Circular Design

Design sits prominently at the heart of the circular economy. It requires us to redesign everything: products, business models, cities, and the linear systems that have lasted for the past centuries. This learning path covers the role of design in creating a circular economy, examining the four-stage circular design process and highlighting six strategies for incorporating the principles of the circular economy into your designs.

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The circular design process comprises four stages and is informed by approaches such as design thinking and human-centred design.

  • Understand - Get to know the user and the system

  • Define - Put into words the design challenge and your intention as the designer

  • Make - Ideate, design, and prototype as many iterations and versions as you can

  • Release - Launch your design into the wild and build your narrative - create loyalty in customers and deepen investment from stakeholders by telling a compelling story

Designing is an iterative process that never finishes. You should constantly be testing and refining as you understand how your users interact with your design, and how it fits within the wider system.

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Is ownership really necessary?

Central to the concept of circular economy is a shift from ownership to access; understanding that customers often only require access to a product for a short period of time after which they can return it to the service provider or pass it on to a new user.

A host of new businesses, built on this notion, have emerged in recent years offering all manner of products to their customers on a short term basis (through rental, subscription, sharing or leasing) rather than selling it to them forever.

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Reduce the resource requirements of your designs

This strategy is all about finding solutions to deliver utility using the minimum amount of material possible. This could mean finding ways to virtualise your offering, creating a digital rather than a physical product - services such as Spotify and Netflix being prime examples of this approach. It could also mean designing your product or service in such a way that it requires only a minimal amount of physical material to create.

The case study below presents a business that has drastically dematerialised its packaging materials, by employing durable, reusable containers rather than single-use packaging.

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Design for upgradability and easy repair

Modular design is a useful strategy for making products easier to repair, remanufacture, and upgrade. By making it easy to remove only part of a product, you make it easier to disassemble, lowering the cost and effort to swap out components when they are damaged. In the case of the Fairphone presented below, the modular design allows the screen to be quickly and cheaply replaced if it is damaged.

Additionally, modular systems are easier to customise and therefore adapt to the variable and forever needs of users, preventing products from becoming obsolete and ensuring they are kept in use for long periods of time.