Exploring the Creative Commons Universe

After diving into the popular Adobe software suite and platforms such as Canva, today we continue our Design for Non-Designers series with a look at a relatively lesser known yet equally compelling tool in the designer’s toolbox: the world of Creative Commons.


What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a global nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and reuse of multimedia resources through the provision of free legal tools. Its suite of licenses simplify the process of reusing the work of creators by standardizing the processes and standards through which copyright permissions are granted. As the organization describes, “the Creative Commons copyright licenses and tools forge a balance inside the traditional ‘all rights reserved’ setting that copyright law creates. The combination of our tools and our users is a vast and growing digital commons, a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law”.

Although Creative Commons is best known for its licenses, the organization’s work encompasses a vast range of complementary contributions and activities, including working closely with major institutions and governments to create, adopt, and implement the use of open licenses to promote the values of sharing and inclusion online. These values are at the heart of Creative Commons’ mission because they are considered to be essential to the health and strength of the Internet as a whole. In this compelling short video, the nonprofit explains why openness and sharing are key to Creative Commons’ work:


How to Use Creative Commons in Your Design Work

Getting familiar with the world of Creative Commons can enhance your creative work in several ways: first and foremost, by giving you access to a vast library of open access resources that you can adapt and draw inspiration from. Secondly, it offers you flexible and simple means to make your work discoverable by others. Below we outline a few ways to get started learning more about the rich world of Creative Commons.



Around the world, Creative Commons licenses are used by designers, authors, educators, members of the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) community and many others to share knowledge, increase access, and showcase their talents. If you’re curious about the work of Creative Commons users, check out CC Search, a tool developed by the nonprofit to make openly licensed material easier to discover and use. On the platform, you can search for content to reuse according to two parameters: commercial use or to adapt/modify. You can also browse collections by institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, Canada’s McCord Museum and more. By using the CC Search tool, you will have access to more than 300 million images––with more media types such as open text and audio coming soon.

Pro Tip: Did you know that you can search for Creative Commons-licensed work on many popular media platforms? In addition to the CC Search tool, you can use the search engines of sites like SoundCloud, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, and Wikimedia Commons to find Creative Commons-licensed works. Possibilities are endless!


At the time of writing, there are over 1.4 billion Creative Commons and public domain works on the web, spanning educational resources, music, photographs, databases, government and public sector information, and many other types of content. If you are looking for multimedia resources to develop and enhance your own design projects, there are a number of portals that provide access to common design elements all available under Creative Commons license. This means that in addition to supporting the work of independent creators and contributing to the vibrancy of the open web, your organization may also be able to save on costly premium fees by using openly accessible tools that are frequently distributed free of charge. Below is a round up of platforms offering Creative Commons works: 

  • Looking for icons? The Noun Project offers over 2 million curated, royalty-free icons available under two main Creative Commons licenses. Their icons integrate with major workflow tools such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft’s and can be customized to fit your needs.
  • Searching for that perfect colour? TinEye’s MulticolorEngine is a colour search engine that extracts colours from 20 million Creative Commons images on Flickr and makes them searchable by shade. Super addictive!
  • Nostalgic for ClipArt? OpenClipArt uses Creative Commons’ Public Domain license to make thousands of image files and templates available for free––including for unlimited commercial use. As the platform writes, “we believe that giving away our images is a great way to share with the world our talents and that will come back around in a better form”.
  • Need fonts? Open Foundry offers an extensive collection of curated, open source typefaces that you can incorporate into any of your designs for free. If you dabble in the arts, you can submit your own font as well!
  • Want some music? If you would like to add a soundtrack to your project, look no further than digccMixter. The site allows you to search for instrumental music for personal video or commercials projects as well as music for video games. Bonus: it integrates with Vimeo, YouTube, SoundCloud and many other platforms!



If you would like to add your work to the growing Creative Commons community, you can choose from six core licenses offered by the nonprofit. These licenses differ in scope but all have many important features in common. For example, every license helps creators (also known as licensors) retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work—at least non-commercially. The only categories of works for which CC does not recommend its licenses are computer software and hardware. As the nonprofit points out, you should also not apply Creative Commons licenses to works that are no longer protected by copyright or are otherwise in the public domain. For those works, you can use their Public Domain Mark or CC0 licenses instead. These licenses enable authors and copyright owners who want to dedicate their works to the worldwide public domain to do so, and facilitate the labeling and discovery of works that are already free of known copyright restrictions. We’ll discuss how to select the best license for your project in the next section, but if you would like a quick breakdown of how to use a Creative Commons license, check out this video:



Which Creative Commons License is Best for You?

To figure out which license is the best for you, the License Chooser tool is a great place to ask yourself questions about how you’d like your work to be used. For example, do you want to allow commercial use or not? Do you want derivative works? Answers to the tools’ questions will generate a series of options connected to the specific licenses that support them, and they will clearly spell out your rights as licensor and the use that others can make of your work.


Image Credit: GoDaddy.

As we mentioned above, there are six core licenses that you can choose from. Here is how Creative Commons describes them:

  • Attribution (CC BY): This license lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA): This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND): This license lets others reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially; however, it cannot be shared with others in adapted form, and credit must be provided to you.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC): This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA): This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND): This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

If you would like to learn more about how to incorporate Creative Commons into your nonprofit’s work and platforms, this toolkit offers comprehensive guidance and onboarding material that you can follow. Their recommendations may be especially useful to nonprofits working in the education sector, for libraries, creative arts organizations and anyone whose site allows the upload of original content.


Learning More About Creative Commons

If you’re looking to learn more about the world of open access and online sharing, there are a number of resources available to you! For starters, the Creative Commons Certificate helps you learn how to build “an equitable, accessible, and innovative world through sharing open knowledge and culture”. This in-depth course will teach you all about Creative Commons licenses, best practices in open source communities, and the values of the Commons. You will explore these issues through readings, quizzes, discussions, and hands-on exercises to develop your skills in these areas. Anyone from university students to experts in the fields of library science and education can take the course. The certificate allows you to better advise your institution on creating and engaging with openly licensed works, and will teach you how to adapt and innovate on existing openly licensed materials–keeping your institution’s knowledge base relevant and up to date. As Creative Commons writes, “you will also learn how to best support learners accessing a wider array of open knowledge resources. Finally, the Certificate equips you with skills needed to meet open licensing requirements increasingly present in government and foundation grants and contracts”.

The nonprofit also regularly produces and hosts the CC Summit, an annual event that brings together an international group of educators, artists, technologists, legal experts, and activists to promote the power of open licensing and global access. While you wait for the next event, you can also check out their FAQ page for answers to all your burning questions.

To learn from the inspiring work of Creative Commons users across disciplines and countries, check out these articles below for a taste of what you can do under the Creative Commons banner:



Do you see Creative Commons’ values reflected in your nonprofit organization’s work? Have you used Creative Commons works and/or licenses in the past? How do you think open access resources could enhance your nonprofit’s work and messaging? Leave us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you!

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