Art Direction and Design

by Dan Mall

33 Reader Comments

Back to the Article
  1. Great piece on an often misunderstood issue. I have found that Art Direction is more readily understood in USA than in UK.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  2. There should be “graphic” in front of “Design”.
    Just “Design” must mean more broad broad broad.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  3. Thanks for the distinction/definition. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on art direction vs. creative direction.

    I’d like to submit that your analogy of loving your wife is slightly inaccurate. I see it like this. The love would be the message or the content. The flowers and smile would be tools from your toolbox. The art direction then would be the process (and wisdom) of deciding how you wanted to convey that message to her and recognizing that doing it with a scowl might be the wrong tactic.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  4. I found this article extremely interesting and informative.

    I have only got a few years experience in web design/development under my belt and art direction is something that I have not been introduced to until now. I have heard the term thrown around but never really understood its importance during the process of designing a site. This is something I will definitely be looking into further to help with my own learning.

    Great article :)

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  5. I have heard the term thrown around but never really understood its importance during the process of designing a site. This is something I will definitely be looking into further to help with my own learning.

    That’s the best response I could have hoped for. Thanks for the affirmation, Adam.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  6. A fantastic perspective. Thanks for putting it all into words.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  7. I understand the difference, in an advertisement agency is common to have separate departments, but in web design, I’m used to work in very small teams, usually the same person does both jobs, so people assume that the designer’s job is to take care of everything.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  8. I love the way you are defining art direction Dan, I also think it’s helpful to define what the so-called “blogazine” is when it’s not an art directed design. In my opinion, Smashing Magazine is confusing art direction with editorial design. I think that’s a more helpful term than “blogazine”. This isn’t to say that the ability to create a unique page for a post on your blog is good or bad, but there are editorial decisions the designer is making. Whether they are good decisions or not isn’t the point. Using this kind of terminology, even if it’s borrowed from print design, allows us a language we can use that isn’t misleading jargon like “blogazine”.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  9. One of the most insightful design (and art direction) articles I’ve read on the web. Most of us forget the two are separate functions with different tasks.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  10. This was a very interesting read, but I think the design side needs more focus. Design by itself is a much broader entity than art direction—it includes art direction. Art direction is a form of design. I think you need to focus your definition of design before the distinction between the two becomes useful.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  11. Design by itself is a much broader entity than art direction—it includes art direction.

    I see what you’re saying. I “responded to a similar question on Twitter”:http://twitter.com/#!/danielmall/status/29479181697, but I think it’s the difference between Design and design. Because this article was for A List Apart for people who make websites, I took for granted that readers would inherently qualify “design” as “visual design” or “graphic design.” I certainly could have been more explicit about that, but I do think that art direction and visual design are separate processes and should be treated as such. One involves the execution of the other, but they are distinct.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  12. This article made me a little confused, maybe because I’m not a native speaker. But to me art direction seems to be another expression for the concept of a design.
    The tools in that comparison table look all like design tools to me, design is more than just the techniques. (btw, in firefox 3.6.11 for mac the table’s header row is not displayed correctly)
    Anyway I’m convinced now that as inexperienced designer I really need a more experienced art director.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  13. Great read Dan, thanks for taking the time to write this article. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on art direction vs. creative direction. Any general insight you could share with us?

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  14. Hi Dan, thanks for the article. I kind of disagree because to me art direction sounds a bit too old fashion as a concept and it hasn’t evolved much so it doesn’t apply when we talk in terms of interactivity. “The Wikipedia says (Wikipedia)”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_director “the art director is in charge of the overall visual appearance and how it communicates visually…” I think the term “User Experience Designer” or “UX Architect” works best for the web even though some people think all web designers should be UX designers the fact is that it doesn’t happen. I like Phil Coffman’s quote but I’d rather say “the designer is more concerned with execution, while the UX Architect is concerned with the strategy” (if we are talking about an interactive medium).

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  15. “defifee”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/art-direction-and-design/P10/#12 and “Sullivan”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/art-direction-and-design/P10/#13 : My response to both your comments is similar, so I’ll address them together. To me, creative direction is about concept and strategy. Art direction is the process of translating that concept—that creative direction—into visuals and honing in on the emotion that needs to be conveyed.

    I purposely omitted creative direction from this article because I think it warrants its own article. I think that’s the best I can do in a one paragraph response :)

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  16. I’d rather say “the designer is more concerned with execution, while the UX Architect is concerned with the strategy” (if we are talking about an interactive medium).

    This is where it gets really hairy. Roles really complicate this distinction, because art direction doesn’t always have a direct correlation to an art director. Likewise, I don’t believe a UX architect should be responsible for strategy, although the job often falls to someone in that position.

    An archetypal interactive design team where everyone’s title actually describes the responsibilities might look something like this: creative director, strategist, art director, graphic designer, interaction designer, user experience designer, information architect. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t like working on a team like that; it either causes a tremendous amount of overlap, or each person is confined to a very finite set of functions.

    Often, the missing roles are adopted by the remaining team members, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently their responsibility. I believe strategy starts with a strategist and creative director, but, in teams without them, UX architects (as well as others) often rise to the occasion.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  17. Dan – Great article. I’d love to see you explore the realm of creative direction and how it fits with the other two.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  18. I have several problems with this article, partly from a healthy aversion of anything that steers close to marketing guff (brand values and all that), but partly from the fundamental misunderstanding of design throughout.

    The example of your bad design of the not-for-profit site is not the result of a lack of art direction but simply bad design, nothing more: you gave the client what you thought they should have instead of properly solving the design problems. This is a widespread issue among professional (graphic) designers who then start to think that they can fix their faults with art direction.

    Wrong. Another stage in the process and/or another person in the process is a crude patch on a fundamental flaw. Fix yourself and be a better designer without abdicating the responsibility to a person (who, as you suggest, quickly bloats into a committee – and they always produce bad design).

    Design includes art direction – or thinking as I call it – as well as problem solving, technical skills etc. Instead of going off on a ego trip and drawing in the latest trends, style sheets and typography flairs, to the detriment of the end result, a good designer should be just that and avoid doing half (or less) of the job.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  19. Thanks for your comment, Philip.

    I think the difference of opinion stems from the discrepancy in the definition of design. What you’re talking about as design is problem-solving, planning, thinking, and overall strategy. As I mention in some other comments, I’m juxtaposing art direction with visual design or graphic design, the act of executing a piece of work that’s perceptible by the five senses, not Design in the larger sense.

    The example of your bad design of the not-for-profit site is not the result of a lack of art direction but simply bad design, nothing more: you gave the client what you thought they should have instead of properly solving the design problems.

    Absolutely. More granularly, it’s a result of the lack of creative direction and art direction, which you could sum up as bad Design (not bad design). My point was that I simply couldn’t solve the problem through improving my typography, picking better colors, or making sure my grid was more strict.

    If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read through the other comments, as I hope it’ll give you a more qualified sense of my use of the term “design.” I completely agree with the sentiment of your comment, but there’s a core difference in the way we both use the word.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  20. Thanks for this very good article. Inspiring and it’s make me think a lot.

    Could we also say that all the small details in an interface are related to the art direction? I mean, when we look an interface and we get excited about the small details and the emotion behind it, I’m not sure if I should put that into design or into art direction.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  21. Hi Dan, interesting article. However I disagree with your definition of a Graphic Designer. A trained Graphic Designer has gone to school to learn how to think, not just how to execute. Call it art direction if you want, but we call it critical thinking and it is a skill present in any good Graphic Designer.

    Successful visual design sends a message about the content. It is rooted in an understanding of the goals of the design, both tactical and emotional.

    I have often come across this misunderstanding of Graphic Design among many web folks and wonder if more interaction with traditionally trained Graphic Designers could help correct their thinking. For a great example of the capacity of a good Graphic Designer, you can check out the SVA Graphic Design MFA program: http://design.sva.edu/site/home

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  22. I think the issue is how the word ‘design’ has been broadly used for ages. Design is the process of developing an artifact focussed on people and how those people interact with it Think of a book. Where’s design in a book? inside it. Its a matter of paper color, margins, typography…all those elements are set to provide a better interaction between book and reader. In a website or digital environment in general designers should actually b more involved with the structural side of things such as information architecture and interaction design. The way the website(or the book) looks is something different. It must indeed be visual appealing to attract, to stand out in the book store’s shelf, to be more attractive than its competitor. Its about selling and that’s when probably art direction is relevant and it is because its part of advertising which is part of promotion which is part of marketing.  Thinking of the entire Marketing Mix, Design should b the product itself while art direction should b Promotion.
    To sum up I see as 2 completely different things and still related to each other because in the end we are talking about the same product but the profile of professionals who work either as designers or art directors I think is quite different.
    That’s just my opinion.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  23. The perfect blend of the two is what makes a site click for me. I’ve been to way too many sites over done with artwork and artistic design, yet nearly no content. That is a major turn off.

    Also, it’s hard to please everyone. Too much, too little, too sparse, what’s “right?”

    That’s why you truly appreciate the sites that somehow, maybe by luck, just nail it.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  24. Thanks for your thoughts, Clinton. Hopefully evident from the article, I disagree, but I definitely understand your perspective.

    For what it’s worth, I am a trained graphic designer, and I still see this common problem among trained as well as untrained graphic designers. I see it as a problem of semantics and nomenclature; as I mention in a few of the previous comments, there’s a difference between Design and design.

    For a great example of the capacity of a good Graphic Designer, you can check out the SVA Graphic Design MFA program

    SVA has a wonderful Designer as Author program, but it’s no coincidence that a hefty portion of the facultyーSteven Heller, Gail Anderson, Veronique Vienne, Stephen Doyle, Louise Fili, and moreーhave had long and successful careers as art directors. That curriculum teaches designers to be much more than they are (author, thinker, storyteller), implying that, by default, designers’ skill sets generally include much less.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  25. Its about selling and that’s when probably art direction is relevant and it is because its part of advertising which is part of promotion which is part of marketing. Thinking of the entire Marketing Mix, Design should b the product itself while art direction should b Promotion.

    I see it a bit differently. If art direction is about feel, you’ll notice a lot of art direction within the book, especially if you look at the processes of prolific art directors who specialize in book design like Chip Kidd or Barbara deWilde. A lot of care is taken to choose appropriate typefaces or the type of margins and layout to communicate a certain feeling about the book. A book for transgressional fiction author Chuck Pahlaniuk looks different than one for humorist and often self-deprecating David Sedaris, because it needs to feel different.

    Art direction and visual design are most effective when approached holistically. Their impact is severely dampened when fragmented.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  26. Been batting this around my brain for the last couple months, and what I’ve come up with may or may not apply…but it’s how I look at things, at least.

    Graphic design is no more and no less than the discipline considered with the visual representation of information in the most relevant way possible. This typically does include other visual creative disciplines such as photography or illustration, but the implication throughout the industry seems to be that design is the alpha male, and the others simply support design.

    Art direction, meanwhile, seems to take a more holistic approach, and treats graphic design as simply one tool in the toolbox. Witness the two most common fields for an art director to be employed: advertising and editorial design. In each case, good design is imperative…but in a conceptual framework is the true spine that holds everything up.

    Paying careful attention to the details matters without a doubt. But having an underlying conceptual framework that leaves open the possibility to breaking the rule for greater emotional resonance…that’s the higher calling, whatever we call it.

    Design isn’t everything. Art direction encompasses everything.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  27. hi dan,
    “commercial art” was a major in school, and it appears, now, after all these years, it was more accurately design and not direction that i studied. true, we endeavored to evoke an emotional connection, but more in an ethereal, artsy sense and not a freudian, scientifically “directed” approach.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  28. Thanks, Dan. One thing I didn’t hear discussed that should have been and would have made the article even more interesting was the role of Art Director and the designer with regards to addressing the target audience.  I find in my work it is the first thing I define and address. It also focuses a lot of the design decisions and art direction.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  29. I am very glad to see that my school is incorporating Art Direction into my Graphic Design education. I think it is the difference between Design and design that is important, as you have stated in the comments—and there is no need to classify this distinction as being highbrow.

    As far as education is concerned, I think there is a big distinction between academic and professional education. With the latter focusing more on meticulous execution and the former focusing on concept and execution. For instance, when my class is briefed about an assignment, we are usually pushed to start from a general research into the topic at hand, and then further define, deduct and refine the more concrete visual implications from there. I think this is what you might call “Art Direction” as well.

    This discussion reminds me of the discussion “UX Professional isn’t a Real Job”:http://thinkvitamin.com/user-science/user-experience/ux-professional-isnt-a-real-job at Think Vitamin. Art Direction is part of a designer’s job, but whether there is one designer dedicated to Art Direction in a corporation will probably depend on the size and business strategy of said company.

    In conclusion, I think it is a distinction that can be made, but with caution. And definitely not on an educational level, but rather later on in a company, when projects have become too big to let one person do art direction, execution, planning and everything else that I am not summing up for the sake of brevity . . .

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  30. “Design is about problem-solving, whether you are a designer or an art director. The two roles differ in that the designer is more concerned with execution, while the art director is concerned with the strategy behind that execution.”

    completely i agree with this say. so thin diffirence between two side…

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  31. Enjoyable read but much of what your saying really boils down to the idea.

    Many design tasks overlap Art Directing and vice versa. From font and imagery choice to color.

    Although I agree with much of the article, the way you separat tasks according to role, it sort of paints the picture that the designer handles the production while the Art Director decides what mood a particular image should create, which isn’t really the case.

    I think the bottom line is without an over arching idea or vision, the design will fall flat.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  32. Art Director – an experienced web designer, competent manager, the art director should be developed spatial imagination, the ability to inventing. Ability to communicate with people is important: to defend the point of view, to carry on dialogue or presentation. The art director defines drawing and maintenance stylistics, a web design direction, supervises work of web designers, decides on giving design options to clients.
    Sometimes there is a so-called senior designer – in fact, its art director, who himself creates a web design, and oversees activities of several designers.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  33. It’s really fine perspective about both. we like it and thanks for sharing with us.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.