Have you ever wondered what an Art Director actually does? Does it sound like an intriguing career path, but you’re not quite sure of the scope of what it entails? We’ve all heard the term applied in various industries, and the multitude of applications of the title can make it appear lofty, confusing, and maybe even unattainable. We’re here to define the importance of Art Direction at a graphic design agency and share a peek into what an Art Director’s process looks like in action.
In a graphic design agency, the Art Director functions as the creative leader of their projects. They work with the design team to generate impactful and original ideas and refine them to give the client the most substantial designs. Art Directors take investigative research about their clients, diving deep into their goals, purpose, and desires, and use it to paint a picture of the brand or project to the team. They define the look and feel of the project and ensure that the design team stays on point with their interpretations. They act as a compass for team members to follow through an array of their own specialized mediums.
“Remember, success is a journey, not a destination. Have faith in your ability. You will do just fine.”
— Bruce Lee
What skills does an Art Director need to be successful? First and foremost, they need to develop a keen artistic eye. Developing an adept eye is probably the most challenging aspect of the process to define and also the most important. A trained eye for design only comes through years of experience, practice, and learning. Art Directors have a strong handle on things like color theory, typography, graphic design principles, and their applications. They study art and graphic design history and stay on top of the latest trends.
It is imperative Art Directors must also build strong leadership skills. After all, they are the driving force behind their projects. They must be able to communicate with different personalities and unify perspectives toward a common goal. In a creative field, it is imperative to be able to keep the team inspired to achieve that goal. Great design isn’t born from begrudging followers. They also must develop problem-solving skills and practice mediation techniques to keep everyone on the same page.
Ultimately, as Art Director Linus Lohoff states, Graphic Designers ask, “does it look good?” While Art Directors question, “does it feel good?”
So, what does an Art Director’s process look like? It begins with a phase of briefing and investigation. All client projects must start with a briefing phase. At Creative Repute, we refer to this kickoff phase as the Brand Audit. We begin with a review of the initial information we’ve gathered about the client and formulate a list of general and in-depth questions to get a sense of who they are, their brand values, and what their project needs.
We use these guiding questions to dig into the brand’s past, present, and desired future. It is crucial that we understand what is unique about the company or organization and get a sense of its “soul.” If the brand were a person, what would it say? And what audience would it resonate with most? These questions also get our wheels turning on crucial aspects such as color palette and keywords.
“The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore.”
After the Brand Audit phase is complete, Art Directors move into a process of investigation, which Creative Repute labels Discovery. Here we aim to absorb as much information as possible about the client and the cultural sphere they inhabit to paint a clear picture of who they are and determine the most effective visual strategies to meet their goals. There are many ways to approach this process; ultimately, there are no rules! Information can come through the internet or in the form of books, magazines, music, performances, and even discussions. We thoroughly review social media presences and explore similar or competing businesses or organizations. We aim to understand the relationship between visual identity and the brand.
One way to approach this is to start with relevant but broad generalities and research their definitions, associations, and symbolism. Studying symbolism could look as simple as searching the meanings of keywords. For example, if you created a logo for a doctor’s office, you might type “health” or “care” into the search bar. It’s important to note or sketch anything that sparks interest. From there, the process gets more and more specific to the nuances of the individual brand.
Once the Art Director and their team feel satisfied and inspired by the amount of information we’ve gathered for the project, we begin by assembling this information and collecting inspiration for the project based on what we’ve found. Here they’ll start to build mood boards to help define the aesthetic we want to pursue. Mood boards can include photos, advertisements, designs, works of art, colors, typography, or even sounds and videos that help us define what we are trying to achieve.
If both the client and design team are happy with the general direction outlined by the mood board, then it is time to begin building the actual pieces of the brand. Art Direction will work for hand in hand with Design to create the logo mark, text, brand typography, and color palette. While Art Directors’ are well versed in design, they will often focus on applying what they learned in Discovery to the “Big Picture” elements or sketching phases of the designs. From there, Graphic Designers will usually refine the logo and branding with feedback and direction from the Art Director.
“Art is the conveyance of spirit by means of matter”
–Salvador de Madariaga
When all of these pieces are approved, Art Direction and Design will begin assembling the critical elements of the new branding into a Style Guide, also known as a brand book. In addition to the brand’s logo, color palette, and typography, the Style Guide goes even further to guide the client and other designers towards a strong and consistent brand. The Style Guide includes defining clear space, do’s and don’ts of logo use, and what type of visuals the brand should use. An example of something a Style Guide should clarify is whether the brand’s story is most eloquently told through photography, illustration, or a visual system. Is it a combination of the three? The Style Guide will go a step further to show examples of what types of photography, illustration, or graphics are considereable options to align with a brand.
Lastly, the Style Guide will include mockups. Mockups show what the new branding will look like in use. Many people do not have the visual imagination that creative professionals do, so mockups are a great tool to show the client what the brand will look like in real life and get them excited about their new branding! Mockups will vary depending on what is useful for the clients’ purposes, but some of the most common are business cards, stationary, T-shirts, Tote bags, and mock social media pages.
While Art Directors engage with their team throughout the entire project, this first phase of creating and defining a brand is an excellent example of a place where their skills are needed most. Does Art Direction sound like the career for you? Check out Linus Lohoff’s Art Direction for Visual Branding class on Domestika.org to get started on the path!