The Future of Design will be Circular Design

The role of design is now extending the form and function of the product or service to more contribution to building innovative solutions that emphasize the wise consumption for natural resources. It’s design’s responsibility to build a strategic plan that considers reusing or recycling the materials used in production.

The circular economy has been introduced a few years ago and aims to promote a wider sustainability strategy, the circular design is playing an essential role in this new nonlinear economy through building a design thinking process that intends to build new business models that consider the future of the product waste in multiple dimensions.

Early this year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the IDEO published the circular design guide that aims to reduce waste, natural resources consumptions and build new innovative business models that consider alternative futures for the product and its materials instead of turning it into waste. The circular design shifts the sustainable design principles from focusing on the product to a more holistic approach to focus on the overall business model.

Circular Economy

The circular design is inherited from the term “circular economy” giving the fact that design plays an essential role in modern business and economy. The circular economy was first introduced by David Pearce and R. Kerry in their book, Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment, published by John Hopkins University. They highlighted that the current economy is based on a linear approach that doesn’t consider the sustainable measurements that propose to reduce the waste and natural resources consumption.

According to Nat Hunter in the Great Recovery, the natural resources are consumed very fast which reflects on the prices of raw materials. For example, the copper prices have tripled in the last 3 years. In the UK, 290 million tons of valuable resources are turned into waste every day. Additionally, the UK can actually save GBP 220bn year by simply designing products that aim to eliminate waste.

As the design plays an essential role in the current linear economy, it is expected to play a more potential role in the circular economy. The design for the circular economy is considered a wider approach to the design for sustainability as highlighted by Professor Ruud Balkenende, Delft University of technology. While the design for sustainability starts with thinking in the product and its eco-impact, the design for circular economy starts by focusing on optimizing the economic potentials of the available resources through a new business model that aims to restore natural resources while enhancing the human health.

The Role of Design in the Circular Economy

According to the above, the circular economy is acknowledging new business models that try to reduce waste and minimize the usage of natural resources through recycling, reusing and regenerating products. One of the examples of these new models is the usage of Zipcars; a model that allow consumers to use a car whenever they need instead of buying a car. Another example is the usage of cloud services to store documents and images instead of buying hardware storage devices.

circular economy
ZIpcar is a new business model based on circular economy (source: zip car.com)

In the circular economy, the extended role of design becomes increasingly important as it contributes to building a new innovative and circular business model. As the IDEO is one of the leading companies that promote the design thinking, it presents a design thinking process that can be adopted to ensure that the circular design goals are met during the new product development (NPD). This process includes four stages; Understand, Define, Make and Release.

circular design
Circular design process (Source: circulardesignguide.com)

Elements of Circular Design

The circular design model is introduced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the IDEO. the model is presented in a diagram, known as the butterfly diagram, shows that instead of ending the product lifecycle to the landfill, four loops can be used in the following order:
Reuse – in this loop the product can be reused. For example instead of selling washing machines, it could me rented when needed.
Refurbish – The product returns back to the company to restore and sell again after full quality check such as refurbished mobile phones
Remanufacture – The product parts can be detached to be used again in the manufacturing process such as using the electronic parts in the manufacturing process again.
Recycle – the product is recycled to be used in another industry. For example, the high-quality paper can be recycled after use to create cheap paper packs

circular economy
The Butterfly Diagram for the circular design (source: ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)

The above four loops can be used to build new circular business models based on the four stages design process highlighted earlier.

Stage 1: Understand

In this stage, the design team along with the stakeholders try to understand the different products and why the user needs the product. Then, they try to brainstorm the different solutions that can adopted to deliver the same service with considering the circular design loops above. Part of the tools that can be used int his process includes the following:

  • Service Flip is a document that aims to investigate the different products, why the users need it, and how the product offering can be altered to become a service than can be delivered to the consumers without any waste
  • The Inside Out aims to investigate the product components and how it can be used after reassembling it to its basic components
  • The Digital System lets the design team learn from the software industry to build agile, evolved and scalable products
  • learn from Nature aims to learn how the nature around use handle its elements including the biological waste

Stage 2: Define

At this stage, the business goal is defined and the multidisciplinary team is formed. in this stage, the team star to form the Business Model Canvas that provides a plan for the production process and create the brand promise for the product.

Stage 3: Make

At this stage, the team starts to create a user-centered research to understand how the final product will look like, brainstorm the product idea and how it reflects the business model defined in the previous stage. Also, this stage involves creating the product prototype and defining the materials that will be implemented in the production

Stage 4: Release

The product is launched to the market in order to learn the consumer experience through a Consumer Journey Map and other tools to get the consumer feedback about the product. Also, at this stage, the last elements of the business model is completed such as building partnerships

For complete toolkit and template documents can be used in the circular design, you can visit the IDEO Circular Design Guide.

Case Study: Local Roots

Local Roots is a start-up that reuses the shipping containers to build farms anywhere with reducing the food supply chain costs by building farms in different places. Giving the consumers to grow food for 365 days a year wit 97% less water without any usage of pesticides or herbicide. Each 40-foot container can be modified for 5 acres of indoor agriculture. Below is a video introduction to Local Roots project:

The ties between design and economy are now stronger than before. While our natural resources are dramatically shrinking, the circular economy can give the hand of help to the next generation through building sustainable innovation business models that aim to reduce the land fills through reusing, refurbishing, remanufacturing and recycling products. This new business model can be only achieved through a design thinking process that aims to build a circular design. A design that considers the wide sustainable perspective in all the production development process including the business model, the used materials, and the product destiny after its lifetime is ended.


Rafiq Elmansy

Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.

  • Wael Kasim

    Great article. Thank you very much indeed.