Everything you need to know about being an art director

Ask the question “what is an art director?” to your average Joe or Jane and you’re likely to be met with a look of befuddlement. Much like ‘actuary’, ‘business analyst’ or ‘consultant, it’s a title that holds an air of mystery—although, arguably it holds more allure than those latter examples—perhaps in part because it pops up across so many industries.

You’ll find art directors in all manner of creative fields, from graphic design, web design, film, theatre and TV, to advertising, marketing, product design, print publishing and video games. They work in-house at every kind of company, and at agencies and creative studios. They also come in the form of freelancers and contractors.

So, art directors are spread far and wide, but what exactly are they? What do they do all day long? How did they start doing it? And in what ways could a would-be art director go about getting, and nailing, this gig?

Let’s put an educated end to this pondering and call on the help of actual art directors to clear up any confusion around this very important role. First things first…

What is an art director?

Mark Wheeler Portfolio, Everything you need to know about being an art director

A selection of work from Mark Wheeler’s portfolio via Bestfolios

Very generally speaking, an art director is in charge of the visual artistic aspects of a project—but this is not a job with a one-size-fits-all description. “Every agency or studio I’ve worked at has had a totally different definition of an art director’s role,” says Mark Wheeler, an art director at Microsoft.

“I’d say it ranges from a hands-on design lead through to a purely conceptual creative. Personally, I like the idea that a product or agency art director is the person who oversees a project’s creative—in detail, day-to-day—sometimes doing hands-on design, always working with the wider team, and regularly synching with a creative director on strategic vision.”

Now might be the time to differentiate between art director and creative director, as the two roles are often muddled. As a loose rule, a creative director tends to come up with the ideas behind a project or campaign. An art director oversees their creation.

For art directors, this means a lot of communication between various parties. As Mark tells us, they should always be able to answer the question: “Why is it like that?”

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What does an art director do?

Xavier Esclusa Trias 2, Everything you need to know about being an art director

Patapam brand identity by Xavier Esclusa Trias via Behance

The answer to this question will vary depending on the kind of project an art director happens to be working their magic on, but it’s fair to say that art directors tend to act as a liaison between a design team and an executive team or client. As Barcelona-based art director, Xavier Esclusa Trias puts it: “They must be like an orchestra conductor who directs the rest of the team.”

According to Xavier, an art director’s responsibilities include:

  • Understanding the client to know exactly what their problem is and what their needs are.
  • Outlining the general concept of the campaign, the spirit of and the keys to the project.
  • Being able to shape the idea in a graphic way.
  • Approving the team’s designs.
  • Keeping the team within the agreed budget and deadline.

They might also commission talent (artists, photographers, animators, filmmakers… the whole arty bunch) to work on a project. “The art director makes decisions about the designs, color palette, style, concepts and much more. All of this with the objective of helping all the team members to assure the project’s success,” says Xavier. “They work with illustrators, photographers, designers, and copiers to present the basic idea in the most meaningful way possible.”

Art directors are also in charge of keeping clients happy. As New-York based art director Lotta Nieminen told OKREAL, “You’re being hired for your professional experience but you have to fit that within your client’s needs and tastes. It’s really important to be able to communicate your ideas well for that reason. I love talking my clients into things and helping them make good decisions.”

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What skills do you need to become an art director?

Lotta Nieminen, Everything you need to know about being an art director

Art directors will, of course, be extremely creative—but leadership and interpersonal skills are equally important traits. A study out of Rasmussen College found that 92% of employers prefer art director candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree (the usual suspects are graphic design, web design, art or animation courses), however many of the talents befitting this gig can only be gained through work—and life—experience.

“[You’ll need] great design skills of course, but also a breadth of interests that let you work across teams and bring interesting ideas,” says Mark. “You should be able to work closely with sound designers, 3D specialists, engineers and also present to clients. [And have] an ability to absorb all kinds of everything and apply it, relevantly.”

Xavier thinks an art director should pass through at least a couple of different design positions (like junior designer, senior designer) on their journey to the top spot. “In this way it’s much easier to know how to communicate with the whole group, since the art director has to lead the entire process of each project,” he says. “They should also be a creative person with a lot of patience and empathy for others.”

Xavier outlines the necessary skills for this job as:

  • Strong leadership.
  • Knowledge of different disciplines like photography, design programs and production processes.
  • Having a clear strategy.
  • Meeting the objective and deadline of each project.
  • Being on the forefront of new trends.

On those trends, it pays to look beyond the design world. Inspiration can found in nature, technology, even economics. And keep evolving. As Sydney-based art director Leah Procko told Marie Claire: “Be an explorer—whether it’s the world or learning a new skill—continually adding to your toolkit of skills and knowledge will keep things interesting for you and your next creative project.”

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What work backgrounds do art directors have?

Design by Leah Procko, Everything you need to know about being an art director

All About Women and Loving Earth brand identities by Leah Procko via Behance

... scrap that—what work backgrounds don’t art directors have? Sure, some of them travel a well-trodden path from design internship to graphic designer to art director (Mark, for one), but an art director could just as easily come from a web design, fashion or copywriting background.

Los Angeles-based art director, animator and illustrator Amelia Giller started out in film. “I’m originally from Texas, and so like most good Texas students, I went to the University of Texas for my undergraduate degrees,” she told The Glossary. “I majored in Plan II, an interdisciplinary honors program, and added on a double major in film so that I could learn some animation.” After freelancing as a filmmaker, Amelia hot-heeled it to LA and entered the University of Southern California’s MFA program in Animation and Digital Art.

Fellow LA art director Kimi Lewis, who runs her own creative studio, landed her first job out of design school at Disney, as a textile artist. “Then I got picked up by MTV to work on their website so I went down the web design, product design path,” she told Art of Freelance.

Virginie Viard, the artistic director at Chanel, started in theatre and costume design. Apple’s art director Brandon Locke used to be a portrait re-toucher, while Chris Warner, a senior art director at Uber Eats, was once a marketing intern. The point is, there are many straight and winding roads that lead to art direction. The best place to start is where your passions lie.

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What makes a good art director?

Amelia Giller magazine spread, Everything you need to know about being an art director

‘That’s Hot’ NYLON magazine spread by Amelia Giller via Behance

It’s believed that a mediocre leader says ‘do this’, while a great one says ‘let’s do this’—so if you want to be a decent art director, prepare to get your hands dirty. “Without taking time to better illustrate abstract thoughts, you’re simply providing critique, not art direction,” writes Viglet design VP Tom Osborne. “A good art director is a good guide, translator, mentor, and leader. A good art director is a sherpa, not a shepherd. A shepherd guards. A sherpa guides.”

The best art directors will have a knack for recognizing a great idea when they see one, and the ability to synthesize numerous viewpoints. They’ll also be able to pitch and convincingly sell an idea—all while leaving their ego at the door.

“A good art director is the first to arrive and the last to leave the studio,” says Xavier. “They meet all the goals while simultaneously making the work enjoyable for the team, motivating them to continue and making each success a team, rather than individual, achievement. The ego isn’t compatible with design when you’re working with others.”

As far as Mark is concerned, good art direction means knowing when to pick your battles. “Having great creative vision is a good start. Most important though is knowing when it’s time to fight for that vision versus when you’re just being difficult.”

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How should you prepare for an art director interview?

Kimi Lewis, Everything you need to know about being an art director

A selection of work from Kimi Lewis via Bestfolios

Your portfolio is arguably the most important part of your job application, so give it a thorough brushing up. Mark suggests that art director hopefuls consider how they want to present their portfolio, and what the journey through that presentation will be. “It’s great to kick off with something that gets everyone’s attention but don’t just fade away,” he says. “Portfolios often seem to be ordered from greatest to dullest! Try to set up your projects so there is an arc across them that showcases your approach.”

In an interview with Mashable, Brooklyn-based creative leader Karen Ingram advises selecting “a few favorite projects, and have in mind what you like about them as well as what your role was”. “Talk about the process of working on them, too,” she says. “When I am talking to people, I am far more interested in knowing what their working habits are, than how many awards they’ve won.”

If presenting your portfolio digitally, stick to the old ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ rule and ensure that it’s as easy to navigate as it is on the eye. If you look better in print, make copies. Word has it that portfolios are often perused (and pawed at) over lunch. As with any job interview, dress the part (hint: corporate attire doesn’t scream creative. Go smart-casual for the win) and do your research. Know who you’ll be talking with, what their company is about and their latest projects and clients.

Also, bring examples of your problem-solving and people-management skills to the party. “If you have to direct a team, you need to be able to demonstrate an innate sense of strong leadership,” says Xavier. “Be clear-headed, demonstrate that you can solve every problem and know how to manage all types of setbacks.”

Got your confidence, pithy anecdotes and design chops at the ready? Good. Now go!

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