Circular Design: New and Sustainable Way of Thinking - UX studio (2023)

We live in a world that is crying for change. The careless and endless consumption modern societies have been living by in the last 50 years is simply not sustainable. We were raised not to care about our things. If something breaks, we don’t fix it. Products are designed to be thrown away and not to be fixed. And products of the digital world are no exceptions. But there is a new way of thinking that emerged to address these problems: Circular design.

But what does a circular design approach mean? And how can it be used when working on digital products? To answer these questions, first we need to take a closer look at how we’ve built our world so far, why it is not sustainable anymore, and understand how the need of a cleaner world transformed our way of thinking and made us desire to shift to a circular design model from a linear one.

Making the shift to a circular approach

Our economy is mostly based on the take-make-dispose flow. In this linear system, we build products that die after some time, and their components are considered as trash. As opposed to this, circular design approach sees a product’s life-cycle as a closed loop where resources are continuously repurposed.

In the ‘classic’ linear model, a product goes through the stages of production, consumption, and disruption and ends as waste. When designing a product in a circular process, we use an approach that contains four big stages that form a cycle, creating a constant loop where materials are always welcome in the game, not only when they are shiny new and unused.

These four stages are:

  • Understanding
  • Defining
  • Making
  • Releasing

Circular Design: New and Sustainable Way of Thinking - UX studio (1)

When we look at the approach of both the linear and the circular design models, one thing that catches the eye is the difference of the methods when we start designing things. There is a change from just producing something, towards making a thought-out decision of what we will produce and putting effort and care into the implementation.

Taking a look at where we stand now

Why is it so crucial to make this shift? I am sure everyone who checks the news has heard of climate change. NASA dedicates much of its attention to environmental issues, so we can all get a very detailed picture of what effects human behaviour and the endless thriving for infinite growth is having on our ecosystem.

But the good news is that we don’t have to carry on this way because we can make a change easily by learning from how things are ‘produced’ in the digital world. Electrical waste has become one of the main types of waste sources of the modern world. Tons of phones and computers are thrown away and the economy is based on coming up with something new every year.

What do we do when our phone screen gets shattered accidentally? Do we even know what to do with it? Do we know how to repair it? Not really… But luckily some designers have a solution for this problem. Fairphone is an ethical, modular smartphone, which has a low number of components that can be easily replaced and also recycled. Big companies should also try to take a step in this direction, and make recycling and sustainability cool and the norm, once and for all.

The importance of design and designers

Designers, above any other professionals, are the ones who can make a huge impact in making this shift. I also dare to say, it is our responsibility to act and think with a circular design approach in mind. Because we are the people who create the things that end up on the conveyor belt. We are also responsible for educating our clients as well. Luckily, more and more people value objects and brands that have a sustainable purpose, or a meaningful story behind their products. Also, sustainability became not only a buzzword, but a real value, and more and more people realise that infinite growth based on finite resources is an impossible goal to achieve. But to make this shift from a linear to a circular economy, we need to learn how to think differently. Luckily, the era of smart devices and digital products has brought a complex design thinking methodology to the table that can act as an example for the producing chains in the physical world.

Circular Design: New and Sustainable Way of Thinking - UX studio (2)

What the UX methodology has to offer

There is one place on Earth, where you can’t just throw things away: the Internet. This is the one place where the ideation of an already existing product happens organically because you’d simply lose your users if you’d say overnight: ‘I don’t like my website, I’ll just launch a totally new one tomorrow’.

If we look at the four main stages of the circular design approach, we can see that the method we use in UX design is pretty similar to this.

Let’s look at the four stages again, and break them down in more detail:

  • Understanding

When we talk about understanding in connection with circular design, we talk about getting to know the users and the environment of a future product, before starting to design it. Research has always been the foundation of digital product design. Connecting to a digital product involves the human psyche much more than connecting to objects does, so it was inevitable to develop research methods that help us with giving true insights on how users think, feel, and act when using a certain product. Here you can find nine research methods everyone should know about. But it is not only about the users. Research also has to go deep into the economy and take a look at the components of the future product, keeping in mind that they have to be recycled.

  • Defining

At this stage a (business) goal is defined, and a business model canvas is built that acts as a plan for the production process. UX has used such methods for some time to get the stakeholders involved, and also to activate them more in the design process. To set a goal for the product that we design is crucial because with it we can create extra value for our users. So whether it is making a business model canvas, or conducting an awesome value proposition workshop – implementing these methods into the way things are produced can make a huge impact on the current production flows.

  • Making

This is the critical part. Right now we are making things as if there was no tomorrow. And with each product that can’t be recycled, we produce more and more thrash. But the circular approach is about creating a prototype for the product and defining what materials will be used in a way that reflects the product prototype and defining the materials on the business model that was outlined at the Defining stage. Prototyping and ideation are key elements in the UX design process. Here is a summary of why you need prototypes.

  • Releasing

According to the circular design model, with the release of the product, the production cycle reached its fourth phase, and the understanding phase begins again. With digital products this happens naturally: You release a product, then you gather feedback based on that version, and you ideate it, and the cycle begins again.

But looking at this loop, and making these connections was just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much the world can learn from the design thinking that has been developing in the digital age.

Big names in the game

Luckily there already are huge brands who realised the need for change and have taken and ideated the methods of digital design thinking to support the change and to establish the era of circular design. According to this Circular Design Guide, ‘we should think of everything we design like software – products and services that can constantly evolve, based on the data we get through feedback.’

One thing UX research and UX design have always been doing: Building products based on thorough research and on true user needs. The above design guide is a very complex tool, with lots of possible methodologies. It is highlighting the importance of taking a shift from products to service processes, as well as showing how to use agile processes and implement them into your way of building products.

Ideo has teamed up with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation to try ‘to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.’ Here you can find almost every aspect and field of production – for example, food, fashion, economy, and design – with proposed solutions in each field, to break the linear production system.

Nike has also declared its principles of the new way of producing high-quality shoes based on the circular design model. As you can already see, no matter what segment of the economy you are in, you can thrive for a circular production process, and be a leading force.


I think, as designers, we always have to thrive for change, and for the goal of never ending a relationship with a client, a product, or a service, but to stay in touch and make it better and better through ideation. This is because great things can only be achieved with time and constant ideation. The digital design processes have a lot to offer in the offline world too. Hopefully, with education, more big companies will also realise that there is more power in a product that the users really want to care for, instead of just treating them as disposables that can be thrown away once they are not as shiny as they were on their first day.

Continue learning with UX studio

Follow up on the topic of circular design with our article on howto disrupt industries with a lean method.

For additional reading, check out ourProduct Design bookby our CEO, David Pasztor. We ship worldwide!


What is circular design approach for sustainability? ›

Specifically, this form of design advocates rethinking the process of creating a product from the beginning and, to do so, designers must adopt sustainability and respect for the environment as a starting point. The ultimate aim of circular design is to protect the environment.

How is circular design different from sustainable design? ›

Sustainable materials are produced from natural resources using minimum environmental impact and carbon footprint. This includes cotton, silk, wool, viscose, wood, coffee grinds and straw. Circular products ensure that there is no waste in the supply chain, from design to care to recycling, over and over again.

What is circular design thinking? ›

Circular Design Thinking™ is a methodology created by 3Vectores under its Innodriven brand for the Design of Circular Business Models. More than 25,000 people have experienced demo workshops, workshops, courses and trainings. Our digital toolkit has over 5000 downloads from 115 countries.

What is sustainable UX design? ›

User Experience (UX) designers can help fight carbon-producing digital waste by focusing on making content as discoverable as possible and reducing the data load of that content. Doing so isn't just a win for the environment. It is also good for your brand's bottom line.

What are the three principles of circular design? ›

It is based on three principles, driven by design: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature.

What are the 3 circles of sustainability? ›

The three-pillar conception of (social, economic and environmental) sustainability, commonly represented by three intersecting circles with overall sustainability at the centre, has become ubiquitous.

What are the key differences in the circular flow model and the sustainable model? ›

Circularity contributes to a more sustainable world, but not all sustainability initiatives contribute to circularity. Circularity focuses on resource cycles, while sustainability is more broadly related to people, the planet and the economy.

What does circular mean in sustainability? ›

It is a change to the model in which resources are mined, made into products, and then become waste. A circular economy reduces material use, redesigns materials, products, and services to be less resource intensive, and recaptures “waste” as a resource to manufacture new materials and products.

What is the circular design process? ›

Circular design considers all aspects of product development and design right from the outset of the product creation process. Circular economy principles can help businesses deliver sustainable strategies.

What are the benefits of circular design? ›

Long-term benefits of circular design

Circular design reduces negative ecological impacts on the environment, while further securing the supply of raw materials globally, encouraging scientific innovation and improving global economic performance.

Why is circular design important? ›

Circular design allows us to keep materials in circulation and move towards a regenerative future with practical, innovative, long-lasting and environmentally friendly principles in mind.

What are the 4 common features of sustainable design? ›

use environmentally preferable products; protect and conserve water; enhance indoor environmental quality; and. optimize operational and maintenance practices.

What are examples of sustainable design? ›

What are examples of sustainable design? Examples of sustainable design include the Shanghai Tower in China and the Bullitt Center in Seattle. These buildings often involve the use of solar panels, self-balancing water systems, and eco-friendly materials in construction.

What are the three stages of the design cycle? ›

The Three Phases of Design Thinking: Immersion, Ideation and Prototyping. The Design Thinking approach have changed the way thousands of companies think (and do) innovation. Start your transformation from 3 basic standards: Immersion, Ideation and Prototyping.

What is circular design challenge? ›

The Circular Design Challenge is a platform for young fashion/accessory designers and entrepreneurs to showcase and win a prize for their innovative ideas and collections made by using materials from diverse waste sources including plastic.

What are the 4 domains of the circle of sustainability approach? ›

It uses a four-domain model - economics, ecology, politics and culture.

What are the 3 key pillars of sustainable development? ›

The figure at the top of this page suggests that there are three pillars of sustainability – economic viability, environmental protection and social equity.

What are the 5 models of sustainable development? ›

Systems theory identifies 5 elements for a sustainable business model: Diversity, modularity, openness, slack resources and matching cycles.

What are the 4 main concepts of circular economy? ›

Four principles of the Circular Economy
  • A true circular economy is zero waste. ...
  • There are two types of industrial 'ingredients': disposable and durable. ...
  • If this industrial cycle is to be sustainable, then the energy that powers it needs to be entirely renewable. ...
  • Customers are no longer consumers, but users.
Feb 6, 2014

What are the two basic elements of the circular flow model? ›

The circular flow model shows the interaction between two groups of economic decision-makers—households and businesses—and two types of economic markets—the market for resources and the market for goods and services.

What are the 4 basics sectors in the circular model of the economy? ›

Circular Flow Model in the Four Sector Economy

The concept of the four-sector economy incorporates the factor of international trade. International trade includes exports and imports. The four sectors are as follows: household, firm, government, and foreign.

How do you measure circularity sustainability? ›

10 general metrics to measure corporate circularity
  1. Resource productivity. ...
  2. Percentage of non-virgin (renewed) material used. ...
  3. Percentage of recyclability of product. ...
  4. Percentage of circular water consumption. ...
  5. Percentage of circular water discharge. ...
  6. Percentage of renewable energy consumption.
Feb 10, 2022

What is circular concept? ›

The circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended. In practice, it implies reducing waste to a minimum.

What is ESG circularity? ›

At the heart of Circularity Capital's approach to ESG is its specialist mandate to only invest in businesses which have a measurable positive environmental impact and contribute positively to society – and in doing so to ensure best in class governance, transparency and diversity.

What are the 5 steps of the design cycle? ›

The Five Phases of Design Thinking

The short form of the design thinking process can be articulated in five steps or phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

What is a circular design product? ›

Circular products are those that operate within the circular economy model i.e. those products that have reduced or completely no need for virgin resources and are designed with the end of their life in mind.

What are the 6 stages of the design thinking process? ›

The design-thinking framework follows an overall flow of 1) understand, 2) explore, and 3) materialize. Within these larger buckets fall the 6 phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement. Empathize: Conduct research in order to develop knowledge about what your users do, say, think, and feel.

What is the most important role in the circular flow model? ›

The basic purpose of the circular flow model is to understand how money moves within an economy. It breaks the economy down into two primary players: households and corporations. It separates the markets that these participants operate in as markets for goods and services and the markets for the factors of production.

Which one of these is an advantage of a circular? ›

Ans: The correct answer is A. Circulars are a very cost-effective method of communication.

Why is it important that designers use a design cycle? ›

Designers will also use The Design Cycle as structure to make sure designs are thoroughly developed and reviewed at each stage, and allows the designers to discuss the design with client at regular stages. Designers will often start the design process, with a design problem, this is something they have to solve.

What is the purpose of the design cycle? ›

The design cycle is a model. Its purpose is to help students create and evaluate products/ solutions/ outcomes in response to any new challenges. The design cycle model below represents the MYP design methodology of how designers develop products.

What is the most important stage in the design cycle and why is it important? ›

Research is the most important part of any Design process. The facts and insights you acquire during the Research phase inform every subsequent part of the design process. More importantly, it is during research that you can easily kill ideas.

What are the 6 R's of sustainable design? ›

6Rs: Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repair

Many of the GCSE examination courses for D&T have included the 6Rs as an approach to help students think about sustainability within product evaluation and their own coursework.

What are the six key elements of sustainable development? ›

There are 6 Essential Elements which are dignity, people, partnership, prosperity, justice and planet. These elements are created so that the people have a better grasp on how to organised and know better on what they can do according to these elements.

What are the 10 sustainable development approaches? ›

The three types of sustainable development are: Economic viability. Environmental protection. Social equity.

What are the 5 elements of sustainability? ›

Sustainable development is development that is grounded in five dimensions, which have been expressed through the “5 P's”, or five pillars of sustainable development: people, planet, prosperity, as well as peace and partnerships.

What are the 3 main dimensions of sustainability? ›

The 2030 Agenda commits the global community to “achieving sustainable development in its three dimensions—economic, social and environmental—in a balanced and integrated manner”.

Which one is the key to sustainable design? ›

Nature is a key to establish sustainable solutions for a design as it represents the ages of the evolution process, which defines what is suitable to function well. Taking a holistic biomimetic approach can also solve the problem of the facade's cost.

How do you show sustainability in design? ›

Sustainable Interior Design can be incorporated through various techniques: water efficiency, energy efficiency, using non-toxic, sustainable or recycled materials, using manufactured processes and producing products with more energy efficiency, building longer lasting and better functioning products, designing ...

What is sustainable design principles? ›

ESD principles aim to reduce negative impacts on the environment and improve the health and comfort of buildings by: optimising site potential by utilising north facing elements. Including renewable energy generation. using environmentally friendly products. using energy and water efficient appliances.

What are the approaches to sustainable design? ›

The ecodesign strategy set for sustainable design includes techniques like Design for Disassembly, Design for Longevity, Design for Reusability, Design for Dematerialization, and Design for Modularity, among many other approaches that we will run through in this quick guide.

What is circular design process? ›

Circular design considers all aspects of product development and design right from the outset of the product creation process. Circular economy principles can help businesses deliver sustainable strategies.

What are the circular design strategies? ›

In the circular economy system diagram, approaches such as reuse, sharing, remanufacturing, and refurbishment sit closer to the centre of the multiple material loops, while recycling sits farthest away.

What are the four domains of circles of sustainability? ›

Domains and subdomains

It uses a four-domain model - economics, ecology, politics and culture.

What is the difference between sustainable and circular? ›

Circularity focuses on resource cycles, while sustainability is more broadly related to people, the planet and the economy. Circularity and sustainability stand in a long tradition of related visions, models and theories.

What are the 3 approaches to sustainable development? ›

Sustainable development is based on three fundamental pillars: social, economic and environmental. The Brundtland report, which sustainable development is gets its name from – delineated the development of human resources in the form of reducing extreme poverty, global gender equity, and wealth redistribution.

What are the 4 design strategies? ›

Design strategies
  • collaboration.
  • user centered design.
  • a systems approach.
  • iterative design.
  • avoiding design fixation.

What are the 4 stages of circular economy? ›

A circular economy favours activities that preserve value in the form of energy, labour, and materials. This means designing for durability, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling to keep products, components, and materials circulating in the economy.


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