Design for the circular economy

Design for the circular economy

In the 1990s eco-design emerged. The product but then made from environmentally friendly materials and energy efficient. Eco-design was followed by “Design for sustainability”, eco-products in a sustainable context, designed for an optimal life cycle. The latest vision? Circular economy. And the message is: “Time’s up; our raw materials are running out and the viability of our environment is in danger.”


Sustainability strategy

Eco-design, Sustainability, Circular Economy; all three are important themes. They operate at different levels but all are crucial to keeping the planet liveable for humans in the future.

It is an extremely complex issue and as a designer your influence is limited. When you design something that’s easy to recycle, will it actually be recycled? Does using environmentally friendly materials also mean a more sustainable product? How important is an energy-efficient design if the energy is produced sustainably? Understanding the chain is crucial.

Spark has charted its course through these complex issues and adjusts it accordingly. We work with eco-cost databases in order to select better materials for our products. We ‘cost’ the energy consumption of our concepts and base our design choices on the results. We think about product-service combinations that can break the product life cycle of make-buy-use-dispose. With every product we try to understand what the determining sustainability factors are and focus on these. For a product that has to travel frequently in a plane a lightweight design is the most important thing. Carbon composite is hard to recycle, but in the long run it’s better. For a telephone with a useful life of 3 years, it’s important that this doesn’t break if you drop it twice. Drop tests and robust design are what’s needed in this case.

Our role? In cooperation with our clients we take a realistic look at the product being developed and together we decide on a sustainable strategy within the constraints and the product strategy of the client.

Design process

We’ve identified 4 phases in the design process where we can influence the sustainability of a product.

  1. At the start of the project. In cooperation with the client we define the goal, and determine the programme requirements.
  2. At the concept development and concept choices stage. We generate and choose sustainable concept directions where possible.
  3. At the materialisation phase. Ultimately we choose for the appropriate materials and production methods. At this stage we use the eco-cost database.
  4. Impact assessment. Once the product is in use, we can assess the facts and where necessary make adjustments for the next generation.
"Gone are the days of sustainable design. Now we have to learn to think about lifecycles, and designers have a key role to play"Nat Hunter, Co-Director of Design at The RSA


Want to know more?

Read more about “designing for a circular economy” by The Great Recovery here.

TU Delft is also undertaking research in the field of Circular Design.

In the research “products that last,” 5 principles for circular design are identified:

  1. Elevates design to a systems level.
  2. Strives to maintain product integrity.
  3. Is about cycling at a different pace.
  4. Explores new relationships and experiences with products.
  5. Is driven by different business models.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation is also doing important work in this area.