Universal Design and the Circular Economy

A yellow skip bin is overflowing with rubbish.Concerns for climate change and waste production are driving the concept of a “circular economy“. This requires designers to think and create in different ways. But will these new ways also be inclusive, accessible and universally designed? Chances are the answer is “yes”. That’s because a circular economy requires designers to engage with stakeholders in the design process.

Including universal design frameworks in the concept of a circular economy is one way to draw together the many disciplines. A circular economy shares at least one thing in common with universal design – the need to consult with stakeholders. This is one aspect discussed in an article from Sweden that discusses the issues in terms of challenges and practical implications.

The concept of a circular economy is new and mostly discussed in theoretical terms. So it is good to see the concept of universal design being brought into the conversation before implementation strategies are formed. The title of the open access article is, How circular is current design practice? Investigating perspectives across industrial design and architecture in the transition towards a circular economy.


The transition to a circular economy (CE) produces a range of new challenges for designers and requires specific knowledge, strategies, and methods. To date, most studies regarding design for a CE have been theoretical and conceptual, hence, limited research has been conducted on the practical implications of designing for a CE. Therefore, the aim of this study is to provide a better understanding of how design practitioners interpret and implement the CE concept in practice. To capture the complexity of real-world cases, semi-structured interviews were carried out with design practitioners (N = 12) within the disciplines of architecture and industrial design who have actively worked with circularity in a design agency setting. The results show that the practitioners have diverse perspectives on designing for a CE, relating to (1) the circular design process, (2) the effects of the CE on design agencies, (3) the changing role of the designer, and (4) the external factors affecting circular design in practice. Some differences were identified between the architects and industrial designers, with the industrial designers more strongly focused on circular business models and the architects on the reuse of materials on a building level. In addition, circular strategies and associated (similar) terminologies were understood and applied in fundamentally different ways. As the CE blurs boundaries of scale and disciplines, there is a need for universal design frameworks and language. The CE concept is expanding the scope of the design process and driving the integration of new knowledge fields and skills in the design process. The successful implementation of the CE in practice is based on extensive collaboration with stakeholders and experts throughout all stages of the design process. Design agencies have addressed the CE by establishing dedicated CE research and design teams, facilitating knowledge exchange, developing their own circular strategies and methods, and striving for long-term client relationships that foster the engagement of designers with the lifecycles of designed artefacts rather than perceiving design projects as temporary endeavors. Ultimately, a holistic and integral approach towards design in a CE is needed to ensure that the underlying CE goals of contributing to sustainable development and establishing a systemic shift are ongoingly considered.

The Conversation has an article explaining the circular economy.