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Circular Design Strategies: Transforming Businesses for a Sustainable Tomorrow

 

When it comes to inculcating a mindset and practice in design, it has become evident that there is a need for designers to step back from linear models and take a serious look at circularity as a problem-solving approach.

Gen Z consumers have recognized the need for a more sustainable and environmentally sound product and service lifecycle. They are pushing brands to rethink how they procure, produce, market, sell, and now even bring to an end (or resurrect) their goods and services.

New-age brands are reflecting these consumer behavioral disruptions in their brand promise and purpose through their products. Traditional household brands have jumped onto this bandwagon too.

ECOALF, a Spanish fashion brand, was founded on the principles of recycling. They use discarded fishing nets, post-use plastic bottles, worn-out tires, post-industrial cotton, and even coffee grinds to manufacture design and retail outerwear, swimsuits, sneakers, and accessories.

In India, a slew of modern startups like Angirus, Recycle X, and others utilize used plastic, construction, and demolition waste to create bricks, hollow blocks, tiles, and more.

In May 2021, Mattel launched a program for families to turn in their old Mattel toys for their parts to be reused to build new ones. Similarly, in June 2021, Lego unveiled its first brick prototype made from recycled plastic.

This phenomenon is cutting across generations, with Gen Alphas (influenced by older siblings) expecting the same. Together, these behaviors are helping transform climate anxiety into optimism, making circular economies vital for the sustainability of the planet.

On the Circular Design Process

User-Centered Design, Design Thinking, Goal Direct Design, Design Sprint, and several other processes and methods have always shied away from talking about complete lifecycles of products and services, from concept to creation, launch, usage, upcycling/recycling, and the role of the brand and consumers across these stages. Achieving a product or service and enhancing it has always been shortsighted, with a focus on monetization. Driven by consumer preferences and demands, in many cases, brands are now turning conscientious toward how they are approaching product and service lifecycles. While traditional design processes do not explicitly talk about this, they are, by nature, designed to accommodate circularity. For example, the design thinking process seeks to leverage continuous feedback loops from users to optimize designs; the Lean UX process encourages low-fidelity prototypes for testing and iteration over excessive documentation/process artifacts.

In addition to leveraging the design process, circularity also requires designers to recalibrate their mindset to think radically, think restorative and regenerative for their businesses to drive innovation and gain a competitive edge in the coming decades.

Design Principles

Circular design principles are interpreted differently by designers and thinkers to align with the purpose and context of the products and services they design for. The underlying principles, as defined in the circular economy model by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO, apply for most purposes. They fall broadly in the following 4 areas:

Understand

Here we seek to change mindsets to move from a linear approach to a circular approach.

In this phase, systems thinking is given its rightful importance in design. Systems thinking helps designers learn about the constituent parts of a system, their relationships with each other, and how they interact and behave with each other over time. E.g., In the management of a forest ecosystem, instead of solely focusing on individual trees or specific species, the systems thinker will consider the entire forest as a complex system with interrelated components and dynamics. Relationships between trees, soil, wildlife, humans, climate, and water cycles are acknowledged to have cascading effects on each other.

This approach unifies the view of a system in its entirety. This is especially sensitive and compatible with circularity.

Systems are often represented in loops, and when designers zoom into the detailed context, they assimilate a deeper understanding of the system.

Additionally, one is also encouraged to practice regenerative thinking, which often involves looking at people – users, employees, stakeholders, and natural systems to draw support for growth, creativity, inspiration, and innovation.

E.g., Brownies, by Greyston Bakery – Greyston is committed to providing jobs and eliminating employment barriers. To achieve this, they have implemented an Open Hiring policy, which means anyone wanting a job will get a chance to work. No background checks, no prescreening, etc. When a position is available, the next person in line gets it. This has helped them unlock millions in economic impact through community action.

Greyston provides brownies nationwide in the US for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company.

Some of the other methods to gain understanding are:

  • Insides Out – Taking apart a product to understand and empathize over the implications of assembly/disassembly and recovery of materials and parts.
  • Service Flip – Reimagining products as service models. This method is demonstrated to be effective for companies to become more circular. E.g., MUD jeans have a ‘make, buy, wear, bin’ model that allows customers to rent their jeans and return them once it is worn out. MUD repairs or recycles them.
  • Inspirations from Digital Systems – Using the inherently iterative agile processes for designing circularly.

Define

It involves articulating not just the challenges but also opportunities to go circular.

Defining a circularity challenge requires putting down the challenge and the impact one intends to have. This aligns a team toward an approach. Additionally, studies also show that creating an interdisciplinary team at this stage goes a long way in building systemic thinking. An early buy-in from stakeholders at this phase enables appreciation of diverse perspectives and gets stakeholders excited and invested in the challenge.

With the challenge articulated, the next step involves identifying circular opportunities. Ensuring these opportunities are small and measurable helps wrap one’s head around an otherwise complex system.

The definition can be extended further by constructing a circular business model aligned with the brand promise. These are both necessary to bring about scale in an interconnected world.

Circular business models help capture value for consumers, build key partnerships, and open access to resources and distribution. E.g., Riversimple, aims to provide affordable, hassle-free, fun, eco-friendly cars to consumers. They do not sell cars; they sell mobility as a service. Ownership is retained by Riversimple. Consumers pay a monthly subscription fee that covers the car, maintenance, insurance, and fuel. Riversimple is working to align this ‘sale of service’ model with consumers, suppliers and as a sustainable solution for the planet. Their car manufacturing is distributed close to their markets, and technology and standards are open source, thereby aiming to reduce costs via scale.

These initiatives by brands help build the message of circularity in the brand promise.

Make

The Make phase leverages user-centered research and systems thinking concepts to bring to life a circular proposition. It takes one through the design process, where every actor with a role to play in the lifecycle of the product or service is interviewed, and findings are synthesized. Ideas are also brainstormed broadly without judgment or bias to arrive at a handful of concepts to explore.

Concept selection needs a critical lens to help connect to the business strategy, assess impact, and mitigate risk. It is a good idea to prototype concepts to get close to real feedback from every actor to validate assumed hypotheses.

Tangible product design also deep dives into material selection for constituent components that make up the product. Material selection aims to estimate the value of what goes into the product and to evaluate if they are fit for the circular economy.

The make phase is familiar to most design practitioners, and we expect a lot of momentum and play in this phase.

Examples:

  • Maersk is exploring the recycling of ships as a source for low-cost, reliable steel, and as part of the journey, they have created the Cradle-to-Cradle Passport, a database that helps identify and recycle eligible ship components to a higher quality than before. This enables Maersk to reduce input costs and be resilient to steel price fluctuation. Maersk now even sells high-quality recycled steel.
  • Caterpillar uses monitoring technology on their earth-moving equipment to receive real-time feedback while in use and anticipate the need for repairs.
  • VIGGA, a Scandinavian baby clothing line, practices circularity by working with expecting parents to automatically provide baby clothes as the child grows. The used clothes are washed in an environmentally sound method and sent to a different baby. Not only are the VIGGA customers saving money by leveraging this subscription service, but they are also showcasing a working, sustainable consumer practice. There is also a sense of pride in being part of this community.
  • Agency of Design designs product prototypes with circular materials to help instill a material sense into their use of feedback loops.

Launch

To trigger continuous enhancement and evolution of a product or service, it is released to the market with mechanisms to gather feedback.

An effective method to do this is to construct a journey map that breaks traditional linearity and represents continuous circularity, thereby ensuring the product or service stays in use as long as possible and adds value at every stage.

E.g., Splosh detergent lets customers choose a starter pack and allows them to order refills with free shipping online. The initial bottles themselves are well-designed, made of sustainable materials, and very sturdy. The Splosh Bottle-ometer allows customers to see the impact in terms of plastic saved by their refills.

Another crucial practice for launch is to plan how to receive feedback and make use of it to evolve, find new opportunities, or spot the next circular intervention. In the circular economy, design is continuous and demands feedback in a continuous loop too.

The launch phase also presents a chance to evangelize circularity internally and externally. Within the organization, creating a story about a product or service creates an emotional connection with the stakeholders. This, in turn, is likely to increase investment in circular initiatives. Externally, circularity helps bring in new partners and associated opportunities, thereby strengthening the value chain, effectiveness, and robustness of circularity use cases.

Practicing Circular Design at Hexaware

At Hexaware, we service a wide variety of clients with solutions and interventions that need to work well for certain situations and circumstances. This has us explore an even wider number of context-specific design practices, some very traditional and others more experimental. Either way, our process, and working methods are tailor-made to arrive at experiences that look and work well.

Some circular methods and outcomes have been in play since our inception as a customer experience servicing team. We are now playing a concerted role to recognize, structure, and codify our approach. This section aims to talk about how we have approached circularity in our practice of design.

Understand

An example of our foray into sustainable design practices was when a FashionTech startup ORDRE approached us to design and build a digital sourcing ecosystem. The fashion industry recognizes the need to be sustainable and earth friendly and has taken baby steps toward the cause. When the pandemic hit, this process accelerated and, for ORDRE, culminated into Ordre Meta – a digital experience platform that helped brands showcase, collaborate, and sell to wholesale buyers.

With Ordre Meta, buyers can now experience interactive, shoppable videos, collaborative buying, communication features with designers, rich media, highly streamlined commerce, and customizable experience elements. We enabled carbon footprint reduction and sustainability for several fashion brands, including Lanvin, The Row, and others, with this award-winning work. (ISG Paragon 2023)

We were able to achieve this by consistently keeping an eye on potential circular flows in the current methods of functioning, exploring social and cultural nuances, and being agile while doing it.

Define

Our consulting and advisory mindset ensures our designers get embedded with clients to dive deeper into unique contexts and arrive at solutions using expertise gained by this shared, collaborative work model.

In one such instance, we helped a regional professional services company in its transformative journey by mirroring work roles and evaluating its user experience comprehensively across the design process. This not only brought in new knowledge and techniques to tackle challenges but also motivated the company to relook at its operating models to enable effectiveness.

Make

Every design engagement follows a form of design process that is conducive to circularity. We continuously endeavor to place users, their context, and goals at the center of everything we do. This has paid tremendously and is reflected in our growth and accolades from clients and their users alike.

Additionally, all our make phases are bolstered by brainstorming with clients and stakeholders. The brainstorming outcomes are used to arrive at prioritized design items and mechanisms to derive feedback from users. This has been used with great success for one of our global manufacturing clients. We were able to use our design process to design a popup store as an effective way to receive feedback that informed and influenced this large eCommerce concept, design, and implementation for the client.

As a design team, we insist on efficiency and effectiveness in our actions; it is, for this reason, that most of our projects use atomic design principles – a method of designing discrete building blocks and assembling them to reflect various levels of detailing; this reduces effort in creation and knowledge sharing while promoting improved consistency across projects.

More often than not, atomic design has helped us rapidly create and test hypotheses via prototypes to gain invaluable real-world user feedback and validation.

Launch

The experience studio executes design interventions based on rational and relevant journey maps, and this helps us identify tactical and strategic opportunities, which in turn inform all new or reimagined user experiences. We strive to incorporate circularity in these journeys to create, maintain and validate sustainable, environmentally friendly, and waste-free outcomes.

Journey maps and related process artifacts have enabled us to actively experiment and build in continuous learning loops to encourage meaningful learning and elevation of craft in both traditional and circular ways of working.

Conclusion

Linearity has certainly helped us go a long way, and we continue to excel in building experiences that suit this model exceptionally well. From this point onwards, we persistently seek to augment these capabilities in newer ways to reaffirm leadership in this space and the minds of our customers. Circularity is one such way forward!

Source/References

About the Author

Sujit Shenoy

Sujit Shenoy

Sujit Shenoy is an award-winning CX (Customer Experience) Design Specialist with a wealth of experience in crafting exceptional designs for renowned global brands. As an Associate Creative Director in the Experience Studio team, Sujit plays a vital role in driving engagements that deliver transformative experience outcomes for clients and their customers. He is a keen enthusiast and practitioner of work in web3 space, experience strategy, design culture and designs ops.

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