Circular Design strategy

Pervasiveness of strategies for a circular economy in design: the Italian case

Since the end of 2019, a series of documents, acts, tools and regulations related to strategies for a circular economy have been published in Europe, the result of a multi-year journey of critical discussion and debate that is still ongoing. These documents – and the transition to which they refer – give design a central role. How are designers addressing this challenge? The article “Circular Design Strategy. Pervasiveness of strategies for a circular economy in design: the Italian case,” written by Laura Badalucco and Paola Fortuna, investigates just how much circular economy issues are present, in recent years, in the reflections and projects of Italian designers, and what, if any, critical issues to a greater diffusion of circular design might be.

Italy has shown that it constitutes an international excellence in material recycling practices. This has led to the recognition of a model of excellence and many advantages, but it is also necessary to act on the other strategies that are more related to the circular economy model, from maintainability to remanufacturing, from industrial symbiosis to the transition from products to services, etc.

Circular Design Strategy: the goals

In this scenario, the contribution that design can make in the future will be to direct behavior toward different choices. This can happen through inventions and innovations that promote values different from the current ones, rather than toward reducing consumption.

Are designers already acting in this way? Are they prepared for this shift toward circular and regenerative processes? How deep is their understanding of the different strategies related to this transformation?

The literature on the topic has focused, at least at the national level, on mapping the recycling and raw-material-use supply chains. Corporate best practices have also been addressed, while a census on the actual pervasiveness of strategy application among product and service designers has been lacking. To fill this gap, the Circular Design Maps research was conducted at the Iuav University of Venice. This is a census of designers explicitly concerned with sustainability and the circular economy in Italy, with a survey of which design strategies are most widely used and which have as yet unexpressed potential.

The research offers a contribution to the understanding of the elements of both technicality and critical reflection on circular and regenerative processes that designers, specifically those particularly concerned with environmental issues, are using in their profession.

Alongside this theme was, precisely during the research, that of the effectiveness of environmental communication and cultural insight into visual design. In this regard, current communication strategies on environmental issues confront us with the paradox of two contrasting effects. The growth of indifference on the one hand and eco-anxiety on the other.

Circular Design Strategy: Approach and Methods

The research began by identifying and critically analyzing the available literature on the topic. From there, the definition of the conceptual framework and criteria matrix for the identification and analysis of circular design activities developed.

For data collection, an on-desk search was conducted through the use of keywords, portals and websites of entities dedicated to the circular economy, publications, exhibition catalogs, trade journals…

The survey identified a sample of one hundred designers, including 78 product designers whose activity is of particular interest to the research. A matrix based on 32 design strategies was created for the analysis of their activity. After an assessment of their geographic distribution, mapping with specific infographics was also conducted. The mapping confirmed one of the research hypotheses, namely the prevalent geographical location of these designers in northern Italy. A clear prevalence of the city of Milan was seen, which is still found to be a catalyst for energies related to product design, also with a view to circularity.

Among the 78 cases identified, which constitute the general frame of reference, 10 were selected. These are particularly significant for the quality and depth of their approach to the issues of circularity, distribution over the Italian territory, variety of sectors in which they operate, and originality and quantity of strategies adopted. The ten design studios or designers were interviewed in audio-video and semi-structured form (average interview duration of more than one hour).

The interviews collected the most frequent and established actions in thinking about product design. These included modularity, durability, minimization of material diversity, design for disassembling, facilitation of recycling operations, monomateriality, and system design processes that enhance the involvement of diverse partners.


The research generated an initial mapping of product designers in Italy who engage in design practices related to circular economy strategies. The survey allowed a very diverse landscape to emerge, both in terms of practices and poetics. It has thus offered insights for experimentation and useful solutions to the pervasiveness of the circular economy within the national economic-productive fabric.

In general, in the Italian panorama, excluding the cases of excellence analyzed, among the critical issues that emerged are:

– a certain fragmentation of the landscape of design studios and freelance designers and a lack of communication by the designers themselves;

– the almost total absence of the use of key performance indicators (KPIs), systems for measuring results and benefits achieved. Apart from a few cases, the use of “common-sense metrics” in place of more purely scientific modes of measurement is common among designers. Without prejudice to the need for a systemic evaluation of the results obtained, the absence of measurement systems or the application of rules and tools that are already present and established represents a specific characteristic of the Italian context;

– the lack of clear communication about what the circular economy is. This affects not only the community, the users, the users, but also the designers themselves;

– partly as a result of the previous point, there is still some confusion between elements of the project that relate to environmental sustainability and those specific to circularity.


Precisely in connection with this aspect, the research has, moreover, confirmed that the most frequently used strategies are those related to recycling and the use of second raw material. While in reality there are other possible strategies, particularly those related to performance economics and changing business models, that are not yet fully understood and put into practice. For example, this is the case with upgradability, re-billing, sharing, and product-to-service switching. The latter are found to be aspects on which to place attention and for which upskilling actions in companies and specific training for future designers will be necessary in the future.

Further special consideration should be given to communication. The analysis shows that only a small proportion of designers base their communication on the circular approach. Most, while having suitable and shareable content, are in one of these three conditions: they do not communicate their designs in general. They communicate them but do not specify the circular approach; they communicate them by giving only a generic indication of environmental sustainability, without mentioning the circular approach.


The research has found some substantial issues and some dangers that should not be underestimated in reference to the technicality of design and its influence in the success of circular economy innovation processes. Among the issues, some confirm what was also found in the case of companies. The first of these concerns some oversimplifications: the overlap between environmental sustainability and circularity and between circularity and recycling/upcycling.

Connected to this, there is a further point of attention. The cultural deepening of the visual communication project referring to these issues, in contrast to the dynamics of both unintentional greenwashing (to counteract that will be other tools) and greenhushing, the absence of communication of what is really being done. This is much more frequent than we think.

In addition, while there is a general renewed awareness of designers, there does not emerge, apart from sporadic cases, the habitual knowledge and application of the strategies most central to regenerative processes and processes for evaluating the effectiveness of design action. But to be effective, this transition needs its tools to be more widespread and deeply understood in their revolutionary power.

This text is an excerpt from an article published under the following reference: “Badalucco, L. and Fortuna, P. (2022). Circular Design Strategies, Pervasiveness of strategies for a circular economy in design: the Italian case.”

The text can be read in full at this link. Want to learn more about the circular economy and its issues? Visit Tondo’s blog!

Laura Badalucco

Laura Badalucco is full professor in Design at the Iuav University of Venice, coordinator of the graduate course in Design at the Vicenza campus and head of the post-graduate courses in Circular Design and Packaging Design. She began her career at the Politecnico di Milano and has lectured in various universities in Italy and abroad before moving to the Iuav University of Venice. She is the hea... Read more

Laura Badalucco is full professor in Design at the Iuav University of Venice, coordinator of the graduate course in Design at the Vicenza campus and head of the post-graduate courses in Circular Design and Packaging Design. She began her career at the Politecnico di Milano and has lectured in various universities in Italy and abroad before moving to the Iuav University of Venice. She is the head of New Design Vision, a spin-off of the university, in which she deals specifically with supporting companies in the ecological transition through design for a circular economy.

Laura Badalucco has collaborated on various research projects, in particular onthe environmental quality of products, green purchasing, Universal Design, Packaging Design and core training in the domain of product design. She is the author of several texts and articles on packaging and design and her most recent book is ‘Futuro Continuo. Design Experiences for the Ecological and Digital Transition’, published in 2022.