Preface: Sustainist Design Guide

A guide of exploration

This books charts a future that we already inhabit. It connects a vision of a changing culture to what

Sustainism it's got a name, now do it

Cultural boundaries are shifting. There’s an enormous waves of new social initiatives worldwide, where millions of dedicated people are beginning to design a different kind of environment for themselves that is more collaborative, more socially just, and more sustainable. This movement is what the Sustainist Design Guide is about.

We build on the perspective of “sustainism” -a concept that one of us, Michiel Schwarz (in collaboration with Joost Elffers), has advanced to mark the new ethos of our day and age. Sustainism represents a shift not only in thinking and doing but in the collective perception of how we live, do business, feed ourselves, build our communities and communicate, as much as how we deal with nature. 

The cultural movement that we’re seeing offers opportunities for lasting social change, but until now a comprehensive framework has been lacking. We need new ways of looking and of doing in order to play a meaningful part in it. The need for relevant perspectives is what has inspired us to compile this Sustainist Design Guide. The promise is considerable: design can be a tool for social change. And we think it should be. It is no longer a matter of designing for society, but within it.

There is a sence of urgency as well as opportunity. Whilst a global movement is picking up speed, many of us are searching for ways to make meaningful contributions. Creating social value is increasingly becoming a strong incentive for designers as the cultural transformation we are witnessing is emphasising the importance of their role. Meanwhile, the very word “designer” is taking a new shape. Essentially, everyone is now a designer in his or her own right, as many people are increasingly able to take their lives in their own hands an redesign their own brand of society,.

A call or action

What we have produced is no ordinary guide. It is an exploration that ventures into new territory, mapping the new domain of design thinking and practice that we have called “sustainist design.” This new territory cannot be wholly understood if we apply terminology to it that originated in the previous era. A new language is needed in order to grasp what is happening and how we can make a difference. We have used case studies to try to load our new language with meaning. Each of these case studies holds a promise. Each of them teaches us important lessons, but they also gave collective symbolic value. Their global scope tells us that we are now talking about a worldwide movement.

In that sense, this guide is a call to action. Ultimately, by making this book, we intend to shift the design agenda a little. But first and foremost, we hope to shift the discourse of the design agenda. We wish to extend an open invitation to jointly explore the social role of design and designers in shaping our joint future. We have laid down some markers, but the real start is now. We hope our guide will encourage a fruitful dialogue, regardless of its precise content. It should represent a design approach within society: it is a design challenge itself.

Collaborative effort

This book grew out of our combined interest in connecting the ideas of sustainist culture to real-life initiatives an opportunities in “social design”. Embracing an open source approach, we opened up the reseattch process through an online platform ( and invited others to contibute social design stories. Both the web platform and this Social Design Guide where developed in close partnership with a small editorial team from the Amsterdam-based The Beach network, including Bas Ruyssenaars, Mira de Graaf, Steffie Verstappen and designer Robin Uleman. Their contributions, along with those that were made on our web platform, represent a significant part of our collaborative effort.

Now that the guide is out here, it’s up to you, and all of us, to further explore how the concept of sustainist design might lead us to a daily practice that is both socially and ecologically sustainable.

Michiel Schwarz and Diana Krabbendam
Amsterdam, April 2013

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