Design for a Circular Economy: The Story Behind IDEO’s “The Circular Design Guide”

The Circular Design Guide” is a free, online resource developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO. We believe it taps into an emerging appetite among industry leaders for an alternative, restorative, and regenerative approach to business that creates new value and delivers long-term prosperity.

Transitioning to the circular economy will be one of the biggest creative challenges of our time. We believe design thinking is an ideal approach for tackling such a complex, systemic, ambiguous challenge. Created for mainstream innovators, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs, “The Circular Design Guide” aims to raise awareness of the circular economy, nurture a “systems perspective,” and share practical innovation methods. We hope these will galvanize readers to start designing tomorrow’s breakthrough businesses.

Who did we develop this with?

We prototyped the guide with leading global corporations, entrepreneurs, design and circular economy experts, and over 400 students worldwide who were studying at the cross section of business, design thinking, and the circular economy.

What’s in the guide?

“The Circular Design Guide” is designed for different levels of experience, and for any stage in the innovation process. It includes a brief introduction to foundational concepts of the circular economy, as well as how to shift mindsets, practical design tools, and additional resources.

A new frontier for design

In our introduction of the guide, IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, shares his perspective on the importance of the circular economy, and why designers and innovators should be excited about the opportunities for disruptive technologies to create new value, and for tackling the problems that plague traditional businesses and social institutions.

We explain about material, nutrient, and data flows, and why they’re central to more resilient, healthy companies and societies, before inviting readers to explore the mindsets and methods to equip and encourage them to dive in.

A change of perspectives

Designing for the circular economy involves completely rethinking our traditional, linear, “take­-make-- waste” model and replacing it with a new, circular, restorative one. We share how to shift our design mindset: for example by zooming out from a product end user to take into account the wider ecosystem of all stakeholders. Or, rather than “finished” products, thinking of the things we design as constantly evolving. And designing in ways that expands opportunity for everyone, like creating reusable materials.

Methods for design

We’ve developed 24 methods, grouped in the guide into four areas, loosely aligned with the flow of a circular design process: Understand, Define, Make, Release. The methods include introductions (“Understand Circular Flows”) and helpful techniques for those struggling to engage their organization (“Circular Buy-In”). Some adapt traditional design thinking practices to circularity (“User-Centered Research,” “Rapid Prototyping,” “Circular Business Model”), while others—such as “Service Flip” and “Imagine New Partnerships”—have been created specifically. Wild-card methods—including “Learn from Nature” and “Regenerative Thinking”—are designed to inspire readers.


“The Circular Design Guide” is packed with extras: interviews with designers; worksheets for each method; illustrative, inspiring circular innovation case studies; and links for helpful technical tools, such as material selection.

What’s next?

Since launching in January, we’ve been delighted that over 150,000 people have explored the guide. We also have a thriving circular design LinkedIn community of 5,000-plus members (via the guide) who actively share their insights and experiences designing for a circular economy. Moving forward, we intend to nurture and work with our active circular design community to co-create and evolve the methods and develop circular design education for business leaders.

THE ELLEN MACARTHUR FOUNDATION was established in 2010 with the aim of accelerating the transition to the circular economy. Since its creation, the charity has emerged as a global thought leader, establishing the circular economy on the agenda of decision makers across business, government, and academia. The charity’s work focuses on five interlinking areas: insight and analysis, business and government, education and training, systemic initiatives, and communication.

IDEO is a global design and innovation firm. For more than 30 years, IDEO has helped create positive impact through design by taking a human-centered approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate, grow, and bring to market new ideas. We partner with leaders and change agents to identify new market opportunities, and to design and launch innovative products, services, ventures, and brands. 

Portfolio Director, IDEO
Yarmuth, Lauren
Portfolio Director, IDEO