The Strategies of a Circular designer


This is the first in a series of blog posts reporting on how engineers from different sectors of industry design. Over the coming weeks we’ll be investigating a wide range of engineering disciplines from infrastructure to computer games, from complex mechanical systems to consumer goods. But rather than start with these more established engineering fields, we wanted to start with a different, emerging group of designers.

This group of designers don’t belong to any one field of engineering, and they can work at a whole range of scales. At one end are the hackers and makers, people who pull things apart and build anew from the pieces. Their products can be machines, devices or computer programmes. At this almost hobbiest scale, these designers tend to come more from the domains of electronic, computer and mechanical engineering than say infrastructure. At the other end of the scale there are people who are looking at large structures like buildings and oil rigs and trying to design a process by which these massive engineering structured can be reused, repurposed and reassembled – this is the scale of civil engineering.

Integrated into all of this and underpinning the design activity is the philosophy of circular design: maintaining materials in circulation for as long as possible, and unlocking their value at the highest possible level.

Four ways to design for circularity


This series of blog posts is part of a wider Royal Academy of Engineering project investigating the design strategies from different domains of engineering. Our hypothesis is that while we can define a common meta process for engineering design, in specific domains of engineering there are different factors – philosophies, constraints, relationships – that define how design is done in practice. We have described this meta process in a previous blog post. In this post, I am going to explore the domain-specfic strategies of an engineer engaged in circular design to find out how this design philosophy affects each stage in the design process.

My interviewees are:
Sophie Thomas – Director of Design at Useful Simple Trust, and former Director of Design at the RSA where she created The Great Recovery, high-profile project that looked at the challenges of waste and the opportunities of a circular economy through the lens of design.

Bengt Cousins-Jenvey – Sustainability consultant at Useful Simple Projects, looking into the life cycle environmental performance of buildings as a doctoral candidate at the Universities of Bath and Bristol.

In response to what need?

Designers adopting a circular design philosophy deal with the same range of needs as any other designer. But regardless of whether they are working at the scale of a coffee cup or a railway network, the need that drives circular design derives from a motivation to conserve limited materials. That concern may be strictly focused on specific raw materials, or it may be broader and include resources such as energy and fossil fuels.

Businesses may be interested in conserving materials for a number of reasons:

  • A current shortage of materials and related price increases
  • Risk to their supply chain and therefore their business
  • Corporate social responsibility
  • A shift in their customer demands
  • Future-proofing business models

Establishing the brief

Sophie Thomas describes circular design as being an extension to the way we are traditionally taught to design. The difference is in the longer briefing and research period that helps to really test and explore the client’s understanding of what it is they want. In other words, making sure the design brief really asks the right question.

Circular design is about design of much more than individual artefacts of services, it is about scrutinising the existing and often complex supply chains and manufacturing processes that enable that delivery of the output. This redesign can require significant political and stakeholder buy-in and often financial investment. This degree of change requires a strong overarching vision. If it is not there in the design brief then the designer needs to help develop it.

Key information that the circular designer should look for in a brief are:

  • What defines ‘circularity’ to the client, and what KPIs will be used to assess the circularity of the proposed design. For instance, is the client interested just in the degree of recycled content in their product, or are they interested in the degree of change they have driven in the supply chain.
  • A key metric when considering materials is the service life of any product because this helps match more appropriately material longevity to product life.

The following are some of the pieces of information that are usually missing in the brief that the designer needs to tease out:

  • The relative importance of different requirements within the brief. For instance, a client may say a performance spec is a red line, but when they realise the impact of that spec on material choice, they may be persuaded to change their mind.
  • How long the product is really going to be used for. For instance, a building facade may be specified to have a 50-year life, whereas in reality the type of facade proposed may fall out of fashion in 10 years time and will want to be replaced. In which case, is a 50-year design life appropriate for the facade materials?

A simple requirement can turn a traditional brief into a more circular one: consider the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th lives of the materials within the product. Today it is common for many products to be built from fully recyclable materials. This gives the materials a second life, albeit at a lower recycled grade, and with no guarantee that the materials will in fact be recycled, but is unlikely that the materials will reach a 3rd life. To reach this third incarnation the product has to be designed with disassembly in mind, for instance, and with a system that can guarantee the materials being made available again for reuse.

These things said, Thomas emphasises the greatest thing that is missing during the briefing phase is deep insight on the part of the designer and the client into materials, supply chains and user behaviour, which is why in circular design there is a close relationship between establishing the brief, and the next stage, researching the problem.

Researching the problem

Circular design requires an extended period of exploring information related to the brief. There are typically large gaps in people’s knowledge about existing supply chains and manufacturing systems, and so there is usually an initial process of starting to fill these gaps.

There is also often limited understanding of real consumer behaviour, so while an existing product may be designed with one user behaviour in mind, the reality of how it is used and disposed of can be quite different, especially when you are designing for multiple lives.

Today’s supply chains are often complex and seemingly impenetrable. The complexity means that exploration of the origin of a particular component quickly requires the exploration of many other supply chain systems.

As new information comes to the client and design team’s attention, the brief can be revisited and updated.

The information that the research period reveals can have a surprising impact on clients and customers. For instance, an organisation may not be aware of a potential single point of failure in the supply chain upon which their entire business depends. Alternatively, many are clients and customers surprised by the component miles and origins of the parts of their consumer products – this surprise can be used to motivate change, and can be leveraged by the designer to convince the audience of the merits of their ideas.

Another factor lengthening the research period in circular design is that many of the supply chain processes have not yet been designed or tested, and many of the materials that we need may not yet have been developed. Circular design can require many years of research and testing before the adoption of novel processes and products can begin.

Generating ideas

In this phase we are concerned with the idea generation strategies that are of particular importance in the domain of circular design.

Sophie Thomas has spent years inspiring designers to adopt more circular thinking. For her the starting point for inspiration is the scrapheap. Taking designers to look piles of waste – carefully designed objects, assembled from components that have travelled far, in some cases several times around the world, thrown away when the consumer no-longer values them – is a provocative system. The scrap heap represents failure. The challenge is to design away the waste.

Another inspiration can be the research. Sophie Thomas again, ‘as you go really deep into the research you can’t help but find opportunity and innovation gaps. There is a lot of potential for new designs in the materials and processes and the people you meet whose job it is to deal with our waste.’

Circular designers talk about four life-cycle loops for materials, illustrated in the diagram below. These loops are starting points for developing ideas.

One go-to answer is the concept of turning a product into a service: for instance the shift from car ownership to community car clubs; or the leasing of furniture.

Another go-to answer for more disposable items is to more accurately match material life with product life. From this optic, we see how perverse it is that a paper coffee cup that is used for ten minutes takes two years to begin to biodegrade.

One factor that dominates the nature of the solution space is the availability of the infrastructure to deliver the product or service. If it doesn’t exist yet, then your solution is going to be about designing system change rather than designing a manufactured object.

Returning to a point already made, the similarity of circular design to more traditional design except for the massively extended research-informed briefing phase, Thomas advises that you really have to hold off developing ideas until you have really understood the problem, otherwise you may end up designing for the wrong problem and add new ones.

Modelling ideas

The following are common models that a circular designer would use to test the circularity of their designs against the brief:

  • Material flow
  • Physical modelling of assembly
  • Stakeholder modelling
  • Economic and investment modelling
  • Human behaviour modelling
  • Customer preference modelling
  • Change modelling

Testing ideas

The following are key tests that the circular designer is concerned with:

  • Sufficient recovery of materials against the brief KPIs.
  • Matching material life with product life for disposable items?
  • Does the design (for example the assembly method) impede the ability to separate the materials?
  • Capacity of the supply chain
  • Willingness of stakeholders to embrace change
  • Adequate resources to fund change
  • Could the design have negative impacts on the recovery of other materials?


This is the stage in the design process at which we judge the adequacy of the design against the brief on the basis of all the tests that we have conducted.

According to Thomas, if the answer looks like the current model, then the answer is probably wrong. The reality is that circular design requires extended periods of systems change, and so a quick fix is not likely to be possible.

To characterise domain-specific factors in the judgement phase, we asked what are the origins and consequences of bad decisions made in circular design. Our intervewiees provided us with three:

  1. Passing on the problem – for instance, just calling a material recyclable without designing the system by which it will be recycled, or not considering how the element can separated
  2. Misunderstanding the dependencies – for instance, choosing to recover the energy in a material by incinerating it, and not accounting for the toxins that incineration releases.
  3. Not talking to the people who manage the waste stream – for example, the case of lighter-weight plastic bottles: the designers of this apparently more energy-efficient bottle, in terms of the energy cost of transport, didn’t consider the disruptive impact on waste sorting plants that use centrifugal devices to separate materials on the basis of material weight.

Perhaps the biggest judgement the circular designer has to make however is not technical: it is a subjective decision about whether it is possible to persuade people to make big changes to supply chains and consumer habits.

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