The art of art direction, part one

What skills does it take to run a creative project effectively? How do you manage a team of designers? In the first of two parts, Graeme Aymer talks to five top art & creative directors.

Victoria Buchanan
The Tribal DDB associate creative director explains just how different art direction becomes when you add interactivity

How did you become involved in creative?
I was a fine artist, but when I got out of college I realised I couldn't earn that much money, so I couldn't afford to buy a gallery and do all the things I wanted to.

I did an MA in computer arts, and it was all about taking the computer into the gallery. That was a one-year MA, and when I came out of that I had learned C++, I'd learned HTML, I'd learned Lingo, and I'd basically learned how to use a computer from Photoshop through to video-editing.

We've gone from CD-ROMs to big games€¦ and now we're doing a lot more software development with widgets and social applications with things like Facebook.

How has art direction changed at Tribal DDB over that time?
The interesting thing is that our art directors have evolved into what we call 'interactive directors' or 'experience directors'. So the pure role of art director has definitely changed.

What does the new role entail?
You're thinking about how the user is going to interact with something. "How am I going to make the user want to click on this?" Or, "How am I going to entertain them long enough to deliver this message? How am I going to keep them interested for a month? How am I going to send them a text message that excites them enough to come to a website? How am I going to get them to watch a TV ad and then follow the link through to a website?"

These are all the little connections that you're faced with digitally when you get a brief, a project to direct.

In your field, what do you think makes a great art director?
For art directors, you need to have a real sensitivity to art and design because it's a very technology-led environment. That's probably the one thing that makes a great art director: great sensitivity.

Sensitivity to what, exactly?
The execution, the tone, the style, all the assets; you're often dealing with photographers, film, all your typography, your colours and styles€¦ developing an idea and executing it visually.

Do you have any major inspirations or influences?
Toshio Iwai. He's been around for years doing interactive and gestural interfaces, controlling sound with your arm movements and things like that and making music and interactive video spaces. You've got people like John Maeda. He's a graphic designer, he's a computer scientist, he's a creative coder and he's making amazing stuff. It's a combination of creative technology and creative thinking.

They're probably the key people in where I've come from and where I've pushed things in my head.

And there's Daniel Brown, a more local hero. He's a designer-programmer who is behind all the Play/Create stuff.


Paul Belford
Multidisciplinary agency This is Real Art seeks to erase the distinction between advertising and art. Its creative director Paul Belford explains his role in the company

What was your route into design?
I have a slightly unusual background because I did a PhD in Biochemistry. But when I was at university, I took a lot of pictures and I found out about advertising through photography. I discovered that art directors and copywriters had the ideas for the images. And I'd always loved great ads when I was growing up, especially the Benson & Hedges posters by ad agency CDP.

I eventually got a job as a junior art director after I put a book together and did a series of work placements.

What does 'creative director' mean at This is Real Art?
At This is Real Art, the challenge for me is to manage creative people with many different skill-sets, to create communications campaigns that are integrated across media and, most importantly, to maintain a very high creative standard.

Quite a few creative directors don't actually do much creative work themselves, spending their lives in meetings. I'm not in that category. I spend a large proportion of every day coming up with ideas and executing them. In effect, I'm creative-directing myself but I also really enjoy working with other art directors, copywriters, designers, photographers, illustrators and film directors. I tend to relegate admin to early morning and late evening. And I'm lucky to have business partners who are better at that than I am.

What is the most important characteristic of a creative director?
A creative director should possess good creative judgment and not hire mini versions of themselves. They should hire people who are different and potentially better than they are. Political skills are important but the more they are required, the worse the company, and you have to ask yourself: "Do I want to spend my life worrying about doing great work, or worrying about someone trying to stitch me up?"

As creative lead on a project like your MTV rebrand, what was your remit?
My job was to create the initial idea, do some of the creative work and also maintain a consistent quality across many different media whilst working with different types of creative people: fine artists, musicians, ad agency creative teams, animators, Flash experts, coders and graphic designers.

As a member of the D&AD board, what trends are you seeing?
There's a trend in advertising right now that is basically the triumph of execution over idea. It's fuelled by ad agency creatives re-filming interesting stuff off YouTube, sticking a logo on the end and post-rationalising it to fit the brief. It's actually resulted in a few terrific ads. But I'm concerned - I think it's lazy. Those of us who communicate on behalf of brands should be generating this kind of content ourselves, not nicking it. Then it would be more original and more memorable. In fact the whole user-generated aesthetic is wearing pretty thin.

I would also welcome the return of words to the communications landscape. I love great copy. And after all, without it there's no great typography.


Nathan Leigh Horrocks
CC-Lab's creative director explains the art of turning a staged event into a total brand experience

What makes a great creative director?
Having creative vision is absolutely critical - the ability to inspire people to think.

Is that something you're born with, or can you learn it?
I think you can learn it. I also think that trying to define 'creative director' is a difficult thing. Almost every creative director is completely different - you each have to define what you are.

How did you learn the art of being a creative director?
I was really lucky to have a creative director [at CKMP] called Bernie Thornton, who was an amazing guy.

In what way?
He was an old-school creative director who'd worked his way through some of the biggest ad agencies in London, but to a very high level. For creativity, running teams and managing people, he was full of advice. He was always thinking in a very left-field, creative way.

What's your most important task of the week?
Making sure the team know what they're doing, so it's communicating all the information I've assimilated and distilled from the past week and feeding it back to them on the Monday morning. It's a TV production going through, something we've done some graphics for, what's going on air this week, what we're shooting, what bands we're going to go and see - all these extra things that make them feel like they're part of the bigger picture.

Take us through your role in a typical job, like the Smirnoff Experience featuring Faithless for example.
I worked with an independent strategy team called Independents United. We created an idea for building a campaign for Smirnoff around an experience akin to what the brand is about.

So the first idea was, effectively, a very simple one: vodka's drunk at night, it's drunk in nightclubs, so that's where you do your stuff; you don't do anything around sports, you don't do anything about buying from the supermarket. Smirnoff is about having fun - it's about having original nights out. That's my role in a typical job: I work with the strategy team to create a creative expression of whatever that strategy is.

So you find a band€¦
It's not even that. It would be something like, if we are going to get a band, we're not going to allow them to dominate the event. It will not be 'The Faithless Night'. It will be 'Smirnoff Presents Faithless with a Russian Orchestra'.

So for that Faithless gig, for example, we took them to Moscow, we put them with a Russian orchestra, and they re-scored their entire set for a one-off show. Hence, you get a TV platform off the back of that - a TV show runs on Channel 4, Smirnoff have got their 3,000 punters there, and we've got a global PR platform. So it's like a multidimensional campaign.


Alex Wiederin
Buero New York's creative director spells out how he approaches editorial design for the likes of Italian Tempo and Dazed & Confused

How did you become interested in the industry?
I started when I was 14. It was different back then because what I really wanted to do was to be a photographer.

I realised that I'm much better at working with photographers rather than shooting myself. And, I was always interested in design and typography, so I made my hobby my job.

What did you think 'art direction' meant back then?
I worked with Neville Brody on a project at Tempo in Germany, and for me he was always a hero, for sure. What's different now? Not much really. It's pretty much the same.

How do you typically spend your days?
Day by day, what I'm doing is answering emails! There are special days where obviously it's about coming up with concepts, coming up with ideas, especially for my advertising clients: I'm obviously doing a strategy for them. For magazines, I'm also having a vision there. That's not an everyday thing. It's a main strategy and you follow it until the magazine's done.

My involvement is very much on the content side as well. So I'm not the art director/creative director. I'm much more the creative director in the sense that I overlook the structure of the magazine, and come up with the way I feel things should be presented to the reader. So it's a little bit of a different role. For example, I read every article in every magazine I design.

What are you looking for in the articles?
I see my job as design follows function. The functionality of the articles should be that I make something readable and explain the story on a visual level in some way [other] than the text level. Text is also a visual thing, so I design most of my typefaces.

There are always two parts to every magazine. There's the commercial part which includes the readership, and then there's the advertising part which pays the magazine to exist.

One of the important things for a creative director is to create the balance between those two, because most of the time the advertiser has a totally different feel to a magazine than the reader. Trying to close this gap is also part of my job.

How much of what you do is actually creative?
I'd say I spend 40% of my time doing creative things, 20% dealing with people's personal issues (clients or employees), and I think the other 40% is dealing with ongoing jobs, executing them and making sure everything looks good.

What advice can you offer designers?
I think you really need to have an idea of what you want to do. Then I think everything else falls in place. And you have to have passion, and you have to love photography and know about typography. It doesn't hurt if you're able to read as well!

What inspires you?
Inspiration is in every little detail. It's all about recognising it.


Nick Lee
Nick Lee, creative director at Glu, explains the complexities of guiding mobile games from concept to completion without sacrificing quality

Did you have any design heroes when you started out?
As a games player in the late 80s and early 90s, I was in awe of the graphical style of the Bitmap Brothers, especially the art of Dan Malone. I found his artwork and style fascinating, and felt privileged to work beside him for many years when he joined System 3 as a freelancer [where Nick started as a trainee in 1993]. I think I've inherited his desire to make everything as good as possible, resulting in artwork being gone over time and time again in order to improve it.

When you first started out, what was your understanding of the role of creative director, and how has that changed?
I knew that my predecessor was still able to spend most of his time creating artwork, so I presumed it would be a case of helping out on the design work for the new pitches, giving direction on the graphical style over the whole range of in-house titles, while at the same time doing in-game artwork.

Now that I'm actually in the role, I still do all of the above, but attend more meetings, delegate work more between the art department, make sure the artwork itself is in keeping with each title, and also do a lot of problem-solving: fighting against the limitations of the phones. It's a constant learning process and I enjoy the challenge.

As creative director, what is your most important daily task?
Apart from filling the kettle up and making sure there are enough teabags, I think the most important task I have is to make sure all the artists are working on the right track. This isn't generally a daily task, as often each piece of work will require several days to complete. I've also got to make sure the art department is working in conjunction with the coding team, prioritising work - this is often done with the producer of each title.

How much time do you get for creative work?
The majority of my time is spent doing hands-on creative work - 2D pixel art and 3D modelling/texturing - both on projects I've been assigned and others where I'm helping out as another pair of hands. A smaller portion of my time is spent in meetings scheduling future work or talking with the artists, discussing current tasks.

What is the most important characteristic a creative director should possess?
Being a creative director is a learning process. The skills required are improved on every day, rather than something you're born with.

I think that the most important characteristic is to be decisive, to be able to steer a project through from conception to quality assurance, pulling out the talents from each of the artists and using them to their best advantage.


PART TWO