What does an “art director” do?

Beats me. I’ve never worked with one in my life, but now this is my job title, so I’m trying to figure it out. What do you think it means?

My job so far seems to break down as follows:

  • 60 percent art wrangling, for print and Web. This includes photo research, chasing down permissions, cleaning up and sizing art, making more-or-less templated graphic doo-dads, and assembling stuff into online galleries.
  • 30 percent layout, which is to say, picking up templates (or tracing PDFs, when files aren’t handy) made by someone else, for stuff like invitations, postcards, business cards, and a sixteen-page semiannual magazine. There’s a single house font family and a very narrow house color palette, so very little “design” enters the equation. Print production and distribution management for same.
  • 10 percent Web, um, review. We’re in the final weeks of a relaunch, so we’re looking at a lot of new page designs. I’m neither designing nor managing; just mostly trying to help with quality control.

I’ve done this kind of work in the past, mixed in different proportions, under titles like “program associate” or “program director” or “webmaster” or “managing editor.” It’s not like my title matters to me—I’m going to do the work that needs to be done, regardless—but I do suspect that other people have expectations of what an AD does or knows how to do, and I have no idea how my skills and experience relate to those expectations.

Have you ever been or worked with an art director? What does the title mean to you?

10 thoughts on “What does an “art director” do?

  1. The art directors I’ve worked with, in newspapers, usually supervised the graphics team and got in the way of good ol’ production. They were universally reviled for their ability to breeze into a meeting 5 minutes before deadline and tear up a perfectly good effort because it wasn’t “pretty” enough. (Also, because they had the managerial title that kept us from cussing them outright.)

    Sounds like you do a lot more work, and a lot less irritating people :-P than most ADs. That alone makes you the coolest one I ever met. :-)

  2. Erin: I know! And a terrible website! Those directors, and their clubs!

    Denise: It’s true, I’ve gotten a strong impression that art directors are meddling fuckwits who screw everything up and then take all the credit. I went to a Mediabistro class on photo editing last week (recommended), where I heard art directors being generally reviled.

    (But meanwhile, we never have met. Maybe I’m a monster—on the Internet, nobody knows . . .)

  3. We have no true art director here. We have a creative services department, but its chief has little, if any, contact with the departments here with which I feel an AD most usefully would keep in touch: Editorial, Production (of books and periodicals; my dep’t), New Media (a term I revile), and Marketing/Promotion. Nobody has stepped up to fill this position, because nobody has exerted the energy to demonstrate the benefits he or she might provide across the dep’ts I cite. I also believe the culture here is inimical to the open communication and diplomatically delivered assistance a good AD would provide personally, or through staff, to these dep’ts.

    I can define what an AD might have done here by the tasks that go wanting direction in his or her absence. If he or she did exist here, we would run more ads for outside vendors and companies that would bring in revenue. We would have a broader range of ads for our own products, and get solid guidance on the pubs most suitable for them. Ads we did receive here in Production would have current branding, not the logos we stopped using 2 years ago. They would be saved as proper files, not JPEGs or GIFs, and any art placed in them would be of the correct resolution. All text would be properly spelled as well. When we changed branding recently, he or she would have administered the switch across all departments, instead of leaving it to non-design-aware dep’t heads (w/ the exception of my supervisor, a veteran designer who did have an inspired AD at a previous job, and who managed this branding switch perfectly). All of these are important to someone, if not to everyone, and a skilled AD would retain staff to ensure that they were all handled properly . . . AND, they would be current with their staff’s hardware, software, skills, and projects.

    Sometimes a collaborator, sometimes an arbiter, sometimes a creator, occasionally a dictator. If they could manage to do this without appearing to be meddlesome, they would be quite successful. That of course depends on their own approach, but also the culture of their shop, the openness of the other dep’t heads to accepting positive and forward-looking design advice, and the wisdom to guide and nurture a staff of creative and maybe even eccentric spirits w/o cramping their style.

    The term rara avis in terris comes to mind.

    India, I suspect your definition is solid, and that over time you can make of that position what you will. Opportunities to make its goals conform to yours may arise. You might be able to assume control over areas where nobody seems to be stepping up to make a design decision. I wish someone could have done the same here; it would have spared a lot of wasted email, finger-pointing, and time in — crazy concept alert — helping the firm better sell more of its wares.

  4. Your mythical AD sounds like a very useful person; not so much the meddling fuckwit. And it does remind me of one of the things people seemed to want me to do at first, but that I probably haven’t been doing, because I’ve been too busy trying to figure out how everything works here. And that is bridging the gaps between departments that rarely have much to do with each other.

    There are lots of small group meetings, and some departments e-mail and intercom within themselves constantly, but we don’t seem to have general staff meetings here; even though there are only about ten of us, there’s little or no pan-office communication. Also, we sublet space to several other organizations, with our own offices strung out along the perimeter and therefore quite separate from each other.

    The website is mostly “owned” by the magazine staff, as they produce content for it nearly every day, but it also represents the organization as a whole. As art director, I think I’m supposed to be helping to make sure that all the programs, including those staffed by people who maybe don’t organize their entire lives around the Intarweb, are represented to their best advantage online.

    The problem is, because they’re not currently represented to full advantage on the website, and because I’m not having any but the most impromptu meetings with those program staffs, I still don’t really know what they do, what their goals are, who they’re trying to reach, and what they’re trying to say to those people. In other words, I think I’m supposed to be sort of the Web Evangelist—a job title I associate with oh, say, about 1995.

    Must figure out how to do that. As soon as I stamp out this fire that’s threatening to engulf my desk.

    <rant>New Media: I have been seeing this term now for, what, ten years? and it still means nothing to me. It evokes exactly nothing. Does anybody know what it is? Is that really an appropriate name for what people presumably think is an exciting and worthwhile field? What will they call it when those media stop being “new”? Are they already un-new?</rant>

  5. Also: “Opportunities to make its goals conform to yours may arise.”

    Heh. What the hell are my goals?

    Generally I just want to be able to do my job well without being bored. The not-being-bored part tends to rule out the production of widgets, but otherwise what the job is doesn’t matter that much to me, as long as I’m not hurting anybody. Not being bored usually requires learning new things. As I learn new things, my job changes.

    So I guess the question is What do I want to learn?

  6. Hey im 16, and I did a careers test and it says my best career option is an Art Director. But i have no idea what that is, and no one else seems to be able to tell me! haha sucks to be me

  7. Hi, I recently just acquired the title Art Director also! I’ve had the position for about 6 months now and I’m running into clarity issues. It’s weird because this company never had an art director and only had a creative services manager. I thought… if I was ever going to get ahead in this job, I need to strive for more than creative service manager, so I stepped up and developed the AD position for myself. Now that I have it, I’m just struggling with what an AD actually does and how can I help better my department and company as well. Good luck with your new venture!

  8. Ha, nice!

    Just stumbled across this post. As a practitioner of the trade you coin “meddling fuckwits,” I’m going to point readers to two other sites, should someone be searching for clarification on the position.:

    http://www.alistapart.com/articles/artdirweb/

    http://noisydecentgraphics.typepad.com/design/2006/09/art_direction_w.html

    Also, I see from your recent blog posts that you seem to still be in this profession (perhaps enjoying it?). Maybe a follow up post is needed, to define how you’ve grown and shaped this role.

    I personally happen to think Art Direction is a very enjoyable, if sometimes stressful and exhausting, profession. As you appear to have stuck with it, I hope that it has grown to be enjoyable to you, too.

    cheers, Chris

  9. Hi, Chris. Thanks for the links!

    I haven’t stuck with it, in fact, and am, at best, a lapsed art director, since last September I started grad school in something else. Hence the paucity of recent blog posts. I’m technically still at my job, but only because nobody else has been hired yet; I’m on call but not on salary.

    So, at this point, having not had time to put in more than a handful of hours at the office since January, I don’t even remember what I was doing when I was so-called-art-directing. A follow-up post would, therefore, be difficult to assemble. Maybe I’ll take a stab at it, though, once I’ve finally cleaned out my office.

    I still don’t think my job has been art direction; just some kind of mix of production artist, webmaster, and de-stupidifier. I doubt I’ll look for another art direction position when I finish school, since I don’t think it’s a gig that suits me—one indication of which being that I feel like an ass whenever I tell someone my job title. But I’m cheered to hear that you like doing it.

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