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How to Become an Art Director

Get practical tips on how to grow your career as an art director. Explore the role of an art director, the skills you need to be an art director, and how the job differs from a creative director.

10 min read

February 08, 2022

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It's natural for your career to progress as you gain new knowledge and design skills. If you have extensive experience in graphic design, photography, fine art, or another creative occupation, becoming an art director is just one way to advance through the ranks. This guide will explore what an art director does, the difference between an art director and a creative director, and practical tips on how to become an art director or grow into the role.

"A great art director should be able to tackle two main aspects of a project—the creative and the emotional." — Marco Cvijetic, Art Director @IKEA

Art Director Job Description

An art director is responsible for developing and executing designs for advertisements, magazines, digital publications, newspapers, movies, television shows, product packaging, and other collaborative creative projects. The job of an art director often involves creating original designs and directing the work of artists, designers, and other individuals involved in the project. As an art director, you must be able to use design thinking to solve problems in a creative way. You may also be asked to perform the following duties:

  • Select artistic elements needed for a project including photographs, illustrations, fonts, sound, etc.
  • Manage design staff, including graphic designers, illustrators, and set designers
  • Coordinate project activities with workers in other departments
  • Create timelines and budgets for design projects
  • Approve photographs, illustrations, and designs created by other professionals

Art director Marco Cvijetic describes his role in a nutshell:

"I currently work as an Art Director at IKEA with a focus on Product Pictures & Films. That means that together with a really diverse team of Photographers, 3D Artists, Interior Designers, and Retouch Artists, we produce content for IKEA’s global website but also for many other channels."

Career Opportunities for Art Directors

One of the most exciting things about becoming an art director is that you can work as an employee or as an independent contractor. As a full-time art director employee, you may work for a film studio, a public relations firm, a newspaper or magazine publisher, or an advertising agency. If you go the freelance route, you can specialize in working with one type of company or offer your services to companies in a variety of industries.

Employment opportunities are most abundant in highly populated areas. In the United States, for example, California, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania are among the states with the most opportunities for art directors. You can also find many employment opportunities in London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and other international cities.

Skills Needed to Become an Art Director

Just because you have design skills doesn't mean you'll succeed as an art director. You also need to have some specific personal characteristics. One of the most important is an even temperament. You need to be able to inspire team members and motivate them to work hard when a deadline is looming.

A good art director also knows when team members can work autonomously and when they need a little more oversight, so you must be able to maintain a good balance between micromanaging people and leaving them without any support at all. If you maintain this delicate balance, you're more likely to complete a project successfully. You may also develop a reputation as a skilled leader, creating more opportunities to share your creativity with the world.

As an art director, you need to work with many project stakeholders, from the clients paying for your services to the team members responsible for performing the work. To truly succeed in the role, you must be open to constructive feedback from each person. Accepting feedback gracefully is the sign of a true professional who is more interested in completing the project successfully than in boosting their own ego.

Art Director Average Salary

The salary of an art director varies based on several factors, including employment status, industry, geographic location, job duties, and experience level. According to Salary.com, the average salary for an art director in the United States is $127,411 per year. Salaries in the art direction field typically range from $107,714 to $151,867.

How to Become an Art Director

Art directors get to use their creativity and leadership skills to bring big visions to life. If this appeals to you, follow these steps to becoming an art director.

Get an education (or gain experience)

Many art directors have some type of formal education, such as a bachelor's degree or master's degree in design or a closely related field. Depending on your interests and skills, you may want to pursue a degree in graphic design, fine art, or photography. It's also possible to become an art director with a degree in media technology or film production if you're interested in working on movie and television sets.

While a degree can help you land an art director job much faster, years of relevant work experience can also lead to new art direction career opportunities.

"Art Direction should be a natural step after many years of working as a designer and not only knowing how you work but how the creative industry works too." — Marco Cvijetic, Art Director @IKEA

Develop your skills

To succeed as an art director, you must have a specific combination of hard and soft skills. Hard skills, also known as technical skills, are professional skills that relate directly to art direction, and soft skills are the skills you need to manage your responsibilities effectively. Depending on which industry you choose, you may need to excel at graphic design, multimedia content development, desktop publishing, or creating illustrations with Adobe software. You can develop these skills in lower-level roles or work as a freelance creative professional to get the experience you need to apply for art director jobs in the future.

Soft skills make it easier to collaborate with other people and ensure every project is completed on time and to the client's exacting standards. Art directors must be able to communicate effectively with everyone involved in the project, from company executives to design interns. You also need to have management and leadership skills to ensure that everyone on your team executes the creative director's vision successfully. Art directors need to meet tight deadlines, adapt quickly to changing circumstances, and delegate assignments to the people on your team.

"Being a talented designer who is attracted to details and trends is great, but the other half is being a people person who knows how to handle different clients and build bridges between the expectation and the solution." — Marco Cvijetic, Art Director @IKEA

Build an art director portfolio

As you gain experience, add completed projects to your design portfolio to show future clients how your skills have improved over the years. If you don't have a portfolio yet, follow these tips to create one that helps you land the art director job of your dreams.

  • Include only your best work. If you don't like the way a project turned out, you won't feel confident discussing it with a potential client. 
  • Put your most impressive project at the beginning of your portfolio to capture the viewer's attention.
  • Add a variety of projects to your portfolio. You don't want potential clients to think you're a one-trick pony, so add as many types of projects to your portfolio as possible to show off your skills and creative range.
  • Digitize your portfolio. Gone are the days when you had to drag a huge portfolio case to every meeting. You still need to keep hard copies of completed projects, but many potential clients would rather visit your website to learn more about your work. Make high-resolution scans or take photos and then add them to your online portfolio with short descriptions of the role you played in each project.
  • Include self-initiated projects if you can't share work you completed for past employers or clients. You may have to do this if you signed a nondisclosure agreement. Sharing self-initiated projects is also helpful if your paid work experience is in a rather narrow niche and you want to be able to show potential clients that you have a much broader range.

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Continuously learn

Just because you already completed your degree and have some work experience under your belt doesn't mean it's okay to stop learning. If you want to know how to become an art director, one of the keys is to engage in continuous learning. As you build your portfolio, you should continue developing your skills and proactively stay up to date on the latest trends and happenings in your field. As new styles and techniques emerge, knowing what’s going on under the surface is more important than ever to growing your art direction career.

Sites like Udemy and LinkedIn Learning are ideal for learning new design methods, experimenting with industry-standard software, and gaining a better understanding of what an art director does. ​​Follow design blogs and publications to understand how your field is evolving.

Build your professional network

Now that you have the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to become an art director, it's time to hit the networking circuit. Professional networking has a bad reputation in some circles, but it can be highly effective if you approach it the right way. Instead of attending a networking event for the sole purpose of landing a paid gig, make it a point to build relationships with the people you meet. If you don't have a lot of networking experience, follow these tips to ensure everything goes smoothly.

  • Have business cards with you to make it easy to exchange contact information with other attendees.
  • Write an elevator pitch and practice it before the event. An elevator pitch is a quick way to introduce yourself to someone else and give them an overview of what you do. 
  • Listen more than you talk. When you do talk, try to say something of value to the other person. You may want to offer advice on solving a tough design problem, for example.
  • Stay in touch after the event is over. Instead of pitching your services, focus on helping your contacts in some way. An easy way to do this is to send an email with a link to an article that offers additional insight on a topic you discussed during the networking event.

Attract new clients

As a freelance art director, your income depends solely on your ability to land new projects. Attending networking events is a good first step, but it's not the only way to get freelance work. If you're searching for your next opportunity, try some of these tactics:

  • Develop a comprehensive marketing plan to increase awareness of your services. Your marketing strategy may include print advertising, digital advertising, search engine optimization, and word-of-mouth marketing activities.
  • Ask previous clients for referrals.
  • Create profiles on Dribbble, LinkedIn, and other professional networking sites. Make sure you indicate that you're open to new opportunities.
  • Start a blog or look for opportunities to contribute to magazines and digital publications. Sharing your expertise is a great way to get potential clients interested in what you have to offer.
  • Position yourself as an expert in the field by publishing an ebook or answering questions on sites like Quora.
  • Establish a strong social media presence. 
  • Volunteer to present at conferences for industry professionals.
  • Donate your services to a nonprofit organization. This is especially helpful if you need to branch out and add a new type of design project to your portfolio.

What's the Difference Between an Art Director and a Creative Director?

The difference between an art director and a creative director is quite subtle. A creative director is responsible for coming up with the overall vision of a project, and an art director is responsible for executing that vision.

Art directors and creative directors need some of the same skills, such as team management and delegation, but an art director is more involved in the details of project execution. 

The job of a creative director typically involves:

  • Big-picture thinking
  • Coming up with interesting and innovative ideas
  • Delegating tasks to team members
  • Ensuring finished designs meet client expectations

Creative directors are often charged with creating a brand road map or developing a cohesive brand identity and creative vision, giving audience members — product buyers, magazine readers, movie watchers, etc. — a consistent experience.

What are the most important skills for a creative director?

If you're interested in becoming a creative director instead of an art director, you should have the most important skills needed: leadership, facilitation, artistic eye, team-building skills, inspiration, and passion. It's also critical to have experience as a designer or artist of some sort.

For example, someone with photography expertise may have the eye for detail needed to develop unique creative visions for a wide variety of projects. You may also be well-suited for a creative director position if you excel at storytelling because a creative director must be able to develop designs that tell a compelling story.

What's the average salary of a Creative Director?

The salary of a creative director varies based on several factors, including employment status, industry, geographic location, job duties, and experience level. According to Salary.com, the average salary for a creative director in the United States is $134,055 per year. Salaries in this field typically range from $113,311 to $157,347.

Your New Career Awaits

Working as an art director or creative director is extremely rewarding, especially if you decide to become a freelancer. Every project you complete is an opportunity for professional growth and one that can help you advance your career as you learn new skills. To pursue this exciting career, obtain a degree in a design or a media-related field, gain experience, and build a portfolio that captures attention.

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