What is Circular Design?

biological & technical lifecycles

One of the driving forces behind the Circular Economy framework is the Ellen McArthur Foundation who have identified design as playing a key role in its achievement,  particularly given the fact that 80% of a product’s environmental impacts is determined at the design stage (EC, 2012).

The foundation has proposed a widely recognised and accepted model for the circular economy (see image above) which designers are encouraged to use as a foundation for the development of circular products and services.

At it’s heart is the mantra of ‘Designing Out Waste’

The model suggest that this can be approached in 3 ways; closing, narrowing and slowing of production and use loops.

Closing loops focuses on eliminate waste from production systems, and ultimately our economy. The model shown above approaches it in two ways; one for biological materials, that can be composted, and one for technical materials, which can be recycled.

The model also promotes narrowing loops to achieve resource efficiency; essentially doing more with less.

Finally, slowing loops is encourage to keep resources in use for longer before they are, hopefully, recycled or composted at the end of their functional life.

This model, and others that feature in circular design literature, focus on how to design, manufacture and deliver products in the most ecologically efficient manner including;

  • Design for compostability
  • Design for recyclability
  • Design for resource efficiency
  • Design for energy efficiency in use
  • Design for standardisation / modularity
  • Design for longevity / durability
  • Design for repair
  • Design for re-manufacture / upgrading
  • Design for disassembly for recycling / disposal

Great strides have been made in relation to the closing and narrowing of manufacturing and use loops but despite an acknowledged need to support longer product lifetimes, very little discussion into initiatives that slow/lengthen loops has taken place. This may be down to our economy’s dependency on linear consumption models and governments’ tendencies towards constant growth, which is at odds with loop slowing methodology.

Also loop slowing is heavily influenced by customer behaviour, which is much harder to predict and direct that the systems and processes that feature prominently in loop closing and loop narrowing.

In our view Circular Design is overly focused on the technical aspects of design, production and use, and largely ignores the psychological drivers of customer behaviour. This is detrimental to the success of sustainable design products and service introduced to the market. Consumer psychology has established that consumption is rarely driven purely by rational need and is often influence by one or more of the following;

  • Self-identity,
  • Self-expression,
  • To create or articulate relationship or membership of a social group,
  • Status symbol,
  • Out of habit,
  • Desire for novelty,

For this reason we argue that Design for the Circular Economy needs to be partnered with a design methodology focused on drivers of human behaviour.

Design for Behaviour Change Diagram

We believe that this should be Design for Behaviour Change (DfBC), and its subset, Design for Sustainable Behaviour (DfSB).

Both are rooted in psychology and as such are well positioned to balance out the more technical circular design with an understanding of the driving forces behind customer behaviour.

If you’re interested in developing product and service concepts that appeal to the market while delivering on it’s ecological promises then check out our Services page.

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