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How to Become an Art Director

By Mary Winkler

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

What Do Art Directors and Creative
Directors Do?

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
    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
    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
  • Cross-Departmental
    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
  • 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.

What Training Do Art Directors Need?

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.

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.

Which Industries Have Art and Creative

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
  • 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
  • Toy/Apparel/Product
    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.

What Are Projects Like for Art and
Creative Directors?

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

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 at Skullduggery, 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

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.

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.

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.

Advice From Art and Creative

“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: