How circular design guidelines unlock organizations’ potential for change

Circular Economy on Medium

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

May 27 · 7 min read

Large companies are leveraging circular design to transform their businesses. This is how IKEA and DS Smith are doing it.

By Alice Bodreau, Strategic Partners manager, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Over the past decade, design has been recognised as a force for change by organisations large and small. From creating innovative products to launching disruptive business models or transforming entire companies, design methodologies have been embraced to tackle corporations’ strategic challenges and a user-centric approach has been recognised to deliver results.

But designing for users isn’t enough. Organisations today face mounting expectations. They have to keep delivering excellent user experience and remain relevant and innovative, while also recognising and addressing their role in global challenges, including climate change and biodiversity loss. That’s a tall order and traditional user-centric design practices are limiting organisations’ ability to tackle it all.

This is why leading organisations, fully recognising their impact and willing to transform themselves to become planet positive, are embracing circular design: the practice of applying circular economy principles throughout the design process. This approach employs systems thinking to address some of the biggest interconnected challenges we are facing today. Circular designers adopt a mindset based on the three circular economy principles: to eliminate waste and pollution, to keep products and materials in use, and to regenerate natural systems.

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From climate strategy to circular design guidelines

Once organisations have identified circular economy as a useful framework to help meet their goals, such as achieving business success while tackling climate change, the question remains: how to put it into practice?

People who work at the design stage of a product or service — whether they actually have the word ‘designer’ in their job title or not — work by definition upstream in companies’ operations. Their decisions can impact the whole organisation’s operations and supply chain. That is the case for a company like IKEA where designers’ decisions about the product range will impact material sourcing, production, sales, etc. For a B2B company like DS Smith, a cardboard packaging company, designers are also in direct connection with their customers. They are on the front line where they hear their customers’ concerns about the environmental impact of packaging and receive increasingly demanding and sometimes contradictory specifications. Equipping the people who design with a tool to navigate these complex discussions became a priority.

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

Following the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s circular design guide, published in partnership with IDEO in 2017, corporations are looking to create their own version, to address their own design challenges. To do so, there is first a period of learning, when the teams paving the way to a company’s transformation need to absorb the circular economy framework and apply it to their own supply chain, material flow, and design practice.

Alan Potts, Design and Innovation Director at DS Smith, explains, “We started with understanding the theory of the circular economy, but then needed to address the practicalities — how designers can support our customers with the transition in day-to-day design. That was how we started off formulating the Circular Design Principles.” The output of that process is the circular design guidelines, a framework and a set of protocols that will guide the design team’s work to become circular.

Because circular design is a new discipline and there are a lot of unknowns and many solutions to be explored, creating circular design guidelines is an iterative process. IKEA, for example, has now deployed its third version. Hanna Ahlberg, Project Leader Circular IKEA at Inter IKEA Group, explains, “In the very beginning, we started with a circular design guide that was, in hindsight, more or less a simplified description of circular attributes for a product. It was very important in creating the needed mind shift to move us from ‘this is how we design products’ thinking to ‘this is how we design circular products’ thinking. But the first guide created many challenges. It was full of high-level ideals but was incredibly difficult to translate into measurable solutions for circular design.”

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Circular design guidelines are meant to be refined over time, in line with the organization’s circular economy maturity. Indeed, implementation of circular design guidelines should create a new design mindset and open new ways of working. As every designer knows, it is by doing and testing that you learn and improve your practice. The same goes for circular design. In the first version of IKEA’s circular design guidelines, for example, one of the principles was to “design for assembly and disassembly”. This made sense in the context of IKEA’s transformation journey, when they needed to think beyond the traditional life cycle of a product. But once IKEA designers started to think about the next phases of the product’s life and specifically how to prolong the life of the product through repair, upgrading, moving, adapting, and so on, they realized that the key action to make things last was the ability to re-assemble.

“This was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for us,” says Ahlberg. “We know how to design for assembly. We are the ones who were the originators of putting things into a flat box and making it possible for customers to assemble things at home themselves. The key to the new circular world turns out to be enabling everyone to take things apart, move them, repair them, and live with them through changing life for as long as possible. So, the new principle is ‘design for disassembly and reassembly’.” And today, customers can see the output of the first step of that process by accessing disassembly guidelines.

Of course, the implementation of circular design guidelines takes time and requires training. Along with its circular design guidelines, DS Smith created its own circular design training. First, frontrunners in the design team led this journey. Then, when DS Smith launched its guidelines, 700 designers embarked on a six-month training process. Shaun Stamford, Customer Value Team Manager at DS Smith, highlights why this step is crucial and why the training needs to resonate individually for people to take actions: “One statement from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that resonates most with me is that ‘waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences of decisions made at the design stage, where around 80% of the environmental impacts are determined’. As creative designers, and good stewards, we are now tasked with finding innovative ways to reuse or repurpose and recycle our packaging solution.”

In the process of implementing its circular design guidelines, IKEA assessed its 10,000 products on offer today. The assessment created a baseline understanding of where they stand today versus their circular economy ambition. The assessment also helped IKEA to further their understanding of what constitutes a circular product and what directions to take to increase the circularity of the product range. Simon Skoog, project leader at IKEA, says, “We clearly see that products made of fewer materials that can be separated easily are primed for circular flows. We also see that standardisation in types of fittings, finishes, and sizes, greatly aids the circular potential of a product.”

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Changing the status quo and disrupting decades of linear business optimization isn’t a smooth process. The first step is to create buy-in — the first roll-out of the circular design guidelines is an opportunity to engage with various teams, leads and sponsors, and to assess their understanding of the circular economy and appetite for change. This will inform the subsequent training and implementation of the guidelines. Both IKEA and DS Smith found that there was little push-back on circular economy as a framework for change in their design teams. The challenges came from creating clarity on how the circular economy applied to their organizations and to their current design practices: how to answer the practical, day-to-day design questions. This reinforces the need for a feedback loop with the design teams and for iterative circular design guidelines which improve and get more precise over time. And like all other transformation strategies within an organization, finding the right pace is key.

In the end, circular design guidelines are tools to accompany an organization — and the designers within it — in a transition to a more circular approach to business. For DS Smith, it means empowering designers to challenge themselves and their customers in how they can deliver packaging solutions with a circular economy mindset. It reinforces the role of designers as advisors to their customers to help them navigate demanding requirements and environmental impact. For IKEA, it has helped the company deepen its understanding of the circular economy with the ambition to become planet-positive by 2030. Exploring design for reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture, or recycling has led IKEA to think about what else needs to be implemented so that these actions are — in practice — taken. This means exploring new business models and systems that actively encourage these practices. In the transition to a circular economy, much remains to be invented, making circular design guidelines valuable supporting tools for businesses.

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