Sustainable product design practices for a circular economy ?

Almost anyone who was seriously interested in the design of artifacts - more commonly described as industrial design - has tried to establish a list of criteria to follow in order to generate good ideas, and by consequence ideally good artifacts. We understand artifacts as being an inclusive term grouping physical products and goods, but also extending to services, and even spaces. 

It is important to point out that even the term good can be interpreted in an idiosyncratic and subjective way, all depending on the interpreter's perceptions, expectations, and lived experiences.

However, we tend to resonate with the definition brought forward by one of the most important contributors to the field, industrial designer Dieter Rams and his principles of Good Design

And although multiple definitions and interpretations of these principles have emerged and evolved throughout the years, most would agree that good design comes from a deep understanding of the users, of their needs, and their expectations throughout their product experience. In that sense, good design can be resumed in three main attributes by being simple, innovative, and most importantly, responsible.

In this article, we will be honing in on the last of these attributes which suggested that good design should be eco-responsible and environmentally-friendly as an integral part of a circular economic model. 

Therefore, we will provide a brief overview of some sustainable product design strategies which can promote the conception, manufacturing, and consumption of more responsible artifacts.

DESIGN FOR DISASSEMBLY

This design principle, commonly abbreviated as DfD, is arguably one of the most fundamental ones empowering entrepreneurs, designers, and manufacturers to conceive products that can be easily and quickly disassembled. Sometimes referred to as Design for Adaptability, it consists in building products and services in a way that facilitates easy and efficient changes and dismantlement in the future (Cutieru, ArchDaily, 2020).

This means that the product parts are layered in a way that makes their separation accessible and reversible, as the parts themselves remain robust and reusable throughout the disassembly and reassembly process. This principle helps the user themselves or a third party intuitively recover and repair elements, or discard and replace parts with ease (Guy & Ciarimboli, 2005). 

It is therefore important to have an intuitive visual or tactile queue on the artifact, thus hinting how to proceed to disassemble in a secure and easy manner. These hints need to be ideally visually and physically accessible to a wide range of users, considering their limits (e.g. disabilities), and other influential factors.

Examples:

Herman Miller: instructions for disassembly

In an effort to reduce toxic waste, Furniture designer and manufacturer giant Herman Miller have been including disassembly steps to help take apart some of their products. 

By segregation the parts and materials, it’s then much easier to properly recycle, repurpose, or reuse different elements within the single furnish. 

A great example is the Setu Chair which comes paired with a Disassembly for Recycling step-by-step guide.

https://www.hermanmiller.com/content/dam/hermanmiller/documents/environmental/recycling/Setu_Chairs_Recycling_Instructions.pdf

Instructions for disassembly from Herman Miller
@Herman Miller - Setu Chairs Recycling Instructions

The Ginkgo umbrella: 100% recyclable

As we have mentioned previously, for a product to be 100%, it has to be 100% disassembled through reversible assemblies, as well as made from recyclable materials. 

A great example of a design for a disassembly product is the Ginkgo Umbrella: made from 20 pieces - instead of the traditional 120+ pieces umbrella designs. 

This product was designed with no screws or pivots necessary for assembly, thus reducing the numbers of parts - and by consequence materials - needed drastically. This whole product can be put apart quickly and easily, and each single element can be recycled to be repurposed in another product or function.

https://www.ginkgoumbrella.it/design/

The Ginkgo umbrella is 100% recyclable
@Gingko Umbrella

DESIGN FOR MODULARITY

Within this principle, designers are encouraged to create products made of smaller sections which are assembled together to create a base configuration. 

These components are modular in the sense that they can be separated and reassembled to form different configurations - similar to lego blocks - thus allowing the product to serve  different functions and uses. The different elements that can be combined or multiplied to create the full product are sometimes referred to as modules or skids.

Through modularity, the product can evolve and adapt so they can be put into use in a wider variety of contexts by multiple users.

Examples:

Alberto Meda’s simple modular radiator

A great example of elegant modularity in design is Meda’s Step By Step radiator. Made from simple aluminum extrusions, the minimalist design offers flexibility in expansion, and adaptability to the space where it will be installed. In that sense, the product is offered in a small variety of heights, and can be either installed individually and used, or multiplied and placed one beside the other.

https://www.albertomeda.com/en/prodotti/step-by-step

Alberto Meda’s simple modular radiator
@Alberto Meda - Step by Step Radiator

Framework modular laptops

Electronics company Framework have embraced modularity with their laptops design to encourage users to repair, upgrade, or customize their product. 

Instead of designing thicker and heavier products driving up the cost and compromising the user experience, Framework’s team have created a lightweight high performance laptop that can be configured in 3 different ways depending on the user’s needs. 

They also offer a replacement guide as well as a screwdriver to help the user through the disassembly and replacement process, in addition to multiple support pages with step-by-step guides and demonstrations.

https://frame.work/ca/en

Framework modular laptop disassembly
@Framework Laptop

DESIGN FOR COLLECTING

Emerging as a subsection of design for modularity, many designers intentionally create editions, series, collections of desirable yet durable products. These can be created with the intention of adding onto an existing possession, to enhance, expand, or update it (Lindemann, 2010). Furthermore,  unpretentious everyday objects can also be gathered for their anthropological value which is in the eye of the collector (Traldi, Design At Large, 2019).

Collection items can be characterized by some by being unique, iconic, rare, exclusive, and special, all elements which contribute greatly to product attachment. By consequence, users tend to preserve these types of items for extended periods of time, preserving them and maintaining them in pristine condition so that they can be used beyond their imagined lifecycle.

Examples:

Collecting Style

Although most collection items are not necessarily designed with that intention in mind, some products are so well-designed that they become collection pieces. Whether they are conceived by a notorious designer, made from rare and special materials, or are part of a special edition, these types of products seem to stand out to consumers for different reasons. 

Great examples of accidental collection items are some of the iconic Braun electronics designed by Dieter Rams, or even the classic and sleek designs brought by Smeg home appliances, all the way to almost all Apple products which have proven to be some of the most collected electronics in the world, amongst many other examples.

Ultimately, these charming products are almost cherished by their users to the point where they feel the need to preserve them, repair them, conserve them, and ultimately expand their lifecycle indefinitely.

Collecting Style Smeg
@Smeg Home Appliances
Collecting Style Braun
@Braun - Dieter Rams

DESIGN FOR MULTIFUNCTIONALITY

Design for multifunctionality proposes the conception of products or services that reveal hidden affordances, additional features, and alternative uses. Providing alternatives options within the same product or service seem to be highly appreciated by users as they feel they are getting more than what they paid for. 

Multifunctional products are perceived as flexible, adaptable, and sometimes even “alive” as they evolve and change according to the user’s multiple needs (YankoDesign, 2022).

With design for multifunctionality, we can reduce the overall quantity of products, services, or installations needed by combining different functions within the same entity, adding to the appeal and value proposition.

Examples:

Topo Designs: The multifunction briefcase

A great and simple example of multifunctionality is the Global Briefcase by Topo Designs. 

This simple product was conceived to be able to quickly and swiftly adapt into different ergonomic positions all depending on what the different users might need or want in specific situations.

 By taking into consideration the potential user scenarios, adding discreet and simple details can allow some products to offer multiple functionalities. This is of a lot of value for most users as they don’t need to purchase additional products or expansions to cater to those needs. 

This is a great example of how design for multifunctionality can help expand a product’s life all while reducing unnecessary over-consumption.

https://topodesigns.ca/products/global-briefcase

The multifunction briefcase from Topo Designs
@Topo Designs - Global briefcase

Parafree multifunction modular wheelchair design

In an effort to offer an all-in-one product able to quickly adapt to the user’s evolving needs, the designers at langefreunde design studios proposed a wheelchair with a quick release system allowing for quick and easy customization. 

The modularity of the design enables users to swiftly transition from a more relaxed position to a more performing one. This enables different functions to be easily and intuitively accessible to the user so they can feel empowered to adapt the wheelchair depending on their needs. 

The most interesting aspect to this modularity is that the disassembly and reconfiguration does not require any tools, making it easy to switch between functions on-the-go.

https://parafree.de/en/

Parafree multifunction modular wheelchair design
@Parafree modular wheelchair system

DESIGN FOR MULTIGENERATIONAL USE

Conceiving in a way so that the product can serve different users from various age groups, cultural backgrounds, etc.

Although design for multigenerational use is more commonly known within the field of Architecture (e.g. multigenerational households), the principle can be also applied to the design of everyday products, services, and installations. 

In that sense, artifacts can be designed in a way that helps them evolve with time to be used by users of different age groups. 

These artifacts can also have specific features that make them appeal to a wider range of user age groups, either with their aesthetics, functions afforded, or ergonomics. These types of artifacts can sometimes hold strong individual, familial, cultural, communal, and social connotations and associations.

Examples:

Stokke: The chair that grows with the child

Most multigenerational designs have to include an element of  adaptability so that the product can evolve to fit a different user’s needs. Since we are talking about multigenerational use, the user is technically becoming older - thus their ergonomic and cognitive needs and abilities change. This type of adaptability is most easily brought forward with a sort of modularity: the product needs to be convened in a way that allows it to change.  A great example of this is the Tripp Trapp high chair which can be used for newborns, and then adapted as the child ages to become a toddler and even a young tween.

https://www.stokke.com/en-ca/highchairs/tripp-trapp/TT01.html

The chair that grows with the child from Stokke
@stokke tripp trapp

Lego: the OG masters at catering to all ages

Lego block have been commonly branded as multigenerational toys: either through the different themes which can appeal to older users (e.g. Star Wars, etc.), or the proven play pattern which is reminiscent of simple and carefree times, lego blocks have been designed to be used continuously, and to be handed down after their first user, instead of being thrown away.

https://greeninstructions.com/

Lego is the OG masters at catering to all ages
@Lego - Sets for Adults

DESIGN FOR CASCADING

Often referred to as  “cradle to cradle”, the cascading philosophy suggests approaching the design of products or services as a living system where everything is interdependent. To be put in simple terms, the principle of cascading implies the sequential and uninterrupted use and reuse of resources within circular economy practices (Campbell-Johnston et al., 2020).

In that sense, a cascade can be described as the “consecutive use of materials in products of lesser and lesser properties until at the end”  thus resulting in the “destruction or re-production of the material” (Braungart, Core77, 2011). Products are therefore designed for their biological cycle and are to be safely returned to the soil at the end of their cycle to help with biodiversity without being harmful.

The purpose of this is to allow resources to flow continuously within the product’s life cycle and beyond. In that sense, the waste generated by one step of the life-cycle automatically becomes a resource for another step, and so on. 

Seeking inspiration from nature and its rejuvenating ecosystems, the cyclical cascading of resources within a product development process is of imperative value to reduce toxic waste. Each new cascade or cycle therefore affords new uses and benefits. This type of strategy can be easily applied when sourcing materials, by recovering the by-products and waste generated through their manufacturing of use, and finding new functions and purposes for them.

Examples:

Cascading Wood

Although it is difficult to find a specific example of design for cascading, a great way to explain this somewhat complex notion is through the demonstration of how one common material can be cascaded: wood. 

In order to effectively cascade the material, it is important to begin with the early steps of harvesting the raw solid wood which is then transformed into veneer wood products. The wood waste (dust, etc.) produced through the manufacturing of the products can then be harvested and used in other applications (e.g. 3D printed wood, etc.). Then, once the veneer wood products reach their end of life, they can be recycled to become particle-based products (e.g. particle boards for insulation, construction, etc.). Then, when the particle based products reach their end of life, they can be recycled and repurposed into fiber-based wood products (e.g. paper), and then we repeat all the way to bio-based chemical products (e.g. raw tall oil, turpentine and xylose, etc.). Lastly, these bio-based chemical wood products can then be used to generate or harvest energy for electricity and heat, therefore coming full circle.

https://www.ceguide.org/Strategies-and-examples/Dispose/Cascading

https://www.core77.com/posts/18669/Dr-Michael-Braungart-on-Material-Shortages-and-Designing-a-New-Material-World

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Published on 2022-08-02

Tara Harb
Strategist & Industrial designer
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