So You Want to Be an Art Director?

NBA Slam Dunk History by Kuba Bogaczyski
NBA Slam Dunk History by Kuba Bogaczyński.

Design and illustration careers are as varied as the artists that hold them. Today we’ll take a peek behind the curtain at the career paths of Art and Creative Directors. 
Directors in the design world serve a variety of functions and can wear a variety of hats. I spoke to several artists who have worked or are currently working within a director position about their experiences, training, career path, and duties within their jobs. Join me as we break it all down into bite-sized bits. Consider this your guide to the career path of Art and Creative Directors.
The role of the Art and Creative Director can vary from company to company. Typically one of leadership, the job often involves keen organizational skills in addition to a background in art and design. Let’s break down some of the tasks involved in the day-to-day life of the director below:
  • Project Direction: The organization and guidance of a project from conception to completion. Whether directing a team of any size or serving as the sole creative within the project or company, art or creative directors often need to be on the ball with their organizational skills and bring elements together for a successful resolution. It’s often up to the art or creative director to assign tasks to other team members, work out deadlines, and bring everything together in the end for a final presentation or product.
  • Creative Vision: Keeping the company, client, or project’s brand and vision clear and directed. It takes a lot of time and skill not only to bring multiple elements together, but also to make sure they’re cohesive. A company’s brand should have a particular style, vision, and voice, either overall or within each project. As such, the director has to keep up on what that branding contains and make sure any product or media resulting from their work adheres to those guidelines.
  • Cross-Departmental Organization: Bringing together multiple departments, especially those outside of the creative team, to make a project successful. This can be anything from accounting (projects often need budgets), human resources (for the needs of the company and those working with the company), management (higher-ups or directors from other departments), etc. Being able to work well with others is key for any director, especially those outside their own discipline.
  • Lead Designer or Artist: Concept work or the look and feel of a project may begin with the director. This is not true for all directors, as some may be in more of a technical or managerial position, but many, especially creative directors, are quite hands-on in their role and may develop the look and feel of a project for their company or client. Every company varies, and the lead artist or artists may be a separate job title in its own right. That said, most of the artists I spoke to were still quite hands-on with their design skills.
  • And More… It’s hard to boil down such a key role to a few bullet points, as the job role can vary from project to project. It’s clear that it takes a lot of self-motivation, leadership, organization, developed art skill, and ability to work well with many others. Directors on creative teams have to keep up with many tasks, making sure a project is completed successfully and leading their team or the company onto the next one.

Lookwright logo designs by Stephanie Limon
Lookwright logo designs by Stephanie Limon.

"If you have organizational skills, you’re going to use them! This job requires a lot of problem solving so there is a lot of team effort that goes into each and every day. As an AD you will work hand in hand with a Copywriter so there are many brainstorming sessions with that CW as you guys develop ideas for a campaign or a single project." — Stephanie Limon, Art Director at Team Detroit.
Formal art training or the experience to supplement it was the common thread amongst the directors I interviewed. Most had attended an art school studying illustration or design and most had pushed their skill set further, working their way up to their position in assistant roles, co-designer roles, and more. 
To get into a leadership role, you not only have to display your skills in a portfolio, but show that you have the experience to back up your skill set to lead a team or project. Whether a company requires a degree will depend on that company. Additionally, whether a company requires artists to work up the ranks in that company alone or if they will hire directors from the outside varies from place to place.

Galaxy Gear Campaign with Art Direction by Benjamin Howard
Galaxy Gear Campaign with Art Direction by Benjamin Howard.

"I didn’t have formal training in art direction. I went to an HBCU in Atlanta called Morehouse College and I majored in Business Administration. [...] the only class offered that would help gain experience in the industry was an elective Advertising course. [...] I practiced my design skills by creating posters, T-shirts, banners and other print materials for different college orgs." — Benjamin Howard, Junior Art Director at Team Detroit.
Imagine this was a restaurant manager position. If you had no restaurant or hospitality experience, there’d be little to no chance of being hired on as a manger. If, however, you had worked as a server or in food service previously, there’d be a higher chance of being hired because you’d know more about the goings on of a restaurant. The same goes for the art department of a company or a creative agency: experience speaks volumes at this level.
Much like the question of what they do, asking where art directors work will give you the response of “it varies…” So, in order to better answer this question I’ve made a small list below based on my own experience with various industries and companies therein, as well as the experiences of the directors I interviewed.
  • Advertising/Marketing: Whether at an agency filled with creatives, an advertising firm working closely with certain industries, or an in-house marketing team, you’ll find someone or a few someones coordinating projects and bringing the creative team together.
  • Animation/Entertainment: Movies, television, advertisements, and more. We learned a lot from the “So You Want to be an Animator” article from last month. Art directors are definitely a part of those productions, making sure the many moving parts within each project work together like a well-oiled machine.
  • Graphic Design: At both agencies and in-house departments, you’ll likely find a director bringing their projects to fruition through design and creative problem solving.
  • Toy/Apparel/Product Design: Everything aimed at consumers goes through a design process. From concept to completion, there are project or team leaders taking on the role of director. In many cases there’s a creative director making sure every T-shirt produced within a brand or toy car within a line is consistent with the company’s vision.
  • And More… As always there’s more than what’s covered above. Creative project and brand coordinators are necessary for a successful production, regardless of the project or product in question.

Reebok advert featuring art direction by james oconnel
Reebok advertisement featuring Art Direction by James Oconnell.

"I currently work for a Creative and Digital agency in Manchester, UK, called Creative Spark. My position is Head of Design—where I lead projects and creative/art direct a team of diverse designers and developers." — James Oconnell, of Creative Spark.
Depending on how hands-on directors are, their role may be limited to the coordination and review of their team members’ work versus designing concepts themselves. Of those I interviewed, their experience varied, and many have to balance their own artistic contributions with a managerial role. 
For instance, in the case of David Jarvis, Creative Director of Skullduggery, Inc., he works directly with the CEO of the company, coordinating his efforts with the job roles below him including project manager, Design Manager, and the designers. He’ll work to establish toy concepts with his team, making sure they're in line with Skullduggery’s vision, making sure the project hits deadlines along the way, and that the concept or overall design is marketable and easily understood by their manufacturers overseas.

An example of a Skulldugger product
An example of a Skullduggery, Inc. product and the types of products David Jarvis oversees.

"A big challenge in my industry is not only to design really cool, fun toys, but to actually design something that can be mass produced and affordable. A lot of time and effort is spent meeting with the creative staff on design updates and progress, as well as checking in with project managers and engineers to ensure projects are on track and within budget." — David Jarvis, Creative Director atSkullduggery, Inc.
This is a different experience than the one Tracy Toepfer has with her role as a Creative Director at an interactive agency, Enlighten, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her role is very hands-on, creating interfaces and design concepts for websites, mobile apps, social media campaigns, and more. While she has managed a design team in the past, her current role is more of design leader, working with co-designers, junior designers, and other team members in a group rather than having to coordinate resources or review performance.

Example of work from Enlighten in which Tracy Toepfer serves as a Creative Director
Example of work from Enlighten, in which Tracy Toepfer serves as a Creative Director.

"My ideal day is one where I can be heads down designing without any interruptions, but that’s a luxury. Usually it’s a combination of activities across multiple projects—status meetings, review meetings, working with my fellow designers collaborating with other disciplines like writers and engineers." — Tracy Toepfer, Creative Director at Enlighten.
Projects and what they entail vary from director to director. What’s most common amongst the answers given to this question is that unlike a designer, an art or creative director has a heavy role to play. 
Often when working in a team, it’s not your problem to make sure everyone is doing their part. You show up, do your work, everyone plays their role, and you, as a designer, can help others if necessary, but often you’re doing your own thing unless explicitly collaborating (consider the roles of animators or in-house graphic designers).
For the director, however, it is your problem; you have to make sure everyone’s doing their part, or that specific tasks are being completed in a project. The amount things are coordinated by you, the director, will vary, but most who take on a leadership role also take on one of management as described throughout this article.
"Don’t be afraid to take an internship after you graduate. Almost everyone I know in this field started as an intern… it’s definitely a good way to get your foot in the door." — Casey Lam, Art Director at Creativity180.

Typographic work by Casey Lam
Typographic work by Casey Lam.

"Become a people person.Your relationship with your team and others will be the key to your success." — David Jarvis

Asics advertising campaign with direction by James Oconnell
Asics marketing campaign with direction by James Oconnell.

"When you're in a team, you need to be the person they can go to when they need a hand, the person they ask if they are going in the right direction and when they need support with a client. You're all over it. You're also a Superhero." — James Oconnell

Visual Breakdown of The Witcher 2 Intro with Art Direction by  Kuba Bogaczyski
Visual Breakdown of The Witcher 2 Intro with Art Direction by Kuba Bogaczyński.

So you want to be an art or creative director? You want to lead a team of artists on various projects, showcasing your vision or the vision of the company you work for in a successful final product. You want to coordinate various team members, departments, and other "moving parts" within a department or project, making sure everything runs like a well-oiled machine. 
Doing so takes initiative, hard work, and dedication to your craft. Bring your experience and skill up to speed and you can find yourself moving up the ranks within various companies or bringing your know-how to a team that's new to you. It can be a difficult job with a lot of organization required on your part, but the rewards of successfully completing not only your task but guiding the tasks of others to completion are great.
I hope you found this article informative and inspirational, especially where the experiences of those interviewed are concerned. As such, I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to participate in interviews, sharing their work with us. You can check out some of their work or the work of the companies they work for in the links below:


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