Design can only be engaged in two ways: it can happen by invention or by association. Varying degrees of combination of the two exist, but for all intents and purposes, invention and association are all that design consists of.
There is the example of the AK47 assault rifle, a weapon that has seen service with only superficial modifications in sixty years. A Finnish friend who used to serve on the UN peacekeeping forces once told me that there was no other assault weapon he knew of which fired round after round with absolute reliability in snow, rain, sandstorm and sleet with practically no maintenance. If longevity, adaptability, practicality and performance of intended use were any means to gauge things by, few other designs would qualify as being more sustainable than the AK47, a weapon designed to kill. However, a closer look tells us that it is sustainable for a more interesting reason: it reveals the morality of its intention. It is sustainable because it is absolutely honest about what it is and it does not pretend to be anything other than exactly what it does. Its context, being that of physical war, can be distilled to that of a single bullet and its relationship to that context is physically intimate.
A little closer to home is the print advertisement from a 2004 launch for the Mercedes SLR, one of the few cars in the world able to exceed 200mph in a straight line. In a famous picture that travelled the world over, the car was featured with its silver doors gull-winged open in an environment where it could never possibly be used, let alone tested. It was placed in a marble quarry. The design for the advertisement concerned the association of ideas for which a particular context was used: its relationship to context was associatively intimate.
The examples of the AK47 and the SLR each show the two basic forms of design at their purest: simply put, the AK47 is about invention, the advertisement for the SLR, about association. They are both about and of design, but the vital difference is the way each relates to context. Design by invention sets context first and design as a byproduct of and fashioned from its context. Design by association however, puts design first and context second: context is treated as a stage - it is appropriated as fashion for the product.
One form of design uses context for its ends and in doing so, subtly conceals it. The other form of design is a conduit for its context and as such, reveals it.
Considerably more is usually concealed than revealed about the nature of creative work, because hidden agendas lend an aura of mystique to the creative process. And that aura of mystique has become vital to one's marketing arsenal, since mystification leads to an inaccessibility which is itself the cornerstone of exclusivity: it is in being exclusive that we thrive and upon which a global brand can be built. Likewise, in architecture, design happens by both invention and association; the human psyche both conceals and reveals at different times - finding balance in one's life concerns knowing when one is being favoured over the other. And there is a decision to make if architecture for one is less about branding than about doing critical work, because invention involves considerably more critical thinking than association.
However, in the broad scope of life and the work we do, the choice we have made is less important, be it inventive or associative, than knowing and acknowledging those specific choices, because sustainability is, like the AK47 - and above all - about revealing the morality of our intentions. We speak of the sustainability of green engines and passive heating and cooling, or reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and saving the whales, but sustainability does not begin with these matters. It begins by simply being aware of our human need for appearances, and a consciousness of the subtle branding we each do as creative individuals in the mistaken notion that it secures respect for our work.
Sustainability begins with our doing exactly what we say and saying exactly what we do. Anything less damages the entire process of that which follows, ending with the inherently unsustainable.