Art Direction: Be a Sherpa, Not a Shepherd

What is Art Direction?

…it is the charge of a sole art director to supervise and unify the vision. In particular, the art director is in charge of the overall visual appearance and how it communicates visually, stimulates moods, contrasts features, and psychologically appeals to a target audience. The art director makes decisions about visual elements used, what artistic style to use, and when to use motion. (Source: Wikipedia)

From My Point of View

There are many ways to look at what it means to provide art direction. I prefer to think about it this way. Basically, any time someone is transferring vision or direction of how something should look and feel to another person to help execute upon, that is art direction. It is then the role of the Art Director (the one providing the vision) to help guide the vision and see it through.

Directing By Doing, Not Dictating

At Viget, this means doing. Here the art director is also the lead designer. From rough concepts to compositional designs, she gets things started. The range of what is needed upfront to help transfer vision varies depending upon the given task. It is rare that multiple designers are needed on our projects; but, when they are (our work on PUMA for example), it’s the responsibility of the lead designer to provide art direction to the supporting designer or designers.

It is never a case of telling someone how to design without getting dirty first. Without taking time to better illustrate abstract thoughts, you’re simply providing critique, not art direction. A good art director is a good guide, translator, mentor, and leader. A good art director is a sherpa, not a shepherd. A shepherd guards. A sherpa guides.

Often, in order to get the intended results, it is necessary for a lead designer to show supporting designer(s) something beyond abstract thought – a visual (or series of visuals) is needed to help guide the process. As a result, we often begin with sketches or inspiration boards as a starting point. Once we have a client's blessing to proceed in a direction, the process continues with more formal art direction and regular critique to keep things moving forward.

While any designer can provide art direction, not every designer can art direct well. Becoming a good art director comes with experience. It usually involves getting things wrong before getting things right. Over time, the cycle of getting things right and wrong builds wisdom to better know which ideas are strong and which are weak. This is especially true in client-facing situations and why you’ll find our experienced designers with more opportunities to provide art direction.

Learning From Bad Examples

The title of "art director" is meaningless when it's not part of the role.

In my first design job out of college, I was so excited to have the title of Art Director on my business card. There were only two designers and my colleague was the Creative Director. The problem was that neither title meant anything because we rarely worked on the same project together.  We were both, very plainly, designers. I later removed the title from my résumé because my prospective employers were confused by the title in association with my youth and lack of experience.

Good Art Directors don't hover.

Many years later, I worked at a large corporation. I was again excited to have finally earned an Art Director title and position. What it meant was that I was invited to more meetings and had a team of people whose designs I would supervise. I did very little designing of my own. I believe that is more design management than art direction.

I do not believe you can art direct yourself – you just, simply, design.

The term “art-directed design” has been used recently to describe blog posts where each entry has a unique look and feel. The basic premise is that every article is custom-designed to reflect the content of the post editorially. Though the result is usually quite beautiful, to me, this is not art direction. These are examples of editorial design. 

Art Direction Is a Transferrable Act

I've learned that art direction is more than just approving work. It involves solid direction and often that means getting things started, showing where things can go, and clarifying direction through supporting visuals.

Better With Experience

I’ve noticed that different people have different perspectives about what is and isn’t art direction. I believe that art direction can be an amazing growth area for a designer because it involves working with other people and it takes effort to get good.

Good art direction is something that comes with experience. At its worst, it’s uncomfortable and deflating. At its best, it’s rewarding and empowering. It’s in the uncomfortable moments that we seek knowledge from our mentors to help us improve. It’s the rewarding moments that give us as individuals and as teams the courage to continue.

I feel fortunate to work at a place where we have the opportunities to lead with vision while also following where needed. I love that I work with a team that understands that good art direction takes commitment, practice, and support to get better over time. Most importantly, I love that I work with sherpas, not shepherds.

Also check out Dan Mall's ALA article, Art Direction and Design, which is one of my favorites on this subject. 

Tom is vice president of design and works in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He has over two decades of experience as a designer and team coach, and works with clients such as the University of Pennsylvania and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

More posts by Tom