What is circular design?

Until now, we have mostly lived in a linear economic system. This cycle works like this: we create a product, we use it, and we throw it away. Unfortunately, this system is not sustainable, because it generates an accumulation of waste and uses exhaustible resources. This is why we are now developing several alternatives to this system and trying to establish a more circular consumption model.

The refurbishment

This new cycle forces us to reconsider the product, focusing more on its practical end of life. In a circular design model, a product is transformable or modular. This means that it is created, used by its consumer as long as it is useful, but it is not thrown away afterwards. When it is no longer suitable, the product is refurbished and then reintegrated into the economy. It then becomes a quality second-hand product that others can buy back.

Reuse and maintenance

The goal of circular design is to create a product with a long life cycle or to make slight modifications to an existing product so that it re-enters the economy. In circular design, the product must always be in the use cycle, it must never be thrown away. It is the role of the designer to imagine something that a technician can easily repair. The customer will send his product, directly to the manufacturer, to be repaired and sent back. This is called maintenance or reuse. Finally, this economy will have the advantage of generating new jobs, thanks to the creation and growth of new repair companies.


Circular design can also be used for remanufacturing. Here, the process goes beyond simple repair, as the product will be remanufactured and improved. For example: a company recovers a plastic product, melts it down, and then reuses the material to remake it with a new design. Thanks to this approach, the product returns to the circle of use.

Recycling and composting

This last solution is to be used as a last resort. It is important to know that a product can always be recycled, but that the management of product recycling is often underperforming, both in terms of service and product management, because these infrastructures cost a fortune. So many people think that they recycle a good part of their consumption but the reality is different. Among all the objects we put in the recycling, only 20 to 30% maximum are really recycled. The remaining 70% is either burned or buried.

The situation is similar with compost. We often see "recyclable packaging" written on the packaging of our products. People buy a product that they believe can be composted, but most facilities in Quebec and even elsewhere lack the knowledge and technology to do so. Except for fruits and vegetables, the rest will go directly to the garbage and will be either burned or buried, even if it is totally compostable. This is why recycling and composting should be used as a last resort for any product.

How can circular design be used by a company for a new product?

If a company wants to create a new product, circular design specialists will look at the following aspects:

  • What materials will be used?
  • What will be the life cycles of this product?
  • What can be done with the product when its life cycle is over?
  • Will the customer be able to take it back and make modifications, repair it or send it back?

How can circular design be used by a company, already having a product on the market?

When a company wants to make one of its products, already on the market, more circular, the circular design studio will start by doing an analysis of the product concerned. During this analysis, it will start by asking a crucial question:

  • What is the product's life cycle from the moment it is manufactured until it is at the end of its use?

Then, he will ask himself about the manufacturing process:

  • Can we improve the product design to reduce the number of parts ?
  • Can we change the materials to make it stronger or more ecological ?
  • Can we change the manufacturing processes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the number of machines used or electricity consumption ?

Finally, it will ask about its use and how customers can use it:

  • How can we maintain or improve this product, to make it even more pleasant to use?
  • How can we make it possible for the customer to send it back to the manufacturer, for the manufacturer to repair or remanufacture it, and then return it to the customer?
  • What arguments can be given to the customer to motivate them to return the product (rather than throw it away) and for the manufacturer to recover the different components of the product?
  • How can we create components of the product, which will then be reusable for the creation of another product?

By definition, circular product design is the antithesis of programmed obsolescence.

The ideal scenario for circular product design

Starting from scratch is always easier for circular design experts, as they have almost carte blanche in their product creation process. In this situation, they make the concepts themselves and think of the best way to optimize everything. Then, they choose the materials. For example, if the product is made of aluminum, it will be fully recyclable (knowing that aluminum is already 30% recycled).

However, when a company calls upon a circular design studio, the designer always starts by doing a briefing with them. It is from this exchange that he will develop ideas for creations and not only thanks to his imagination. He will always be aware of the materials he uses and the impact they represent. The goal is for the customer to have a good and safe experience.

In summary: starting a product design from scratch is always interesting for a circular product designer, as it gives him a lot of artistic freedom in his creations, however, redesigning an already circular product is just as interesting for him. Indeed, a product can always be improved and it is sometimes easier to put back into circulation an already circular product, rather than to create a new one.

How does a circular product designer organize himself when working for a company?

The designer starts by analyzing the life cycle of the targeted product, by observing what is being done on the market. He then studies the competitors, to gather information on their manufacturing processes. For example, what manufacturing processes do they use? Do they reclaim parts or materials? Do they discard the product at the end of the use cycle?

A new product is never really new. There will always be several other companies developing similar models. They will have the advantage of helping the designer understand the target market or industry for a product. An analysis of 4 to 5 large competitors will be enough for him to gather relevant information on a market and to have an overview of the points to be improved, especially on the life cycle of the product.

When working with a company, the circular product designer helps it to set up a strategy to improve its product for itself and for others. For itself because the product becomes circular, with a long life cycle. For others because it becomes more competitive on the market.

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