June 1, 2019

Art Director 101

A simple understanding of the role and how to be more effective in it.

Tools in the toolbox.

For every Art Director or Designer, you have a simple set of tools at your disposal to help you sift through whats makes a good design from a great design. So were all on the same page, the fundamentals of great design that I am speaking about are as follows:

  • Color
  • Composition & Golden Ratio
  • Lighting
  • Texture
  • Line
  • Shape/Form
  • Space
  • Size/Scale/Proportion
  • Rhythm/Movement
  • Value
  • Unity/Harmony
  • Hierarchy
  • Contrast & Similarity
  • Repetition
  • Proximity
  • Alignment & Using the grid
  • Narrative
  • Time (Nostalgic/Current)
  • Essence of brand

First impressions count.

If you put time and effort into presenting your idea in a polished way, your audience will assume that you have spent time and effort into your design and have been very thoughtful in the design decisions you’ve made.

Blue Sky Briefs vs. The Weeds

In every Art Director role, you are challenged with keeping the work flowing smoothly and putting your mark in the industry by chasing down big ideas and converting those into amazing campaigns or assets. It’s important you keep your priorities in line along the way, you must not let the weeds keep growing, because they will come to bite you in the ass. So be swift, hone your speed and your craft so you can weed-whack fast and focus on the Bluesky projects and invest your time and energy into those.

Sell it baby!

Selling an idea or concept is part of the gig, so become knowledgeable in your space and become a whiz at why your concept is solid. If you have confidence in your idea and have credible data or understanding as to why it will be successful for your client/partner then you’ve taken out the guessing game for them.

Grab the essence, not the full detail

When it comes to iterating on a campaign or shooting a scene of a video, its easy to focus on the nitty-gritty details, but most people wont even notice these small details, so its best to focus your efforts on establishing the mood of the campaign or scene than show your audience every single thing. An example of this is, if you are trying to move a character from point a to point b, you don’t have to show the entire scene of the character walking up to the door, reaching for the door handle, and twisting the door knob, and walking through the door. You simply have to show the character walking in a direction towards the door, then close up on the door handle, and then the character in the next room. Eliminate the bloat in your project work and make it simple.

On the topic of feedback:

Say something!

If you find yourself in an instance where you need to provide more junior colleagues feedback, or client/agency feedback. It’s always best to be direct and make decisions. Don’t waffle in these moments, you lose trust and soon enough the person that came to you asking for feedback starts questioning why they approached you at all. It’s always best to make a decision than say nothing. If you aren’t 100% sure about something get their buy in, but lead with a direction to get the conversation going.

Is it different or is it better?

Be careful of falling into the hovering AD trope. It’s human nature to feel the desire to put your stamp on everything that crosses your desk. Before you give a comment, ask yourself “is this actually improving the work? Or is this just slightly different?”

Directing with Copy

If you work in a bigger shop, you will be working very closely with copywriters and possibly Jr. copywriters. It is important to keep in mind that when you are reviewing work and copy is a component that you don’t gloss over the words. It will take you far if you actually read what they’ve crafted and provide actionable feedback on it through your customer’s lens. But, please keep note that just because you’ve been reading and writing since you were young, doesn’t make you an expert in all things copywriting. Know your skill set and your boundaries and make sure you be direct with your feedback.

Sometimes Less Is More

No one likes being a pixel pusher to your know-it-all mind. Be sure to leave some feedback up for interpretation. Sometimes hinting a change rather than saying exactly what you want done will surprise you. You may find that the designer interpreted what you said in a different way for the stronger outcome. So, hold your lip from time to time 🙂

There is such a thing as over designed.

If you are throwing everything you’ve got at a project and it’s still not working, maybe throw in a simple, clean, down to earth version that is just the nuts and bolts. Sometimes that will be the best option and it doesn’t have to be something straight out of the Bauhaus to convert to sales.

Delegation is not always the best answer.

It may seem easy when you are overseeing so much work to delegate some work off to junior designers, but sometimes its best to pick up the annoying projects yourself to move them through quickly and efficiently and build trust with your team as well.

Subjectivity is the kiss of death.

Try to avoid leaving your small baby out in the cold for the wolves to devour. Make sure you always protect your baby with sound design rationale and reinforced with a wall of data. You must present your work (in person if possible) to sell your concepts in a way that resonates with your audience.

Let your meetings give you a breather

If you’re stuck on something or rushing to provide feedback on something. Let your busy schedule assist your art directing. It’s always better to come back to some work with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. So, don’t hesitate to say “Can we review this after my next meeting?”

Don’t get over hyped

At the end of the day, you didnt spend 6 years in med school to save peoples lives. All we are doing is selling stuff. Don’t get too bogged down with the decision making as if your life depends on it. Because it doesn’t. Everybody will always need help selling stuff to people. So don’t sweat it!

Zig the Zag

When everyone is doing it one way, look for the hidden other way. Its way more rewarding than falling in line. Be swift to capitalize on new tech and new trends. Be the shiniest person in the room by having novel ideas that may seem out there. I heard recently “You know your going the right way in a video game when you keep encountering enemies.”

Lighting and Texture

Nothing can beat a nice soft light in an image or a simple and subtle texture in a design. Let these tools in your tool box make your other components shine even brighter. You can make a not-so-stunning model look absolutely amazing with great light. But you can also make a stunning model look amateur hour with terrible lighting.

Your creativity is your mana pool.

You chose this career path for a reason. It is your passion, don’t give up the farm for anything less than you are excited about. Make sure you know how to hold some of your precious mana back when the client isn’t paying for you to give it your all. Know your limits and know how to do great work for cheap, but monitor your mana levels.

Enjoy the ride.

Art Director is typically seen as a stepping stone towards Creative Director. However, this section of your career will be the longest because there is so much to master. Whether it’s people management, technical skills, or leadership behavior, there is so much to excel at. So, take your time and enjoy the role because this role has so much to offer you in your career long term. It will form the type of CD you become and the type of work you will oversee. So, cheers to having one of the best roles in modern day society. Enjoy the ride.


I will continue to add more as I think of them 🙂

This article was written by:
Alex Terry
CEO of Lemonade Stand Studio.