ANALYSIS: Are designers waking up to lifecycle thinking?

There is growing evidence that resource scarcity issues are now spilling into the creative design industry, forcing designers to ask pertinent questions around product lifecycle analysis.

This week a circular economy session was held at the Product Design + Innovation 2013 event in London, an annual platform where leading brands and top designers gather to explore how product design can drive economic growth.

Leading the discussion, Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at product design agency Seymourpowell, said that in creative terms, the circular economy was about using natural cycles as inspiration for design.

Interestingly, Sherwin shied away from the aesthetics and instead pushed the business case for designing in greater durability and disassembly, telling delegates that there were now clear market growth and innovation opportunities that could be tapped into.

“Imagine what circular design could do for your category,” he told delegates. “We need to become guardians of sustainability in the design brief.”

Whether designers have the authority to question their briefs on meaningful levels remains to be seen, but for Sherwin there is still much awareness raising that needs to be undertaken first in order to engage the design community.

This sentiment was echoed by Nico Macdonald, a creative consultant, who berated the design industry in general for not questioning the underpinning ethics more. “Design has drunk a lot of kool aid and not always been aware of [sustainability],” he said.

The challenge for designers in getting to grips with circular strategies however, remains much the same as for the rest of the stakeholders across the value chain – a lack of tangible data and how to sell such concepts on a mass scale.

“The circular economy is out there in the ether at the moment … and branding is a challenge for all circular economy models,” noted Sherwin.

And not every designer is convinced by the sustainability argument. Dr Paul Reeves, senior technology manager at Dassault-Solidworks R&D, argued that issues around resource scarcity have been overstated and that such tactics could easily backfire.

“It is this idea that a lot of ecological problems are scary,” he told delegates. “We have to be careful, a lot of short-term thinking we have comes from this point … this anxiety is not good when you look at planning ahead.”

According to Dee Cooper, former product & services director at Virgin Atlantic Airways, the mind-set challenge is a pressing one.

“We as individuals can be a bit dark green in our thinking about design. Whatever you can do in your considerations, whether it’s using recycled fabrics or sustainably-sourced timber, it gives integrity to your company,” she pointed out.

The lack of circular action on the ground is perhaps encouraging inertia as organisations try to navigate the practicalities of breaking through linear models. Certainly sustainable design consultant Ben Peace, who is also knowledge transfer manager for ESKTN, seems to think so.

“There is a lot of talk around the circular economy and not so much action on a practical level. And a lot of the discussions end up at end-of-life – but design can make this truly circular,” he said.

Designers, he asserts, need to start collaborating in meaningful ways with reprocessors and waste management companies – a point that was highlighted in edie’s White Paper Closing the Loop: Risk or Reward?

Peace suggested that a good starting point for designers would be to focus less on the product and more on the service it can deliver.

“Lightweighting design, diverting scrap, reducing yield losses – these are the next challenges for designers, to understand what strategies should be adopted and where collaboration will be useful,” he said.

Maxine Perella

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