Designers are in contact with practically everyone involved in the economy.  Through dialogue with publishers, project managers, producers, sales and marketing, they influence how products are conceived, where, with what and how they are produced.  Beyond the control through certificates and standards, they also have a direct insight behind the scenes of the manufacturing processes.  This special position makes designers an important actor in advancing the Circular Economy. The Circular Design Guidelines have thus been developed over the last few years on the basis of research, empirical experience in our studio and numerous discussions with colleagues and have served us in the studio for years as a checklist and instruction on how products can be designed in the sense of a future circular economy.

So far, design serves to ensure that products are primarily bought and consumed. In the context of the circular economy, they bear the responsibility for making sure that the used materials find their way back into the material cycle.

1. A circular product remains useful for a long time.

Good design adapts to changing requirements to ensure prolonged usage. This longevity is not only about durability, but also about ensuring that a product can remain useful throughout its lifespan. People’s lives and situations change constantly; product design needs to accept this reality by embracing flexibility and modularity as much as possible.

2. A circular product can be repaired.

Products are made from different parts and materials that wear out at different speeds. Designers need to understand this variability and design around it, such that all components can be repaired or replaced by either the user or local repair shops. Signs of wear are inevitable, and designers should select materials whose ageing does not reduce their value.

3. A circular product is designed as a system.

All products are imperfect and contain elements that can be further developed and refined. Design should accept and work with this imperfection, creating products in which individual elements can be improved and reincorporated, extending their lifespan on the market. Good design is essentially pragmatic – it recognises its limits and remains open to improvement.

4. A circular product is produced from renewable or recyclable materials.

A product’s end of life is as important as its usage, and materials should be selected with respect to the material cycles of which they are a part. Synthetic materials should only be used if products are capable of easy disassembly and covered by existing recycling systems. Natural materials must be harvested sustainably and processed such that they remain compostable.

5. A circular product uses as little energy as possible over its entire lifespan.

Energy consumption should be limited, with this applied over a product’s entire lifetime, not solely during its manufacture. A high energy usage during production may be justified by a longer lifespan, or else by future savings on recycling. Aluminium is energy intensive to produce, for instance, but subsequently efficient to recycle and retain within the material cycle.

6. A circular product can be transported efficiently.

A product’s distribution should be factored into the design process. Designing products to occupy as little space as possible when being shipped can improve the environmental impact of their transport; reduce packaging; and ultimately lower the overall cost for the customer. A product’s initial distribution is as important a part of its lifespan as its usage or afterlife.

7. A circular product improves upon what came before.

All manufacture comes with an environmental cost, so any product’s existence must be justified by more than circularity alone. A good product offers a tangible advantage to the user, and represents something that they can become meaningfully attached to and want to preserve. Circularity is not puritanical – to fulfil its aims, it must also be innovative, elegant and joyful. 

8. A circular product can be used by many.

Long-lasting products can be used by multiple people, particularly in the case of designs that are only required for a short period of time. An object such as a child’s chair should be rented rather than purchased, and these considerations should affect the business model behind design. Responsible cycles of rental, repair and reuse can benefit both the user and seller.

9. A circular product considers those who manufacture, maintain and recycle it.

A design is only sustainable if its production, maintenance and recycling treat people equitably. Good products are produced in countries that respect human rights, and in factories and workshops that pay and treat workers fairly. Designers should research and make their supply chains transparent, and give consideration to what their designs ask of those producing them.

10. A circular product is as little product as necessary.

Not every design needs to be a product. Physical objects are vehicles for a function or service, but there are other ways of delivering these. Digital platforms, graphic design and interface design all have lighter footprints than objects, but can often meet the same needs. Good product design always considers whether there are ways to render the material object superfluous.

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Today’s production and consumption habits mostly follow a linear logic: extraction, production, consumption, and disposal. In this way, goods lose significantly more than 90% of their raw material value after just one cycle of use. At the latest since the publication of the Club of Rome on the Limits of Growth in 1972, a global debate has been going on about the extent to which the growing world population, increasing prosperity and the associated consumption behaviour are compatible with the Earth’s limited resources. While approaches towards efficiency represent an important first step in reducing resource consumption and negative environmental impacts, their potential is mostly offset by increasing consumption and by rebound effects. The concept of the Circular Economy (CE) goes beyond efficiency of resources and aims at minimising negative environmental impacts by closing and slowing down material cycles. In this sense, the implementation of the circular economy aims to decouple economic growth from the increase of environmental impacts: In the biosphere, consumer products made from renewable raw materials circulate and are ultimately composted. In the technosphere, consumer products of synthetic or mineral origin circulate in a closed cycle. Prominent representatives of the CE in an international discourse are in particular the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and, at the latest since the Circular Economy Package, also the European Union.

Circular Economy approaches can be applied in the various stages of a product’s life cycle: Material selection and design should allow for durability, reprocessing and reparability or biodegradability. The use phase should be intensified and extended. This could be done, for example, by sharing technical products through digital services and thus making much better use of them, or by replacing them completely with digital services. At the end of life, the various recyclable materials should be separated as far as possible through sorting and dismantling and processed for reuse.

The Circular Economy is a fundamentally new economic system that will affect the participation of all those involved in economic activity and will require fundamentally changed patterns of thinking and behaviour on the part of all.