Ideo Says The Future Of Design Is Circular

A new guide for designers encourages them to create products that stay in closed loops and business models that discourage waste.

When Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam replaced its lighting, it didn’t pay for the bulbs. Instead, the airport pays for light as a service–and Philips, which designed the system, is responsible for recycling or reusing anything that breaks.


It’s an example of the growth of circular design. Designers are traditionally part of the linear economy–creating products from raw materials that would eventually end up in a landfill. But they’re beginning to consider the entire system and design products with materials that can be used in closed loops.

The Circular Design Guide, a new tool from Ideo and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization that works with companies like Google to transition to the circular economy, explains how it works.

“Businesses can no longer ignore the cost of the traditional ‘take, make, dispose’ model, both to the Earth and to their bottom line,” says Chris Grantham, who led Ideo’s work on the guide from its London office.

In 24 modules, designers and companies can explore how to design for the circular economy, from rethinking business models to taking inspiration from nature.

“Design is central in this transition to the circular economy,” Grantham says. “As a result, any designer working in a modern commercial setting must understand the key principles and be able to apply them in their work.”

It takes a shift in mindset. “Designers and entrepreneurs tend to be familiar with designing for an end user,” he says. “Effective circular design looks beyond a single product lifecycle for a single user, to designing a bigger system–one that creates more value by enabling multiple usages and users of that material.”


When Philips designed its light-as-a-service model, it created custom light fixtures with components that can be individually replaced, saving material and making the lights last as much as 75% longer.

Since completely redesigning products–or entire businesses–is daunting, the guide gives concrete, practical exercises to help teams get started.

“We hope that this guide gives designers of every experience level the confidence they need to get off the blocks and start turning ideas into action,” Grantham says. “Of course, we don’t expect to create experts overnight–instead, the guide should start a process of inquiry that steadily leads designers to apply circular principles.”

In the future, young designers are likely to start their careers already well-versed in circular design. Tim Brown, Ideo’s CEO, compares it to the first generation of designers that grew up with computers.

“We’ll start to see designers very soon, I think, who are intuitive about circularity,” he says in a short video on the site.

[All Images: Ideo via Circular Design Guide]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.