Do you have what it takes to be an art director?

By Penina Finger Posted Aug. 19, 2014 Reading time: 4 minutes

When I first set out to find a standard definition of art direction, it took me three sessions — not search terms, but sessions — to dig past fluff (articles that use a lot of words to say very little), self promotion (“art direction is hey I’m really special and you should hire me”), and general writings about creative leadership (which you should look up, too, because it’s at least as important as art direction).

The most succinct (if seo-frilled) article I found on the subject was on sokanu.com, a career assessment site. According to Sokanu, art directors are essentially responsible for the visual style and imagery of a project, a campaign or an entire brand. I would add that they are often hired to maintain a standard of quality.

Like many management positions, the art director role varies widely from company to company. It reflects the history of how the position evolved within that particular company and the leadership styles of the first individuals who took the reigns. It may be obvious, but still worth mentioning, that the role is also different depending on the type of company. Try visualizing it along a spectrum that spans from small creative agency to large design-aware business to large design-oblivious business.

Interestingly, a lot of this sounds like creative direction, according to an article in Fast Co.CREATE. The vaguaries are probably due in part to the veil of mystique and ego we continue to lay over creativity. More significantly, the creative director role has also evolved as departments expand and hire multiple art directors, and a design-savvy leader is needed to coordinate an increasingly complex array of projects. Even so, the titles are mired, mis-used and overused, so let’s get back to this Art Director thing.


What do art directors do?

To varying degrees, and with room for cool or awful surprises, you’ll find that art directors do some combination of:

  • determining project requirements and objectives (often in some form of creative brief;)
  • determining the visual style and personality of a project, publication or brand;
  • interfacing between stakeholders/clients and the creative team;
  • reviewing and pre-approving all concepts and artwork before it is presented to stakeholders;
  • presenting and discussing work with stakeholders;
  • supervising and mentoring junior designers;
  • developing budgets and timelines;
  • coordinating the efforts of a design team with other teams.

Blimp art director, James Fenton, also has some constructive insights in this Creative Bloq interview. He compares an art director to a chef, who must understand the qualities of all available ingredients — in our case, the gifts and strengths of individual team members — and develop the craft of drawing out (read: inspiring) and blending them to create a unified experience.

An interesting side-note, by the way: Fenton isn’t the only one to use the chef analogy when explaining what art directors do.


What do art directors need?

When asked by a Hall of Femmes interviewer about the essential qualities of a good art director, Sweden-based creative director, Barbro Ohlson Smith replied with profound brevity that they should be “…both curious and determined.”

Returning to the Creative Bloq article mentioned above, OneRedEye creative director, Ed Robinson, lists four qualities he looks for in an art director. Not surprisingly, the top skill on the list is “personable character”, recognizing that art direction is, first and foremost, a people skill.

Look back over the bullet list above. As the “interface” between clients and the creative team, you’ll be a “translator” and mediator. You’ll also be a mentor as you review and request revisions of others’ work, and a salesperson when you present your best concepts to stakeholders.

Even if you’ve spent an entire day just chasing down usage permissions, you’ve probably had to do some combination of presenting a professional face (if only in a short email note), overcoming resistance, and accommodating individual personalities.


Ask yourself if this is really something you want to do

Art direction may sound like a natural career move, but if you take the time to look at the role and the qualities needed, you may find you’d really prefer to aim elsewhere. After all, not all creative leaders are art directors, and not all art directors are creative leaders.

Your best bet is to step away from job titles long enough to define what it is you love and what you’re really good at. There may not be a title for that. Yet.

Besides, there are some pretty good arguments against the need for art directors (ok, managers) in this provocative post on 99u.


Everybody wants to sit in the big chair

You may have set your sights on art direction early in your career and haven’t had a chance to revisit its meaning for yourself since then. When you were just starting out, it may have simply meant more pay, a nicer office and feeling pretty important. What does it mean now?

Have you developed a personal set of principles when it comes to working with a team, cultivating a creative vision, and bringing out the best in yourself and others?

If you’ve decided this is the path you really want to take (or the path you really want to make the most of), here are some great more-meat-less-grist writings that will help you evolve those principles and think further about your leadership style. They are old, in internet terms (about 2004-2009), but still super valuable for creatives building their leadership muscles. Most of them have a very worthy comment thread, too.

First, there’s India Amos (who has since moved on to “senior content producer”, and a really fun read). She was an art director for only about two years, but may still win you over because her answer to “What does an ‘art director’ do?” begins with, “Beats me.” She does go on to describe her particular position in helpful, romance-free detail, and the comment thread ranges from genuinely insightful to genuinely entertaining.

One commenter on India’s post left two links to even older, but still worthy, posts:

  1. Steven Hay, in A List Apart, focuses on an art director’s role as Concept Creator, and includes resources for improving your conceptualizing skills.
  2. Ben Terrett, in Noisy Decent Graphics, also emphasizes concept creation, and gives great examples of how an image can be transformed from ok to amazing with the input of a good art director.


Begin here

As you can see, it’s difficult to find a standard, definitive description of art direction because there are nearly as many variations as there are people doing it.

Hopefully, this article explains the role enough to help you refine your own definition, pinpoint your personal leadership strengths, and forge a learning path if this does turn out to be the direction in which you want to grow.

Final note: as in all industries, the great leaders don’t necessarily have all the job requirements. Instead, they have passion for the company vision, and a resourceful willingness to find team members who will help them fill their own knowledge/skill gaps. Like the man said, great leaders aren’t born, they’re made.


Featured image/thumbnail, art director image via Shutterstock.