How to Become an Art Director

By TACP Staff on August 14th, 2019

Art directors are responsible for more than just visuals in a magazine, a film, or other media project. If you’re someone who thinks creatively, has an eye for good design, and enjoys working in a collaborative environment, you will likely find a great deal of success as an art director.

1. Getting Started as an Art Director

No question, the ability to deliver out-of-the-box, groundbreaking, and inspiring ideas, while thinking across all media, is vital to becoming a successful art director. Art directors are responsible for a project’s entire identity – from the way, something looks, to the emotion a project produces. However, although an art director oversees the entire creative process, he or she is less responsible for individual visual components and more for the unique visual style and project’s intent.  For this reason, art directors work closely with people in other departments who develop artwork, layouts, write copy, and more. Directors guide these different departments to help ensure all individuals are working towards the same unified vision and that every component of a project comes together to form a cohesive visual whole.

In terms of film production, for example, an art director will work with the heads of various departments to make sure every visual design choice is made – from the color of the costumes character’s wear to the posters hanging in one of the character’s rooms, and everything in between. They also work closely with the director of the film, along with other creatives, such as the screenwriter, to determine what type of story is being told and how that story can best be expressed through visuals.  After all, visual selections can change the way a film or television episode is perceived by an audience member and can provide a tremendous amount of insight into the background and personalities of characters.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), roughly 15 percent of all art directors employed in the country worked for either advertising or public relations firms in 2014. Roughly 35 percent of art directors worked for newspapers, specialized graphic design services firms, or in the film and television industries. The BLS indicated that roughly half of all art directors were self-employed during the same time period, which is a growing trend over the course of the last few years.

2. Learn Essential Skills & Develop Important Qualities

In many ways, art directors are communication experts. The same can be said of most other creative professions. The only difference is that instead of communicating via words (as is true in the case of a screenwriter or novelist), art directors communicate using visuals.

Take advertising, for example. Every department in an advertising agency works together to make sure a product or service looks as enticing as possible to consumers and answers the needs of clients. An art director makes layout choices, color decisions, general style choices, and more – all with an eye toward helping everyone on the team accomplish the project’s intent in a way that also helps all visual elements look and feel like they’re part of the whole. In this case, an art director will work with illustrators, photographers, designers, and copywriters to present one core idea in the most meaningful way possible.

As a result, it is imperative that those interested in a career in art direction become familiar with how design affects everything from perception to emotion. The color or size of an image can dramatically change the way the image is received, just like too many images can detract from the message. Art directors must understand how the decisions they make affect everyone else, and how what everyone else is doing affects the larger picture.

In addition to a thorough knowledge of design software, such as Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, there are a number of skills and qualities that all art directors must have in order to succeed in this field. First and foremost, art directors must be artistic and imaginative.  They must be great communicators and able to listen and speak with staff and clients to ensure they understand employees’ thinking processes and the client’s desires. They must have leadership skills, and the ability to direct, organize, and motivate others.  They must have time-management skills to meet deadlines and prioritize duties, and be willing to continually learn new techniques and design technology to keep up-to-date and current.

Overall, art directors oversee the work of other artists, writers, and designers through a project’s start to finish. To accomplish this, they talk with clients to form a cohesive artistic approach and style, develop budgets and timelines, lead other staff, determine if art, photographs, and other design elements will be used, present layouts and design ideas to clients for approval – among other tasks.

3. Earn a Degree & Gain Experience in Multiple Areas of Art

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most art director jobs in the United States require a bachelor’s degree (BA or BFA). This degree, which is most often either in art and design, advertising, or another design-based subject, along with prior work experience, will make graduates much more valuable candidates as they look for a job in various industries.  However, even with a degree, it’s important to note that most art directors won’t start out in this position. Many gain work as graphic designers, photographers, illustrators, or even copy editors to gain experience and knowledge about the industry. Then, based on experience and the strength of their portfolio, they can work their way up the ladder until the appropriate art director job opening presents itself.

Individuals can also pursue a master’s degree in fine art, but this degree is rarely required to obtain a position as an art director. That said, the field is competitive, and an advanced degree can show an applicant’s passion for the field and ambition. 

As with many other creative professions, ultimately the strength of a portfolio is what will get a prospective art director noticed. While getting higher education from a reputable college or graphic design school is preferred by many employers, you may not be denied a job if you can show an incredible portfolio, even without a bachelor’s degree.

Likewise, gaining entry-level work in the industry of your choice will allow you to forge the types of valuable industry connections you need that, along with experience, will carry you far. If you dream of being an art director for a newspaper, for example, becoming a copywriter or junior editor will help you meet people in different departments but with similar goals, many of who are also in the process of working their way up the ladder.

Over the ten years between 2014 and 2024, the employment of art directors in the United States is estimated to grow by roughly two percent. This is slower than the average for all occupations, due largely to the limited nature of creative professions like this one.

Because of fierce competition for few positions, some aspiring art directors will gain employment in similar occupations. Many will remain in these areas, and some will use the experience to obtain a position as an art director later on. Popular career choices include design director, editorial designer, multimedia designer, corporate brand designer, or production director.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Art Directors

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