Repurpose Design as a circular strategy

November 29, 2023

Repurpose (Driven) Design is on R7 of the R-ladder, the 10 strategies to achieve circular design. In the Hogeschool van Amsterdam's research into this design strategy, researchers Jeroen van Vorsselen and Marco van Hees arrive at three distinct parts of "Repurpose": three ways of looking at the design process differently. Two tools are then used to make the design process of Repurpose Design practical. A new business case is also important in this process, and by now a number of highly imaginative examples of this have emerged. 

Repurpose Design defines itself as: 'Using an end-of-life product or parts thereof in a new product with a different function and/or in a different context.'


The research shows that there are three types of Repurpose Design:

  • Recontextualise: using the product in a different context, related to its original use;
  • Reshape: the use of a product or its components for a new application;
  • Reprocess: the use of the components and/or material properties of the product for a new application.

At the forefront of Repurpose Design's overall strategy is 'material', followed by 'need' and then 'design'. This is very different from regular design strategies, which are based on the need > design > material.

The research is based on more than 100 existing products, 11 expert interviews (taxonomy), 14 interviews with (design) professionals, 20 in-depth case studies and ten graduation projects. The results are the 'Taxonomy of Repurpose' Conference paper and publication. As van Vosselen and van Hees explain: 'The importance of the research is to gain more knowledge about the repurposing of discarded products, components and materials. Repurposing into high-quality new products, also known as repurpose or upcycling, prevents us from having to use new and sometimes scarce raw materials. This involves the reuse of those residual flows that are not suitable for a strategy at a higher level of circularity, but that have too much value to be recycled or incinerated. This circularity strategy is still underexposed in existing studies, while there are various examples to be found in practice.'

Example of 'reprocess' as part of Repurpose Design. Here you can clearly see the difference with recycling: then the product must first be completely ground. With repurpose, the caps are not melted down, they are still visible.


Of course, designers and companies have to get to work in a practical way, which is why the researchers developed two tools. They did this together with students and professionals and the partners VerdraaidGoed and Tolhuijs Design. The goals were:

  • Providing insight
  • Giving an overview
  • Making decisions
  • Generation of design input
  • Developing a talking piece

As researcher van Hees explains: 'Introducing the tool in companies is a good starting point to talk about the circular strategy. Moreover, when filling it in, you will notice where everyone stands. Then you can start looking: how can I get everyone on the same page here?' It is also important that it embraces another starting point of the design process: you start with the material and see: how could I fulfill a need with it? Only then do you make a design.

Overview tools, the total consists of five sheets.

The tool also includes a motivation task. From the many options here, the company or designer choose why they want to design with a repurpose design strategy, for example, out of "cost savings" or "idealistic conviction. Depending on what is entered here, a different process results and different decisions are made. With the "orientation wheel," on the other hand, you zoom in sharply on the material and residual streams. Here six factors are taken into account: current state, availability, location, stakeholders, laws and regulations and costs. But also functional characteristics, and 'origin and history' are taken into account as well as emotional and sensory: is the material recognizable, connective or does it have other values? Ultimately, you can then decide whether Repurpose is suitable for this material, yes or no.

Example: stone partitions (residual flow from industry) – hardwood panels that can last a very long time as an outdoor terrace.

Tinkering: "Thinking with your hands can be a necessary stage on the road to learning and creative breakthroughs."

Integrated into the tool is the so-called 'Tinkertool': this is really to get started with the material. So in doing so, companies or designers are encouraged to think about the editing:

  • Manual
  • Hand tools
  • Mechanical
  • Compounds
  • etc.

The tool can also serve as a collection point to collect and transmit data.

Business Models

Repurpose Design is a great strategy to retain and add value. This is in contrast to a recycling system where a lot of the food is still burned. That is why designing with materials for a new function is also an inspiring environment for developing business models. For example, says van Vosselen: 'You don't just pay attention to financial value, but also to social value'.

Of course, you look at how you can make a conclusive case: where can you save costs? But there are several value propositions that can be formulated, such as: storytelling, identity, aesthetics, quality, 'doing good', efficiency and 'proof-of-concept'.

With these propositions, you give value to a product in a different way. An example of this are Freitag's bags, made of old truck canvas. In addition to the fact that no new material needs to be purchased, the product is also recognizable for all the values mentioned above. Someone makes a conscious choice for this bag and walks around with a story.

With a Repurpose design, you also create other values:

  • Cooperation
  • Activities internally/externally
  • Skills, machines, supply

And you can 'bring' value to:

  • Relationship 'resellers'
  • Communication
  • Customer relationship


Below are some more examples that passed by in Circonnect's Repurpose Design Expert Café.

  • Coffee cups made from coffee grounds
  • A discarded lamp from Rijkswaterstaat becomes a table lamp
  • Train information becomes 'service sheet'
  • Discarded jeans become furniture upholstery

This article is a report from the Expert Café of Tuesday, November 21, 2023 on Repurpose Design as a circular strategy. 

Watch the webinar You go to a Dutch version


Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

The Hogeschool van Amsterdam (HvA) is a knowledge institution offering a wide range of higher vocational education. By linking education and practice-oriented research, the HvA contributes to the renewal of professional practice. Circular design at the HvA includes research and education at various HvA faculties.

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