Art director is an impressive job title that a lot of people want to add to their CVs, but it can mean different things in different organisations. The job of art director exists in a number of creative fields, including graphic design, advertising, marketing, publishing, film and TV, 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.

Becoming an art director involves more than just having the right design portfolio and creative resume. To get the lowdown, first we asked a pair of leading art directors to share their thoughts and experiences on what art directors do and what makes a good art director. Following that you’ll find five pro tips for becoming an art director (skip to the tips here).

What is an art director and what do they do?

James Fenton, founder of Blimp Creative, tells us: “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.

Blimp Creative studio screenshot reads 'Multimedia Design, Illustration and Code'

James Fenton runs multimedia design studio Blimp

However, Fenton emphasises that there are aspects of management in the role – for example, critiquing people’s work, working to deadlines and budgets, and (on occasion) disciplining any designers who have become lazy. But your primary concern is to inspire and guide your team.

The role of the art director could be compared to that of a chef

James Fenton, Blimp Creative

“The role of the art director could be compared to that of a chef, fusing together ingredients to produce a menu of delightful dishes,” Fenton explains. 

“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, and then carefully infuse them to complement one another and ultimately creating an exciting and balanced sensory experience.

“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.”

What makes a good art director?

But what makes a good art director? “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,” says Fenton.

“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.”

The definition of an art director

“What is an art director?” asks art director Jenny Theolin [pictured at the top of the page]. “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?”

landing page Studio Theolin

Jenny Theolin of Studio Theolin has performed a series of art director and senior art director roles

“In many companies the traditional team structure has evolved into paired creative polymaths,” Theolin continues. “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?

“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.”

5 tips for becoming an art director

Here are art directors Jenny Theolin and Ed Robinson‘s tips for anyone who wants to take on the role…

01. Put together a killer portfolio

Ed Robinson: “Show a good design portfolio of work that represents the style of art direction you employ and want to strive for.”

Jenny Theolin: “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. Ninety percent of the books I see are instantly forgettable – I would much rather see your take on Magritte’s flying penises, than another bloody Guinness ad.”

02. Be selfish, but don’t be horrible

JT: “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.”

ER: “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.”

03. Make friends

JT: “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. Gain knowledge of the job

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

JT: “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. Get yourself noticed – in a good way

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

ER: “Be creative – have the ability to create from briefs that, on the surface, don’t appear to be that creative themselves.”

This article was originally published in Computer Arts, the world’s best-selling magazine for designers and illustrators. Subscribe to Computer Arts here.

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