Various illustrations: (left to right) Mikey Burton, Zara Picken, MUTI, Mikey Burton, Brad Woodard, Jacqui Oakley, Levi McGranahan

Art Directing as Human

In the age of making, finding beauty in the art of directing.

While combing through folders upon folders of editorial artwork, one thing remains. My favorite pieces of artwork have not been my own. Am I allowed to say that?

I have not drawn it with my felt-tip pen or imagined it in Illustrator. Rather, I have sifted, emailed, and telephoned my way into creating it.

While the transition from designing to art directing illustration appears seamless the landscape shifts dramatically. Your aesthetic, your process, and your execution gets placed, ever so delicately, on the cluttered pile to the side of your desk. Don’t worry — you’ll retrieve it shortly.

Your mind shifts from thinking about your work, to thinking about their work — elevating the client, the audience, the author and the illustrator. It’s not that you didn’t think about these constraints before, but you think about them now within a 30,000 foot view (instead of under a microscope). It’s now your job to gather all appropriate voices, establish a vision and tone, and select an illustrator through the lens of that vision and tone. And then, you let go … well, sort of.

You can’t be totally hands off. Rather, you develop a different grip. You have the opportunity to be the center pivot to which the client, illustrator and audience rotate. It is your position to hold in tension the goal of the piece, the appropriateness of the aesthetic and the voice of the client. Just to name a few.

The process of then art directing illustration (in my short experience) involves elevating the artist and the client, while making yourself seamlessly, yet confidently remain quietly in the background of the page. Your touches are not directly seen, but innately felt. You bring cohesion and clarity to the role of the illustration within the greater whole of the client’s piece. You get to be the wonderfully, sticky glue between artist and client.

Map of Macau illustrated by Jacqui Oakley for Selamta Magazine

To that end, one of the most delightful parts of this role came out of that sticky glue. Art directors get the opportunity and responsibility to bring works of art to clients that may not have been able to find them on their own, or think to put their work within their pages. What a great endeavor! We are charged with stewarding the clients money and resources to great works of art that speak to their content and their vision as an organization. Lucky us.

Dan Mall, an art director, designer and editor at A List Apart, says that ‘art direction gives substance to design. Art direction adds humanity to design.’ In that way, we are creating a beautiful web of artist interacting with client. Humans thoughtfully and purposefully interacting with other humans. One’s passion of work intersecting with another’s passion work. That’s genuinely rewarding.

Waffle Town illustrated by Mikey Burton for Selamta Magazine

From the artistry perspective, my capabilities as a designer can now reach farther than my own abilities. I am no longer constrained by my abilities. I can’t apply textures as well as Mikey Burton. I definitely can’t play with shape and form as well as Brad Woodard. And I will never ink and paint as well as my dear friend, Jacqui Oakley. For that, I am not envious, but in awe.

David Ogilvy, hailed as ‘the father of advertising’ once wrote that to be successful means to ‘hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it. Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.”

With each new client, and every new project comes the start of a new adventure. I’m finding great privilege learning to find remarkable talent to pair with remarkable clients, doing remarkable works in this world. So, though I’m not the one doing the heavy design lifting, I can rest in the privilege of a process that is greater than me.


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