Your Brand’s Guide to Circular Design in 2022

The world needs a solution to its sustainability crisis. Climate change has been caused, in part, by-products that have had disposability designed into their life cycle, entering landfill every day, increasing emissions, and damaging ecosystems the world over. Circular design can help rectify the problems our linear economy, which follows a pattern of design, use, and disposal is causing us.

Circular design involves much more than rethinking individual products or services, as it has the potential to redefine how an entire organisation operates. Everyone in the design industry has the opportunity to support the transition to a circular economy where waste and pollution are eliminated, products and materials are reused, and natural systems are regenerated by design.


What is circular design?

With circular design comes a circular economy, which, as explained by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, works with the same principles that govern the natural world. Plants absorb energy from the sun, those plants act as food for one species, which in turn, becomes food for another. And so the cycle goes on. Nothing in nature goes to waste – not even waste products.

When applied to the things we make, market, and sell, it’s clear to see that this naturally regenerative economic model requires products that have this principle of complete sustainability built into the functionality from the start. It’s a whole new type of design thinking, at every design stage or so it would seem.

The circular economy was actually first conceptualised as an alternative to the linear economy in the 1980s – over 40 years ago. During those 40 years we’ve come to learn that a circular economy, and the circular designs that power it, will be extremely important in the ongoing fight to reduce climate change.

Circular design can be put to use in so many industries and for a wonderfully diverse range of products, from textiles, packaging, and food, to electronics and construction. Chiefly, circular design has a positive impact on both people and planet. It’s a force for change that spearheads an exciting future of design. We can make the economy work for people, businesses, and nature by incorporating circular economy principles throughout the design process.


Circular design principles

There are four principles of circular design set out by The Circular Design Guide, which came to be through a collaboration between the MacArthur Foundation and IDEO. These four principles are: understand, define, make, and launch.


This principle is about learning how to shift your perspective to think in a circular, and not linear, way. Understanding also requires people to learn about circular design solutions they can use in their businesses and policies.

Become familiar with different circular design solutions and learn how to move from linear to circular thinking. Here’s your chance to learn about circular flows and regenerative thinking. Keep your end user in mind when researching biodiversity, compostable or recyclable solutions. Look for products that are durable, repairable, or upcyclable.


Defining is about finding opportunities in projects, old or new, to implement circularity. If you are starting a new project or revising an existing one, define a challenge, find opportunities for circularity, and set goals.


This third principle, make, is about understanding user needs. Generating ideas, using smart materials during product development, building and testing prototypes, conducting user-focused research, and learning from feedback: all of these actions are central to the ‘make’ principle.

When you’re in the design phase, design for longevity from the start. By ensuring products have long-lasting durability, you can extend their lifespan and slow down resource loops. Designers have a vital role to play by incorporating quality requirements, such as materials, and creating consumer attachment. If you work in the fashion industry, here is your chance to avoid disposable models and plastic waste and use products and materials that negatively affect your consumer’s health.


Launching is all about putting your concept onto the market, gauging its reception, its successes, and its areas for improvement.

Learn how your product will move across the ecosystem and how it will be used throughout its entire end-to-end lifecycle. Adapting the product to a new business model while ensuring the optimal user experience is key.


Why circular design is long overdue

Reducing climate change

Reducing climate change and our impact on the environment is one of the most compelling reasons to adopt a circular economy. The UK passed its Climate Change Act in 2008, but 13 years on, the country may not be able to reach its proposed climate goals for 2035, according to the Climate Change Committee.

Although rapid progress has been made in the switch from powering the country with fossil fuels to renewable energy, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation state that utilising solar and wind farms will only solve 55% of the climate problem. With 13 years in the bank and a potential 45% of the climate problem still left unsolved, a more radical approach, like remodelling the economy and the optimisation of materials, may be overdue.

Reduce the waste reaching landfill

By designing products and materials that are intended to be repurposed, recycled, or reused, the environmental impact we have can be reduced, whether that’s in agriculture, construction, electronics, fashion, or elsewhere.

This is because the materials used will be kept in use for longer, if not indefinitely, reducing the amount of end-of-life material that goes to landfill, from which the majority of emissions in the UK waste management sector come from.

This climate-change-fighting methodology can be implemented right at the beginning of the design process. New business models can accommodate the use of smart materials that are built for a circular, end goal: the remanufacturing of waste into useable products or raw materials that can be safely returned to the earth.

As well as benefitting the environment, products made with circular design in mind will stay in the economy for longer, bringing longevity not only from the consumer’s point of view, but also from the point of view of businesses. New jobs can be created in the disassembly, refurbishment and reuse of products and materials, and the focus can shift from seeing value in materials to seeing value in skilled work.


Examples of a circular design at work

There’s a whole host of companies that have already made the shift to a circular way of working, with case studies to show their success.

Ecovative Design

Plastic packaging has been at the forefront of environmental concerns for years, but a material that has the durability of plastic without its devastating environmental effects has been hard to come by. That’s a conundrum that Ecovative Design set out to solve in 2007.

By using mushroom roots called mycelium, Ecovative Design produce packaging that has the same properties as polystyrene. The mycelium mushrooms take just a week to grow with no need for light or water, and their root systems bind together and take on any shape that is needed for packaging of all kinds – as well as leather-equivalent textiles.

The packaging is an example of a circular material, which is fully biodegradable and acts as an effective replacement for petroleum-based packaging.


In 2011, office furniture company Steelcase collaborated with three other companies, materials designer Designtex, textile manufacturer Victor, and recycled fibre manufacturer Unifi, to design a closed-loop system that used textile waste from the furniture textile supply chain to create new upholstery material. The fibres in the new material are of the same quality as the original fabric, and can be recycled over and over again. This venture shows how partnerships within industries are beneficial in creating circular products, with textile recycling from Unifi, Designtex’s recyclable fabric designs, and manufacturing capabilities from Victor, showing how sustainable design challenges that may have been too much for one company to solve can be overcome through collaboration.


Fairphone is out to change the electronics industry, one sustainable mobile phone at time. Fairphone has built refurbishment into their redesign of the mobile phone as we know it, with modular upgrades available for the entire phone, from its battery and USB ports, to its display and cameras. With studies showing that the manufacturing of a new smartphone accounts for 85–95% of its annual carbon emission rate, and the fact that phones reach their end-of-life period within an average of just 2 years, selling spare parts and providing repair tutorials means Fairphone can empower its users to keep their phone in use for as long as possible, reducing the phone’s environmental footprint over time, and keeping electronic waste from landfill.


How Studio Noel can help

We know that transition to a circular business model can be daunting. We are here to help you combat consumer patterns of built-in obsolescence and drive impactful design.

  • We can help you effectively communicate your circular design ideas, methodologies, and goals to stakeholders.
  • We can help startups, entrepreneurs, and established businesses alike to design packaging built to last or be repurposed.
  • We can help you understand how the role of design plays a part in achieving circular design ambitions.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help.

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