A List Apart


Art Direction and the Web

In mathematics, the whole is always equal to the sum of its parts; two and two invariably add up to exactly four. In the arts, however, the whole is either much more than the sum of the parts or much less… Many dramas have been ruined by actors who tried to enliven serious scenes by being funny. The spectators laughed at the comedy, but they were bored by the play.
Henning Nelms, Magic and Showmanship

This comment from Henning Nelms’s classic text on showmanship for the conjurer can adequately be applied to web design. Designers, programmers, and other specialists create essential elements of the whole. But the art director is in a position to tie these parts together for maximum effect, and maximum business results.

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The purpose of this article is to introduce our readers to the principles and techniques of the art director — which relate closely to web design — and show how these can influence the overall effect of a website.

What is art direction?

That’s a hard question to answer. In the movies, art directors are usually responsible for creating the “look and feel” of the film. In advertising and print work, art directors (often teamed up with a copywriter) come up with “concepts,” the creative ideas which communicate with us on a gut level through such devices as theme, metaphor, and symbolism. Some art directors do little more than dream up these ideas and present them to clients, while some oversee almost all aspects of the design and production process. Surprisingly, art direction is seldom taught in schools and there is very little formal information on the subject; it is often learned in practice.

Still sounds vague, doesn’t it? One might argue that art direction can’t be explained. But you can get the feel of it by studying it. Zeldman has posted a wonderful example, and he accurately describes the difference between art direction and design. Try checking out the covers of news magazines (in my opinion, covers of The Economist are a showcase of consistently effective art direction), the features section of many newspapers, and all types of print advertising. Watch television commercials, and ask yourself what devices or elements make some commercials work, while others don’t.

How does this apply to the web?

Suppose a toothpaste company asks you to come up with a site that will be aimed at all age groups. Someone purely concerned with design might create a proposal which uses very nice type, blue as a background color because it’s “fresh,” and some stock photos of generic mouth and teeth or laughing model families. They’ll spend time tinkering with lines and shadows, wondering if they’ll use a two-column or three-column layout. They might even have a tube of toothpaste being squeezed on to the screen and use the straight line of squeezed toothpaste as a navigation bar. It might look nice, but that’ll be the end of it.

An art director would perhaps come up with a concept which communicates the importance of the smile. What does a smile communicate? Power? Confidence? Happiness? Amusement? All of the above? The art director might choose to delve into the smile as a symbol of healthy teeth and gums. She might even choose to categorize types of smiles and relate these to types of toothpaste, exaggerating the images used to portray the toothpaste types:

  • Cool Minty Fresh: the smile of a climber on Mount Everest.
  • Extra Sensitive: the smile of Dr. Phil.
  • Extra Strength: the smile of Dracula.

Smiles of “power people” paired with success stories. Smiles of comedians — laughter is the best medicine. The smile as an international language of friendship. Why not develop our own “smilies” or emoticons? You get the idea. Don’t “just” design. It’s often just plain boring when compared to a well-developed concept.

Great ideas don’t just happen

The most important aspect of art direction is the “concept.” Sure, talent might be an issue when it comes to thinking up great concepts, and your idea — or your art director’s — might not win you any awards, but you can develop good ideas. Creativity is a process, and you’ve got to find your own. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Goals, goals, goals. You’ve heard it all before, but there’s a reason you’ve heard it all before. Good concepts accomplish something. And that something should be the objective to which you and your client have agreed. Always ask yourself, “will this idea help us reach our goal?”
  2. Use idea-stimulating techniques. Fantastic ideas might just come to some in the shower, but the rest of us can be helped along by using techniques like brainstorming. There are plenty of books on idea generation, and the rules of brainstorming are fairly well-known. Initially you should generate a large quantity of ideas. Your chances of coming up with a winning idea are usually directly proportionate to the number of ideas you generate. You can use the method of your choice. One effective technique, especially if you work alone, is to take a sheet of paper and write your problem or objective at the top. Then force yourself to quickly write or sketch twenty different ideas, and do not stop until you’ve got twenty. It will be difficult, but hey, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be called work. Here are some pointers:
    • Don’t censor yourself. You’ll do that later. All ideas are welcome at this point, even (and sometimes especially) the crazy ones.
    • Sketch quickly, write quickly. You’ll flesh out the best ideas later.
    • Use symbols, metaphor, or theme. Some of the best concepts utilize recognizable symbols, as in Zeldman’s example. Use your life knowledge and experience. To get a feel for this, take the creativity test at Ron Reason’s site and study the test examples.
    • Don’t design. You’ll do that later.
  3. Once you’ve got your ideas on paper, put on the critic’s hat. Choose the best two or three ideas and flesh them out a bit. Now you can permit yourself to think more about the actual design, type, color, and layout. Test the ideas against your objective. The best idea should win, but stay flexible. Good ideas can always be made better.

  4. Keep the bird’s eye view Don’t get too wrapped up in the details. Work like a sculptor. Start with a large mass of ideas and refine from there — but keep looking at the whole through every phase of the project. Let the specialists work out the small details, and guide them subtly when necessary to keep everything on track.

Direct the art

So you’ve presented your idea and the client loves it (and you). Now the site needs to be produced. Your job as an art director has just begun — now you’ve got to deal with the client, the programmers,the designers, the project manager, and anyone else involved in the project. All of these people contribute their insight and talent, and it’s your job to make sure that the end result remains as closely related to your concept as possible. Here are some tips for the production phase:

  1. Know your stuff. As an art director, you need to know what the technologies are and how they’re used. You need to know what everyone on your team does, and why. Leave the details up to them, but be sure you know what’s involved. It will gain you the respect of your team when they realize that you’re not working in a vacuum, and it will help you think up realistic ideas.
  2. Keep the specialists in check. Being a team player is a good thing, but just because John the primadonna designer has a thing for bevelled buttons and 20-pixel drop shadows doesn’t mean you have to grant his wishes.
  3. Be open to those “in the know.” John the primadonna designer might just have a point (in this case, probably not). Test your team members’ suggestions against your objective and your concept. If it fits and it’s okay for the budget, let them do it. They know their stuff, too.

Is that all there is to it?

Hardly. The hardest part about art direction is arguably the development of a sound and creative concept. This literally takes years of practice in most cases. Finding an idea-generation technique that fits your own personality can take just as long. But the results can be very rewarding indeed. Good design is pretty, but good design based on a solid concept will help make your sites much more effective and memorable, especially when compared to the competition. You’ll make your clients very happy. Guaranteed.

And hopefully, you’ll enjoy the process.

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