Skip to Main Content

Art Directors

The Job

Art directors are responsible for all visual aspects of printed or on-screen projects. The art director oversees the process of developing visual solutions to a variety of communication problems. He or she helps to establish corporate identities; advertises products and services; enhances books, magazines, newsletters, and other publications; creates television commercials, film and video productions, and Web sites; and sets the look and style of digital apps and games. Some art directors with experience or knowledge in specific fields specialize in such areas as packaging, exhibitions and displays, or the Internet. But all directors, even those with specialized backgrounds, must be skilled in and knowledgeable about design, illustration, photography, computers, research, and writing in order to supervise the work of graphic artists, photographers, copywriters, text editors, set decorators and designers, model makers, location managers, propmasters, construction coordinators, special effects workers, and other employees.

In print advertising and publishing, art directors may begin with the client's concept or develop one in collaboration with the copywriter and account executive. Once the concept is established, the next step is to decide on the most effective way to communicate it. If there is text, for example, should the art director choose illustrations based on specific text references, or should the illustrations fill in the gaps in the copy? If a piece is being revised, existing illustrations must be reevaluated.

After deciding what needs to be illustrated, art directors must find sources that can create or provide the art. Photo agencies, for example, have photographs and illustrations on thousands of different subjects. If, however, the desired illustration does not exist, it may have to be commissioned or designed by one of the staff designers. Commissioning artwork means that the art director contacts a photographer or illustrator and explains what is needed. A price is negotiated, and the artist creates the image specifically for the art director.

Once the illustrations and other art elements have been secured, they must be presented in an appealing manner. The art director supervises (and may help in the production of) the layout of the piece and presents the final version to the client or creative director. Layout is the process of figuring out where every image, headline, and block of text will be placed on the page. The size, style, and method of reproduction must all be specifically indicated so that the image is recreated as the director intended it.

In broadcast advertising and film, television, and video, the art director, working under the direction of the production designer, has a wide variety of responsibilities and often interacts with an enormous number of creative professionals. Working with production designers, directors, and producers, art directors help interpret scripts and create or select settings in order to visually convey the story or the message. The art director works with set decorators and designers, model makers, location managers, propmasters, construction coordinators, and special effects people. In addition, art directors work with writers, unit production managers, cinematographers, costume designers, and postproduction staff, including editors and employees responsible for scoring and titles. As the top assistants of production designers, art directors need both creative and management skills to ensure that the production designer's vision is being implemented. They are responsible for the entire operation of the production division or just particular departments such as construction, props, locations, special effects, and set dressing.

Art directors working in digital media may conceptualize branding for online products or services; control the look and style of Web sites, menus, and user interfaces; help create the look of video games; or design the look of software products.

Technology has been playing an increasingly important role in the art director's job. Most art directors, for example, use a variety of computer software programs, including Adobe PageMaker, FrameMaker, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, and Photoshop; QuarkXPress; Corel-DRAW; Google SketchUp; and computer-aided design drawing programs. Many others create and oversee Web sites for clients and work with other interactive media and materials, including touch-screens, multi-dimensional visuals, and new animation programs.

Art directors usually work on more than one project at a time and must be able to keep numerous, unrelated details straight. They often work under pressure of a deadline and yet must remain calm and pleasant when dealing with clients and staff. Because they are supervisors, art directors are often called upon to resolve problems, not only with projects but with employees as well.

Art directors are not entry-level workers. They usually have years of experience working at lower level jobs in the field (such as graphic, industrial, or set designers; fine artists; or photographers) before gaining the knowledge needed to supervise projects. Depending on whether they work primarily in publishing or film, art directors have to know how electronic publishing works and possibly how printing presses operate, or how a film or television show is produced. They should also be familiar with a variety of production techniques in order to understand the wide range of ways that images can be manipulated to meet the needs of a project.

Related Professions