanted to do?
When I was 8 years old I was sitting at the kitchen table with my parents and they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I looked up and without hesitation, I told them, “I want to be an ‘idea man’”. I have no idea where my 8-year old self heard that term, but both my folks remember this moment clear as day. I guess I always knew this was something I’d enjoy doing.
How did you learn to do what you do?
I have had a weird path that’s led me to this place in my career. I went to Babson for my undergrad degree. The school is focused heavily on business and entrepreneurship. I always knew to some degree that business would be a useful major but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it.
In my summers, I spent time interning as a nightlife reporter for a magazine, working at start-ups in the dot.com boom, and otherwise getting into artistic adventures in and around New York City. I think to a degree, the excitement and the electricity of New York was a major catalyst for me to fuel my creative interests. 15 years later, it still delivers on that promise.
What are a few of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?
For GE, we helped them “reimagine the mammography experience”. They wanted to grow their business in medical imaging and while I can’t get into every specific of this project, we were able to effectively come up with ideas that helped increase the screening rates of patients, increase cancer detection, innovate new modes of design thinking within hospitals, and holistically evolve the experience from a cold, medicinal feel to one of empathy and intelligence. It was super heavy work and something that still moves me to think back upon.
The other was a program we developed called Levi’s Workshops. We went into communities and built public spaces that reimagined what it means to be “pioneering” in this day and age. We put tools and lessons into the hands of willing participants and invited them to join us at spaces designed to celebrate the crafts of today’s makers. We opened a letterpress and screenprinting shop in San Francisco, a photo studio in New York, and a film studio in LA. These spaces were hothouses for creativity and brought in artists, designers, and thinkers from around the world to collaborate with consumers. For me, this one changed the way brands can behave and speak to consumers. We still get emails from people about how powerful this campaign was for their local community almost 3 years later.
What are you currently working on?
Lots! We just moved into our new space. We’re working on opening the gallery and the retail shop. We’ve got projects running for Nike, GE, Target, Axe, Pantone, LL Bean, and many others. We’ve got four ventures we’ve also developed and are in the process of launching. Oh, and we have a publication we’re designing and will release at the end of the year.
What do you love about the work you do?
I love the challenge of it. The fact that it’s always going to be different. That no two projects are the same. When I wake up in the morning I’m never fully sure what the day will deliver. Sometimes that’s a blessing, and sometimes it’s a curse. The plight and pride of the entrepreneur.
Can you explain experience design and how it sets you apart from other agencies?
We focus the core of our thinking around behavior, memory, relationships, and emotions. If we can build something that is touching on those four pillars we’re doing the right work. It needs to feel human. It needs to have a story. And most of all, it needs to be empathetic.
What is one of your earliest memories involving design or innovation?
I went to a Montessori pre-school. When you were bad, they asked you to sit in the “blue chair”. In retrospect, it was at that time I realized that a color and an object could take on so much more meaning by having a narrative. This is the earliest memory I can think of that brought forth an emotion from an ordinary design-object.
Describe your style. Is your personal style different from your professional style?
I don’t know how to answer this question without sounding like a douchebag. I guess most of the things I like have a theme – they’re old, worn, patinaed stuff that has a story to tell. Does that answer the question?
Please describe how your creative brain works.
It starts with the problem to be solved. It’s not a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” sort of thinking process I undertake. Instead, I tackle a problem fairly exactingly and methodically. Then I kick the shit out of it from a realist standpoint. Will people care? Is this fun/interesting/compelling? Is the message clear? If it survives, it’s worth pushing to the next stage of development.
Any interesting stories about the work you’ve done or an experience you’ve had?
There was this one time we were doing an event in Detroit for the Superbowl. George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic were performing. After the show was over and everyone had cleared out, George staggered over to me. He was completely fucked up and incapable of a coherent sentence. He handed me his keys and a post-it note with his address on it. 15 minutes later I’m driving around downtown Detroit in his maroon Cadillac with him and his manager out cold in the back. That was the night I put George Clinton to bed.
Do you have any advice for someone interested in following in your chosen path?
Make as many mistakes as you can as early as possible. And check your ego and your feelings at the door.
I’d like to retire early and become a forager.
To learn more about Michael Ventura and Sub Rosa, check out http://www.wearesubrosa.com and Instagram: @themichaelventura