How to Become an Art Director

Looking for a career that would benefit from your artistic and creative skills? Look no further!

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Art director woman sitting on a stool and working

If you’re looking to pursue a career within the creative world, then we’ve good news for you! There are numerous roles and titles to pick from. One of the most important ones, however, is that of the art director.

This is a role which requires both creative abilities and talent, as well as sharp leadership and managerial skills.

If you’re creatively inclined, a career as an art director probably seems quite appealing. But what does an art director actually do? And how can you pursue this exciting artistic career?

Read on to learn more about the role of the art director and how you can work your way up to the title.

1. Understand what an art director does

Before embarking on this career path, it’s crucial for you to get a comprehensive image of what art directors actually do.

Art direction is a multifaceted role and can vary depending on the industry you work in. That said, your responsibilities will range from creative duties to managerial and administrative tasks.

While the job description may vary, in the simplest of terms, art directors are responsible for creating a visual style whether it be for an ad campaign, a product, a fashion shoot or a film. This process involves conceptualising an idea, developing the concept and deciding what design elements will be used to visually capture this concept.

Of course, this process also involves liaising with clients as well as the creative talent that will bring your vision to life: photographers, designers, makeup artists and so on.

At the pre-production stage, art directors are responsible for creating a concrete vision for the project and the overall aesthetic. To achieve this, they must consider elements such as typography, colour schemes and layouts.

During the production stage, they act as project managers, ensuring that the timeline is being followed, coordinating designers, and ensuring that the vision is cohesive and in line with the client’s needs.

It’s a diverse and fast-paced role that involves both creative and managerial responsibilities. In a way, art directors bridge the communication between designers and executives by having one foot in each world.

2. Choose your industry

In order to build up your career and earn yourself this title, you first need to select which industry is best suited for you, as an art director’s duties can vary greatly from one field to the next.

This isn’t a role you can immediately break into, so in order to work your way up, you’ll need to pick a niche and attain the necessary experience and skills that the specific field requires.

Here are a few areas where you can pursue a career as an art director:

  • Film/TV production: Designing sets, overseeing their creation, and determining the overall style of a film production.
  • Advertising and public relations: Coming up with the visual aspects and style of ad campaigns across different media.
  • Publishing: Being in charge of the covers and layouts of different material such as magazines, catalogues and books.
  • Performing arts: Managing production sets while working with directors, stage managers and performers.
  • Digital media: Conceptualising and designing digital media for online marketing campaigns.
  • Fashion: Designing concepts for visual projects, styling photo shoots and directing a team of artists.
  • Photography: Designing the layout of the shots, overseeing stylists and consulting photographers to ensure the creative strategy is being met.

As you can see, each industry has a very different set of requirements for art directors. While certain responsibilities may be similar, their knowledge within the particular industry is what determines their success within it.

Therefore, it’s vital that you tailor your skillset to the industry you want to break into in order to be able to successfully market yourself but also establish solid foundations and contacts in that sector.

3. Get the right qualifications

There isn’t a set list of qualifications you need to become an art director. That said, having a degree in a relevant field from a top art school will give you a head-start when it comes to job opportunities and knowledge. Plus, it’s a great way to establish a professional network and tap into the industry you want to pursue a career in.

Common areas of study include fine art, media, graphic design, marketing and advertising at undergraduate level. Such studies will give you the building blocks for this career, help you attain important contacts and gain a better understanding of the options available to you.

You may also consider pursuing a master’s degree in a more specialised subject such as virtual arts, advertising, fashion marketing or even business administration, which will open up doors to managerial and senior roles.

4. Attain experience in other roles

There are various steps and stages you need to go through before you can wear the art director’s cap. For example, you’ll need at least three to four years of experience within a relevant field before you can advance to a higher position.

Most art directors initially work as graphic designers, content creators, stylists or creative assistants before they can reach their end goal. A great way to get started is through an internship with a creative agency or studio, which will give you the necessary foundations to build your career. From there on, you will need to work your way up from an entry-level position towards a managerial role.

That said, you could also take a different route and choose to freelance your services as an art director. This will give you further flexibility and allow you to choose your clients based on the projects you want to take on. However, you will still need to illustrate your experience in the sector, which is easier to attain through the aforementioned roles.

This stage does require patience, but it’s essential for your professional growth, as your time in the creative field will allow you to get a good grasp of how the industry works, build a professional network and enhance your experience, all of which will allow you to establish yourself as an art director when the time comes.

5. Build an impressive portfolio

Speaking of establishing yourself as an art director, you’ll need to build a strong and cohesive portfolio that showcases your best work. To build your portfolio, you could create your own website or simply showcase your work on websites like Adobe Portfolio, Behance and Format.

As an art director, you need to have your own distinct brand identity, which will make you stand out from others. Therefore, your portfolio should be diverse but also indicate your personal style. To achieve this, you need to create a marketing plan that captures your personal brand and makes you more recognisable to clients.

If you’re just getting started, a great way to add volume to your portfolio is through mock campaigns and personal projects that demonstrate your vision as a creator. You could also reach out to other professionals and ask them to review your portfolio and provide you with necessary feedback so you can refine its contents.

Meanwhile, you should consider your social media accounts as another facet of your portfolio as an art director. Indeed, most employers tend to check a candidate’s social accounts before hiring them. The same could apply for your potential clients.

Having an online presence will also help you stay relevant in your industry, and through active networking, you could also help your career as an art director take off. Consequently, ensure that your social profiles also reflect your personal brand and vision.

6. Diversify your knowledge

As already discussed, the role of the art director is a multifaceted one. In order to excel in this position, you need to hone your skills and stay on top of your industry.

There are several skills that you should consider adding to your arsenal, which will make you a competitive candidate and far more skilled professional. While you don’t need to have a design background to attain this role, you should still be familiar with the basic know-how which will allow you to manage a team of designers and creatives successfully. This could mean that you’ll need to possess knowledge of certain tools and platforms, including:

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Adobe InDesign
  • Adobe After Effects

Of course, this also depends on the sector you want to work in, be it film and TV, advertisements, gaming or tech. So, along with these skills, you may also need to concentrate further on areas like print, branding, videography and photography in order to perform your duties adequately.

Beyond practical skills, you must also refine other areas of knowledge such as budget management, team management and time management. Remember: a big part of your role is to guide and direct others, and this involves juggling the logistics of a project.

You must also ensure that you’re on top of current market trends, which will inform your work and allow you to direct appealing projects and campaigns.

7. Pursue higher roles

Once you reach the mountaintop of art direction, you may eventually wish to pursue a different executive role within your chosen sector.

For example, you could opt to become a creative director, a role which is more focused on strategy and communication of a project. Creative directors must also oversee the marketing side of a campaign, outline a brand image as well as set brand guidelines.

This is a good step-up if you want to focus more on managerial responsibilities rather than the creative aspects of a campaign.

Other relevant roles that may also be up your creative alley could include project management, design direction as well as production design. Through your accumulated experience, you will be able to take on different roles or add additional responsibilities within your current role as an art director.

If you’re a natural-born leader with a creative flare, then this career path is an ideal option for you. What’s great about this profession is that there is no one-size-fits-all way to become an art director. Indeed, people from diverse backgrounds and with an array of skillsets have worked their way up the creative ladder to sit in the art director’s chair.

So, whether you decide to try your hand in graphic design, pursue copywriting or give general management a go first, you can still break into this incredibly rewarding and fun profession.

Are you thinking about becoming an art director? What’s your strategy? Let us know in the comments section below!