2014 AIGA Medal
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


By Emily Potts
September 8, 2014

Recognized for deftly embodying the many dimensions of communication design and for inspiring and guiding people and organizations to use design for social innovation as a strategic tool to improve the human experience.

Cheryl Heller has built her career around creating new paths where there were none and bringing innovative new ideas into reality. She founded a design department in a major advertising agency, created the Sappi Ideas that Matter program, which has since granted more than $12 million to designers working for the public good, and is founding chair of the first M.F.A. program in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Growing up, Heller wanted to be an artist, and painted constantly. After college, she got a job at a design studio in Boston to earn money for graduate school, where she went from being a young neophyte in the office to running the studio within a year. When she was told she could never use her creative skills at work because she didn’t have a design portfolio, that was all the incentive she needed.

As Heller began winning design awards, she was invited to launch the first design department at a large advertising agency. Beginning the undertaking alone, she quickly adapted and thrived, developing a national reputation as a creative pioneer in advertising and design. When a British firm bought the agency, her department was spun off as a separate company, HellerBreene.

Shopping bags
Thomas Miller, “Dr. Margaret T. G. Burroughs,” 1995. DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago. Photograph: Chris Dingwall.
Collection of work, 1986–2010Client: Various; Art director, designer and writer: Cheryl Heller
Collection of work, 1986–2010Client: Various; Art director, designer and writer: Cheryl Heller.
M.F.A. Design for Social Innovation
M.F.A. Design for Social Innovation, School of Visual Arts, 2012–presentClient: School of Visual Arts; Founding chair of the first M.F.A. program in design for social innovation: Cheryl Heller.

She left Boston for New York City in 1990 to run the Image Group for Mary Wells Lawrence, followed by an eight-year stint as executive creative director at Siegel & Gale. In 2001, a conversation with the founder of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education led to a major pivot, during which she spent two years rethinking the role of design in the environment and business.

Through a self-imposed transformation, she dedicated herself to integrating the principles of sustainability into the process of design. She stopped making artifacts and focused on writing and transformation strategy at her newly formed agency (now called CommonWise). She joined the PopTech Board and helped develop their Social Innovation Fellows program, bringing together world-changing technological innovators working to address the issues around climate change, poverty, health care and energy.

Around this time, designer and educator Richard Wilde asked Heller to teach a class at SVA. “I had been frustrated because designers are typically taught self-expression and some tools, but not how to design for an intended purpose,” Heller says. So she created a project-based course called Design for Good, to teach students to consider the impact of their work as well as its creation. Five years later, that class served as the inspiration for the master’s program she was asked to develop for SVA, the first M.F.A. for designers who want to become leaders of change in business and society. Today, the new field of social innovation design is being defined through her Design for Social Innovation program.

“Putting it all on the Table”
“Putting it all on the Table” student art exhibition, 2014Client: M.F.A. Design for Social Innovation, School of Visual Arts; Art director: Cheryl Heller; Designers: Laura Kadamus, Elizabeth Abernathy, Anna Braga; Curator: Kevin O’Callaghan.
Stairs at Crowflies
Stairs at Crowflies, a working forest farm and business retreat in Norfolk, Connecticut, 2013Client: Gary Scheft, Cheryl Heller; Designers: Single Speed Design, Gary Scheft, Cheryl Heller.
Development and launch of the Sappi Ideas
Development and launch of the Sappi Ideas that Matter Program, 1999Client: Sappi; Design firm: Siegel & Gale; Creative director: Cheryl Heller; Designer: Verionica Ho.
Frank Xavier campaign
Frank Xavier campaign, 1988Client: Frank Xavier Salons; Design firm: HellerBreene, Boston; Photographer: Myron; Stylist: Frank Xavier.

Heller has devoted thousands of hours to mentoring and inspiring people and organizations committed to working at a systems level to solve the challenges we face. She has led transformational programs for corporations and foundations around the world, and writes about what she’s learned for numerous publications.

Paul Polak, founder of the nonprofit product development company D-Rev, says, “Cheryl has been an inspiration for me for the past 15 years. Her razor-sharp mind and no bulls*** approach to design are creating a new generation of designers who address the problems of the other 90 percent.”