First, a little housecleaning: I am not advocating one religion over another. Nor am I engaging the benefits or ills of religion or belief. In fact, I am not advocating belief in any form. This is simply an absurdly broad socio-historical look at belief and religious thought and how their study could benefit design. It's a probe into an area that I think deserves in-depth examination.
It's safe to say that design is a fundamental and pervasive quality of human existence, one that affects us even as we control it. As the design researcher John Heskett writes in Toothpicks & Logos:
Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human, and an essential determinant of the quality of human life. It affects everyone in every detail of every aspect of what they do throughout each day. As such, it matters profoundly. Very few aspects of the material environment are incapable of improvement in some significant way by greater attention being paid to their design. (p4)Heskett goes on to point out that design is a product of choice, that its process is an iterative cycle in which human decisions are the only constant and dominant influence at every stage. To design is to decide.
Is it any wonder that such a human-centric field, process, and mode of thought would focus on such an equally human emotion as desire?
However, there exists an similarly fundamental and pervasive quality of human existence: belief. Belief in a higher power is such a common, universal, and archetypal element of human experience that psychologists and cognitive scientists suspect an evolutionary and physiological reason for our species' craving for it.
Furthermore, the functional process of belief, religion, has persisted among humans for millennia. In fact, if examined as products of human thought, the world's oldest and largest religions—Hinduism, Judaism, Catholicism, and Buddhism, for example—qualify as by far the most successful design systems in history. They all span epochs and cultures and bind otherwise different peoples within a single cosmological view.
Most remarkably, though, is their ability to do so while, in many cases, teaching the suppression of desire. A common element among many systems of belief is the transcendence of human frailty. Through them we are taught to strive for a higher state of being, either on earth or in an afterlife, whose existence cannot be otherwise empirically proven or perceived by our five senses. In other words, they simply ask us to believe—and many of us do.
So what human quality or emotion does belief appeal to, if not desire? And how can design study and harness this quality so ably embraced by religion? I have a guess, which I'll share shortly.