Circular design has been defined "a radical, restorative, regenerative approach to business". That's a pretty ambitious definition indeed, but it has good foundations!
We rarely think about the power of design in shaping our lives. But in fact, every single object we use has been designed, i.e. there has been someone thinking about which shape it should have, which materials it should be made of etc.
When we start realizing it, it becomes apparent that design plays a huge role in shaping the world. And circular design is our invaluable occasion to shape a world that is more respectful of the environment, smarter in its use of resources without having to compromize on the aesthetics of things.
Linear vs circular economy
Above all, circular design comes from a deep mindset shift.
Our world is now shaped according to a linear model, where products are made to be used and then disposed of. In a circular economy instead, the disposal phase is substituted with a variety of different – and sustainable – options, including reusing, refurbishing and recycling.
In practice, this requires considering the whole life span of a product from the very beginning of its design, trying to make it valuable for the longest period of time. In short, designers need to ask themselves:
"What happens when your product comes to the end of its use period? Can your product have many use periods? Can you design for the future, design for recovery, to deliver even more value in the future?"
Cit. Ellen MacArthur
Circular design pillars
But what does it mean to design for the circular economy?
Well, circular design develops around 3 pillars:
- Design out waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems
It may sound excessive, but when achieved together, these 3 elements really have the power to transform our world into a healthier, smarter and more sustainable place!
1. Design out waste and pollution
“Waste is a design flaw” they say.
And this couldn’t be more accurate! In fact, circular design can help cut on waste by making efficient use of materials in production. Just to mention one inspiring example, designing out waste can translate into making wood floor boards that follow the natural curvature of the tree instead of being cut straight, thus reducing scraps!
Design can also reduce pollution by choosing materials wisely. Opting for natural and renewable materials is only part of the solution, as it's just as important to source sustainably grown materials (FSC certified wood, organic cotton...)
For example, IKEA has committed to a sustainable policy for cotton, which consists on either using recycled cotton, or sourcing it from areas where it's grown sustainably.
2. Keep products and materials in use
Materials have a long life, often much longer than the one of the products they’re used for. Circular design takes advantage of this opportunity and focuses on making objects that can easily be altered, repaired or remanufactured.
Modular products are a good example. Think about a chair whose legs can be easily swapped. That chair could be personalized to fit different tastes and then be altered or upgraded over time, following the changing needs of its owner. As a result, it will not be trashed as quickly, which is smart for the consumer, good for the producer and better for the planet!
But even when we dispose of a product, chances are its materials are still perfectly functional. And thinking in circular economy terms means making products that are easy to disassemble, so that materials can be reused over and over again, rather than always sourcing virgin materials.
3. Regenerate natural systems
Up to now, we’ve looked at materials in general. But what about natural materials? At the very end of their life, natural materials can be composted. This regenerates the soil that – remaining healthy – can keep providing renewable materials.
But before that, all natural materials can have a long life. And in the right hands, even food waste can become a beautiful homeware piece!!
Earlier this summer, Ellen MacArthur Foundation (opened in a new window/tab) (the pioneer of circular economy) has called on designers and architects to join the circular design challenge and "re-design the world". And to support the task, it has created the Circular Design Guide (opened in a new window/tab), which provides practical help to start embracing the principles of circular economy in design work.
Circular interior design
Designers and companies are experimenting with the principles of circular design in all industries, from fashion, to food, to interiors. In particular, a lot is happening in the field of interior design!
A pioneering example comes from Rype Office (opened in a new window/tab), a London-based company that sells office furniture and offers three purchasing options:
- New: brand new furniture that can be leased for a monthly fee or bought with the option of a buy-back program.
- Remade: good-as-new furniture that is assembled using a combination of new, reused and repaired parts.
- Refreshed: furniture can be returned to the company for a makeover. And after being refurbished and/or repaired, it goes back to its owner.
This company is among the first embracing a real circular model, but can you imagine the world of home furniture working this way too?
Transitioning to a circular economy is surely a big challenge, but it’s also an amazing opportunity! Exciting times are coming!
I’m learning a lot myself about circular design as I make my research for SforSustainable (opened in a new window/tab) and it’s absolutely inspiring to see how many gorgeous products are coming up. Because – as an interior designer – aesthetics is still an important part of the equation!
Here are some more examples taken from SforSustainable (opened in a new window/tab)…
(click on the images to see all details about each product on SforSustainable)
Visit SforSustainable (opened in a new window/tab) for more sustainable interior design inspiration!