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Circular Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Circular Design and collection of topical content and literature

What is Circular Design?

Circular design is the practice of creating durable, reusable, repairable and recyclable products that generate zero waste to support a circular economy.

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In circular design, designers consider all stages of a product's lifecycle and ensure that it is sustainable from manufacturing to disposal. Some examples of the decisions involved in circular design are:

  • Raw material: what is the source material, and how can we extract it sustainably?

  • Product specifications: is the product reusable, repairable and recyclable?

  • Manufacturing process: is it energy-efficient, and does it generate any waste?

  • Distribution and use: How much energy does it take to deliver and use the product/service? Where does this energy come from?

  • Disposal: Can the product be dismantled? Can we use the parts as-is in the manufacturing process again? Can we return the raw materials to the earth?

The circular economy butterfly diagram by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation illustrates how circular design minimizes waste while working with renewable and non-renewable materials.

© Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Fair Use

The Three Principles of Circular Design

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution, including toxic substances that harm the soil and water and reduce emissions. Almost every product generates waste, so we need to redesign everything. Design plays a key role here.

  2. Circulate products and materials at their highest value for as long as possible. A recycled product must be energy-efficient in the recycling process. Further, recycling should not result in a substantially inferior product. For example, we can build machines to last a long time and be dismantlable so manufacturers/service providers can easily repair their parts and reuse them in new products. They should be recyclable so that we do not mine more resources from the earth.

  3. Regenerate natural systems by returning natural resources to the earth. For example, we can convert food waste to compost and return it to the soil to regenerate farmlands.

Circular design sounds overwhelming. However, UX pioneer Don Norman explains that we can seek inspiration from nature. Nature creates, packages, delivers and disposes off materials with zero waste. 

Circular design isn't easy, but it’s possible. Here's how we can start:

  1. Learn about different materials and new techniques to manufacture.

  2. Shift from a product mindset to a system mindset.

  3. Transform business models from selling products to selling services and experiences.

Circular design is essential to create a circular economy and, ultimately, a healthy, life-sustaining planet. Given the precarious state of the planet, it is imperative that we adopt circular design as fast as possible and secure a better future.

The good news is that as a designer, you already have many of the skills needed to practice circular design. To know how you can leverage your design knowledge and skills and take the first steps to create circular designs, take the course Design For a Better World with Don Norman

Learn More about Circular Design

For more on circular design, take our course: Design For a Better World with Don Norman.

Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

Read more essays and articles by Don Norman, visit Don Norman's JND.org 

For a closer look and detailed explanation on the butterfly diagram, watch this video interview with Dame Ellen MacArthur on What is a circular economy?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation offers a great overview of circular design in Circular design: turning ambition into action.

Literature on Circular Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Circular Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Circular Design

Take a deep dive into Circular Design with our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman .

“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”

— Don Norman, Design for a Better World

Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:

  • Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.

  • Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.

  • Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.

  • Widespread misinformation that undermines education.

All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.

Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.

This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.

In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.

In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.

In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.

Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.

You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.

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