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What is circular design?

Last updated

27 April 2023

Reviewed by

Eliz Ayaydin

Circular design is an approach that stems from "circular economy", which denotes that design models play a critical role in a modern economy. 

According to the pioneers of the term circular economy, David Pearce and R. Kerry, the circular economy was formed as a counterpoint to the linear economy, which represents an unsustainable production and consumption system. The linear approach fails to consider the sustainable measurements proposing to minimize waste and natural resource consumption. 

Since design already plays a critical role in the current linear economy, it’s anticipated to play an even more powerful role in the circular economy. 

Circular design is an approach to designing for sustainability, which involves considering products and their components from the outset with a circular mindset. 

The design for sustainability focuses on optimizing the available resources' economic potential via a new business model that seeks to restore natural resources while being mindful of human health. This article provides a deeper understanding of circular design in the modern economy. 

The circular design process

Elements of circular design are explained in a circular design model, typically presented in a diagram known as the butterfly diagram. Instead of showing that the product's lifecycle ends in the landfill, this diagram shows the four loops used in a product's lifecycle in the circular design and economy. 

These loops are used in the following order:

  1. Reuse. The product is reusable.

  2. Refurbish. The company will accept the return of the product for restoration and resale.  

  3. Remanufacture. The product's parts can be detached for reuse in the manufacturing process. 

  4. Recycle. The product can be recycled for use in a different industry.

These loops can be used to build fresh circular business models based on the four-stage design process. 

Below is the circular design process: 


This is the first step of the circular design process, where the design team and stakeholders attempt to understand the products, why consumers need them, and how circular flows work. 

They start to get inspired by using a circular thinking approach, studying regenerative design examples that involve reusing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling. 


At this step, the company has defined the business goal, created the brand promise, and formed a multidisciplinary team. The team then creates a business model and plan for the production process using a circular design lens. 


Here, the design team conducts customer-centric research to better understand user feedback around the product's final sustainable look and feel. This research also validates the product idea and how it reflects the business goal. Additionally, the team creates and tests the product prototype and defines what needs to be implemented in the production process. 


During this stage, the business launches the product in the market to gather feedback and further iterate the design. Here, they learn about the user’s experience via a customer journey map or other tools to obtain product feedback. This becomes a continuous learning loop until they deliver the final product. 

Additionally, during this process, the company completes the last elements of the business model, like building partnerships. 

Strategies for circular design

Below are the strategies to implement circular economy principles into the circular design process:

Prioritize the highest-value opportunities

Not every product will give maximum value to a company or its customer base. This strategy helps a company identify and leverage the highest-value opportunities in product design and production to maximize the impact and bottom line. 

Question if ownership is necessary

In linear economies, manufacturers want to sell physical products since they optimize revenue. However, by turning this into a service, manufacturers focus on designing for durability instead of obsolescence. They can do this by improving material quality or designing products for disassembly. 

Design products that last

Products should remain appealing and usable for as long as possible. As such, this strategy aims to extend a product's life by making it more durable and easy to maintain or by coming up with innovative alternatives allowing the product to adapt to changing consumer needs or to have several owners during its lifespan. 

Safe and circular material choices

Not all materials are fit and safe for economies since some can contain hazardous chemicals toxic to humans and the environment. Designers and manufacturers should choose materials that can safely re-enter the ecosystem, where they will biodegrade gradually. 

However, for those materials that can't re-enter the natural environment, such as plastic and metals, you can try to extend their service life by reusing, recycling, or repairing them. 

Reduce the amount of resources used in your designs

This strategy seeks to reduce the materials required for product design. It seeks to let go of materials altogether to deliver the product with the least amount of materials or resources.

Design for upgradability and easy repair

This strategy seeks to create product designs that can be easily modified and upgraded with time. Upgrading a product can introduce new features and benefits appealing to consumers, keeping the product within the circular economy. 

The strategy also seeks to create product designs that are easy to repair, allowing products to resume utilization in the market and avoid ending up in landfills. 

Benefits of circular design 

Circular design can help companies create more sustainable, innovative, and competitive products. Companies can focus on improving their products' environmental impacts, which helps them to be regulatory compliant, save costs, and meet customer expectations. 

Companies can design products for durability, adaptability, and modularity. This helps to provide more value and differentiate your product and brand from competitors. By designing a product for reuse, recycling, and repair, you can create new business opportunities, enhance customer loyalty, and highly contribute to the circular economy. 

In a nutshell, the benefits of circular design include:

  • Minimizing resource consumption and waste generation during manufacturing and usage

  • Reducing pollutant emissions during the production process

  • Extending a product's useful lifespan by using durable and resistant materials

  • Raising awareness of sustainability in a society that values protecting the earth


What are the elements of circular design?

The four elements of circular design include:

  1. Reuse. The product can be reused multiple times or redistributed to new users.

  2. Refurbish. The company can repair the product without disassembly or replacement of components.

  3. Remanufacture. The company can disassemble the product and rebuild the components to as-new conditions.

  4. Recycle. The product is reduced to its basic material level, allowing those materials to be remade into new products.

What are circular design methods?

Circular design methods include:

  • Understanding circular design solutions for your product

  • Defining the business goals using a circular mindset

  • Making sustainable prototypes, testing ideas, and understanding user feedback

  • Launching a product that embodies circular design into the market

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Research methodsProduct developmentSurveysCustomer researchUser experience (UX)Market research
  • The circular design process
  • Strategies for circular design
  • Benefits of circular design 

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