Industrial Design Going Circular: Designers Shifting Towards Circular Systems Thinking

Circular design

Every physical or digital object in our lives has been designed in some way. Design is a broad term, but the Montreal Design Declaration defines design as ‘the application of intent: the process through which we create the material, spatial, visual and experiential environments’.

There are 160 million designers of all types in the world, and not all of them have the word ‘design’ in their title. In product design, the designer plans the form, function, materials and use of the product. They also consider how the product will interact with other systems.

The problem is that, for hundreds of years, the dominant industrialist model has had designers working in a vacuum separated from questions about where resources are sourced from and what happens to them (and the planet) when the product is discarded.

We can see that in a company like Apple, whose designers prioritise form and function, and actively build in obsolescence, encouraging consumers to replace the products regularly. It’s not their job to worry about the wasted resources that go into their designs and the environmental catastrophe they’re contributing to.

As we move from an industrialist to a circulist mindset, the definition of design may need to broaden even further to solve the major challenges of our lifetime.

Industrial design

In the industrialist era, the dominant ‘linear’ model has been all about mass-producing goods in the most cost-efficient way as often as possible.

The invention of the assembly line and automation, and availability of cheap resources, enabled businesses to design, manufacture and sell products quickly and inexpensively to meet (and even create) customer demand.

The model is linear because the product’s life cycle is a straight line that starts with taking the resources from the ground, before the product is produced, sold, used and discarded.

In this model, an industrial designer’s role is to create customer-pleasing products that can be mass produced as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Traditionally they haven’t been concerned with the other stages of the life cycle, such as how resources are acquired and used or how the product is discarded.

They have been concerned primarily with the product’s manufacture and use – typically single use.

Unfortunately, this model has turned out to be very destructive. It’s led to an oversupply of products, fast fashion, planned obsolescence and very short product life cycles.

Cheaper products have enabled consumers to discard and replace products regularly, such as smartphones and clothing. Swapping, selling, repairing and other options have not been part of the consumer culture. Precious resources are being lost often after just one use.

In fact, smartphones are an environmental disaster – as only one-fifth are recycled and they’re replaced every 2–3 years. These products have made e-waste one of the fastest growing waste streams.

Unfortunately, every time a product starts a new cycle, energy and finite resources are consumed. In the industrialist era, the design of the product doesn’t consider how to get the most life out of it – there hasn’t been a financial or policy incentive for businesses to do so.

This has created an environmental crisis, not just in terms of waste but resource use and emissions. Additionally, there are increasing ethical questions about how these products are produced (exploitation) and where (global, not local).

Transition to circular design

However, the growing issues created by the industrialist age haven’t gone unnoticed by consumers.

The linear model has been dominant for decades, but there are positive signs that the way businesses and consumers think about the products they create and use is changing. The transition from the industrialist era to the circulist era has begun.

To save the planet and ourselves, we need to fundamentally change the way we design, produce and use products. And it all starts with design—it informs so many decisions and investments – and it’s hard to reverse once it’s been done.

There are many signs that this transition is starting to occur:

  • a growing community of passionate people, particularly designers
  • backlash against companies making products unrepairable
  • new government policies making sustainable practices a requirement
  • increased focus on locally made products (driven by the pandemic)
  • new business models using circular design principles – only one or two principles right now, but it’s growing.

Beyond circular design, there are other signs the circular economy is not only possible but on its way, including:

  • sharing economy
  • subscription services (accessing, not owning)
  • product-as-a-service
  • and more.

Circular design fundamentals

Unlike the industrial designer within the linear economy, the circular designer is passionate about maintaining a product’s value and performance – and their materials and components – for as long as possible.

Rather than a linear life cycle that ends with the product being discarded, circularity keeps the products and materials recirculating, as they are recycled, reused, repaired, redistributed, remanufactured and refurbished.

Extending a product’s life cycle uses fewer resources, produces less waste and creates less greenhouse gas emission. It’s the key to achieving the targets we set to combat climate change and other environmental crises.

Until now, discussion of circular design has focused heavily on efficiently using resources and reducing waste, particularly recycling. But design also needs to consider how a product can be repaired, refurbished and remanufactured, as well as how it interconnects with other products and systems.

Here are some fundamentals of circular design:


Biomimicry involves looking to animals and plants to show us how to improve the functionality and sustainability of our designs. The Biomimicry Institute states that there are 3 types of biomimicry:

  • copying form and shape
  • copying a process (e.g. photosynthesis)
  • mimicking at an ecosystem level (e.g. a nature-inspired city).

By examining and taking inspiration from nature’s design, we can solve some of our fundamental problems.

We have seen examples of this in:

Biomimicry is not a new concept, but it’s one that could help us find more effective ways to minimise and reuse our resources, and create more sustainable, reusable products.

Modular parts

A product with modular design is made up of parts or components that can be removed, and repaired or replaced. We’ve seen this in furniture design for a long time and, to a lesser extent, housing design.

But in other areas, like electronics, there has been a distinct lack of modular design. Some companies deliberately make it impossible to take a product apart and keep its repair instructions a secret. Or the parts are sourced from overseas, making the product very expensive to repair – it can cost more to repair than replace the product. Which is exactly what consumers do.

Modular design is circular because it reduces the resources needed, maintains the product’s value and performance, and keeps the product in circulation longer.

Cars have a modular design, so you can take a part out and replace it rather than replace the entire car. The goal is for many more products to work like this – easy to take apart and easy to put back together.

(Although newer cars are so complex, and the parts so interconnected, that only the manufacturer can understand and repair them, so they’re becoming less modular.)

Fairphone have already proven that you can make a modular smartphone that can be repaired rather than replaced.

And the Right to Repair movement is a reaction to electronics and gaming companies refusing to sell replacement parts to independent repair shops.

The EU and the US have right to repair legislation, but Australia is still working on it. However, if businesses started with modular design from the initial concept, it would resolve many of these issues.


Dematerialisation involves finding way to use fewer resources. We’ve already seen this over the last few decades with our rapid technological advancement. Digital music has replaced physical CDs, tapes and records. Email has replaced physical letters. Ebooks are now accepted reading material.

It’s vital that we continue down this path towards a fully circular economy. This means design must reconfigure products to use the fewest resources possible. Digitising is one way to dematerialise, but there are others, such as optimising the current product to be better.

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing can also reduce the use of materials in products, and print components locally as needed rather than shipping from overseas.

Generative design is a newer concept that uses AI and cloud computing. It involves plugging a host of design parameters into a system – including how much raw material is required – and producing many, perhaps thousands of, design ideas that meet the criteria.

Users can find a range of creative, optimised design concepts that they might never have considered.

Holistic system

One of the most important aspects of circular design is that it must consider the whole system, not just the products they're designing.  

Today’s industrial designers often work on a product in a vacuum

Remember, products in today's PoV, become points across a connected network where we can track real time usage and behaviours to proactively manage when to replace points and also improve future designs use of materials, recycle, remanufacture, and energy efficiency.

Circular mindset

The transition to a circular economy requires new technologies, business models, government policies, and consumer behaviours and beliefs.

But, mostly, it needs a circular mindset. This starts with passionate, innovative designers and communities people who genuinely want to make positive changes locally and globally.

All these stakeholders – businesses, governments, consumers – are interconnected. It won’t take one brilliant person to solve climate change and other environmental problems, like depleting resources and waste.

It will take an army of committed, innovative business leaders focused on customers using (not consuming) products, eliminating waste, maximising reuse and sustainability. It will take strong, engaged communities chipping away at the problem.

And as the stakeholders are interconnected, so too are the 12 circulist princples.

Until now, most people who have wanted to apply circular economy principles have focused on only one or two features of it – namely, increasing recycling and reducing waste. It’s a start but what we need now is a global community of leaders who use all 12 principles together to form one coherent system.

Only then will we really start to see successful circular business ventures, more resilient local communities (rather than the current dependency on global supply chains) and a solution to the climate crisis that threatens us all.

Businesses may be fearful about what this will do to their bottom line, but we’re already seeing examples of business leaders that are thriving under circulist principles.

Arrival, an electric car company is bucking the trend of creating car manufacturing plants, and instead creating a series of micro-factories closer to where the cars are being sold.

They can deploy them quickly using existing warehouses, rather than purpose-building facilities. It’s a huge cost savings, reducing resource use, keeping manufacturing and jobs local. They have also designed the vehicle parts differently to reduce or even eliminate the need for large equipment.

Arrival has rethought its operations along circulist lines and managed to reduce their costs and create a high-quality product! And in only five years, they’ve grown to more than 1200 people across 11 cities in 8 countries.

In the beginning, not every change will have positive impacts. Because our systems are interconnected, a positive impact in one area may create a negative impact somewhere else.

It’s a complex web that requires more investigation, research, government policy and a community of passionate people.

The important thing is that designers start with circularity in mind. It’s a work in progress – but it starts with a willingness to move towards it.

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