Design thinking applied to the circular economy

A step-by-step process to put “The Circular Design Guide” into action

One of the best and articulate methods to design for the sustainable development and based on the concept of circular economy is The Circular Design Guide. The guide is born from the collaboration between IDEO, involved globally to create positive impact through design thinking, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. In such an exciting time for innovation and disruptive idea generation, the design thinking approach is the perfect mindset to create new eco-sustainable products, services, and business models. Let’s discover together what it is about!



When “The Circular Design Guide” came out the last year I was thrilled and curious because for me is the perfect answer to my need to match the design mindset with environmental awareness. I hope, if you are here, this is what moves you too and you will enjoy this journey discovering how this method works and how to put it into practice in a design process.

The circular system thinking

Before we get in deep in the process is essential to understand what does it means the circular way of thinking. We all should never forget that everything we create will have impacts on the people and the planet, but on which level, will be defined by our ability to see the world as a big interconnected ecosystem.

“The fundamental principle of circular systems thinking is that everything is interconnected.”

Circular systems thinking for designers

Nature is designed in a circular way – everything fits together with everything else, anything is wasted. Why do we need to think circularly now and instantly? We have already seen the effect the linear system has caused to our planet, think for example about the problem that disposable plastic created on our Ocean.
This way of thinking based on process 1. take, 2. make, 3. waste is no longer sustainable for the planet and for our own survival. We have to learn from nature how to use every resource and material we borrow from the Earth and turn them into nutrients in every point of the chain. We need to look at today’s environmental issues, not as problems, but as opportunities to design disrupting ideas. It’s time to avoid the linear way of thinking and shift to zero waste thinking.

“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”

Albert Einstein

The Human-Centered Design process applied to the sustainability

The extraordinary intuition of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is to have involved Ideo to create a free downloadable and practical guide to design for the circular economy following the main phases of the famous Ideo’s Human-Centered Design and Design Thinking methodologies. I will help you to use this important open-source guide into a creative step-by-step process.

1. Understand

In the first step of your design journey, first of all, you have to embrace the “circular flow” way of thinking about a product or a service. There’s a picture which
can help you to understand the lifecycle of a circular product, is the famous cradle to cradle scheme. It shows, on one side, the biological flows of raw materials, transformed into products. What happens to those materials after the use and how they return to nature. On the other side, you can see the technical cycle and how the different materials are elaborated to bring the product to the customers. What happens to the product in its lifecycle after it has been introduced into the market: maintenance, reuse, refurbish/remanufacture, recycle. Looking at this conceptual map is now possible to see if you can find some opportunity to switch to circularity, for example by prolonging the life of a product through a good maintenance service, creating a second life of a product after the main use, or using biodegradable raw materials that could become nutrients at the end of the product lifecycle.

Starting from a product, a service or a business within your company or already existing on the market, you can make two practical exercises using the tools from the Circular Design Guide: the Service Flip and the Circular Opportunity worksheets. These tools start from two interesting different
perspectives, one asks you to think about why people use a product and if there are other ways to accomplish the “job-to-be-done” without owning the product. Which would be the benefits of switching from owning a product to service? The other worksheet asks you the right set of questions to discover how could be the product’s life prolonged if there’s an opportunity to create purposeful inputs and outputs in the biological and technical cycle and their impact on the customer experience and the company structure.

2. Define

Achieving your goals to create successfully, zero waste product and service requires to be continuously systemic and to have an interdisciplinary approach to your project and within your company. For this reason is very important to share and clarify within your team the goals, the kind of impact you want to have, what does it look like being successful and the barrier or the opportunity to develop your challenge. A strategic plan of small achievable and concrete steps to reach your goals would be helpful to breakdown barriers.


When you are generating a new product, service, or business model, your brand is the way to create a connection with customers. Defining your Brand Purpose and a Value Proposition based on a circular innovation strategy could be a strategic asset to reinforce your brand. The Brand Promise Worksheet is the ideal layout to define your identity and what are you offering, because it helps you to write down a sentence that defines your brand statement. I already used these instruments with some clients and I can ensure, spending some time in defining your identity and values, could really make the difference in having a clear position on the market and in sharing a meaningful purpose with your clients. It will be your lighthouse to give the right direction to your company.


If you are working on a new service or founding a startup based on the circular economy, you have to be aware of the implication for your company and the different stakeholders to involve (check the circular Buy-in to identify and involve your stakeholders). In order to build a solid structure, the circular design Guide also suggests using the Business Model Canvas from as a tool to build a circular business that works.

3. Make

After your research phase about circular opportunities, you would be interested in generating new ideas and iterating about your challenge, a good brainstorming session with your team would be very effective. Use the Ideas Capture Worksheet or ask the team to sketch their ideas on post-its and put them on a wallboard. You can always return on some of the first steps analyzing “The product Cycle” or get in deep with the design of your product or service. For example how to make better and smart material choices when it comes to design your product and how to eliminate the concept of waste.


After collecting many concepts, it’s time to decide which one would be the more strategic and beneficial for your business. Is your idea viable, feasible, desirable? You can plot your concepts using the Matrix on the Concept Selection worksheet to understand how is easy to achieve and which would be the impact.


A very important feature of the design thinking method is the urgency to prototype an idea and get feedback as soon as possible to test your hypothesis and expectations as a source of learning. In the creative phase is essential to find a way to collect information and data from the users over time. The Embed Feedback Worksheet is perfect to prepare your User-Centered research and find ways to collect information from people.

4. Release

As your circular business begins to scale and you are going to the market with your product or service, be sure that your organization and the product/service journey are aligned with the user proposition. To design a circular product or service assuring his consistency in its lifecycle, I suggest you map the product journey to ensure its sustainability throughout the time. This consistency can be reinforced also by helping the people of your team to make the shift to the circular economy and finding new partnerships gravitating around the production chain and distribution channels. Understanding the internal stakeholders, testing and prototyping some changes and being iterative can be crucial. And remember, good design is the result of continuous learning and improvement, so include embed feedback mechanism to collect data to get even better.


Once you get to the market your job as a designer is not finished because, if you want a truly circular solution, your product/service should have an endless loop and you have to define its evolution. What’s happened after the first use cycle? How long is it the first phase of life? Keep asking what’s next and you would discover a bounce of new idea to create great, zero waste products and services.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to run a process into the wonderful world of the design for circularity! The process I suggest in this article is only a way to embrace the circular design thinking, using some of the tools proposed, you can start wherever you want, depending on the stage of your project. Because the Circular Design Guide is made as a set of methods and tools that could be used separately, feel free to embrace the “circular design thinking” process of continuous learning, prototyping and getting feedbacks.


Now that you have a perspective about what does it means applying design thinking to the circular economy, it’s your turn to find opportunities to switch your mindset from a linear to a circular one! Good Luck and Make a good Impact!


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