November 14, 2019

What experience design can learn from the tarot.

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What tarot can teach you about transformative experience design
Ace of Wands

Very early into researching transformative experience design, I realised that for real insights I’d have to go off the beaten track. So on a recent trip to London, I booked myself a Tarot experience on Airbnb.

I have to say up front that I‘ve never really been into esotherics. But I had heard multiple people describe their Tarot reading as a transformative experience. So on a rainy Wednesday afternoon I made my way to the narrow passageway that inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley for a 6 hour deep-dive into the world of Fools, Hanged Men, Wands and Swords.

I was joined by two criminal psychology PhD’s who also participated out of professional curiosity, and who shared my general scepsis. But as our tutor explained the details of every card, we gradually grew more impressed. When we each got our personal reading, we could only be in awe of the cards’ ability to answer our deepest questions. In fact, we all agreed that if we hadn’t just been trained, it would have seemed like ‘magic’.

I will not take you through the intricacies of Tarot. For that I recommend you book your own experience. (it’s educational and great fun).

But I will share the five experience lessons I learned.

#1. Design your experience around archetypes

In Tarot there is a set of cards which is called the ‘Major Arcana’. These are 22 cards that feature highly archetypal characters. There is the Magician. The Lovers. The Hermit. The Devil. The Fool. The Priestess. Death.

While it takes some effort to interpret all the symbolism on each card, we all instantly understood the various aspects of their personality. Purely because of our familiarity with the (story) archetype they represented. On a side note, I learned that this was also why Carl Jung got pretty excited about the Tarot.

Experience design / storytelling lesson learned: While archetypes leave limited room for nuance, they are a great way to convey a complex message in seconds. If you have little time, present your brand, your story or yourself as an archetype. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the message gets across.

Tip: for a list of 99 archetypes (beyond Tarot) check out this article on Screencraft.

#2. Design experiences that let the audience tell their own story.

In Tarot, there is a saying that ‘the cards don’t lie’. In the eyes of a scientist, this is statement is blatantly wrong. After all, the cards don’t really say anything at all. They’re just randomly drawn pieces of cardboard with beautiful prints.

What actually happens is that when being ‘read’ a person projects their (un)conscious thoughts onto the images in front of them. This transforms the cards into intelligent (story) prompts that help them tap into a personal and intuitive narrative around the challenges they face.

Combined with the right questions from a mysterious tarot ‘reader’ this creates an experience where people quiet their reasoning side, and instead get in touch with their more intuitive side (i.e. the brain in their ‘gut’). This means that what ever guidance or answers are obtained feel true to the person being read. After all, they are telling the story to themselves.

Experience design/storytelling lesson learned: Stories that your audience tell themselves have more meaning than any other. So when creating experiences (or telling stories) less can be more. Instead of giving it all away’ in your experience design, let your audience project their own thoughts and ideas on the environment and come to their own conclusions.

#3. Good experience design can suspend disbelief.

Immersion and suspension of disbelief

Tarot only works if you’re willing to at least suspend some of your disbelief and surrender to the randomness of the cards.

With our audience, this was an interesting challenge. Just as a reminder: we were two criminal psychology PhD’s who were there as part of their studies and myself, an experience hunter with an open mind, yet inherently sceptic of all things paranormal. While we were all willing subjects, none of us were ready to depart on cloud nine simply because someone told us.

But when we had our cards read at the end of the session, none of us was immune to the magic in the air. We had been shown all the tricks of the trade. We knew what was happening and why it was happening. And still the room, the smell of Palo Santo, the ‘magical’ address, the friendly eccentricity of our reader and the beautiful cards themselves immersed us in the experience. While our minds remained analytical, we were all touched by the magic of the cards.

Experience design/storytelling lesson learned: if you immerse your audience in an environment is consistent with the target experience, even the most rational among us can suspend disbelief. In our hearts — we all want to. The set design does not need to be elaborate or expensive. The red wizard robe worn by our host wouldn’t be credible on any traditional theatre stage (see image above). But in the context of the intimate tarot session, it felt authentic, consistent and honest. If you make the effort to create the audience’s stage, they will fill in the gaps.

#4. Story drives value

Story drives value

It’s clear from the previous lessons that the day was as much about the ability of people to project stories as it was about Tarot. Unrelated to the cards this was brilliantly illustrated by an exercise in which we were presented with a number of trinkets with no obvious value (some old rings, some coins, a piece of paper, …).

But as we looked at some, their value started increasing with every story that was told about them. What if that unobtrusive coin was actually the last coin of its kind ever minted? What if the plastic ring we were holding was a forgotten gift for someone who wanted to please a loved one?

I’m sure that our host invented some of these tales. But somehow this didn’t matter. Because those trinkets that had been ‘touched by stories’, started living their own life. It transformed them into something more valuable than the other objects we could have picked.

Experience design/storytelling lesson learned: You can rapidly increase the emotional value of any object, by giving it a credible (back)story. Inside the experience, this can give extra meaning to any props you use. But it can also be a brilliant way to let your guests take home something of value, without breaking the bank.

#5. Lessons don’t need to be taught

I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but there is one big learning I’ve had over the past year, which again emerged in my Tarot experience.

This is that lessons don’t need to be taught to be effective. Or at least they don’t need to be taught in the traditional manner of someone telling you how something should be done.

In fact, NOT explaining what happens, and letting the audience figure it out for themselves, can be much more powerful.

In this case, my main takeaway was about the power of projection. As humans, we continuously project stories. We do it to Tarot cards, but also to the objects, people, situations and environments that surround us. To rings, coins and trinkets. To each other. And finally, to ourselves.

But it’s remarkable that — thinking back — we never explicitly discussed this aspect of human behaviour. There was no ‘lesson’ about projection. Instead, the topic was woven into our different experiences. Through little statements by our host, like when he told me that ‘surely, that compliment you just gave her is just projecting your own beliefs and standards onto a person you hardly know. These clues then came together in my head as a lesson which would take a book to describe, but which I now intuitively know to be true.

Experience design/storytelling lesson learned: If you want to teach others, think about ‘not teaching’. Think about ways in which you can offer them experiences that allow them to reach their own conclusion. This will be much harder on yourself, as it is a lot easier to ‘impart wisdom by PowerPoint’. But the impact of the lessons learned will be much bigger and last a lot longer.


If you read all the way to this point, I want to congratulate you on your open mind. First because tarot isn’t the most obvious of experience design topics. But also because I realise my ‘lessons learned’ could be written more clearly.

The only problem is that – like with all experiences – the memories are often emotional and intuitive, and words don’t always get the message across. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson of all.

Or perhaps you should just take a tarot reading yourself. If anything, it’s great fun.

If you'd like to discuss or explore the topic a little more, feel free to come by, or get in touch for a (virtual) coffee. I’d love to hear from you.

(c) Alain Thys – November 14, 2019 – all rights reserved

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