What is art direction?

June 1, 2022

Art directors just draw all day, right?

Ok, full disclosure, I’m writing this post for two reasons. The first is to be a quick reference and resource for anyone curious, and the second is I still don’t think my parents know what I do for a living. Admittedly, being an AD is something that most don’t give a rip about and it’s also not an easy thing to describe to folks outside the advertising industry. Though art direction and its role vary depending on the industry, I’ll focus on its use and benefits within advertising.

Ever wonder how brands like Nike (to beat a very dead horse) often have a certain look that even an untrained eye can tell are Nike’s—even before seeing the word “Nike” or their logo? The very watered-down answer is almost always skilled art direction, though many attribute this solely to brand standards.

So, what is it then? To explain I’m going to go a little out there for this next part—hang in there with me. Cars get you to where you need to go, right? Of course, but without a good driver, they can be a deathtrap too. Think of a car as a creative asset, whether that be a killer photographer, illustrator, designer, or a slew of other creative disciplines. The car does what it does best. Drive. But knowing how to drive doesn’t necessarily mean it knows the destination too. An art director’s background (usually in graphic design) helps inform how various assets will live together. A simple way of looking at it is an art director’s job is to guide the creation of visual assets while using available resources. Ultimately getting the most creative horsepower it can out of the car, and more importantly, the client’s investment.

An art director’s job is to guide the creation of visual assets while using available resources.

Ok, back to the real world. I’ll use advertising photography as my go-to example, only because it’s a common area of art direction and one I’m very comfortable with. A photographer, even a phenomenal one is focused on their craft—making killer images that fit the brief. But an image, even a fucking beautiful one can oftentimes be misguided creatively and sadly rendered unusable for specific campaign purposes. An experienced art director working alongside a photographer can make sure the beautiful images are also well suited to accomplish the task at hand while fitting the overall creative direction of a campaign/publication. And this is where what I said earlier about Nike ties back in. There is a lot of good creative out there, but assets curated for specific uses within brand guidelines are what makes Nike’s stuff look like their stuff—this is art direction. Obviously, creative direction plays a role in this as well, but for simplicity’s sake and to keep this post short the visual ecosystem is largely impacted by art direction, as a creative director has to share more time with other brand elements like messaging etc.

Using a campaign as a loose example, art direction does a few things for the client:

1. Delivers more usable* content with the same financial investment.

2. Creates visual content that is cohesive with campaign messaging.

3. Produces turn-key assets that solve common design challenges.

4. Build visual elements that can effortlessly mesh into one brand organism—a callback to Nike.

5. Improves communication between clients and vendors, resulting in better relationships.

6. Provides superior final results. A side effect of No. 5, hard to believe I know, but it’s often true.

7. Helps foster quality writing. Copywriters and ADs are a classic power duo for good reason.

8. Offers a different perspective on problem-solving.

*Deliverables made with the end design/goal in mind, ultimately making them more valuable than assets less suited for the end medium.

In closing, art direction isn’t necessarily a title per see. It can be as simple as a unique way of looking at and solving creative problems. It’s a skill that needs to be exercised and built over time and anyone can learn with practice. If you’re thinking about making a creative investment, especially a significant one, consider bringing on a seasoned AD with category-specific experience to help guide and expand your efforts. You will not be disappointed.