Pop quiz, hotshot: what’s an art director? What does an art director do?
We know you’ve heard the term before, but do you do you actually have a clear idea of what art direction looks like in action?
If not, don’t stress it. LNGFRM is about to give you a rundown of art direction, with the help of a talented art director who knows a lot more about this stuff than we do.
But first, up top, if you like what you see here, then go ahead and take a trip to our guest’s official website. and if you have a special interest in design and the visual arts, we have another article here that you’ll enjoy.
If you happen to be of the graphic design persuasion and you don’t know exactly how you’re gonna make it out there in the big bad world, we have some tips for how to make money as a graphic designer.
Alright, let’s get things moving.
Defining art direction
No matter how you did on our little quiz at the start (yes, it was graded), it’s important to set up a stable definition of art direction before we move forward.
There are other design categories that are relatively limited.
Graphic design, for example, is usually only used in print or in digital spaces. It doesn’t often intersect with other types of media.
Similarly, UI and UX design are disciplines relevant to digital products and digital spaces: websites, apps, software, things like that.
But art direction is relevant to many different kinds of media.
Officially, art direction is defined as the work of an art director overseeing the artistic aspects of a film, publication, or other media production.
It’s an accurate definition but still very broad.
Art directors can work on marketing campaigns, feature films, commercials, video games, as well as those digital products we mentioned earlier, i.e. websites, apps, and all the rest.
So when someone says that they want to be an art director, it could mean a lot of different things.
Since we don’t have the time or the space to talk about every possible instance of art direction, we’re going to focus on the experience of working as an art director and give some basic guidelines that art director hopefuls out there in our readership might want to keep in mind.
These protips all come to us from our special guest, art director and designer Chiao Chen Lu.
A designer for all seasons: Chiao Chen Lu
Chiao Chen Lu didn’t find just one side of design and leave it at that; he has branched out into many design categories during his career, finding great success in each one along the way.
Lu has worked as a lead designer on multiple brand identity projects, interactive experiences, and marketing campaign art direction.
So far, he has racked up an impressive list of past clients, from brands like Covergirl, Wool & Prince, La Roche-Posay, Albion Cosmetics, and Keller Williams to contemporary visual artists like Bruno Alibizzati.
Lu took time out of this busy schedule to open up about a number of different topics related to art direction. So if you’re out there wishing you could get into the same line of work, this would be the time to take some notes from a bona fide pro.
Understanding the appeal of art direction
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t really see the appeal of art direction (in which case, well done for reading this far), then you might be wondering what the big deal is.
Exactly what kind of satisfaction do art directors get out of their work?
On a wide scale, that’s a tough question to answer. You’d probably get a different answer for every art director you asked.
But when we asked Lu about why he wanted to get into art direction in the first place, he posited that designers already kind of think in the vein of art direction, even if that’s not their role explicitly.
“Art direction is the fundamental setting of the design’s tone and manner. I find its detail-oriented nature always challenging and attractive to me as a designer. To be able to create art direction that makes the design stand out from the market and its competitors is the most rewarding thing.”
This is speaking directly to art direction for brands, although the motivation to help something stand out from the crowd applies just as well to basically any other kind of art direction, too.
Art direction, when done well, gives a project a distinct and cohesive visual identity.
It enables that the whole project is held together by the same stylistic glue, and in a world that’s becoming more and more visual all the time, strong art direction can really help a project turn heads.
As a quick example, art direction has become immensely important in the current video game landscape, especially for little indie games that might not have huge marketing budgets.
With so much competition out there all the time, if your game offers eye-catching art direction from the very first glance, people will be more likely to notice it, and they’ll also be more likely to remember it weeks or months later.
It seems that another major part of Lu’s approach to art direction is the refusal to do only what’s expected.
He likes to go the extra mile and try to find a look that’s easily adaptable, as he outlines here:
“I always try to create art direction that could work across different platforms and media. For example, when I offer art direction for digital products, I also think about how it would look on prints, photography, animated videos, marketing collaterals, etc.”
So to the average layperson, that might sound like common sense. Sure, if you have a project that needs to have a presence across all these different kinds of media, you want all of those iterations to look good.
But when you’re actually handling design work, settling on an art direction that works in all of these different forms is difficult, especially if the art director doesn’t already have experience designing for those other media types.
This is where Lu’s range of professional experience really shows, since he has indeed designed for different media types in the past, including mobile, print, and web.
All that experience almost certainly makes it easier to decide whether art direction would still look good in all these different forms.
That kind of adaptability can also be a huge perk for clients, since they would then have the option to expand the project’s presence into those other media categories.
As outsiders might be wondering, are there rules in art direction? Well, kind of. It would be more accurate to say that many design rules apply to art direction.
There are plenty of design rules and guidelines. You can even find books full of them if you want, but professional art directors will most likely already be familiar with these guidelines by the time they go pro.
For experienced art directors, it becomes more of a question of what rules they decide to set for themselves.
Setting rules for art direction work can help curb some of each designer’s less helpful tendencies.
Let’s say that an art director really knows their stuff but has a habit of spending way too much time exploring different ideas.
In a purely creative setting, that’s no problem. But when facing down a deadline, it’s not very helpful.
Lu takes one of his major art direction rules from the great graphic designer and painter Paula Scher:
“Like the great Paula Scher said, ‘less is more.’ That’s the rule I always obey. I also use this rule to challenge myself. I often try to create things with minimal assets. If the art direction is strong enough, you really don’t need too much to make your designs pop.”
This isn’t an adherence to strict minimalism, but instead a reminder to be economical with the visual elements being used.
There are definitely times when busier, more maximalist art direction works well, but especially for the kinds of projects that Lu has worked on, it makes a lot of sense to keep things relatively simple and communicate key ideas and feelings.
Every art director has their strength, a kind of special skill, an ace up the sleeve.
Art direction is ultra-competitive, and being able to draw on that strength to stand out and build a portfolio is key.
According to Lu, his core strength is a sense of balance, one that comes from both skill and experience.
“I always find the perfect balance between the idea for a design and the real-world design. Sometimes we also have to think about the client’s needs, the market’s needs, trends, and our own aesthetics. My strength is that I have the sensibility to identify what the most effective solutions are for my clients or projects, but at the same time keeping my own style.”
Art direction doesn’t happen in a bubble, and when you’re a pro like Lu, it’s possible to keep an eye on the competition while staying true to a unique personal style.
Now that we think about it, that’s a pretty good way to sum all this up: in a certain way, art direction is all about balancing the needs of the job with your own creative identity.
If you can do that well, people are bound to take notice.
All images are work samples taken from Lu’s official website.