Design in a circular economy



Look around you. Almost everything you see has been designed by someone. Your chair. The building you are in. Your clothes. And not just physical things, but also all of the services you use and the experiences that make up day-to-day life. How you order and get your food. The mobility and communication systems that connect you with your loved ones.

There are many definitions of and perspectives on design. Many agree that designing is about creating with intent, about addressing needs, and about moving toward preferred situations. The Montreal Design Declaration, which represents over 700 professional associations, design schools and stakeholders, defines design as “the application of intent: the process through which we create the material, spatial, visual and experiential environments”.


Photo Tongji Design Week 2019


This isn’t just about products or aesthetics. “Design as a discipline has moved from the traditional concept of the visual or tangible artefact through to orchestrating interactions and experiences, and to transforming systems,” as Nesta summarises.

It’s not just for people with ‘design’ in their job title. Even if you don’t call yourself a ‘designer’, you might still play a critical role in the design stage and determine the attributes and characteristics of future products, services and systems. In fact, at least one person in every 20 that make up the world’s workforce is involved in the design stage and plays a crucial role in shaping our future.



Important choices are made in the design stage. This includes the definition of business models, material choices, and the 2D or 3D aesthetics and functionality of elements, but also the way designs will interact with people and systems along their journey, such as with logistics, collection, and infrastructure systems. In the case of physical products, how different materials are combined and how easily they can be reused, repaired, refurbished, or disassembled is also decided at the design stage. Screws or glues?

These crucial choices radiate across the entire system, affecting sourcing, production, and how we use things. Importantly, they also determine ‘what happens next’ and what is possible after something has been used. Does it become waste? Or can it be part of a circular economy, where waste is designed out and materials are destined for one valuable application after another?

It’s hard to reverse the impacts of design decisions once they are implemented. We can’t unscramble an omelette. Design decisions often lead to long-term investments that lock us into a certain model for years to come. As Radjou and Prabhu in their book Frugal Innovation argue, “over 70% of a product’s life-cycle costs and environmental footprint is determined during its design phase.”



What do we mean by circular design?

We use circular design as a shorthand for the practice of applying circular economy principles at the design stage of everything. It is a practice that embraces systems thinking to address some of the biggest interconnected challenges we are facing today.

Circular design offers a direction of travel towards a regenerative and resilient future. A future where we design products, services, and systems with the bigger picture in mind. A future where we zoom in on user needs while zooming out to consider the system in which we are creating. A future where we unlock a new frontier of creativity to address global challenges at their root.



Why do we use the term “circular design”?
Most would say that good design naturally leads to a circular economy. Dieter Rams’ famous 10 principles of good design, for example, state that good design is long-lasting, useful, innovative, and environmentally friendly.

“If something is not designed in accordance with circular economy principles, it is not professional, responsible design — it is malpractice.” — David Grossman, President 2015–2017, International Council of Design


However, it is just not yet happening at speed and scale. Look at design awards, for example, or the celebrated design icons in the fashion, automotive, and furniture sectors; what we praise as ‘good design’ is rarely working to eliminate waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, or to regenerate natural systems. Often the opposite is true. As a result, there is an urgent need to increase engagement on this topic and to have a way to talk about it.




Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash


Getting started on the journey
What inspires me beside the vision of a future where life can thrive for aeons, is seeing the incredible creativity of pioneers in this space. Strategies to design for a circular economy come in so many shapes. 

Ultimately what matters most is how we bring new mindsets and practices to the table in our individual contexts, and how we collectively evolve our design practices in the coming years. It’s an exciting journey, and we are only at the beginning of it.

To get started, we can challenge ourselves to answer important questions in the design process:

  • How might we address the real needs of our audiences, while at the same time designing with our larger (eco)-systems in mind?

  • How might we design X such that it becomes food and nutrition in our (eco)-system, rather than waste and pollution?

  • How might we use design as a force for positive change and address the big challenges of this century, such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity?


There is no single perfect solution, but wherever we are on the journey we can iteratively improve our practice. We can learn from each other and raise the bar together.

Here are a few resources that are freely available: