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Design and Belief

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Design is, in many ways, the prototypical interdisciplinary field. It encompasses art and architecture, engineering and aesthetics. Good designers dabble equally and alternately in education, politics, marketing, technology, cognitive science, and ethics—among innumerable other specialties. Included in this cacophony of fields is philosophy, which has proven a particularly fertile area of inquiry for designers.

Designers have studied epistemologists and phenomenologists, historicists and social theorists. Names such as Baudrillard and Bachelard and Habermas and Foucault are well known among designers—and all have been used to great effect. Perhaps the single greatest result of such philosophic inquiry is the recognition of desire as a core human feeling.

Though designers are as yet far from perfecting it, they've begun to discover precise paths to desire. Desire is part of design's parlance and is the ultimate goal of any whiteboard begging to be filled. Hence the appearance of such products as the iPod, which anticipates the need it fills, satisfying change even as it creates the need for change.

As design approaches perfection of the fulfillment of desire, it needs to look forward to other human feelings, needs, or impulses. After all, if everything is designed to satisfy all of our desires—which are, by definition, a product of a loss or absence—is there an absence left to fill? Therefore, the design field needs to look toward a field of inquiry different than philosophy, yet one akin to it.

I argue that design needs to look to religion for its next stage of thought evolution.

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 in Everyday Life:

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 a 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 remarkable, 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?

Anyone who has ever attended a Christian marriage service is probably familiar with the famous New Testament passage from the first epistle of Paul of Tarsus to the Corinthians, also known as 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I disagree. Perhaps from a theological perspective, love is the greatest. But from a human perspective, it's hope that wins out. From the perspective of winning converts and keeping true believers—that is, the perspective of keeping an organized religion organized—hope is all you need.

Because it's hope that keeps people coming back to church or temple or other religious gathering places in the face of the denial of their desires and impulses. Hope in a like-minded community. Hope in support in times of distress. Hope in some measure of peace on earth. Hope in an afterlife. Hope in transcending all that is human, even death. Hope in the promise that we'll see our loved ones again.

It's hope that gives believers a reason to love and have faith.

Therefore, hope transcends desire, at least in the minds of believers. And I think that designers can somehow harness hope in their work. Perhaps that's what some people mean by the term "sustainable design." I don't know. And perhaps my argument will be viewed as cynical, though I don't intend it that way. Regardless, I think that that if hope is studied and approached by designers in the same fashion they've approached and studied desire, there's a good chance they'll develop transformative products and services.

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