Transfixed by Tragedy

Questions for myself

There is a contradiction in my explanation about what is the main purpose for this study. On the one hand, I persuade designers that we can use the same mechanism in tragedy to strengthen resonance with audiences. I assume that this mechanism can works independently without tragic content. No matter how to cover, there is a little bits of manipulation. But on the other hand, I despise presenting design and research as a tool like this.

“ See what I see. Feel what I feel.”

I try to look back for the deepest real motivation which brings tragedy here. It started with trauma, some stories I can now smile at them as tragedies. That provide you not only a filter but also a way to approach this world. You will continually question yourself and this absurd world WHY?Those tragedy and philosophical discussions then stand out and decode the normal routine with other meanings. The cup of tea is not just an aesthetic and ritual beauty related with cultures, colors and senses. When I start to look at with the sense of tragedy, I start to think the relation between people become cold as the tea, and vanish with the steam. Then this cold tea represents fragile of companion and dissipation of communication among human. In every tiny daily trifling matters, the eye of tragedy always can find out one point that really touching. An unutterable feeling and possible truth appear in mind. Which push me to think further and share this light with others even it might be meaningless. There could be nothing can be called ultimate truth to answer all the WHY and bewilderments. But at least, I tried. And I want you to go on. Talked with other designers, one of them worried that designers don’t have enough time to pause and think so much. My answer is that there is nothing change on time consume. Once this idea of tragedy and passion for truth transferred and rooted in you, you will reflect differently on the same material in the same length of time.

As a former journalist and scholar, I have a part of idealism and a little dream that we can find an ultimate truth and reason to enlighten people. My first professor in design once told me that :”You think too much. Design don’t need those depth and philosophy. Just present your it simply and clearly.” To deliver information directly and efficiently is also, I have to admit, my intention of studying design. There is nothing wrong to be commercial and superficial which do improve a better communication in several fields, such as infographic to science, package to market, advertise campaign to economic, et cetera. But when the situation really came to me, I found that I can not agree with those words from professor. I asked myself :”Is this enough?” Design like this is more like a quick exchange of conventional greeting . Of course, the information flows and communicate efficiently , clearly, politely and beautifully. But the human also need In-depth conversation with further analyzing and sharing. If a designer only focuses on those techniques and theories about how to grab more viewer, the designer is more like a layout of design instead. With the enormous database and high information processing capabilities, the computers can generate more precise designs as they done for news. Before play a role as great communicator, I am a human. Audiences and customers are human, an intelligent creature who feel and think every breath. As human not machine, the designers can speaks and think more in their works.

Why we need communicate?

Why we want to improve it?

Why design?

In those hypothesis and explorations from my peers, someone breaks the tradition in professional graphic design, someone challenges the authority in political systems, someone calls for reverse the rigid design environment. We are all fighting and resisting.

Sharing this roar in body with me, we confront all contradictions and absurdity concomitant our existence.

Transfixed by Tragedy


Thesis Question

By understanding why people are obsessed with tragedy and how it resonates with human emotions, can designers use the same mechanisms to build and strengthen connections with audiences?


People are obsessed with all kinds of tragedy which produce lasting influences on their psychological status and physical behaviors. Through learning the mechanisms behind this obsession of tragedy, design can absorb them to stretch the effects and strengthen emotional resonance. The generic assertion that tragedy is a type of drama or terrible news that end with disaster is not enough. To view tragedy as a unified idea, it is more a process of self-deconstruction that does not have to end in catastrophes. However this unity excludes real accidents without distance which is one of the most vital cores of tragedy. By distance I mean the psychological detachment and independence from the accident. When people are lost in the maelstrom of misfortune, this tragedy means to him or her more than the simple word “tragedy” can summarize. All kinds of metaphors in language and visual expression are pale and narrow in their position. Only when standing from a distance or involved as a harmless experience, all these forms can be summarized objectively into one idea of “tragedy” for outsiders. Here is design also, it communicates the information efficiently, creatively and beautifully to the audiences who are passing by as an outsider. Design wants to drag people into the world inside it, as tragedy transforms its audiences. Realizing the necessity and existence of the distance is the ground for design to close it next. There are many more common features shared with tragedy and design. When designers lose their way, learning of tragedy can light one road back to their goal. This paper will deconstruct and embrace the obsession of tragedy into communication design in the form of tragic design, which will prolong the effects of the message and strengthen the sense of empathy.


It is for designers to understand that design can be more than just an efficient and creative tool for communication. It can create a world and experience that transforms the audiences through different dimensions as tragedy influences its audiences. Instead of stopping at delivery, design needs to step further to transform and build ever-lasting bonds. After proposing a new perspective of design, this study believes that design can absorb the concept. Such as the safe distance offered in tragedy for audiences to let them enjoy instead of escaping away.: At the same time it keeps dragging them down with narrative structures, space, visual performance, concept, sound, and even touch and movements. So does design. There is an inevitable distance between design works and audiences which should be controlled. The attraction and connection will be strengthened through the process of distance changing.

Why Tragedy?

At the threshold, this paper choose tragedy as one of the core subjects for its initiative similar with design. If you look closer at the concept of tragedy and design, the inconspicuous relationship between them will uncovered. Generally, people use the word tragedy loosely with all kind of misfortune and catastrophe. But for academic fields, most scholars and writers have tied tragedy to Greek tragedy drama which is the origin of tragedy, like Friedrich Nietzsche described in his study The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music1 and Sarah Dewar-Watson connected Shakespeare and Aristotle by tragic theme in playwriting2. Aristotle mined out most of early archives about tragedy in his Didaskalia, a written theatre study, which is one of the cornerstone scholars rely on. Used as the title of an academic journal about the Greek theatre, the word Didaskalia means teaching. Thus the foundational principle of Greek plays, including tragedy, is didactic.

In responsibility-driven design, there are some similar voices who said that designers trained in many disciplines should contribute to the building of the human spirit world3 and aesthetic cognitive development. Back to tragedy, when digging under the surface of teaching, the basic motivation of it is about identity and moral construction. Basing on this didacticism, Neil T. Croally argues that the tragedy is a mediation of self identity and a relation with surroundings for the Athenians4, which is one aspect of design too. If we look back at its etymology, the latin verb designare appeared in 1540s meaning “mark out”5, which now designers have expanded to identifying, branding and defining. When designers produce something, they imbue the object with a soul and give it an identity to be recognized by the world. Through getting in touch with the design (noun.), the link between audiences and their worlds stitched together by information has been transformed. Their relation might be redefined by the input of new information. From this point of view, design has the blood of tragedy in its veins, in that they all start with identifying and aiming to contribute for human improvements. The study of how tragedy reaches its goal can then remind the designer how they could reach their goal. And also this relation draw out more questions for designer to reflect on how far this soul in design have been undervalued.

The second reason is the powerful draw from tragedy which makes it stand out and work the best when there is so much competition in the information glut. Studies have found that people prefer to chose tragic movies and plays, or sorrowful music than light songs6. In serious literature, there is a predominance of writing tragedy which been mostly valued. And this magic attraction also works in journalism, in which tragedies catch the most eyes and hearts at the very first sight. It not only attracts people, but some academics also argue that tragedy is the highest genre which touches the deepest part of the human mind. People laugh and pass onto their life after a comedy without reflecting on it. But they will spend more time to think and taste a tragedy.

Facing this attraction of tragedy, some researchers claim that it is human nature to pay more attention to tragedy. St. Augustine once questioned himself and gave an answer in his Confessions:

Stage-plays also carried me away, full of images of my miseries, and of fuel to my fire. Why is it, that man desires to be made sad, beholding doleful and tragic things, which yet himself would by no means suffer? Yet he desires as a spectator to feel sorrow at them, and this very sorrow is his pleasure. What is this but a miserable madness? For a man is the more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such actions.7

He provided directions for developing explanations of hundreds of different human natures, which are the egocentric projection and activation of emotion. In the following exploration leaded by Aaron Smuts, scientists present that most audiences know what those painful arts, especially tragedy, will bring to them. But they “ seek them out in pursuit of prima facie painful reactions8. To explain this phenomenon, Stoics introduced the “Better You Than Me Theory” which means people enjoy witnessing pain of others to remind themselves “the comparative good fortune”9. In the “Convention Theory” represented by David Hume, scholars believe that painful experiences will be partly or fully transformed in viewing the tragedy of others.10 And the “Control Theory” is discussed mostly by John Morreall, who conjectures that people feel helpless in a real tragedy but can control the experience with tragic arts. It is this sense of holding power in their hands that fascinates people most.11 But in “Compensation Theories”, one consensus agreed by all different variations of these theories is that people do feel pain in tragedy and enjoy the compensatory pleasure with the pain at the same time.

In the philosophical direction, philosophers explain this human nature as sublime with pity and fear. The principles of pity and fear where raised by Aristotle in his Poetics, in which he elaborated on them in tragedy as a method of purification. Later Kantine built his theory, which governed largely in an academic field, with sublime in tragedy based on this balance between pity and fear12. Here, the pity is an aesthetic sympathy presented by poetic and delicate details. And fear is necessary existing at the same time to “elevates the soul of spectator”13. This contradiction and mixture of delicate and terrifying can be one new possibility for design to build on.

All the studies above prove the existence of a powerful attraction and influence from tragedy, which set the cornerstone for further study in this paper. The most recent research, was which mostly generated before the early twenty-first century is outdated and imperfect. It has either omitted fields other than drama, or distorted the distance between tragedy and audiences. Therefore, there is a need for an updated study of the obsession with tragedy in this paper to support current and future design.

Concept of Tragedy

It is equally significant for the concept of tragedy to be identified and defined in this study. It is true that the culture of drama is distant to us now. As printing and digital technology have developed, the meaning of tragedy has been expanded to a broken clock which punishes you for being late. Some critics in the academic world believed that the practice of treating tragedy as a unit which can be understood is nullifying. David Lenson claimed that those critics and scholars are only applying dramatic study indiscriminately in their entire punishes you for being late. Some critics in the academic world believed that the practice of treating tragedy as a unit which can be understood is nullifying. David Lenson claimed that those critics and scholars are only applying dramatic study indiscriminately in their entire research. He pointed out this paradox in Achilles’ Choice that, “To neglect the application of centuries of criticism simply to protect a preconceived idea of genre is clearly wrong”14In this point of view, design seemed too narrow and alienated from tragedy.

However, I prefer to view tragedy from the perspective from Adrian Poole, that tragedy is a united idea, that all forms of tragedy share some characters and can be counted as a system together. The confusion in the discussion is that some scholars count the accidents with people who are really involved by themselves into the study. But this should not be the case , tragedy need distance and layers. The word and idea of tragedy is for people who have no real stake involved in an accident. For instance, in the case of a young lady who has lost her fiance in an accident, for others, they can sigh deeply and say: “What a tragedy!” However for that poor women, all of this is far more than a tragedy. All words are pale and narrow for her. Only one day when time has lessened the enormous grief, she might looks back from a distance of time and then sigh : “What a tragedy.” Guangqian Zhu concluded this necessary distance as a base for aesthetic experience in tragedy. He brought Schopenhauer’s Detachment concept into the psychologic study of tragedy, in which tragedy transcends and transforms the tragic experience into an aesthetic experience with the distance15. Similar to distance in tragedy, design wants to communicate the information efficiently, creatively and beautifully with the audiences who are passing by in distance. As tragedy does to its audience, design is also eager to drag people into the world created by design and transform them to some degree.

Design as Emotion Reservoir

With the help of psychological analysis, designers like Don Norman, Halimahtun M. Khalid, Martin G. Helander and Jan L. Plass lead a trend called emotion design in twenty-first century. In their research and practices, they focused on building emotional connections with customers through shaping user experiences. Norman established a three-dimensional model in design which was on a “visceral, behavioral and reflective level”16. Khalid and Helander stepped their foot on functionality and utility design which match the needs of customers. Cognizant of the obstacle of the measuring emotions, which is because of the indefinite relationship between an emotion and its behavioral expression and cultural difference, the team build a framework for analysis of customer emotions in relation to the designer’s environment. This framework can be viewed as a prototype to be developed in order to analyze the broader relations between audiences, designs and designers.17 However, they all draw the conclusion that design should only grow on hedonic experience. They believe that the customer is looking forward to pleasure and this is the goal of design. The need of negative emotion shown in tragedy has been ignored, or somehow excluded.

Historical Context

People have a persistent preoccupation with all kinds of tragedy, which produce lasting influences on their psychological statuses and physical behaviors. Facing the doubt from people that what if techniques in tragedy flounder in other, the practices in varied fields shed lights on the road of adaption. To attract audiences and deliver information efficiently, creators in literature, journalism, advertisement and religions, already successfully incorporate conventions of tragedy into their works.

In a study by literature critic David Lenson, drama faced a decline during eighteenth century and the lyric and novel of tragedy in the ascendant. Even though the understanding of tragedy had expanded from the loyal hero centre into social centre, the structure and narrative skill still heir mostly from drama. Playwrights as Byron, Shelley and Mallarmé, who failed in playwriting, shifted from theatre to literature with their dramaturgical experiences and understanding of tragedy as a genre.18 The charm and influence of tragedy did not drop with this shift and continued to develop. Instead, the falling fates and dichotomy contradictions in tragedy dominated the world of literature. People can still smell the recreated elements of tragedy plays in even lyric poems.

In news reports, not only do the tragic stories and narrative structures attract the public, some spreading and photograph presenting strategies are also incorporated from tragedy. In the school of journalism, besides objective and comprehensive reporting, the two of most significant techniques are how to use a dramatic conflict to hook audiences and how to write in Wall Street Journal Style building a leading role. This intention for the reporters and editors is more obvious when dealing with tragic contents preforming the information as a tragic play. For instance, the work from winner of Investigating Report in Pulitzer Prize 2016, ”Insane. Invisible. In danger”, Leonora LaPeter Anton and Anthony Cormier of the Tampa Bay Times and Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune start the large series with the personal experience of violence attack from a young female victim’s view in a narrative style. The interactive website with vivid graphic descriptions makes readers feel the hopelessness, uncertainty and fear as that girl.

Photography in journalism also must have a strong story and prefer a tragic moment. Journalists wish to capture a sharp image with a clear main character in the role of the hero, who can lead the audiences and a heavy ambience with some sense of ennobling to raise audiences to another stage.

As kinds of extensions of drama, films and animations not only directly introduce the narrative structure, tones and the building of scenery, they also develop the metaphors with more leeway to play with them. The usage of masks, bleak color combinations, skeletons, chorale and other symbolic transformations all are generated from tragedy. Composer Samuel Barber even creates tragedy through an ensemble of different tunes and texture of instruments.

In religious stories, one goal is to show the truth and the fall of a great man such as a sage and pilgrim who is the hero in tragedy. This form of heroic main character leading a solemn and stirring story was establish by tragedy. The idea of ghosts in various religions is also a great deal in tragedy. This mystery is not only about the death, but also including the haunting pass, the madness in current mind, a lost of future, etc. All of the loss of control and living death in religions and tragedies arouse desire and weakness in people. Besides, the logic of cause and effect in tragedy plays and important role in religions. Thus they will keep thinking and addressing more emotional connections with stories or the group. The only difference is that the inevitable fate in tragedy can be turn and saved by a supernatural in religions. This is another reason why religions can have the human in grasp.

The practices of adapting the tragic genre and conventions into other fields have already been shown in many forms as visual, acoustic, literature and other physical realizations. Design is an inclusive area which can include all those forms that make the transformation from tragedy to design feasible, like the idea of contradiction and establishment of ambience from tragedy have already been used in design for a longtime. Designers emphasize their message through the use of high contradictory elements, such as color, shape, typeface, layout and culture concept. And recently the building of ambience and experience in design is frequently being mentioned and practiced in Interactive Design and UI/UX fields. Designers in those fields concentrate on how to shape experience through designing a whole environments for users. From the view of emotion and humanity in tragedy, emotional design, sensational design, humanity design and responsible design attempt to approach the goal of provoking deeper emotion and higher thought in design, beside the commercial works.

However, the study of adapting comprehensive tragedy into design is still a new territory, which leaves the paper this chance to explore it. There is no obvious design work indicate that designers have consciously used the tragic design. Some designs have part of quality can be viewed as design with tragedy. For instance, in the case of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the tomblike structure sunken into the ground burying people in this deep and serious ambience and dragging them close. When people touch the names of soldiers who died in capital letters carved in cold and heavy black marble, they gain such a futile and frustrating experience. The metaphors using here also have the quality of a dramatic tragedy. Maya Lin, the designer of Vietnam Memorial Wall, said that the way it “cutting into the earth” and opening it up, shows an “initial violence and pain”.(Christopher, 2017)19

Other memorials like The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, also tell a story and borrow metaphors from tragedy. The two white beam of lights in ceremony from the foundation of the collapsed World Trade Center imitate ghosts of the buildings. And in the vital tour of 9/11 Memorial Museum, designers weave personal stories, governmental documents and all kinds of records together in a timeline as a play. The whole exhibition down there more than showcases, but narrates an epic to audiences.

Narrative structure and color choices in tragedy also have been used in design for advertisements. From 2013 to 2015, Kingston Technology filmed thee long advertisements as a series called A Memory To Remember. The team shot three sorrowful and meaningful stories to attract audiences stay with their unusual long commercial advertisements about seven to eleven minutes and sell the value of company. The stories include a widow who goes to subway station everyday hearing announcement recorded by her husband, a son find that seventeen years ago his father left him for terminal illness and sold a song written for him to exchange a piano for the boy, and a police officer helps a five years old child who misses his dead mother by sending letters and gifts pretending from the mother. These adverts succeed not only for the content, but also the narrative structure, visual style and touching language imitated from tragedy. It all begin with a mystery and serene which will be push to emotional turbulent as most tragedies do. The bleak and vintage color also give a sense of poetry with the symbolic words.

The distance control in tragedy, that distance audiences first and then closing it through building an environment, not only works well in this kind of advertisements, but also functions in some installation designs, such as You Are Here, a GPS mapping installation designed by Laura Kurgan. Through visualizing the GPS datas of human movements around the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the infographics have a chance to present and open “the inside-outside dichotomy of the facade”12. The disorientation and the dichotomy in digital and physical space keep audiences in distance which be dissolved later with visual presentation and the dots without any walls.

Besides the storytelling and distance controlling, the layer and pace setting in tragedy also have been used in artworks and designs. For instance, in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work “Untitled”, a installation made by candies weight the same as artist’s dead partner, as metaphoric representations and information layers transform the simple experience into heavy grief. This work performs similar with tragedy in some parts, such as the candy mountain, the hero in tragedy, got all colourful, rich and sweet fantasy climbing up into a peak. Then audiences and the work itself start to chew every good part away. The sweet pipe dream collapses as the time flying.

It is hard to tell the trend of dragging audiences involved into a work started from design or stage. More tragedy performances including plays and dances open up the boundary between actors and audiences, establishing new mystery and relation. Such performances as Sleep No More, an immersive theatre version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, lets audiences running with characters through different rooms building their own stories. That closer experience breaks down the old fence between audiences and work but still gives them a sense of distance as audiences still can not interfere with it and will hide themselves under masks. At the same time, Experience Design and Empathy Design have also attempted to set new boundaries physically and emotionally. For instance, in the “Garden Speaks”, a sound installation designed by Tania El Khoury, audiences do not just sit down watching and listening to the stories about how women and children in Syria were murdered and buried into their own yards as news reports asked for, but they need to go through kind of ritual process in a space decorated like a theatre stage for a tragic performance. One vital step of interact with this installation is laying on the ground with a raincoat on and listening to a soliloquy from buried people. The raincoats and ritual remind audiences that they are safe from the cruel truth and can open themselves. But in the meantime, holding their ears to the ground and listening to words directly from who is buried there strengthens the connections and feeling of communication between audiences and the work. People feel and think way more after this experience than a poster on the street. Those cases above start closing in on what elements, frames, and design thinkings could pull out more resonance with unique and touching experience. Through analyzing more hidden clues in tragedy works, this research tried to argue that design can bring much stronger influence.

Whirlpool in Tragedy

Most scholars as mentioned above focus on digging out an ultimate reason for the obsession with tragedy. To reach a brand new reasonable answer in this short research is arrogant and conceited. Thus the solution is a listing of the most possible deductions. Before summarizing new possible answers here, it is necessary to divide different obsessions for a comprehensive image first. One way is to category them by how people process information differently, like aesthetic experience, ethic of satisfaction and consuming entertainment.

Benedetto Croce describes this aesthetic experience in his Essence of Aesthetic as “the intuition of pure form.”(locate the page###) In this approach, audiences get rid off their rational logic and critical thinking, fully enjoying tragedy without any judging. This mostly happens in front of tragedy related to art forms, such as drama, movie, music, painting, stage design, sculpture, and literature. More philosophers within the last two centuries analyze that this is the moment that audiences actually blend in with works. Although the audiences lose themselves in the work, neither is dominant that as subject or object. Such a concentrated and open state exists without a doubt but there is no evidence shows that there is enough to blur the boundary in the mind of audiences. In the theories of aesthetic experience from people like Schopenhauer and Ruskin, audiences will forget their individuality and will through “projecting subject feelings into object”, and “absorbing object mood into the subject” (Kwang-Tsien,1933) However, St. Augustine remembered his own misery through tragic plays, Athenians found their identity in drama, audiences tear for their own fate as human beings. Even though such inner imitation leads an exchange and flow between object and subject, audiences still experience and generate this empathy for themselves as separate individuals. There are thousands of Hamlets in thousands of minds. Everyone has their own aesthetic experience toward one tragedy.

Another processing of tragedy is finding a satisfaction with rational analysis and judgment on it. It is hard for audiences to enjoy anything highly contradictory to their own ethic. Or they will enter a defensive stage, rejecting any information which tragedy might try to deliver. The existence of critics for tragedy is one of the most obvious evidences of this ethical satisfaction. They judge and analyze how a work is a great one or not, enjoying digging into something behind it. Also, common audiences tend to find this ethical satisfaction playing a God. In the tragedy, the audience already was been told or taken a hint about which mistake will lead to the unwanted results but not the characters. Audiences claim the moral high ground and get a chance to judge what happened here without burden. This ethical authority with greatly satisfies the audience as they actively view the work.

Last but not least, people ignoring the spirits in tragedy just simply consume it as entertainment. In the Lu Xun’s novel Medicine, he once described this kind of onlooker as:

Craning their necks as far as they would go, they looked like so many ducks held and lifted by some invisible hand. For a moment all was still; then a sound was heard, and a stir swept through the on-lookers. 20

They prey like a vulture on human tragedies. When people seen more and more this kind of content before, it becomes cliché. This is not only out of malice, but audiences also get a sense of life force in the struggles and collisions.

The category for the obsession with tragedy can also start with different intentions, result, and expression. No matter how it is divided, the real experience in viewing tragedy or other objects like design is organized whole. The interplay of different portions builds a flowing “life” instead of a solid frame. One person might get ethical satisfaction first when the core spirit fits what he or she is comfortable with. Then the aesthetic activity crashes into the mind. That moment retreats quickly bringing new judgment. Reviewing the second time or facing something similar in the future, and the entertainment feeling expands proportionally. If viewing this psychological state as a human, the classification here is a dissection of a body. Each part will not live separately. But without dissecting them first, people will never know how they worked together.

Distinguish From Other Drama

The obsession is not about one side of human nature toward tragedy, but also about the unique quality in works itself.

fear to empathy

Traditionally, scholars conclude the power of tragedy as pity and fear when they discussed greek tragedy and literature works. When the territory expands to journalism, film and other forms, pity can be upgraded to empathy.

Instead of a mere tear of sympathy or sensitivity, pity in tragedy is a universal emotion generated by a sudden revelation of the powerful fate and nihilism of life. As discussed in the types of obsession, people will project what happened in the external objects in themselves. The main characters become their extension in the story experiencing of their version of life. When people watch The Death of Salesman, besides the hard lot for the salesman, they show pity and empathy for their own similar absurd life. With the development of tragedy, the whole picture spurs audience to further thinking about the suffering in life for every human being. This pity exists in traditional tragedy with some grace, dignity and poetry in subtle details. Without the dignity in Hamlet’s soliloquy, the grace in violent crash of the Titanic, or the poetic language on stage, tragedy will drop to the ground as a carnival for fear. And uncomfortable fear will kick people out of enjoyment.

But pity still, has a sense of delicate, is limited to cover the tragedy spread in modern life. In modern dramas, films, news reports and online stories, the glory of graceful fades with the raising of atomization and deeper implying of the grand narrative. People did not act against the fear caused by the attacks on September 11, 2001 with any graceful images or poetic moments. The personal spirit of resistance in those stories— pieces of a normal person and survival instinct for whole America—are what held spectators in other lands through it. Empathy here is a more directly vigor for a broader view and passion of life. This passion is also why tragedy needs fearful elements to push people out of the comfortable zones. Sentimentalism seems fragile in front the heaviness of tragedy.

This mixture of empathy and fear’s main point is the balance of provoking pathos and higher morale. For instance, when design warns people against desertification, a designers can show more than just how terribly it threatens humans, or how it is possible to fought back by protecting plants. The combination of two sides can maximize the influence. Rather than persuading people through propaganda slogans and warnings, design can take the psychological intention and need as a starting point. Audiences live for more emotional lives than simple decoders.

Inevitable Fate

To us is allotted

No restful haven to find;

They falter, they perish,

Poor suffering mortals

Blindly as moment

Follows to moment,

Like water from mountain

to mountain impelled,

Destined to disappearance below.21

As Friedrich Hölderlin writes in his “Schicksalslied”, Song of Destiny, inevitability is another core of tragedy stressed by their creators. When tragedy goes to the turning point or has been fully presented to audiences, people learn the hidden paths and clues. Then sometimes, they will think back logically about this tragedy which could be prevented but may actually be unavoidable. This hidden logic and thinking process is one character that people get more into it when emotional connected. It is not only about one peak moment, but the logical clue connecting everything together. Also, knowing the possible end and the inevitable falling fate and what mistake are fated grabs people to keep thinking again and again.

One thing for designers to think about is the balance of process and result. One process is giving the audience pieces of clues when they experience the story which leads to a major revelation and superimposes new meaning. For example, audiences follow the visual clues such as hierarchy in colors and quantity, then generate a vague guess for what the purpose of it is. Then the story shoots the audience with a final clue, words, differ image, sound, and touch which connect and make vague ideas more clear. That refreshing moment shapes audience with a double experience which may raise the will of viewing it again.

Another approach is to elaborate the inevitable experience. In Nele Azevedo’s work Minimum Monument, an urban art action in public spaces consisting of thousands of ice sculptures of tiny men and women, people know the ice people will all finally melt away but they can not do anything about it. Participants already know what going to be but still stay to watch the melting process. One reason for this behavior is people intend stop while it can not be. There another dimension, time, promotes the magic power. The logic and experience with a tragedy needs time to develop and use it as a component. Reflecting back to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, some of the deceased who have been named on the wall passed away more than fifty years ago. But the names are still being added since participants are dying right now. The existence of the wall and action of keeping carving names remind people how this trauma still haunts us. When Maya Lin decided to not only include the people who died in that war but also any participant who devoted and suffered from it, the destiny of time strengthens one historical memorial to a loud warning of how wars are close to us and hurt deeply. Also the use of time in design will dignify the experience, which can keep viewers spend more time on the work and think more carefully. Such as the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel designed by Peter Zumthor, who gave the building a sensuous connection to life and solemn by showing the growing grain of wood. He used 112 tree trunks to made the wigwam and covered them with concrete. After burned down the inside wooden structure, the woods leaves the texture which grown through time. With this trace of time, the concrete chapel contains the soft and organic character and depth of time, which strengthens the dignity and spiritual meaning in the whole environment.

Leaving Blank

The power of silence sometimes is stronger on emotion. In the memorials, there always will be a part of silence tribute. The whole ambiance has been solidified with the silence. Such nothing speaks far more oppressed emotions. There is enormous possible information will never be revealed and emotions which are too heavy and stuck in the throat.

Also leaving a blank can give audiences a breath to think, or even force them to think. A sudden stop after too much information, the blank gives audiences time to reflect. And because there is not following an activity, the audiences have nothing to feed but generate thinkings for themselves.

In design, it also raises the curiosity of what could be there in the blank and why it is here. People will guess and fulfill of the blank part with more imagines. When they made these guesses according to own experience and associations with the context, viewers can develop a stronger connections with the work. This blank does not literally means white space but something being taken off, creating questions and breath holes in images and other medias.

Such as the questions for the following illustrations could be:

  • Why the face white and blank?
  • Why are the eye taken out? Is that suggest a blind for future or lost in past?
  • What is dropping down and leaving such a smoke trail tail?
  • Which world will this hole lead to?
  • What’s the connection between the two missing hearts?

D i s t a n c e

Tragedy is good at shaping experience and responses by controlling psychological distance. According to most of structures in tragedy, It builds mystery first to attract audiences on track but in a particular distance. Then it reveals some truth through one or several turning points dragging audiences closer into the world in it. Then absurd and enormous emotions knock audiences awake to realize this is not their story, pushing away from the work. This process of changing the psychological distance between tragedy and audiences add charm on works.

As addressed in the definition, people can enjoy tragedy only with distance with the sense of safety and authority. But it can not be too far that people will not even feel an emotional response to it. In an experiment by a group of Japanese scientists, people don’t have interest of the unknowing yard behind a heavy wall besides a downhill path. For them it is a total separate world which means nothing for themselves. Then the group contacted with the owner and drilled several small holes which large enough for people peep in. The group found that people start to care and interest about the yard. Their emotions become influenced by the flowers blooming, color changing of leaves, and construction of the yard. People can leave that wall and pass by the mound for years without a look until one day someone opens a window and removes one piece of rock for them. That path, as tragedy, brings new world and thinking. It closes the distance but still leaves a mystery attracting audiences to delve and guess.

In design, this distance can be controlled in length of time, dimensions in physical, metaphors and cultures. That mystery asks audiences to pause and stay thinking about it. Preventing audiences from being totally cast out and lost, design still needs to give audiences some clue, as a ticket into the theater, to quickly catch up.

In this installation with a poster, audiences can grab the hand stretched out the poster. The extruded hand ask audience grab to go as they always dealing with information in designs. But after they grab it, the active from audiences of grabbing the hand will lift poster reveal an infinity inside mirror behind. At the back of the poster, there are words saying “STAY IN EXPERIENCE”. When audiences lose their grip, the cover poster will back to position. If they want to grab and see the inside world, they need to step closer and contact with poster again. The whole process is a metaphor showing an invitation for audiences to not grab information from design but stay in the world it created behind. Besides been dragged close to the design, audiences also will gain new understanding revise what they might though at the first sight. It can not only control the distance physically but also psychologically.


25 stage plays + 25 news reports + 25 literatures + 25 films

  • in the scientific social research, a valuable analysis needs at least 100 equal samples from different parts in the whole group to reduce deviation.
  • these four categories cover most forms of tragedies that discussed in this paper.
  • how all those forms of tragedy fit and related to all the concepts above: Dichotomy / Distance / Leaving Blank / Inevitable Fate / Fear-Empathy

25 Stage Plays

  1. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  2. Oedipus Rex – Sophocles
  3. Antigone – Sophocles
  4. Agamemnon – Abschluss
  5. Hippolytus – Euripides
  6. Prometheus Bound – Aeschylus
  7. The Duchess of Malfi – John Webster
  8. Othello – William Shakespeare
  9. Macbeth – William Shakespeare
  10. Phaedra – Seneca the Younger
  11. Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
  12. The Spanish Tragedy – Thomas Kyd
  13. Le Cid – Pierre Corneille
  14. King Lear – William Shakespeare
  15. Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
  16. The Bacchae – Euripides
  17. Titus Andronicus – William Shakespeare
  18. Julius Caesar – William Shakespeare
  19. The Orphan of Zhao – Ji Junxiang
  20. Long Day’s Journey into Night – Eugene O’Neill
  21. A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
  22. A Doll’s House – Henrik Ibsen
  23. The Jew of Malta – Christopher Marlowe
  24. Gesamtkunstwerk – Richard Wagner
  25. The Misfits – Arthur Miller


A Dream Within A Dream

This is an experience design to prove that the concepts distilled from tragedies in this study can improve emotional resonance with audiences independently, without tragedy content. This design will also document responses from visitors about the ideas discussed in the thesis. The design completes the goal by interpreting a poem into an experience room, which directly delivers the emotions and feelings that author wished readers would sense. The project here deconstructs the complexity in tragedy and concentrates on three main feature, “dichotomy”, “distance” and “inevitability”. It can be divided into three parts:

  • Prelude – a poem printed on a single sheet of blank paper without any design, in a neutral font and layout.
  • Experience – a room with a large mirror on one wall and series of broken mirrors on the opposite wall, as well as two translucent mirrors on the center table and projectors which present videos and sounds.
  • Feedback – cards with sentences selected from writings in this thesis hanging on the exit door for participants to take after the experience. Short interviews will also be given.

This design is not only concerned with how the communicative techniques in tragedy can be recreated within the design, but also about the emotional resonance aroused by design, which provides more substantial intrinsic value, broader opportunities, and stronger punches. The main proposal of this project is determining how tragic design shifts the experience of content to audiences with more appealing approaches.

To strengthen the idea that tragic design can transform emotions even within poems without extreme emotional positions, A Dream Within A Dream by Edgar Allen Poe was selected. It is short and gentle without intense joy or bitterness. It is more focused on bewilderment and loss, impermanence and uncertainty about life.

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow —

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand —

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep — while I weep!

O God! Can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

(1849, Edgar Allan Poe)

The room is 9 ft by 13.2 ft rectangle. The two longest sides covered by different mirrors. On the one side, there is a giant mirror that is 7.5 ft by 9.5 ft, which provides a clean and smooth reflection. On the opposite wall, there is one small mirror and many broken fragments scattered around, creating the shape of a chaotic dream. In the middle of the room, two translucent mirrors sit on a table at 60º angles reflecting the surroundings to create an infinity effect. They have multiple functions. First, from one side, these two translucent mirrors extend a broader world through infinite reflections, in which audiences are in the reflections and worlds behind at the same time. Second, from the other side, if the audiences stand in the middle, they can only see the reflections of the two videos projected on the walls without any sight of themselves. This time they have been expelled from the mirror world and become pure spectators.

On the sides of the center mirrors, two projectors show separate videos which creating inevitable feelings. One video shows a loop of opening doors and windows. The other one presents some mixed clips about time flowing and dropping. The background sound is a man reading the poem. The sound is sometimes close and sometimes far away like the wave of the ocean, but eventually approaches the participants. In the video, the moment the hand of clock almost finishes one round, the sun almost sinks into the sea, the water drop almost reaches the surface, the egg closes to the ground, and the sound of poem nears audiences and closes to the end, everything suddenly shuts down, leaving audiences with emptiness, mystery and a strong sense of loss.

To control and recreate the feelings of reality as dream, both physical and psychological distance support it though two main elements, mirrors and sound. First, the whole room is full of different forms of mirror made multiple reflections. When audiences enter the room, copies of them exist in the endless mirror worlds. The reflections in the large mirror wall and first two layers of table mirror are close to them. The reflections in the small pieces of mirrors and extend layers in the table layers are small and fare from audiences. In front of those reflections, the audiences can reach their hand but can never touch those copies of selves. The psychological distance can then change while people move in the physical world. When infinity reflections appear and grab audiences’ attention, they are close and participant into the world of mirror and dream. As they move around to the other side of table, standing between broken fragments and translucent table mirror, audiences can see themselves no more but only surroundings for the specific angles of mirrors. They have been expel back to the reality to only observe the room as outsider at these point. The sound of poem waves far and near, slowly approaching until almost to the ears. This experience let audiences get the author’s feeling about how life is drifting about between dream and reality.

The dichotomy also play an significant role in delivering the sense of bewilderment and loss. The separated experience exist visually in various methods; the whole smooth flat mirror sides and scattered pieces contrast in scale and texture; the reflection in wall mirrors are much more concrete compared to the reflections in translucent mirrors and double reflection of videos on wall; the two videos presented to the audience who stand in the middle through splits mirror; the slow falling clips toward an predictable end with an unexpected sudden stop before showing what people assume they will see. The strong sense of loss and emptiness revealed through this sudden shut down of image and sound. The visual comparison give the polarity, mystery and bewilderment which Poe stressed in his poem.

To interpret this poem into a tragic design, the inevitability in the poem stands out. Poe can not clasp the sand which usually be the metaphor of fate or time. His yelling are powerless and can not fight back besides the roar of the sea which stands for the power of nature. His goodbye kiss for someone at the beginning represents the death of his wife. He hides these desperation of inevitable fate in words. Here this design stress this feeling on audiences through experiences. One of the video shows the endless opening door with ought an end, audiences knows that there is just another door behind but still wait for a possible new world. This psychological state is the same as when people know the probably lost and futile struggle will not bring the result they want but still dream for lucky and coming of an unexpected fate. To strengthen this contrast between inevitability and hankering, the other video show a group clips of falling and flying of time with an unexpected shut down before revealing the result.

Contribution Statement

This study give the answer “yes” to the one question proposed at the beginning : by understanding why people are obsessed with tragedy and how it resonates with human emotions, can designers use the same mechanisms to build and strengthen connections with audiences?

Both design and tragedy share the character of enlightening, expressing and transforming. Through learning how tragedy successfully touch the deepest hearts of audiences and leave a long lasting effect, designer can find a new approach to communicate information more efficiently and appealing. Here design is more than a communicator translate information to audiences who grabbing it and moving away, but an incubator for an experience reaching their emotional sensations.

The discussions in this paper fill the omitted aspects and understanding of relationship between work and audiences. It started with reorganizing and consolidating the theories of tragedy’s obsession to build a comprehensive view of this mechanism. The research before mostly fail to see the tragedy only as an art excluding suffering in actual life for the failure to distinguish personal suffering from the hyperreality translated by media. The first paths pushing the study in fields to advance stage here is the examination, re-evaluation and unification of what  has been scattered said in different areas. Like photographer, to generate a full image of an communication design, designer needs to observe from all possible angles, relevant or not, close or distance. Thus, this study explores tragedy obsession from multiple perspectives including psychology, drama, neuroscience, literature and design. By fill the missing pieces of image in larger design discipline, it help designers come closer to  the comprehensive view of communication design.

The second part is the discovery of what still unknown. The raising of technology fosters fragmentation and inconsistency of information in new digital age brings emotional detachment and information asymmetry into communication. It changed experience with tragedy and altered how people interact and absorb information to a further step far beyond the imagine of earlier scholars. Thus, in this paper, an updated study of the obsession with tragedy and communication design practice has supported the current and future design. With cases and practical experiences study, it reframe the relationship between audiences and design when clear this connection in tragedy.

Solutions for a tragic design raised in this paper provide creative approach to extend and deepen effect and strengthen emotional resonance. Through the deconstruction of tragedy and obsession phenomenon, this paper reach the attractive range where the design can drag people close into its world and keep bearable distance. Tragedy is a starting point and new angle to touch the broader understanding of design. It reveal the more possible emotional connections in the experience with tragic design than simple information delivery.

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  5. According to Online Etymology Dictionary. de- “out”, signare “to mark,” from signum “a mark, sign”. And later design as a noun came to use in italia around 1580s.
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  9. Ibid
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  17. Khalid, Halimahtun M., and Martin G. Helander. “Customer emotional needs in product design.” Concurrent Engineering 14.3 (2006): 197-206. Print
  18. Lenson, David. Achilles’ choice: examples of modern tragedy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2015. Print
  19. Christopher Klein. The Remarkable Story of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Biography, 11 Nov. 2015, Accessed 10 Mar 2017.
  20. Lu, Xun, Xianyi Yang, and Gladys Yang. Selected stories of Lu Xun. San Francisco, CA: China & Periodicals, 1994. Print.
  21. Kreuziger-Herr, Annette. “Hölderlin, Brahms, und das Schicksalslied.” Johannes Brahms. Quellen, Text, Rezeption, Interpretation. Internationaler Brahms-Kongress Hamburg 1997.

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