Last Updated on January 6, 2022
Creativity is a way of life…but making creativity into a living can seem daunting — particularly when you don’t have an educational or professional background in art. If you are a non-professional artist who is eager to turn your artistic talents into a career, you’ve come to the right place. Together, Artrepreneur and Creative Circle have put together this comprehensive article series to support budding artists in the early stages of their art careers. In this article series, you’ll find valuable information on building and maintaining a career in the creative space. We cover topics including career paths, preparing for interviews, using social media to grow your footprint, networking, and much more. Both Creative Circle and Artrepreneur are committed to being here for you throughout your career.
“Creative director” and “Art director” are terms that get thrown around a lot—sometimes interchangeably. Sometimes it feels like everyone calls themselves a Creative Director these days, but it is a role one that carries a lot of responsibility and maintains a lot of moving parts. It’s also constantly evolving with the times.
What is a creative director and what is an art director?
The creative director is the head of the creative department, whether it’s a studio, fashion house, hotel chain or ad agency. The creative director is a high-level manager who sets the vision for brand identity and oversees campaigns and projects. They ensure projects are consistent and meet the needs of the project and/or client. The creative designer sees the big picture. They conceptualize it, and even though they let the team run with the vision, they are still involved in the process—just from a higher level. They map out the process, make sure the campaign meets deadlines and expectations of all parties involved from IT to the client, and they also make sure the final product/products is still in line with the big picture vision and connects to the desired target audience or zeitgeist.
While the creative director is all about the big picture, the art director is all about being hands-on. There certainly can be overlap between the creative director and the art director, but the art director fleshes out the creative director’s vision and executes it, from creating timelines to dictating layouts. They are detail-oriented and lead the campaign more intimately, working directly with the creative team — graphic designers, copywriters, editors, UX/UI designers, developers, or more. And sometimes they do some of the work themselves, depending on the size of the team and their skills.
Of course, every company is different. At many places, both roles are clear and separate, at others, they’re combined into one role, and at even others, the titles may be flipped. The important thing when looking at Creative Director or Art Director roles is to keep in mind what your personal approach to campaigns is. Are you a big picture thinker? Or do you live for getting your hands dirty and figuring out the details of the brief?
Qualifications: What does it take to be a Creative Director/Art Director?
Roles like these often require a bachelor’s degree in commercial art such as graphic design, illustration, or advertising. Plenty of art and creative directors get their Master’s. But a degree may not get you far if you don’t have experience and a strong portfolio. Art directors are more likely to have more technical skills and experience, giving them the ability to tinker with assets or designs themselves. For creative directors, having the technical skill is extremely helpful and is likely how you worked your way up to take on the creative director role in the first place. More than that, creative directors must be able to manage teams and all the moving parts of a project while maintaining the vision of the project.
Having a strong portfolio is key. Your portfolio should be well-designed, showcasing your visual style, and it should also be accessible and easy to read. Incorporating straightforward case studies that explain the project, your role, and the outcome (without getting bogged down with the details) will help clients understand your approach to project management from your point of view. Including testimonials from previous clients allow future clients to understand what it’s like to work with you from their point of view.
Level Up: How to be a better Creative/Art Director
It’s also important to keep in mind that various companies are looking for different things in a creative director—and increasingly the creative director role is expanding. “Due to increased competition, new communication platforms, and a more global consumer, modern creative directors are expected to conceptualize everything a brand stands for, including advertising campaigns, store design, social media strategy, and brand collaborations,” according to Vogue Business.
For both creative and art director roles, staying informed and up to date on trends—whether visual trends, TikTok challenges, or even the fonts everyone seems to be using—is crucial to tailoring your output to meet the audience where they’re at. Of course, having a strong visual style and brand identity is crucial in finding that balance between being on point and merely following a trend that keeps your work from standing out.
At the root of being a good creative and/or art director is being a good manager, and thus, a good communicator. Setting realistic deadlines, being extremely clear about deliverables, and making sure all members of the team (and all the teams involved) have the same expectations go hand in hand with challenging your team members to push themselves creatively and stay motivated.
Roy Grace, one of the greatest creative directors who worked on legendary campaigns for Alka-Setlzer (we still say “Spicy Meatball” to this day), VW, and more once said that the job of a creative director was “To take the garbage out.” Make sure issues get addressed, make sure the bad ideas stay out of the campaign and clear the way so your team can succeed. For a leadership role, being a creative director requires being able to get out of your own way as well.
Creative Directors and Art Directors may be two different roles, and they both require an immense amount of vision, originality, and attention to detail—but they’re only as strong as the team and relationships they cultivate.
This article was co-created by Creative Circle. Creative Circle is an award-winning recruiting and consulting company representing digital, creative, and marketing professionals. Our job is to make your job easier, whether you’re hiring, building a team, or searching for your next role. Together, we can solve your biggest challenges. Special thanks to Melissa Rogers, Senior Brand Manager of Creative Circle.
Sam Mani writes about work, creativity, wellness, and equity — when she’s not cooking, binging television, or annoying her cat.