What Does a Creative Director Do?

Luke Leighfield
Luke Leighfield, Content Writer

You’ll see the creative director job title in all kinds of industries, heading up creative departments at film studios, hot San Francisco startups, magazines, advertising agencies, and lots more.

But with creative director positions spanning such a range of work environments, you might want to know exactly what they do and how you can become one. Don’t worry – we’ve got you.

In this article, we’ll talk you through the creative director job in more detail, explain what skills you’ll need to pursue being a creative director as a career, and clear up any confusion over the similarities between creative directors and art directors.

Let’s do this!

What is a creative director?

A creative director is the person responsible for the creative vision of a project. They’ll manage the entire creative process, from the brainstorming and ideation stage right through to delivering creative assets (whether it’s a Tube ad, social media post, or some web design assets).

Besides creative direction chops, this role requires some knowledge that you might not expect in a creative director job description. Creative directors need to have strong interpersonal and leadership skills to keep the entire team onboard (and creative ideas flowing), as well as managing client meetings and leading workshops or feedback sessions.

Creative directors also need to be on top of timelines and budgets, ensuring that projects are delivered on time and without breaking the bank. So be prepared to pore over spreadsheets and calendars, as well as scribbling on whiteboards.

Typically, creative directors don’t do the actual work themselves. Instead, they direct others to carry out the creative vision. A creative director’s team could include a whole range of people, including illustrators, copywriters, art directors, graphic designers, and potentially other team members helping with creative strategy, creative services, or project management.

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What are the different types of creative director?

The specific details of a creative director’s work will depend on the industry you’re working in. Creative director jobs are super varied and you’ll need to research roles in more detail to know exactly what skills and responsibilities are expected of you. Below, we’ll go into some of the more common industries that a creative director works in.

Creative directors in visual merchandising

Some creative directors work in visual merchandising at high street stores. This involves ensuring that the creative team’s art direction of window displays and model installations will help the brand hit its sales targets, as well as just looking good. As part of this, you’ll need to know about seasonal Pantone color trends and other movements in the industry.

Creative directors in film or TV

Somewhat confusingly, creative directors in film and TV are often known as production designers. In a production designer role, you’ll manage the creative vision of all a film’s visual elements: color palette, set design, costumes, and hair and makeup styling.

Creative directors in magazines

Working as a creative director at a magazine involves overseeing the entire publication – from which articles you include to the minutiae of font choices. It’s a broad role that could see you flexing your Adobe creative suite muscles, as well as looking at the publication from a big picture perspective.

The difference between creative directors and art directors

While the Creative Director and Art Director job descriptions have some similarities, there are some key differences that you should be aware of. There’s a lot of crossover, particularly at smaller workplaces, but they each require different skills and have separate responsibilities.

In a nutshell

Creative directors think about the big picture. They brainstorm and conceptualize the larger creative vision.

Art directors deal with the details. They take the larger creative director’s big ideas and implement them in design.

It’s important to be clear about these differences so that everyone on the team knows who’s responsible for what, and who to go to for help on a particular task. It can also help you with figuring out the budget for your production.

Want to learn more about what an Art Director does? We've got you covered.

How can I become a creative director?

Get a good education

Many creative directors start out by earning a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree before entering the workplace. It’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, but you might want to opt for a degree in a related subject like art, fashion, graphic design, marketing, or photography.

Some creative directors also get a master’s degree, either focusing on the art direction side (e.g., fine arts) or the business administration side. Having a master’s is a luxury, but it might be helpful if your BA isn’t in a related field.

Gain work experience

While some creative professionals find their education to be helpful, it’s worth remembering that experience almost always trumps education in the creative industries. So if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, there’s still hope!

Most creative directors start out by gaining 5-10 years of experience doing creative work in a related field. This could include working as a graphic designer, copywriter, photographer, artist, or illustrator, for example.

If you know someone who can help you get your foot in the door, try calling in a favor. And if you don’t, try applying for an internship, fellowship, entry-level job, or junior role. The sooner you can start working on some real-life creative projects, whether in-house or at an agency, the better.

Craft your portfolio

On top of a CV that shows your work experience (and an up-to-date LinkedIn profile), you’ll also need a creative director portfolio that shows off your work. If you mostly work with video, it might be a showreel. If you work with adverts, it could be a page on your website or a short PowerPoint presentation.

Whatever the medium, the most important thing is that you can sell your creative ideas and the skills you bring to a team. (Hint: you might want to create a template that you can customize depending on who you’re pitching to.)

Hone your skills

The most important part of becoming a creative director is to master the skills you need, and keep building on them – even when you become a hotshot creative director relaxing in your massive New York penthouse.

You’ll need to cultivate a deep understanding of graphic design trends, art history, copywriting styles, cinema techniques, and illustration. The industry is constantly evolving, and there’s always more inspiration to be found – so keep feeding your creativity and staying on top of the latest movements in the industry.

It’s also important to remember the soft skills you need in creative roles, like communication skills to manage interpersonal relationships. Even if you’re the greatest creative the world’s ever seen, you’ll struggle to survive without knowing how to navigate the different characters in the workplace.

Build your network

Networking gets a bad rap, but there’s a tasteful way to do it. If you want to keep learning and being inspired, it’s crucial to connect with other creative professionals – whether they’re photographers, illustrators, copywriters, filmmakers, or artists. If someone’s work inspires you, reach out to them on social media and say hello.

Building your network on LinkedIn can be helpful when you come to look for new creative director positions, or want to explore career path options. It’s also a palace to explore creative ideas, ask questions, and learn from others’ leadership skills.

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What does a creative director’s career path look like?

If you specialize in the visual side of things, then your career path could look something like this:

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    Graphic Designer
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    Senior Graphic Designer
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    Art Director / Design Director
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    Creative Director
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    Group Creative Director / Executive Creative Director
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    Chief Creative Officer

If you come from the words side, then your career path will look more like this:

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    Copywriter
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    Senior Copywriter
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    Content / Copy Lead
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    Creative Director
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    Group Creative Director / Executive Creative Director
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    Chief Creative Officer

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Average creative director salary

Of all the creative roles that are out there, becoming a creative director is one of the best-paid options. That said, the exact amount you could earn will depend on which country you’re working in, and which specific sector you’re in.

According to Payscale, the average creative director earns $91,571. In the UK, Glassdoor puts the average base pay at £78,823. However, if you land a job in the right sector and location, you could definitely expect to see that amount tip into the six-figure range.

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