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Art Director Career Guide

How to Become an Art Director

That hilarious commercial you can’t stop thinking about. The clever Instagram ad that sucked you in. Commercials, Instagram ads, websites, billboards, and even video games—behind each of these is an art director and many hours of creative concepting. Art directors play a critical role in directing creative design work to produce a beautiful product that engages consumers.  

Above the art director sits the creative director. While art directors oversee the design and visual execution, creative directors coordinate all creative work, ranging from copy to video, design, and photography.

What’s the difference between an art director and a creative director? Usually seniority, responsibility, and the number of areas they oversee. Most creative directors have senior copy leaders and art directors that report to them. Art directors manage designers and copy team managers guide content writers and copywriters.  

An art director is generally a leader in a creative department within a company, animation studio, or a creative advertising agency. Their primary role is ensuring the visual side of creative work meets a high standard. They critique work, ensure that timelines are met, and mentor graphic designers and others involved in creating the visual product.  

Some art directors do design work themselves. This is particularly common in an ad agency setting, where an art director and copywriter team up to create advertisements.

Learn more about the day-to-day job, salary, and qualifications for art directors in this guide.

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What Is an Art Director?

An art director is someone who guides creative design work. They direct the art side of a project. That may sound simple, but the kind of art each art director oversees can vary. For instance, an art director for a video game might be tasked with creating the artistic vision for the game, including the animation style and the look of the characters. Conversely, an art director at a large tech company may be more involved in overseeing digital advertisements or the look and feel of the website.

In most cases, art directors guide designers in creative visual execution. Their jobs aren’t easy as they’re in charge of managing designers with different tastes and styles. The art director’s challenge is to recognize the unique strengths of each designer and guide them to create work that’s both compelling and on-brand.  

The best art directors think through visual presentation with the user in mind. They constantly ask themselves, “How would a potential customer connect with this, and would this piece engage them and incite them to action?” Art directors should also have a good eye and understanding of what makes good copy. Since the words themselves are often part of the design, art directors are commonly asked to consider both text and image as they relate to the visual impact of a given asset.

What Does an Art Director Do?

Art directors wear plenty of hats. With many projects to juggle, a day in the life of an art director is never boring. Some of their many tasks include:

  • Concepting. Art directors often work with copywriters to generate a clear concept and creative direction for a project or campaign.
  • Producing sketches, storyboards, and comps. Also called a “comprehensive layout,” a comp is a rough wireframe or first-pass take on a concept or asset. It serves to give a general format and sense of direction to copywriters and designers. Sketches and storyboards may also be necessary, particularly when video assets are being created.
  • Understanding and articulating strategy. Art directors play a key role in ensuring a project remains aligned with the strategic vision of the creative director and other stakeholders. Marketing initiatives, positioning, and target audience should all be considered and communicated clearly to all involved in the project.
  • Collaborating. An art director cooperates with the rest of the creative team to produce various assets ranging from social media ads to billboards and webpage content.
  • Meeting deadlines. Keeping the work on schedule is important. Art directors must ensure that design work is both high- quality and delivered on time all the way from conception to execution.
  • Delegating and directing. In most organizations there are many needed assets. Art directors must be comfortable delegating tasks and directing designers to ensure workloads are distributed evenly to maintain consistent quality.
  • Presenting. It’s key for art directors to hone their presentation skills. They’ll need to present creative briefs to those working on tasks and pitch concepts to stakeholders or clients.
  • Staying sharp. Design trends and software evolve rapidly. The best art directors are aware of the latest tools and standards and stay on the cutting edge as they use fresh, modern designs that compel the target audience.

How Do I Become an Art Director?

To become an art director, you’ll need specific training. Here’s how to start your journey:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree. You may consider pursuing a degree in art, graphic design, or even marketing.
  • Think about a master’s degree. As an art director, you’ll likely be managing people and projects. This makes a business master's in management and leadership or an MBA degree valuable options. A graphic design master’s degree in fine arts may teach you the more technical skills needed for success.
  • Gain experience. It’s never too early to start learning what it’s like to be an art director. Try shadowing one to get a feel for what the day-to-day job entails. Next, land an internship or entry-level position and begin working as a graphic designer as early as you can. There’s no better way to improve your art and design skills than working on your craft daily. To prepare for a role as an art director, aim to get at least five years of experience under your belt.
  • Apply for art director jobs. Find jobs that interest you and apply for them. Trust in your credentials and experience and keep pushing until you find what you’re looking for.

Best Degrees for an Art Director

Marketing – B.S. Business Administration

For those who want to lead brands and steer consumer markets:...

For those who want to lead brands and steer...

For those who want to lead brands and steer consumer markets:

  • Time: 67% of graduates finish within 36 months.
  • Tuition: $3,575 per 6-month term.

Some careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • Marketing and PR manager
  • Director of marketing and communications
  • Director of publications
  • Customer intelligence manager
  • Marketing sales manager

Marketing is a creative and exciting field—and one where an undergraduate degree will open better opportunities.

Management and Leadership – M.S.

An online master's degree focused on change management,...

An online master's degree focused on change...

An online master's degree focused on change management, innovation, and leading teams:

  • Time: 62% of graduates finish within 18 months.
  • Tuition: $4,530 per 6-month term.

Sample careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • President
  • Vice president
  • Director of operations
  • Executive director

Develop a comprehensive suite of leadership skills and your confidence to navigate changing business structures.

Master of Business Administration

The flexible MBA program you need, focused on business...

The flexible MBA program you need, focused on...

The flexible MBA program you need, focused on business management, strategy, and leading teams:

  • Time: Graduates can finish in 12 months.
  • Tuition: $4,530 per 6-month term.

Sample careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • President and CEO
  • Vice president
  • Executive director
  • Chief strategic officer

Our competency-based model gives you an innovative learning experience you won't find anywhere else—and our MBA grads tell us they loved accelerating their program to see a faster ROI.


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What Skills Does an Art Director Need?

Success as an art director depends on more than just technical design skills. Having the proper soft skills and being a skilled collaborator is also key. Succeed as an art director by honing these abilities:  

  • Organization. An art director must be able to coordinate with stakeholders while maintaining the progress of multiple projects, which requires careful organization.
  • Creativity. Art directors create. They must be able to execute and design rapidly, so having creative abilities is crucial.
  • Vision. It takes skill to create a vision and bring it to life. An art director must be able to do both. They work with purpose and never lose sight of creative and organizational goals as they guide projects and assist in executing them.
  • Project management. A large part of the job of an art director is keeping projects moving. Time management and prioritization are needed skills for art directors who manage projects.
  • Graphic design skills. You can’t mentor others and lead design projects if you don’t have design chops yourself. Graphic design skills are a prerequisite to becoming an art director.
  • Developing creative standards. Often, art directors work with several graphic designers. They ensure the design stays consistent and on-brand regardless of who works on a project.
  • Proficiency with illustration tools. Art directors should know the software in Adobe Creative Suite like the back of their hand. They should also be familiar with other tools such as Figma and Procreate.
  • Desktop publishing skills. Art directors ensure that print and digital materials are formatted correctly before they’re published. The assets produced through desktop publishing include presentations, posters, flyers, and billboards.
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How Much Does an Art Director Make?

$100,000

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for an art director in 2021 was $100,890. The pay can vary, however, with the top 10% of earners making $194,000 or more. Education, certifications, years of experience, and even locale all factor into overall salary.

What Is the Job Outlook for an Art Director?

11%

The BLS projected the employment of art directors to grow by a sizable 11% from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations. They project an average of 11,500 new openings for art directors each year.

Where Does an Art Director Work?

Varies

Art directors can work in any setting that requires someone to guide art and design. They’re often needed in advertising agencies, but can also work at public relations firms, for magazines or newspapers, and for companies in virtually any industry.  

Interested in Becoming an Art Director?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this exciting career.

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