A core assertion of Artful Design’s second chapter is that “technology should create calm,” as shown on page 86. The video “Aaru: The Idyllic Video Game Sublime” similarly focuses on an in-game world which achieves contemplation and self-reflection through instilling a sense of timelessness and ease. I agree that technology – and, by extension, design – creating calm is an admirable goal, and I can think of many examples of art that offer me solace. Sometimes I really need that sad Phoebe Bridgers song at 3am, and other situations might call for a chill rewatch of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. However, just as we can value technology/art/design for creating calm, we shouldn’t disregard our ability to design questioning and discomfort.
I think immediately of Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit,” most stirringly sung by Billie Holiday. This song is, undoubtedly, beautifully constructed: a haunting harmony underpins Holiday’s lilting and mournful vocal, recounting the horrors of lynchings of Black Americans. We regard “Strange Fruit” as perhaps one of the most powerful songs of all time, and it was used as fuel in the furnace of the American Civil Rights Movement. But few would say that the song invokes calm. Listening to Holiday’s 1939 recording elicits equal parts awe and horror from the listener, perhaps even inspiring disgust at the scenes described in the song.
Another example that comes to mind is a series of displays that I encountered in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. Alongside classically lauded pieces of art, the gallery installed life-size cutouts of slaves, drawing attention to the art world’s financial links to slavery. This series designs space and physicality in a unique way that is arresting to viewers, but, again, it doesn’t create calm. It calls attention to uncomfortable truths without explicitly discussing them, prompting the viewer to reckon with a dark past and present.
I say this not to eschew the notion of calm in technology and artful design, but to suggest that the sublime described in the “Aaru” video – i.e., consideration of others, thoughts on eternity, ethical questioning – can be reached through creating experiences that are not entirely comfortable for the viewer. Sometimes challenging ourselves is necessary for progress, and the search for the sublime is an inherently progressive vision. Design can be calming, and design can be disturbing; and different messages or intended experiences call for different approaches.