What is an art director and what does he do?

What duties and roles are really involved in art direction, with special regard to advertising.

Here is the comprehensive job description and profile


An Art Director is the professional figure who organises and directs the visual elements in every communication media, from films to television programmes, from digital installation to adverts.

More specifically, in the advertising field, the art director is responsible for designing the overall look of a commercial or a print-based advert.
Anyway, he is charged with a much more complex task than just making the advert aesthetically nice: his role, in fact, involves making all the visual elements work together in order to maximise the impact of the message.

The famous art director David Christensen explains:

“Art direction should help an idea rather than hinder it.

Art direction should be a window rather than a beautifully painted and papered wall.

Art direction should be simple and logical. It should be about the product and for the market it is aimed at. If people only get as far as admiring your ad for the look of it, then you’ve failed.  Art direction can only be the transport, it can’t be the whole journey”.


Creative geniuses and rule breakers

The importance of communication goals always exceeds the one of traditional principles of graphic design.

That is to say, an art director often needs to break the aesthetic rules, in order to grab attention and create surprise.

This doesn’t mean an art director should be a visual anarchist, but that he has to know when to overthrow convention for the sake of realising a fresh, original and creative product, which is capable of eliciting emotional response from the audience.

Any design professional has to be fully aware of the rules associated with visual communication, before starting challenging them. And, in creative advertising, all rules can be challenged.

Since the Art Director translates into a visual expression the original idea set out in the creative brief, in order to obtain a satisfying final result, the central concept needs to be solid enough.

A great art direction, made of visual execution, styling, post-production or CGI, can never go as far as making a poor advert any better.

As another art director, Steve Dunn, points out: “The ad is the cake. The art direction is the icing”.


When art becomes communication

Also, in the advertising field, art directors are creative partners to copywriters, who are responsible to write all the words: body copies, scripts, captions, headlines, straplines or slogans.

In the modern era, these two professional figures often work together in a very synergistic process, agreeing common concepts and ideas before splitting up their respective responsibilities.

To some extent, they can even share their tasks: an art director may contribute to the written content, just as a copywriter can be involved in exploring different photographic, illustrative or typographic layouts or styles.

The main misunderstanding around the term “art direction” itself is that many people, even among insiders and experts, do not consider advertising as art.

Indeed, it may borrow images from art or visually emulate distinctive artistic schools, but anyway its final purpose is always communication.

Even the art becomes just a way to communicate the advertising message in the most effective and appropriate manner possible.

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