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  • Writer's pictureOskar Örling

This is why Good Design is circular

Updated: May 7, 2021

As soon as I started my career as a designer and engineer I have been intrigued to understand how the world is working and why things are designed the way they are. When I was introduced to the concept of circular economy at the university and by a phenomenal TED talk by Ellen MacArthur, the pieces fell in place. When people hear the word “Design” they normally tend to think about the aesthetics. Something that is good looking, perhaps an expensive sofa chair from some famous Danish designer or similar. The truth is that design is about much more than the aesthetics. We are surrounded by products today and probably use hundreds of different products daily. How we use the products, how we manufacture the products, how we deliver the products, how we dispose of the products… Everything starts and ends with design! There are in fact many requirements for a designer to consider. The products must for example be:

  • Safe

  • Affordable

  • Customizable

  • Easy to use

  • Good looking

  • Ergonomic

  • ...

This list could go on further and differs for every unique product. And nowadays the products also need to be environmentally friendly, non-toxic and so on. All of these, often contradictory, requirements makes the question “What is good design?” even harder to answer.

The lowest price is everything?

The current purchasing process has put a lot of focus for designers on the initial selling price. This forces designers to essentially minimize all other requirements, creating lean cost efficient designs to cut manufacturing costs. This is true in almost every industry today, only a few exceptions for luxury products or idealistic non-profits deviate from the goal of pushing prices to the minimum. The same focus is transmitted to manufacturing where wages are pushed to a minimum and every short-cut is taken to reduce costs. Even illegally dumping hazardous waste and claiming land from indigenous people are sometimes measures taken by enterprises in order to cut their prices. Luckily there is now a paradigm arriving that has the potential of changing this. Something that makes it possible to spread the costs over the whole product life time. It is something that makes it possible to pay for waste reduction, cleaning and proper care of hazardous substances. Because in the end, taking care of all that waste and pollution later on will be much more expensive. Even raising salaries for factory workers will be possible as the focus changes from that alluring selling price. It is called The Circular Economy, and it’s nothing new! It is rather a return to how we used to relate to products. In the future we will look back and laugh at how we temporarily reduced our ability to look further than 5 years ahead in time when it came to economic and purchasing decisions.

Now is the most exhilarating time to be an innovator and designer

But what does this mean for us designers? Will this change the answer of the question “What is good design”? As soon as I started my career as a designer and engineer I have been intrigued to understand how the world is working and why things are designed the way they are. When I was introduced to the concept of circular economy at the university and by a phenomenal TED talk by Ellen MacArthur, the pieces fell in place. I understood that this for sure will make a big impact on our society and even though the process may be slow it is probably inevitable. I also realized that I, in my role as designer, could make a huge difference. So I started to learn as much as possible about the subject, I started to challenge every design decision at my everyday job and I started my own company in order to help others to make the paradigm jump. It was obvious that I wasn’t the only one who identified this problem and during the journey I built an extensive network of experts globally. Not only designers, but also business developers, eco-toxicologists and persons from other professions joined the network. Even well respected design pioneers like Tim Brown from IDEO have identified circular economy as “the next big thing in design”. This transforms the traditional “Design thinking” method to a new “Smart design” that incorporates circularity.

The truly Good Design is smarter

Now you are wondering, but what does this really mean? Tell us how the Circular Economy will change what good design is.

And of course I will, that is why I am working for you!

Just like product requirements are unique for every different product, design is inherently different. So I will explain with a simple example.

Below you see two products that you have most probably used before and use every day, chopping boards. To the left a wooden board from a more expensive brand and to the right a plastic board that is one of the cheapest chopping boards on the market.

Most people would directly say that the wooded one is the best design, but they are with that statement probably only considering the aesthetics.

The wooden chopping board is hand made from Swedish (in this case local) beech tree, is very thick and costs 700 SEK. The plastic one is made from polypropylene plastic, costs 7 SEK and is super thin, which is used as an argument to easily fold it to a “cone” and throw whatever you have cut into the frying pan.

From a “traditional design perspective” the plastic one is practical, cheap and much more popular, sold in millions really! This makes the plastic cutting board a by far more successful and better design, from a traditional or linear perspective that is. How about from a circular design perspective then?

First let’s consider the lifetime of the products. The plastic one typically lasts for less than two years depending on how heavily it is used of course. But sooner or later the plastic will crack or a knife will make a cut through the thin chopping board.

The wooded one will probably not break in a hundred years. Because of its thickness it can be sanded many times if it gets worn or gets too dirty. So with good care it can theoretically last for thousands of years. This puts the costs in some perspective: 7 SEK every 2 years or 700 SEK once? Which one is really cheaper?

Second let’s consider the materials and manufacturing. The manufacturer of the plastic chopping board does not supply information on the origin. But we know that plastic is a fossil based material and we can assume from the selling price that it is produced in a country where wages and social security are set to a minimal or at least low level.

Wood on the other hand is a renewable resource, the origin of the trees and manufacturing is specified to a specific region in the south of Sweden. The wood also has self-healing properties, fungi and bacteria are less likely to stick to the surface and last but not least it is better looking.

So maybe the wooden chopping board is the better design from a circular design perspective? Except for the less affordable price, the design is better in almost every aspect. It is also reflected in the manufacturing process, where the origin is sustainable from both an environmental and a social perspective.

I would state that by using the same material, but with a more efficient manufacturing and less thick design, the lifetime cost will be lower than the popular plastic chopping board.

A truly good design cuts lifetime cost and care about both planet and people.

The knowledge to make Truly Good Design is available. We just need to see the costs from a circular, more long-term perspective. If we truly care about our future generations we will invest in products that last. Otherwise the grand kids of our grand kids will still be buying plastic chopping boards for 7 SEK per piece every second year.

That is why waste is the result of bad design.

And that is why we designers must start making truly smart and good Designs.

Written by

Oskar Örling Founder & CEO

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