Creative for a Cause: Q&A with design educator Heidi Cies

What is Creative for a Cause?
Creative for a Cause is a collaborative resource for Visual Communications educators who wish to instruct their students on the importance of adopting a social and ethical approach to their work. Since its inception in August 2008, continues to collect new resources and post updates in order to stay current and relevant to educators and students alike.

How did Creative for a Cause come about?
Creative for a Cause is the direct result of a master’s thesis research project, “Social Responsibility in the Visual Communications Curriculum.” This study was designed with two primary objectives. The first was to discover and report on the methods and means educators are currently utilizing to encourage their Visual Communications students to incorporate social responsibility (i.e. civic engagement, ethics and sustainability) into their work. The second was to use the information uncovered in the research phase to create an online resource that would be responsive to the needs of educators looking to include these concepts in a curriculum for their particular course of study.

How did you gather the content for Creative for a Cause?
Educators and administrators from College and University Visual Communications departments across the country were contacted via email and asked to participate in the research study by completing and submitting an online questionnaire. In addition, they were asked to contribute any relevant documentation from their coursework. Their contributions often included course syllabi, assignments, reading materials, etc. that represented a well-rounded overview of their approach, as well as project outcomes, which showcased their specific methodology for implementing socially responsible design projects in their classroom.

What do you hope to achieve with this project?
By providing: 1) project highlights which showcase a variety of methods for incorporating social responsibility into the Visual Communications curriculum; and 2) an information bank of book titles, magazines, articles, project funding options, websites and academic resources on the topic, my hope is this project makes available to educators a blueprint for effecting social responsibility in their classrooms; a means to compare and contrast their current efforts to how their peers are approaching this same topic; and resources to support and expand their current efforts.

What are the project’s successes?
The main successes of this project can be found on the Project Highlights page. Showcased are over 25 examples of methodologies, approaches and outcomes of how educators have successfully implemented social responsibility into their Visual Communications classroom.

In addition to the invaluable project highlights and additional resources submitted by these educators, also listed on the site are industry role models. Here, information can be found on how these industry professionals are not only making a living in the Visual Communications field, but are making a difference in society. The information in this section is useful for educators wishing to convey the message that it is indeed feasible to be successful in this industry while contributing to the greater good.

What are the projects failures?
The site is often neglected due to the lack of time required to keep it current and timely. The biggest failure, in that regard, is there are so many wonderful additional resources available that are not currently on the site, and need to be.

Has it met your expectations?
Yes, it has. The website was developed to not only support educators in their quest to engage their students in socially responsible design, but also to celebrate and showcase their current efforts as well. Therefore, each section of the site provides visitors the opportunity to share resources that they have found to be helpful in their approach to this concept, thus enabling the site to grow into an even more encompassing and responsive resource.

Also, conducting this research put me in direct contact with so many amazing educators who are working tirelessly to engage their students in these types of projects. Their willingness to share their processes and allowing me to highlight their projects on the site has exceeded my expectation.

What have you learned from the project?
In evaluating the submitted course materials, I learned there are as many ways to include these concepts in the classroom as there are educators teaching them. From 24-hour design marathons and school-wide competitions, to pro bono projects for the nonprofit client and the development of community outreach programs, Visual Communications educators are utilizing a host of means to engage their students in the concepts of civic action, ethical choices and sustainability issues.

When comparing and contrasting each educator’s approach, no two tactics were found to be identical. What was discovered is there is no single ideal solution, as each educator will go at this differently, creating his or her own model. Oftentimes taking into account their school’s administrative support, their student body’s willingness to get involved, the needs of their surrounding communities, and their own philosophical approach to social responsibility, each contributing educator has developed a pedagogy on this topic that works well for them and their students.

What would you have done differently?
I wish I’d built in a system for educators contributing to the site the ability to update and expand upon their project highlights as their course work and student’s projects developed. This method of updating would allow the site to remain current and the information more relevant to educators looking to review a variety of tactics, outcomes and further project reflection contributed directly by their peers in a timely manner.

Further reflection?
I believe Creative for a Cause is an initiative with benefits that reach far beyond supporting Visual Communications educators providing real world, socially responsible opportunities for their students. Even beyond the individual social causes addressed and helped through these efforts. I believe the benefits extend years down the road, as today’s student’s become tomorrow’s design professionals. Each armed with the knowledge that the power of socially responsible design can make the world a better place. And each determined to do just that for the causes that matter most to them.

My goal is that helps inspire educators and students alike by providing the resources necessary to help support their efforts in this area.


Heidi Cies is a Part Time Faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver (, and a Full Time Designer, Heidi Cies Graphic Design, ( 





By Lara McCormick
Published December 20, 2012
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.