Designing for circularity

“Time’s up; our raw materials are running out and the viability of our environment is in danger.”

image of Spark employee

Michel van Schie

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.

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.

Sustainability strategy

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.

The way to go

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.

“Gone are the days of sustainable design. Now we have to learn to think about life cycles, and designers have a key role to play.”

- Nat Hunter, Co-Director of Design at the RSA

Design process

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

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. We generate balanced sustainable concept directions based on all the requirements and compare their eco-impact to choose the best direction.

3)  At the materialisation phase. Ultimately we choose for the appropriate materials and production methods. At this stage we use the eco-cost database and work closely together with manufacturers.

4)  Impact assessment. Once the product is in use, we can assess the facts and where necessary make adjustments for the next generation.

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