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Art Direction, explained.

What exactly does an Art Director do? Having worked in Editorial, Web, and Retail design, at design studios and in-house within an large field where it's possible to find a Graphic Designer, a Designer, an Art Director, a Design Director, and a Creative Director all under one roof, even I get confused sometimes about the difference.

I have always loved the job of an Art Director. To me, this job encompasses all of my personal strengths and lets me pool them together in one role. It allows me to lead and still be hands-on, and it provides me with the opportunity to help create experiences beyond just designing one aspect of them.

So what is an Art Director? I haven't seen the role explained better than in Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne's 2009 book, Art Direction Explained, At Last! And even within the pages, nowhere have I seen it so beautifully explained as in the book's opening spread:

A Fable/Preamble:
"I Am An Art Director," Said the Fox

By Brian Collins

Once upon a time there was a raccoon who made a living making and selling banjos.

One day a donkey entered his shop. "How can I help you?" asked the raccoon.

"Well, I would very much like to play the banjo," said the donkey.

So the raccoon sold him a basic but lovely starter model. The donkey went on his way, rejoicing in his new purchase. The raccoon was also quite pleased, reckoning he had just gained a repeat customer, as the donkey would certainly be back for a banjo case, strings, finger picks, a pitch pipe, sheet music and—eventually—a top-of-the-line banjo.

The donkey went home and flailed away at the instrument for several days. But, as the timbre of his playing did not meet his expectations, discouragement soon set in. He stashed the banjo under his bed and did not revisit the raccoon's shop.

Soon after, the raccoon was lamenting the circumstance to some of his friends. Frankly, it was not the first time a promising customer had failed to return. Business was flat.

You are not exactly a writer. You are not exactly a poster-maker. You are not a brand consultant. You are not a web designer. Yet you did all of these things...

"Your logo is outdated," said the mole, a branding guru; "I will spherize it for you!"

"I will write you a clever TV spot!" said the bear, who was a copywriter. "I'll hire Joe Pytka to direct it."

"You need a transmedia, multichannel, viral marketing strategy!" said the rabbit, who was a web tycoon. "I will monetize all of those eyeballs!"

The raccoon felt paralyzed. Then the fox—who had been listening in the corner—spoke up.

"Perhaps what your customers really want," he said, "is not the banjo itself, but the magic of banjo music. So, perhaps you should be in the art of delivering them that magic."

"What?" said the raccoon, but dimly comprehending.

"Look, why not let me make some posters offering banjo classes? Then allow me to redesign your shop so it feels inviting. I will set up some chairs, put on some hot coffee and ask everyone in. Then you can hold jam sessions in your shop, where new players can mingle and hone their skills. And I could invite a visiting virtuoso to give a recital. I'll create a little newsletter that explains what you do every week. I can also film the sessions and create a website to make it all available online for creatures living in the outlying hollows. In this way, you'd start giving customers," suggested the fox. "Consequently, I believe the demand for your instruments will blossom."

"Capital!" exclaimed the raccoon, catching on.

And that's just what he did, following the fox's suggestions. In no time, his shop changed from a mere banjo store to a hive of banjo action. The donkey, hearing that lessons were to be had, came back. And he told others. Who then told others. Demand skyrocketed. Then raccoon hired assistants and opened a recording studio. Customers came from everywhere. Best of all, the dells resounded with the dulcet ding-a-dang of the banjo.

When the raccoon went to pay the fox for his remarkable services, the raccoon asked him what line of work he was in. "You are not exactly a writer. You are not exactly a poster-maker. You are not a brand consultant. You are not a web designer. Yet you did all of these things for me."

"Well, that's because I art director," answered the fox.

And soon after the raccoon came to see himself as not a banjo builder, but a "maker of musicians."

And so did everyone else.

Alyssa YeagerComment