Art Direction isn’t a Lost Art

For so many design purists the history of good graphic design came to a screeching halt with the introduction of the Internet. Many people wonder if we’ll ever reach the same design heights that happened in the last century. For myself, design is a true form of human expression. It’s a fulfillment of need combined with beauty. But one key difference I’ve observed lately is that excellent design stands out as unusual. This makes it difficult to chart design trends in the post-Internet era of graphic design. There is definitely an expectation of good design by individuals and corporations. But is there the same kind of yardstick to measure design up against like there was in the time of the great design movements in history?

If you hang out in circles with a lot of academic designers (as I’m sure you all do) you’ll find a degree of separation between the concept of pure good design, and design in support of commercial marketing or advertising. I have a great deal of respect for the work of designers who are able to experiment and play with design untethered by clients. I think their work impacts design trends and can serve to coagulate trends into more meaningful movements. However, for me there can be no purer form of design than the commercial application of our craft. This brings up a meaningful divide between design, and art direction.

In the professional world almost everyone designs for web and digital media, but almost no one art directs. We even call it web design. The entire digital production world is obsessed with execution. Digital shops become too bogged down with process, and trying to release as efficiently as possible. All of this overlooks the power of creativity in design. It overlooks the power of the art director.

Video Killed the Radio Star–Then the Internet Brought Her Back

Wow! The Internets!

Explaining exactly what art direction is has always been a difficult challenge. It requires people to venture up to that ten thousand foot view where not everyone is comfortable going (or admitting it exists). Art direction uses design principles outside of traditional constraints of a specific discipline and applies them uniquely in a given situation to create and curate using the best most fitting methods to solve the problem at hand. It’s not just about execution; art direction is deeply entwined in the development of an idea, using storytelling in the invisible spaces between typography, color, shapes and illustrations.

Separating the wheat from the tares

Curation is what makes an art director: not only creating powerful juxtapositions of type, color, image, and space; but a willingness to reach beyond the pasteboard, and a willingness to appreciate and incorporate the brilliance of other artisans. For an art director, the entire collected body of the world’s work is your repository. The design process is less about reinventing the wheel, and more about playing an orchestra of harmony.

Treading on dangerous ground for a moment, I want to point out the deficiency of most singular design disciplines. Web designers, specifically, are stereotyped as not being able to see the forest for the trees. Having worn this hat myself I can attest that web design process often focuses too much on how to build the finished product. There are so many reasons for this (which will be its own article) but suffice it to say it can stunt creative potential. Every discipline on its own can have similar issues. Graphic design is held back without photography or illustration. Video and film are held back without a way to reach an audience. And almost no creative discipline works without writing.

Sometimes the old ways are the best

Did this make anyone else nervous except me? Go buy Skyfall and watch it.

Art directors work hand-in-hand with other creative professionals to curate and craft. The key differentiator is that the art director is always focused on producing a holistic, meaningful end product. This gives an enormous advantage over any single creative discipline. An art director has her own tool belt, plus the tool belts of everyone else. Hence, no one discipline is always the star of the show. There may be an ad where copy is king, but the follow-up may have an amazing photo that steals the show. There may be an app with an amazing interface that’s fun to use, but the companion site may be more of a linear story told through animations. Maybe a series of vignettes on YouTube links to a site with interactive graphics. The point is it’s about the story, and the idea, and the concept, and how best to execute it. This is just a modern take on the old agency model of art and copy. There’s a reason it worked so well; because the ideas came first.

Climbing out of a distracted world

One of the reasons individual creative disciplines can get a bit lost on their own is because of a phenomenon I like to call platform distraction. This is where you get so caught up in the media that you loose sight of the actual result you’re trying to achieve; like the web designers I mentioned earlier who are overly concerned with how they’re going to build something. I’ll give you another example. A video director working with a videographer: the client has a big budget and has paid to rent some nice equipment. They rent the newest 4k camera and a sweet rig, and they get lost in planning all the beautiful shots they’re going to get on the shoot. Meanwhile, another company wants to make a video in the same genre with a low budget. The art director works with their marketing team to come up with an amazing and compelling story. The art director decides animation will be the best way to tell the story on the budget they have available. She storyboards the concept, and works with an animator to make the vision come to life. Both of these videos are up for the same award, but the low budget animation wins (real example btw). Did you spot the key difference here? The art director avoided platform distraction. She looked for the best way to execute the idea, rather than getting caught up in how cool the finished product was going to be because of the tools, media, or platform it was going to be executed in.

Now go be consistently brilliant

Does this really need a caption?

The last reason I want to give in regards to the discipline of art direction being alive and well is more personal for me. As a creative professional there’s an overwhelming pressure from the organizations you work with to be consistently brilliant at the drop of a hat. I often joke after kick-off meetings to other creatives “now go be brilliant!” The problem is there’s no way to always have a good idea yourself (and I’m writing from personal experience). Yes we’ve all had moments of brilliance, but always waiting for the lightning to strike is a risky endeavor that often leads to stress, sleepless nights, and psychotropic drugs. Okay the last one is (sort of) a joke. But honestly, have you ever met someone who gets it right all the time? Even people we think of as visionaries like Steve Jobs are humans who occasionally get it wrong (ahem, puck mouse, ahem). What’s the way to relieve those sleepless nights and drug addictions? Take the path of the art director and curate the best creative practices available to you in support of a brilliant fucking idea. An idea you curated from the smartest minds available for you to steal from.

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