There are so many terms that get thrown around in the design world, it can be hard to keep everything straight. But if you’re going to do anything in the design space, there’s one term you’re going to want to wrap your head around—and that’s art direction.
Art direction is a key factor in the success of any major design project.
But what, exactly, is art direction? Why is it so important? And what steps do you need to take to establish art direction for your next design project? Read on to learn all about the basics of art direction.
Before we jump into why art direction is so important (and how to establish your art direction for your next design project), let’s talk about what art direction is.
In simple terms, art direction is the oversight of all the artistic aspects of a project. This can be a film project, a media project, or—for the purposes of this article—a design project.
An art director’s responsibilities will vary from various projects and companies But typically they can be responsible for:
Art directors set the tone, feel, and artistic style for design projects—including ad campaigns. Set the vision for your next ad campaign with one of Canva’s web ad templates, like the Red Homeware Medium Rectangle Banner or the Colorful Black Friday Discount Medium Rectangle Banner.
Now that you know what art direction is, let’s briefly touch on what it isn’t. Art direction is not graphic design; in fact, there’s a big difference in the role of art director and graphic designer.
Graphic designers are the ones in the trenches. Designers bring all the different elements of a design project to life. They’re drawing, sketching, animating and designing.
Art directors on the other hand, don’t do much (if any) actual design work. Many art directors have a background in graphic design (and many are excellent designers themselves), but their job is to guide the overall artistic vision and manage (or direct) the project.
Think of it like this—if the design project is a symphony, the art director is the conductor. And the graphic designers? They’re the musicians.
Now that we’ve clearly defined what art direction is, let’s focus on whit it’s so important.
Firstly, art direction is important because, as the name implies, it gives your design projects a sense of direction. Without art direction, it’s easy for designs to get off course. If you don’t have a clear map of exactly where you see your design project going (and, just as importantly, how you’re going to get there), it’s going to be a much more complicated (and potentially expensive) road.
Another reason art direction is a must for major projects? Is because with art direction comes an art director.
For large-scale design projects, there may be a lot of people involved in the process, from C-level executives to graphic designers to storyboard artists to design coordinators to outside clients. If there’s no one leading the charge for the project, it can quickly devolve into a “too many cooks in the kitchen scenario.” Communication breaks down, no one knows what they’re supposed to be working on or how to get what they need, and the design project suffers major setbacks as a result.
An art director acts as a bridge between the different people, teams, and organizations working on the design. Not only do they oversee the artistic side of the design project, but they also manage the business/organizational side—then act as a liaison between the two, making sure the design side understands what the business side wants and the business side understands what the design side needs to make that happen.
We’ve covered what art direction is, what an art director does, and why art direction—and having an art director—is so important.
Now, let’s get cover how to establish your own art direction.
(Now, from this point on, we’re going to assume that you’re going to be acting as the art director for your project. But if you’re a graphic designer, a business owner, or you just feel like art direction isn’t something you’d like to take on, you can always partner with an experienced art director to lead the artistic vision for your design project.)
The very first step of establishing art direction for your next project? Connecting with everyone you’re going to be working with—and gathering the information you need to get the ball rolling.
Before you start setting the artistic vision for a project or managing the logistics, it’s important to figure out what, exactly, everyone is expecting and/or needs from the project. If you’re art directing a project for your own business, that might mean scheduling a brainstorming session with your partners to get an idea of what their goals are for the project or coordinating with your design team to get a sense of their bandwidth. If you’re art directing a project for an external client, that might mean reviewing their brand guidelines with their executive team and getting up-to-speed on their internal communications system.
The point is, before you actually start art directing, you need to do a little art investigating—and gather all the information you need to direct the project successfully.
One of the biggest responsibilities in art direction is to set the artistic vision for the project—and, in order to find, expand, and fine-tune that vision, you need to look for inspiration.
Artistic inspiration can come from anywhere. You can flip through fashion magazines, go to a photography exhibit, explore street art in your city...seriously, the opportunities to find inspiration are endless! But the more time you spend exposing yourself to art and creativity, the more diverse you’ll be with your ideas—and the more unique, original, and interesting your artistic direction will be.
Once you have an idea of where you want to take your project, it’s time to translate your ideas into visuals. And the best way to do that? A mood board.
A mood board will not only help you set the artistic tone for your project, but it will also help your team connect to your vision. When you pull together the images, colors, textures, and other inspiration for your designs onto a mood board, it gives your designers opportunities to ask questions and offer feedback—and ensures that everyone is on the same page before you start the actual design process.
Art directors are, of course, in charge of setting the artistic tone and driving artistic decisions for a project. But another huge part of art direction? Logistics.
Before you get started on a project, you need to get organized. Set a budget, figure out how much you have to spend, and allocate dollars accordingly. Create a realistic timeline that outlines all the different deliverables you’ll need for the project, who’s going to be responsible, and when they’re going to be due. Once you have the entire project laid out from beginning to end, you can start assigning tasks—and get the design ball rolling.
Getting your team started on the project is one thing. But making sure everything goes smoothly is another—which is why, as an art director, you need to be prepared to give (and receive!) regular feedback throughout the course of the project.
If you’re managing a team of designers, ask to see their work regularly; that way, you can make sure they’re on the right track—and, if not, you can give them tips on how to adjust their designs to be more in line with the artistic vision of the project. If you’re working with business partners, an executive team, or an external client, loop them into the design process to make sure they’re happy with the look and feel of the designs—and, if not, take their feedback to your team and adjust your strategy accordingly.
Bottom line? Feedback is crucial to ensure that everyone involved with the project is happy with the end product—and facilitating that feedback falls under the art direction umbrella.
As art director, it’s your job to make sure your team hits their deadline—which is why you need to stay on top of the overall progress.
Schedule regular check-ins with your design team to make sure they’re on task. If you have a designer or two that’s having trouble keeping up, ask what you can do to support them. If your entire team is missing deadlines, it might be that the deadlines you set are unrealistic—and you may have to adjust the timeline accordingly.
The point is, don’t wait until someone on your team misses a major deadline to figure out what’s going on. Instead, schedule regular meetings with your designers to make sure they’re on track—and stay on top of any deadline issues before they become a problem.
A big part of successful art direction is staying organized. Stay on top of your schedule—and look good doing it—with one of Canva’s calendar templates, like the Purple, Orange, & Neon Blue Geometric Colorful Daily Calendar or the Teal Pink Black Modern Daily Calendar.