How to Become an Art Director in the US

art director istock

The role of an art director or creative director isn’t limited to one field. You’ll find art directors in media, publishing, advertising, film and television, marketing, web design- even the video game industry. An art director’s responsibility is to manage a team of designers, assistants or artists working on a creative project. It’s not usually possible to become an art director straight after graduation. You’ll need an entry-level position in a suitable field before progressing to being an assistant and finally a director.

In this article, we’ll go through the role of an art or creative director, the qualifications you’ll need, and the skills and experience you’ll need to work your way up to becoming one.


The Role and Responsibilities of an Art Director

An art director’s job is to manage teams and oversee a design process. This could be art which appears in magazines, photos for ad campaigns or the image for a book cover. Some art directors manage entire design departments and work closely with other design professionals, and even with people with completely different roles.

Art directors and creative directors work with:

  • editors
  • photo editors
  • photographers
  • copywriters
  • journalists
  • designers
  • artists

For example, at a magazine, an art director would work with copywriters or editors to match images to words, and decide on fonts, spacing, and layout, and the team’s goal would be to use imagery and layout to create a unique look for the magazine. An art director in a publishing house might hire designers for book covers and contribute to the designs. At ad agencies art directors may work with copywriters. They may specialise in creating ads for TV, web or print. Collaboration with other team members ensures that all the elements segue together to form the finished design.


Work Settings

The great news about this job is that art directors work in various settings, so you’ll have lots of choice about which field you work in. As we already covered, art directors work in various fields from the media to advertising.

Even within those fields, art directors are everywhere, from a startup quarterly magazine to the multinational corporations that churn out the glossies. This means that the job can be very different depending in your work setting. An art director in a small advertising agency or nonprofit newspaper will do a lot of the design herself and work closely with her team. An art director at a well-established publishing house will do a lot of management work and hiring of contractors.



The career of art director or creative director offers a salary which is higher than the US average.

Lowest paid 10%


Median annual wage


Highest earning 10%


As you can see, the lowest paid 10 percent still manage to earn approximately $43,870, so even if you aren’t doing as well as your peers, you can still make good money in this field. The best paying jobs are located in San Francisco, New York and Richmond, Virginia- so you might want to consider relocating.


Necessary Qualifications to Become an Art Director

Most art directors have degrees such as:

Graphic design degrees are particularly prized by employers. It can be possible to become an art director with a degree in Art, too- but design-oriented degrees may be more relevant than a degree in Fine Art or Art History.

A degree in integrated marketing communication can provide you with training in multiple areas of marketing, including:

  • Advertising
  • Public relations
  • Marketing
  • Digital media

If you’ve got a marketing degree, doing a master’s degree in graphic design or multimedia design will give you extra skills.


Career Progression

As the role involves a lot of responsibility, including working to tight deadlines and possibly coordinating teams and working on several projects at once, many employers expect art director candidates to have 7-10 years of experience. In other words, you don’t just become an art director or creative director. You have to work your way up from an assistant position (editorial assistant, creative team member, junior marketer, etc). 

  • For graduates, a great place to get some experience under your belt is to get a job or internship at an advertising agency. You’ll get used to the office setting and to working in a fast paced environment.
  • If you’re past the internship stage, creative jobs at marketing departments or magazines will also give you relevant experience. You’ll need to show examples of your work with a portfolio, which you’ll have created during your degree.
  • Once you have at least 7 years of experience behind you, you can apply to become an art director. If you want to stand out when applying for art director jobs, having relevant skills will give you the edge. Try to learn design-based marketing techniques, such as online advertising, packaging, leaflets, and related skills. 


The role of art director is filled with possibilities and opportunities to change your field if you ever get bored or fancy a career change. The paths to becoming an art director are also fluid and varied, so you can choose the degree and work experience which showcases your unique talents, and which you most enjoy. Art directors also earn a good salary. However, developments in technology (software, cameras, lighting, etc) and trends in marketing, the arts and film might place demands on you to keep up to date with your skills and training. And the road to becoming an art director is a long one- but the job is definitely interesting.