On Collaboration: Activating Circular Systems Design, by Design

As designers we know how beautifully-designed things make us feel, but, so many of the critical thinking tools for concepts like Systems Thinking and the Circular Economy are made in ways that don’t speak to creatives, and well, are often a little on the boring side. This is basically a conversation that designer Mehrafza Mirzazad (MM) of Heart Brain System and I (LA) had a few months ago, which ignited a collaborative exploration of how we, as designers, could create beautiful and easily-accessible content on activating Circular Systems Thinking in the design sector.

So, Mehrafz and I collaborated to create an activation packthat hundreds of people have downloaded since we launched it a few weeks ago. The kit includes a starter guide, studio poster, and conversation cards for helping to ignite creative freedom and allowing for circularizing the design process. In the conversation below, we quizzed each other on why we were motivated to design this and what it was like collaborating on this project.


LA to MM: What got you interested in circular systems design?

MM: Something was wrong with the process of design. Humans and their needs were at the center of every product I designed over the past ten years; however, I typically did not explore the wider context. Meaning, for example, I rarely considered where production materials originated, who was responsible for the involved labor, or how much and what type of energy would be needed. Furthermore, I came to realize that even a deeper consideration of just the manufacturing process was insufficient. What would the product’s lifespan be? What would happen if and when the product eventually broke? What would happen to the product’s materials after its lifecycle had expired? One key word was dominant in every step of my former approach to design: linearity. All of us are compelled to live, consume, and behave in linear ways. So, I started researching circular systems thinking. I began assembling an anti-linearity campaign at home and at school to explore different (systematic) possibilities for how we approach design thinking and, more generally, our day-to-day lives.

MM to LA: Why do you believe design is a necessary tool in a circular economy?

LA: Design is the tool that humans use to sculpt and script the world to meet our needs; it is one of the most powerful forces we have to create a future that works better for all of us. And, it’s the one thing that we can all do! I believe that design is the creation of something to fulfill a desired need. We use different tools, processes, materials, and skills to make things that help us live and work better, but the downside to this has been the rampant growth on unethical creations and the devaluation of the materials and services that are all provided to us for free from nature. With all of our human smarts, we can totally start designing things that are sustainable and then even regenerative so that we don’t destroy through creation — we produce things that offer value back. This is basically what the Circular Economy movement is arguing, but the concepts put forward have long- standing history in sustainable (eco-design) design provocations.

The Circular Systems Design Conversation Cards

LA to MM: Why did you want to work on creating a guide for other creatives to get started in this?

MM: Mindset! There is a lack of information and transparency related to industry practice. At the same time, designers often answer high consumerist demand without much critical thinking about the implications of what we create in response. I was increasingly troubled by this situation, and I became regularly engaged in discussions about the circular economy with my colleagues and friends. We quickly began to realize the creative opportunities that emerged when applying circular system thinking to the design process.

MM to LA: Where can designers start to make the most impactful change?

LA: This is a complex question to answer because the design sector is so diverse that it’s critical we provide the right tools for each of the practice sets (we are hoping to evolve this project into one that addresses this). The materials, processes, and impacts that an industrial designer has are very different from a fashion or graphic designer. A user experience designer often doesn’t use raw materials, but instead has huge impacts on society and cognitive processes. So, it’s vital we start to create tools and resources that are specific for each profession and that speak to the actionable, positive ways we can each influence the world in more purpose-filled and positive ways. I have never met a designer who is hell-bent on destroying the planet. Actually, most designers get into the profession for the opposite reason — they want to make a difference, to create things that have value to other people. This means we can really level up the internal conversations within the industry and start to truly activate circular systems design in order to create goods and services that redesign the world to work better for all of us.

LA to MM: Why do you think designers should think in systems?

MM: As an Industrial Designer, thinking in systems is like watching myself from outside of my body and seeing the impact of my work on the world around me. This perspective helps me to see the bigger picture in whatever arena I am working in. I believe if more designers adopted this approach, we could better address the problems we are faced with in sustainable ways.

MM to LA: How would you describe the advantages (and challenges) of collaborations between designers and key players in industry in circular system thinking?

LA: Collaboration is always an equal mixture of extremely fun and extremely hard! Humans like to have their ideas see the light of day, so sometimes collaboration ends up as a battle rather than an exchange. But, it is important to recognize and find ways around this so that the dynamic ends up being mutually beneficial and positively regenerative. I also find that people want to work in groups to solve things, but there are time and resource restrictions that impede effective collaboration — especially on ‘love’ or ‘side’ projects. The obvious advantages to collaborating are in joining forces for divergent outcomes. I would never have come up with your beautiful iconographic set that you did, but my words inspired your creativity. So, it’s a positively reinforcing relationship (systems thinking in action!), and, vice versa, the icons you created helped inspire me to write the content for the interactive conversation cards. Collaborations should be regenerative and allow for divergent emergence as a result of diversity of thinking.

LA to MM: How did you find the collaborative process?

MM: How I came to be in collaboration with Leyla followed some unexpected turn of events! I cannot say that I sat down and decided to collaborate with her, as first I “met” Leyla on my laptop screen while watching her TED Talk several years ago. I thought her ideas were intriguing, so I started to follow her online. A few days after my MFA graduation, I found myself starting an internship with Leyla’s educational initiative the UnSchool! It was the beginning of many “aha!” moments in my work. Leyla continued mentoring me after the internship was finished and helped me bring several projects to life. During a conversation one day, we organically decided to work on a new collaboration focused on expanding knowledge of Circular System Thinking for designers.

If I had to visually explain our collaboration story, I would draw two brains. I’m convinced that Leyla’s brain functions in more than four dimensions! Or, perhaps she has some other brains hidden in her body that, as soon as one of them becomes tired, another one takes the reins! Her strategic and system thinker brain is fast — very fast! She has a knack for rapidly and clearly explaining her ideas and strategies.

In sharp contrast to her fierce cognitive approach, my brain focuses more on visual communication and storytelling. I remember a particular interaction on April 13 of this year. While discussing a project, I tried to visualize every word in order to create connections. I made a suggestion: “How about a story book?”

“Tell me more…” said Leyla.

I shared, “A story book is open. The reader concludes the story by digesting the information she or he received during the story.”

I watched Leyla’s eyes open wide. It looked as though she was trying to let all the light in the room into her brain. “I like it!”

We brought our brains to the same frequency, and subsequent steps seemed to fall naturally into place.

MM to LA: How would you describe our collaboration process?

LA: You are such an incredibly talented designer! I find it very impressive how you can take things and turn them into such beautiful illustrative outcomes. My tools are more focused on words, language, and experiences. I struggle to visually communicate, so I think it’s incredible how quickly you can take words and turn them into a new visual language. For me, creating things with other people who have different but complementary skill sets is really empowering, especially when you allow each party to create what they know how to do and leave the other to make what they make. That’s how I feel we worked. Once we defined what each was going to contribute and what the shared goal of the creative intervention was, we allowed each to create their contribution and for it to seed the development of the outcome. To use some more systems thinking lingo, it’s regenerative.

LA to MM: What next?

MM: My next project is Bottom-Up circular systems thinking. Shifting from a linear system to a circular system means keeping the value of every material, carefully selecting the source of energy, and respecting human rights at their highest level. But when we are talking about shifting from a linear to a circular system, we cannot only focus on industry, producers, or government. We must also account for the power of individuals and communities. Then, we can shift these linear practices to something more valuable. By bringing the awareness of the circular system mindset to the community, we can help people not only accept, but also participate in the designing of ways in which we put these values and practices into action.

MM to LA: If you could change something in the world immediately, what would it be?

LA: In the world? So many things to challenge! But right now my big objective is to flip the script on what it means to care about the planet and the people we share it with. As such, my next big project is all about challenging the world to see how fast we can move to a post-disposable future. I am also dedicated to finding unqiue ways of activating creative problem lovers who are curious and courageous (that’s why I started the UnSchool!) and to create collaborative connections between like- minded changemakers so that we can become more trans-disciplinary and get shit done!

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