Name: ecosign / Design Academy
Sustainable design
Founded: 1994
Cologne, Germany

How it all began

We sat down for a nice conversation with Karin-Simone Fuhs, founder and director of the academy to find out about what motivated her to open an educational institution that focuses on sustainable design. She gave us her insights into the development of ecosign since its establishment in 1994.

When Karin-Simone Fuhs talks about her childhood in Egypt, she talks about social and cultural differences, emotions and memorable stories and experiences that laid the foundation for her decisions later in life. Back in Germany, she studied design in Cologne. But Karin-Simone quickly found that she didn’t just want to design beautiful things that sold well on the market: “I drove my teachers crazy back then and I realised that it was necessary for me to take a different path. So I started looking around to find out which universities and people were working on the issue of sustainability.”

The University of Wuppertal caught her attention because of some of their interesting teachers, among them the design theorist Prof. Siegfried Maser, who later taught at ecosign in Cologne. She realised very early that she didn’t want to leave Cologne to study in Wuppertal because her specific visions of the ideal university wouldn’t be found there, either.

“I wanted a school that completely united the issue of sustainability and lived it in its entirety. That also meant creating a culture within the institution. I realised through different conversations I had that it wouldn’t be possible to artificially implement this form of sustainability within the existing university education system. I would have eventually become a lone warrior. Thatȍs when I decided to start my own school instead of focusing on my own academic career.” 

That was in the early 1990s. At the time, few bankers or supporters knew anything about ecology and design. Nevertheless, she prevailed with her pioneering concept. “I started teaching along with six other teachers. Now we have nearly 60 teachers and 250 students.”

The Academy’s Overall Concept

Karin-Simone Fuhs strives for a consistent concept of teaching, communication, structure and environment. Our first impression when we visited fit her description perfectly. Everything appeared familiar. She want to create a space where each person can develop individually, everyone can and should have a say, take part in discussions and participate actively.

As the director of the academy, Karin-Simone Fuhs is the person in charge, but she prefers to make the important decisions with the consent of the biggest possible group of those involved. Quoting a former ecosign teacher, she says “ecosign is something of a social plastic”, which she finds to be a fitting description of the institution. As the founder of ecosign, she laid the first stones. But now, many different people are involved in the development and organisation of the academy.

Sustainability in School

Today, the issue of sustainability is familiar to a lot of people. “When I founded the school in 1994, the first students were people who wanted to make a difference. It soon changed as the ‘New Economy’ came. By the 2000s, sustainability awareness and the togetherness weren’t there any more. Then there was the financial crisis. Since then, a lot has changed, even the industry and businesses have started to think differently. When you start dealing with sustainability, you open up a whole new realm of topics. Thereby, one specific idea about a certain thing sets off a chain reaction that can overwhelm us.” So the director suggests a practical approach, which is to more conscientious and responsible from the get-go. “It is important to create examples, such as the ‘Tag des guten Lebens’ (or ‘Day of the Good Life’) that make it clear that there are things out there that you can get involved in. And design plays a key role here. You have to work on the very essence of the matter while thinking outside the box.”

Design is linked to sustainability in ecosign’s teaching concept under the consideration of design, scientific and philosophic aspects. Students can thereby choose their own focus, such as product, graphic, photo, or film design, illustration or design management. As a private, independent academy, the ecosign is financed by student fees alone. In order to make the academy accessible for the most amount of people, there are different financial options students can take advantage of (e.g. student financial aid, student loans, scholarships). In the 4-year degree programme at ecosign, students can go for either a “Bachelor of Fine Arts” (B.F.A.), which is awarded in cooperation with the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences, or for a private ecosign diploma.

“The school’s profile is attracting an increasing number of young people. But the students are very diverse, there are of course some students that aren’t convinced at the beginning and who we first win over during their studies.” However: “The awareness is getting stronger, as is the will to deal with the issue.” According to Karin-Simone Fuhs, sustainable design shouldn’t be a theory, but it should rather be lived as a given in everyday practice. The ecosign/Design Academy offers all of the space necessary for that!

Thank you to Prof. Karin-Simone Fuhs and Dip. Social scientist Davide Brocchi for taking the time to talk to us. The interview was led by Dunja Karabaic and Anna Kamphues. All of the photos are courtesy of Bozica Babic.

Ministerium NRW



anna kamphues

Anna Kamphues

Im Team des ökoRAUSCH Festivals ist Anna auf der Suche nach inspirierenden Projekten und Initiativen, die sich für einen nachhaltigen gesellschaftlichen Wandel engagieren. Zudem arbeitet sie als Trainerin im Rahmen der ‚CYC LOOP – Upcycling- und Fair Trade Design-Workshops‘ und unterrichtet Gestaltungstechnik und Grafikdesign an einem Berufskolleg in Köln. Foto: Yoko Dupuis

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