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What Does an Art Director Do?

Luke Leighfield
Luke Leighfield, Content Writer

If you’ve got a background in graphic design or fine arts and want to take your career to the next level, then you might want to consider becoming an art director. It’s a multifaceted role that pairs creative vision with communication and project management skills. And it can lead to plentiful career opportunities.

In this post we’ll answer some of the most common questions about becoming an art director, and tell you everything you need to know as you consider your next steps.

What is an art director?

If you work in a creative field, you’ve probably come across an art director. It's a job title that pops up in various work environments that deal with creative projects, like graphic design, advertising, marketing, publishing, film and TV, web design and video games.

In short, an art director usually manages a team of designers (like graphic designers, production designers, or set designers) as they work on a creative project, using their leadership skills to bring creative concepts to life.

The role looks slightly different depending on the specific work environment. Art directors can find themselves working at advertising agencies, on movie sets, and alongside public relations firms, with their work appearing in a huge range of places – billboards, cinema screens, and social media.

If you’re someone with creative vision, particularly on the art and design side, then Art Director might be a job title that you have your eyes on. If you’re still finding your feet in the creative world, and you’re not sure what art direction involves, this article will give you oodles of handy pointers.

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What does an art director do?

The role of an art director position is pretty varied, and can look totally different from one day to the next. While the role’s similar to that of a creative director, where you’re responsible for inspiring a team to deliver their best creative work, it also has some elements that you might not expect.

A good art director knows how to inspire their team members to do their best work. They’re usually responsible for managing the entire creative team, which involves tasks like critiquing work, offering granular feedback on layouts and storyboards, and getting involved in the work itself – whether it’s in InDesign, Photoshop, Figma, or another programme.

On top of the usual staff members like designers, an art director’s team can include copywriters. So as well as knowing about visual design, art directors need to have a handle on related fields, and be able to offer feedback on writing – or even be able to write themselves, depending on the size of the team and scope of the project.

Besides being a creative whizz, an art director needs great communication skills. You’ll have to mediate between designers and copywriters and juggle the project’s competing needs. And if someone’s work isn’t up to scratch, you may need to discipline them or find other ways of getting them back on track to deliver solid work.

An art director also needs project management skills to make sure work’s delivered on time and within the budget – particularly if your team doesn’t include a project manager or account manager. This means you’ll need to be on top of time management, while ensuring creative concepts are as good as they can be.

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In short, an art director’s role is wide-ranging. You’ll need to juggle your overall design skill set with some of the more mundane tasks (depending on what you enjoy!), potentially poring over timelines in spreadsheets and project management tools, as well as doing more traditional creative work.

What are the different types of art director?

The specific details of an art director’s work will depend on the industry you’re working in. Art 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 an art director works in.

Art directors in publishing

With job openings in publishing, art directors typically oversee the page layout of newspapers and magazines. They may also be responsible for deciding on the cover art for books and magazines.

With more publishing happening online, this work can also include working on web publications, so you might need to use tools like Figma.

Art directors in advertising and public relations (PR)

In advertising and public relations, art directors create work that sells a product or idea. This involves communicating a brand’s desired message and image to their audience, ensuring that the work’s on brand and adheres to any brand guidelines.

You’ll be responsible for the overall visual aspects of an advertising or media campaign – including billboards, Tube and bus ads, and social media assets – and you’ll coordinate the work of the entire creative team and design staff, including people like graphic designers.

Art directors in movie production

As an art director in movie production, you’ll work with film directors to decide which sets are needed for the film. Once this is agreed, you’re responsible for bringing the visual style of the movie to life through the set design.

As part of this work, you’ll hire and supervise a team of assistant art directors, set designers and production designers to fulfill the creative vision of your movie sets.

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Examples of famous art directors

If you’re looking for inspiration from seasoned art directors who’ve enjoyed successful careers, we’ve got a few names to help you on your search.

Famous art directors in publishing

Although it features more recent art directors, we think Stack’s shortlist of art directors for its 2017 awards is a solid collection of exceptional art directors in publishing.

Famous art directors in advertising

If you fancy pursuing an art director career in advertising, you’ll want to familiarise yourself with some of the luminaries who’ve gone before you. Posterama’s list of the world’s greatest advertising art directors includes Paul Belford, Dave Dye, Mark Reddy, Antony Nelson, and David Stevanov, plus many more. It also features images of their work.

Famous art directors in movie production

When it comes to movies, IMDb is a fountain of knowledge. Its list of great movie art directors includes names like Cedric Gibbons (An American in Paris), Roland Anderson (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Robert Stromberg (Avatar), Stuart Craig (Harry Potter), and Guy Hendrix Dyas (Spencer), among others.

How can I become an art director?

Lots of art directors begin their careers in an art-related field, like fine arts or photography. Gaining work experience in these work environments helps you build your communication skills and overall design chops, making you more desirable for art director roles in the future.

However, you may find you need a bachelor’s degree to even be considered for these kinds of job openings. Many people who end up working full-time as art directors get a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree before entering the work place.

Once you enter the creative industries, you’ll need to build your portfolio working as a graphic designer, production designer, fine artist, editor, photographer, or another related field before becoming an art director.

Your portfolio is a collection of work that shows your visual style and skills. It helps prospective employers – agencies, directors, publishing houses and clients – decide whether you’re the right person to bring in for a job or project.

While there are plenty of great art director job opportunities out there, it’s likely to become a competitive space in the future. With more people entering the creative industries, it means there are more talented graphic designers and people with art direction experience looking to move into art director positions.

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What does an art director’s career path look like?

Once you’ve established yourself as an art director, you might wonder how you can progress and take your career to the next level. The good news is that art directors have plenty of ways to advance their careers.

If you choose to stay in a purely creative role, you might want to consider job titles like Creative Director, Senior Art Director, Creative Services Director, or Design Director.

Other art directors choose to broaden the scope of their career slightly, taking on roles like Marketing Director, Sales Director, or Communications Director.

If you stay the course, you could find yourself with an even grander title: Sales and Marketing Vice President, Chief Communications Officer, or Chief Marketing Officer.

Some art directors also decide to go freelance, or even start their own companies. Thanks to the myriad skills you pick up as an art director, the possibilities for your next career steps are endless.

Average art director salary

The average salary for an art director depends on your exact industry and where you live. That said, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the 2021 median pay at $100,890 per year.

If you’re in the UK, then Check-a-Salary puts the average art director salary at £58,944.

It’s worth noting that these figures can rise considerably if you find yourself working for a San Francisco tech firm, where salaries tend to be substantially higher.

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