What is Circular Design?

One of the driving forces behind the Circular Economy framework is the Ellen McArthur Foundation (EMF) 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 video below is a very simple but effective way to explain how circular design can be applied to product design.

To help designers apply circular design strategies numerous framework and protocols have been developed, including the butterfly diagram below by EMF.

biological & technical lifecycles

This diagram shows biological materials and technical materials operating in separate streams and having different circular strategies applied to them, cascading and composting for biological, and reuse, repair, refurbishment and recycling for technical materials. Although in reality these two streams can rarely be treated entirely separately.

When applying these circular strategies we are encourage to focus on closing, narrowing and slowing production and use loops, and regenerating any natural systems.

Closing loops focuses on eliminate waste from production systems, and ultimately our economy.

Narrowing loops is all about resource efficiency; essentially doing more with less.

Slowing loops keep resources in use for longer before they are, recycled or composted at the end of their functional life.

Regenerating natural systems requires us to ensure that whatever we send into the biosphere is enhancing and not damaging.

We are also encouraged to apply circular strategies in a hierarchical manner, i.e. repair before remanufacturing, remanufacture before recycling.

Design can support the success of applying circular strategies by planning for them from the outside. Some circular design approaches include;

  • 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

Making Circular Design Desirable
In my view circular design has become 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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