CareerFeature

How to become an art director

Three leading art directors explain what the role entails and offer advice on how to become one yourself.

Find out what the job title of art director means, what it requires in practice, and what qualities employers look for in an aspiring art director. It's an impressive job title that a lot of people yearn for, but can mean different things in different organisations.

The job of art director exists in a number of creative fields, including advertising, marketing, publishing, film and television, web design, and video games. It generally involves managing a team of designers working on a creative project, but the degree of responsibility and autonomy can vary.

We asked three leading art directors to share their thoughts and experiences on the role. Read on...

James Fenton

  • James Fenton is a designer and art director based in the UK. He is the founder of Blimp Creative, a collective of professional creatives specialising in digital design and copywriting across web and mobile.

To begin to understand what is expected of an art director, it's first worth considering the term as both a role within a team, as well as a creative discipline in itself.

As an art director you must be a leader, someone who inspires and guides the vision of the design team. However, someone who sees themselves as the design top dog will inevitably be heading for a embarrassing fall. You have to be able to recognise the talent in those around you and learn how best to get the best from you. An art director who sees themselves in a position of hierarchical authority is simply a glorified manager.

Inspire and mentor

Sure, there are aspects of management in the role. You need to be able to critique people’s work, hit deadlines, stay within the budget, and sadly on occasion have to discipline people for too many fag breaks or simply producing lazy design. But first and foremost you need to inspire, guide and mentor those you lead.

The role of the art director could be compared to that of a chef, fusing together ingredients to produce a menu of delightful dishes. All designers inject their individual personalities, tastes and style into their work. Even working within the constraints of brand guidelines, there is plenty of room for creativity and originality. It is the art director’s role to identify and understand the different flavours each member brings to the team, an then carefully infuse them to compliment one another and ultimately creating an exciting and balanced sensory experience.

Storyteller

Yet it is vital to understand art direction not simply as a visual experience. The fundamental role of art direction is to direct and guide an audience through the information being presented to them.

An art director must appreciate the written content as much as visual, taking on the role of a storyteller, marrying together words and imagery, creating structure and order through layout and typography, providing weight and emphasis which conveys message and meaning, resulting in the ease of the audience’s understanding. You must be a mediator between writers and designers, understanding both disciplines and working closely with each.

Open-minded

For me, a good art director has to be open to influence, inspiration and the expertise of the people around them, appreciating their talents, strengths and weaknesses, whilst maintaining a clear vision of delivering a message that speaks directly to the reader, viewer or user.

There is no single formula for what makes a good art director: it’s not a discipline taught in design schools, there are no books or guides that define the steps to success. Every art director will have forged their own path, have their own definition of what their role is and their own approach to getting the job done and done well. Sometimes this may be learned from their own mentors and passed down in a master/apprentice way, whilst others may formulate their process utterly independently, through their personal experience, trial and error.

Jenny Theolin

  • Jenny Theolin has performed a series of art director and senior art director roles and is currently creative director of Soapbox & Sons. A Swede based in London, she is also a contributor to the web magazine Typetoken and an avid blogger.

What is an art director? It sounds like a simple question, but having to define somebody’s job role in one or two words is surprisingly difficult.

Designer, art director, creative director - all these titles are necessary to create a structure within agency departments, for the client’s benefit, and for the recruitment process. And to add to the confusion, descriptions like 'Web Ninja', 'Pixel Guru' and 'Creative Wizard' infiltrate our world as well. But how relevant is all of this to the job we do?

In many companies the traditional team structure has evolved into paired creative polymaths. Ask any creative team working today, and you will see that they share a lot of their work tasks. Copywriters scamp, art directors write, including contributions to blogs, books and magazines. But does this make them any less an art director?

Creative concoctions

Working across branding, design and advertising, I've experienced most types of agencies, from huge conglomerates like Interbrand, to the smaller and friendlier creative agencies, like muirhoward.

During my time at the latter I generated and developed ideas for ads and campaigns, worked alongside the creative director to ensure that creative strategy was innovative, motivating and right for the client; I also inspired, encouraged and mentored junior teams, briefed photographers, Illustrators, Artworkers and Retouchers - and presented to clients.

People skills

For me, the main difference between working as a graphic designer and as an art director was that I worked more with people than computers. And since I prefer to see the creative industry as a peoples’ industry, this collaboration and co-working was key to creating exciting new work.

What are the worst things about being an AD? I would say the worst bit was to not have the ability to execute my ideas myself and needing to trust others to meet my ridiculously sky-high standards. However, if you are working in the right place and collaborating with the right people, this should be the least of your worries.

The best things? Being surrounded by great people and amazing talent, regardless of the day-to-day ups and downs, difficult clients and/or a stinking brief.

Ed Robinson

One of the main roles of an art director is usually to art-direct photo shoots. I thought I'd share my experience in this area, then offer some tips and pointers for your own career in art direction.

Early shoots

At a very early age I was lucky enough to be invited to photo shoots arranged by my grandmother, Joan Sisley, a prominent visual consultant. And at age 12 I found myself on my first shoot covering the Lake District music contest.

Of course, at this stage, I was purely assisting but my eyes were opened to a far more creative world than I expected. Not one shot was of an orchestra in a music hall - no, Joan had set up a pianist in a graveyard, a cellist in a toilet cubicle and a string quartet on a rowing boat. Naturally, from that moment I was intrigued and wanted an in on every shoot coming up.

Career path

From there followed a few years of assisting, listening, learning about composition, direction, preparation, creative thinking and slowly discovered I had a talent for conceiving and art directing shoots, at that time, for corporate stories that had a more advertising aesthetic but intended for media worldwide.

Nowadays, I'm also a creative director, photographer and a director/cameraman - all due to the transferable skills accrued and developed art directing shoots.

My first campaign

My first fully fledged independent art direction was for a British Gas sponsored campaign called ‘Stepping Out’ that intended to educate the older generation about staying active.

It was then that all my training and early experience paid off as the plans to include a large number of OAP’s making circles of footsteps around the centerpiece, Honor Blackman aka, ‘Pussy Galore’, hit a stumbling block when most of them were not that interested in listening to a young art director but more interested in meeting the film star in the middle.

I made a key decision to change the creative and picked one chap with a great face and straw hat, picked a couple of large stones and had Honor and him stepping out to each other on the beach.  A simple solution that earned the respect of the photographer, client and Honor. This leads me to identifying the roles of an art director.

Pointers for shoots

In my experience, different shoots demand different forms and levels of art direction but here are a few pointers.

  1. Pre planning. Work with the client, photographer and crew to decide on the best creative approach that fits with the brief and meets budgetary requirements.
  2. Production. If a producer is not part of the team then the art director can take on the planning of people, locations and props that fit the creative.
  3. Work closely with the photographer and share ideas to best implement creative. Collaboration and mutual respect is key
  4. Always keep an eye on what the end product is and, whilst allowing the photographer to create, keep the shoot on brief.
  5. Form a good rapport with the team and any subjects. Be diplomatic but direct as necessary to achieve end goals.
  6. Be flexible as things rarely go exactly to plan.
Do you have the stuff to rise above the crowd and become an art director?

5 tips for becoming an art director

Here are Jenny Theolin's tips for anyone who wants to become an art director...

01. Put together a killer portfolio

A book that is controversial, that scares, intrigues and has balls. As a graduate and/or junior, you will probably not have as much ‘real work’, so fill it with whatever is inside your head. Make it memorable. 90% of the books I see are instantly forgettable – I would much rather see your take on Magritte’s flying penises, than another bloody Guiness ad.

02. Be selfish, but don’t be an arsehole

You are the new generation, get to grips with what’s been done, evolve it and do it better! Come up with wild ideas and have them fuck each other to spawn mutant idea babies who’ll take over the world. Why? Because a great idea is one that scares the living pants off of you.

03. Make friends – show interest in people and their work

Hound your heroes and ask to meet them. Many love to talk about themselves, so ask to meet them for advice, to pick their brains – and to see their work! However, don’t be surprised if your icons actually turn out to be old, grumpy farts. If you do meet them, make it your priority to provoke them by demonstrating that you could be better than they ever were – within the right environment and with the right people of course. Trust me, they want to be challenged.

04. Stay on top of blogs and trend-reports

Keep the momentum up and don’t get stuck in a bubble. Creative exploration is one of the benefits of this industry, so get out there and do different things differently.

05. Make yourself noticed - in a good way

Get your voice heard and speak up, but not by blowing hot air – you’ll most definitely get caught out.

 

What employers are looking for

Here, Ed Robinson lists the four main qualities he would look for when employing a new art director...

01. Personable character

Art directing the corporate and brand shoots that I have over the years it is always a people based role so character and personality are a big deciding factor when considering an art director.

02. Creativity

Ability to create from briefs that, on the surface, don’t appear to be that creative themselves.

03. Knowledge

Prior knowledge of what is achievable with equipment photographers and post producers use is a must.

04. Presentation

Show a good portfolio of work that represents the style of art direction you employ and want to strive for.

Did our experts' experience of working as an art director mesh with your thoughts? Please share your views in the comments below!

Illustration: Malika Favre

Malika Favre is a French illustrator based in London. For more of her work and to buy her prints, head to her website.

Words: Tom May

Tom May is associate editor at Creative Bloq.

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