Art Director vs. Creative Director
Like a chicken and an egg. Except, that's an opening bad joke to this inspiring article. However, you should know the type of skills you need, the responsibilities they carry, and the path you ought to take to become one or the other.
Although art and creativity are closely related, there are plenty of specifics to the two roles. Regardless, they are complementary, and during one's career, it is quite possible to walk in both shoes.
To help you differentiate the two and find your fit, we'll discuss:
- What does an art director do?
- What does a creative director do?
- Key similarities and differences
- How to choose a path?
What does an art director do?
First and foremost, an art director position is rooted in the visual part of the creative work. Thus, a graphic designer would be the most natural position preceding this one. If that's not you, don't worry just yet. It doesn't mean you can't find your way to art direction with another background – as long as you can inspire and guide the design team's vision.
On the good side, art directors are found in most creative fields. These include graphic/web design, marketing, publishing, film, video games, etc. It's then understandable that the necessary skills and responsibilities vary from industry to industry.
In essence, an art director is a manager with creative traits and a refined taste in graphics and design. Daily you might take part in designing, providing feedback, meeting with clients, or photoshopping. On a long-term scale, you are in charge of determining a style of visual communication and creating a culture of artistic exploration. Now let's break it down to skills, responsibilities, and becoming one.
Although "art "has a pole position in the title, being an art director means working more with people than computers. This translates to leading a team, talking to clients, and reporting to senior management. A great art director is thus a great listener with the ability to communicate ideas back and forth clearly.
Briefly imagine that you just had the greatest idea ever as an art director, one of those that change pop culture. It won't mean a thing if you cannot persuade others to follow you down this uncharted road. That's why communication is at the heart of art direction. Of course, this implies both oral and written interactions (creative briefs, presentations, strategy, etc.).
Design skills and tools knowledge
Design is a wide term, and art directors may put such skills to use in a bunch of different ways. Be it in web design, movie or theater set-ups, illustrations, painting, magazine covers, costume creation, video game environments, etc. If it's a video, it means creating a story. If it's an ad campaign, it's designing the visuals, and so forth.
Although a more significant chunk of their time goes to ideation rather than execution, they must know the latest tools and techniques in the game. Some of the most popular tools that art directors get in touch with include Keynote, Google Suite, PowerPoint, and Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, Premiere, and Animate).
As a team leader, an art director is required to manage people, budgets, and timelines. Therefore, discipline and being able to build meaningful relationships are crucial to this role. Juggling between multiple responsibilities also calls for high-level organizational skills. Other desirable competencies within this category include problem-solving, planning, decision making, delegating, and mentoring.
Nothing short of coming up with interesting and innovative visual ideas, while paying extreme attention to details.
By now, you probably understand that the two crucial roles of any art director are connected to art and people. Below you can find a quick list of the main responsibilities for this role:
- being able to recognize the talent of team members,
- knowing how and when to use different team members' talents,
- being confident in giving feedback,
- cooperating with other internal/external "artists" such as photographers, writers, and editors,
- working to deadlines and budgets,
- designing with the team and knowing all the relevant tools like Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and other similar design software,
- attending meetings with clients and coworkers,
- creating, adopting, and executing the overall design and directing others who develop artwork or layouts,
- project management,
- adhering to the strategy of the creative director.
How to become an art director?
The path might be long, but for any true leading artist, it is worth it. If you're looking to skip some steps described below, psst, there is a way. You just let Ogilvy's Associate Creative Director (Joel Arzu) show you how to create campaigns strong enough to stand on their own.
- As for a more traditional path, art directors need a basis in art or design bachelor's degree. Your official education may also be in a related field, such as communications technology. However, you're a fit for this position as long as you have natural aesthetics, leadership capacities, and the required skills you can get from educational programs and courses.
- Obviously, the art director is not a junior position, and it calls for previous work experience. The experience level usually required for the position is 3-5 years. Relative to the industry, art directors may have previously worked as graphic designers, illustrators, copy editors, photographers, or in another art or design occupation. Regardless, it is essential to master the creative process behind visual communications.
- Those that have truly found their calling may earn a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. This will neatly supplement your work experience, allow extra distinguishment, and showcase your creative or managerial ability.
- Finally, the golden boot, the cash-cow, the lucky sock – PORTFOLIO!
- Developing a collection of artworks that demonstrates the style and abilities is essential. Those that will decide whether you get the job or not will scan through it and either go "WOW" or "not cool". An additional piece of advice here is to always be clear on the role you've played in each project.
Breaking down the numbers
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 98.000 art director jobs in the US in 2020. By 2030 a faster than average growth is expected at a rate of approximately 11% or 10.800 new jobs. Sounds promising, right?
What does a Creative Director do?
Put simply, a creative director is a big art director.
The main difference between the two is the scope of skills, responsibilities, and experience.
On the one hand, both are in charge of people and strategy. On the other, a creative director deals with much more than the visual aspect of the creative process. A creative director will typically lead a team of designers, art directors, illustrators, photographers, copywriters, uniting them all in a single mission – maintaining a cohesive brand vision that achieves the project goals. They need to bring in a lot of creativity and problem-solving skills.
Finally, a creative director is more of an enabler than a doer. A typical day in his life may include meeting clients to discuss their needs, leading team brainstorming sessions, balancing a budget, directing creative decisions, and delivering projects.
Now let's get into specifics: skills, responsibilities, and becoming a creative director.
A creative director oversees the ideation and execution of the entire creative process. It means he has to innovate, persuade, be persuaded, motivate, plan, mediate, control, present, lead, mentor, and so much more. Thus, this position calls for excellent management and interpersonal skills.
Creativity and problem-solving
Creativity is a way of living for a creative director. He breads it, eats it, and dreams it. He is equally creative in the approach to art as in getting things done. These guys have no obstacles as their unique perspective allows them to solve puzzles in unusual ways. They are self-starters with a high degree of imagination and curiosity.
It involves everything from communication, courage, honesty, flexibility to work ethic, stress management, and motivation.
Theory and trends knowledge
Full circle creative director will know everything about new tools and applications, design history, and emerging industry trends. In a perfect world, he will keep up with art, technology, politics, and social issues, as a new chance for becoming or remaining relevant always lurks around the corner.
Below is a shortlist of some of the general responsibilities of creative directors:
- Daily checking in with team members on project progress,
- Sticking to deadlines and budgets,
- Coaching and providing constructive feedback,
- Strategy development,
- Pitching concepts to clients or senior management,
- Controlling several projects at a time,
- Understanding the commercial aspect of any given idea or a project,
- Hiring and managing,
- Following the industry trends,
- Coming up with new ideas for company branding, promotional campaigns, and marketing communications,
- Making sure everyone knows their place and contributes to the overall success.
How to become a creative director?
Once again, it takes time, perseverance, and many right decisions.
- While a traditional path includes an art degree, creative directors come from different backgrounds and roles nowadays. As an art director, it's fair to own a Fine Arts, Graphic Design, or Communications bachelor's degree. Nevertheless, as it can take 5-10 years to reach this position, the experience, character, and vision will ultimately outweigh the official education.
- Experience-wise, get in touch with whatever feels natural. Graphic design, copywriting, editing, photography, video, film, you name it. In the end, it's more about the creative process and the approach to problem-solving than about a specific talent. You can start by applying to internships, freelance positions, or entry-level jobs.
- Once you've covered the first two it's never a waste of time to gain a master's degree if it feels right. This can be in whichever field you wish to reinforce – art or management. However, it will not necessarily be a decisive factor in getting a job or a promotion. After all, creativity and leadership skills are more innate than acquired.
- Same as with an art director, a portfolio speaks louder than a resume.
- Follow or connect with industry leaders. Networking will give you the chance to get inspired and learn new techniques from experienced professionals, and potentially land new opportunities.
Breaking down the numbers
Zippia estimates there were over 34.000 creative director jobs in the US in 2020, with 33% being female and 58% male employees. The average starting salary goes around $61.000, while the top 10% highest-paid creatives earn as much as $170.000 per year.
Key similarities and differences
To wrap up, let's showcase some of the most distinctive similarities and differences between the 3 roles: graphic designer, art director, and creative director.
Graphic designer / Art director
While a graphic designer is preoccupied with one aspect of visual communications, an art director is responsible for everything visual. This includes video, illustration, photography, etc.
Art Director – Creative Director
An art director focuses on aesthetics and visuals, whereas the scope of a creative director's creativity field is much wider. He is involved with graphics, writing, marketing, strategy, communications, and so much more. *A way to think: a creative director coaches a whole football team, and an art director is responsible for goalkeepers.
Creative Director – Graphic Designer
A creative director mediates between various artistic team members, and a graphic designer, if necessary, executes his ideas and visions.
Creative director vs. art director: Choosing a path
It should be simple to differentiate the two based on all of the above. At least in all the important ways. Being so, you should also easily recognize the traits and the skills you possess that are required in both roles.
Once you do that, the path should present itself to you. If you like the idea of being the brain behind all creative concepts and pitching them to others, then a creative direction is a good choice. If you lean towards a more hands-on experience with great attention to detail, you're all about the art direction.
The good news is that whatever you decide, it doesn't have to be final. Working in different roles like UX designer or content strategist will give you a better grasp of what these two jobs actually entail. Just surround yourself with dedicated professionals, stay ambitious, knowledge-thirsty, and humble.