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?#section2

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?#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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?#section6

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.

41 Reader Comments

  1. I wonder why the position is called art director when it seems to have nothing to do with art. It seems like “concept manager” or “idea architect” or something like that would fit the description more closely.

    Do you think this type of work applies mostly to smaller websites advertising a product or service, or is it somehow transferable to large, complex web applications as well?

  2. Originally, the art director was the person who chose the illustrator. (And choosing illustrators, photographers, and designers is still part of an art director’s job.)

    Art direction became more conceptual during advertising’s Creative Revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Bill Bernbach (of Doyle Dane Bernbach) built “creative teams” composed of one art director and one writer.

  3. I think delegating is an important part of art direction as well. Knowing who and how to delegate can make your life easier as an Art Director.

  4. Art Directors, Information Architects, Technical Architects, etc., all share a common problem. Very often an employer says they want one of the above, but they really don’t understand the meaning behind the title. “Looking for an Art Director with 31337 Photoshop and Illustrator Skillz” is as ridiculous as “Technical Architect with 12 years of Java coding experience”. In both cases, those employers are missing the point. Art Directors and Technical Architects *don’t do production work* Designers and developers do that work.

    Very often it is difficult to explain the difference between the two camps (the director-level vs. production-level). This article is pretty good at explaining the difference from the design side. Perhaps soon I will write one from the other side. References like this are always helpful in helping to refine arguments

  5. Jeffrey always seems to deliver the content I need most at that time. Almost like he’s sitting on my right shoulder watching my every move as I slowly move forward.

    Thanks for publishing this week Jeffrey ; )
    Thank you for an excellent and timely article Stephen.

  6. Well, I agree that the article is very interesting and I deeply believe that a sound concept is the basis for a good project. The thing is: I´m graduating this year in design and the best teachers always thaught me that, as a designer, I should emphasize my work in the exact principles that Stephen is refering to in his text.

    What I mean is: I don´t think that design can be reduced to formal choices such as type and image. The design process itself is born from a concept. After all, not every designer will be directed by someone (specially in Brazil, where I live).

    That´s the humble opinion from a design student. 🙂

  7. This is an awesome article! I had never really though of designing my sites that way. I will definitely be thinking of this article as I redesign my personal site. Thanks Stephen for this little tidbit and thanks Jeffrey for publishing it!


  8. >So what’s the difference between ‘art direction’ and ‘marketing’?

    MARKETING: The car is so comfortable, so roomy, so luxurious, it feels like an extension of your home.

    ART DIRECTION: Commercial showing people in their comfortably appointed living room. The landscape outside their window is moving. How can the land move? It’s surreal, dream-like, oddly seductive. Beauty shots of family members reacting to the moving landscape continue. The woman in the family puts her hand to the window. Reverse angle, match-dissolve: the camera pulls back to show that the window she’s touching is the window of a car in which she’s riding. The viewer “gets” the marketing idea (“the car is as comfortable as your home”) without being TOLD the idea.

  9. My “Concepts” instructor used to always say “The ultimate in art direction is to sell a viewer something without them knowing it.”

  10. I agree with a lot of the concepts and practices in this article, however I think that the description of the designer’s job is inaccurate.

    Zeldman posted an article ( about this very topic. Most Art Directors/Creative Directors that I’ve delt with have their heads firmly in the clouds. This is often a product of the nature of their work.

    Desingers by contrast, the good ones anyway, are very down-to-earth. Their job is to take the input from the early phase creative team and integrate them into a finished piece.

    A difficult problem to solve for the designer, but in my experience that’s what the best designers do, solve problems. Those are certainly the type I try to work with.

    Just a thought.

  11. Art directors and designers both solve problems– mostly it’s just that they solve different problems. Many art directors were originally designers (some perhaps even down-to-earth), and I would agree that most good designers are highly conceptual.

  12. “we are decorating instead of communicating”

    That’s it exactly! In this medium it’s easy to get side tracked with all the other important stuff, Doc Types, XHTML, Color Harmonizers, Typography, 2 col vs. 3 col, rollovers, navigation etc … and get stuck there.

    The primary function of a web page is to communicate an idea or thought. How that idea or thought is presented (packaged) can be likened to a gift and the wrapping paper and ribbons one chooses to decorate (package) the gift (content).

    If I carefully select a Mother’s Day gift for my significant better half and present the gift “as is” (sans wrapping/ribbons) she will be delighted because my love for her will shine through with the carefully chosen gift. Any wrapping, as long as it’s carefully chosen, will compliment my sentiments. On the other hand, if I just rush out and buy something “off the shelf” all the decorating in the world will not hide the fact that I gave very little thought to her Mother/s Day gift.

    Moral of the story…The content is the gift. The design is the wrapping paper and ribbons. The content should be able to stand on it’s own. The design serves to enhance and/or compliment the content.

  13. Yes, design can be defined as a way to present content. But I wouldn´t call it a wrapping paper… The wrapping paper becomes useless once it´s destroyed, while design will always be there, presenting the content in the best possible way.

    When you call design wrapping paper and ribbons you´re ignoring ergonomy, for instance. Would you call a beautiful but not ergonomic project a good design example ? I certainly wouldn´t.

  14. Can anyone suggest good books (or websites) that discuss different “idea generation” techniques (alluded to in this article)?

  15. Seriously though- a technique that I think is good for training creativity is to take some white paper, imagine lines and shapes on the paper (much like seeing shapes in the clouds) and just draw what you see.

    You can get some interesting results and I believe it’s the sort of frame-of-mind you need to be in for this sort of activity. Just let it happen if you know what I mean.

  16. How many art directors does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Does it have to be lightbulb? I mean what if we tried candles, or WAIT, I KNOW, it’s not man-made light! We use the Sun! The set will have huge windows and skylights and…

    As an agency art director and a college web design professor, this article really nails it. I’m keeping this are a required bit of reading for class.

  17. I believe that the role of the designer as defined by Stephen does not entirely portray the truth. A graphic designer needs to be able to think in concepts and the effect(iveness) of the communication. In fact graohic designers will regularly fill certain aspects of the role of the art director.
    Why is it that the web designer gets so little credit then? Think about the title web – designer — someone who designs webs (of information) – how does it work, what does it do, who is it for, is the user able to access that which they want, does the user have a pleasant experience etc. are questions that need to be addressed by the designer and are not the sole realm of art director.

    I would say the vision of a designer as portrayed in this article is inaccurate to say the least.

  18. Robert, thank you for your comments. I would like to point out that this article is not intended to portray the vision of a designer– rather, the vision of an art director.

    As I commented earlier, good designers are indeed conceptual. Good art directors are usually good designers. However, not all web designers work conceptually, and perhaps those designers can be helped by borrowing from the art director’s toolbox.

    I am an art director and designer myself. I certainly am not placing the two in a battle with one another. They co-exist, and many designers are their own art directors, and they do it quite well, in fact. It’s a matter of perspective.

    I hope our readers will understand that by writing about one disclipline, I am not excluding our putting down another.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  19. I think the use of the term ‘art director’ in this article could be substituted with ‘creative director’. I also feel that both positions are slowly dying as designers are becoming more and more creative in developing concepts on their own. This puts art and creative directors in a tough spot because now the designer is not only using his technical and design skills, but his creative thinking skills also. Our company has recently laid off it’s high priced art and creative directors because they realized the strongest concepts were coming from it’s junior and senior designers.

  20. Good read. I don’t think it’s about any certain people are this way or that. The article was giving an enlightened look at “directing” a media project(web, print, etc). This doesn’t mean ‘designers’ aren’t anything that ‘directors’ are. I have shot films for ‘directors’, that had less sense than my foot (they should read this article)…

    The point is that since many of us ‘designers’, freelance or just in smaller projects have to act as ‘directors’ as well, we must realize it is a different animal and approach accordingly.

    If you are a ‘designer’ or ‘developer’ who can do this, you are then something to be feared.

  21. Another ingredient to throw into the mix…mangement.

    An essential element of defining an art director is that they are always directing or managing other people. No art director works alone 🙂 Essentially, they are good designers (work with concepts) that can also manage people. But, as this article points out, they also manage the ‘project’. Since were talking about design, that means they ‘manage’ the concept. An artistic concept must be ‘managed’ across different groups of people as they work on thier specializations.

    Let’s remove the concept of “To do good design you must start with a concept” and set that aside since it applies to either position. The Art Director must manage a singular concept and make sure it’s fully realized throught the project. Where that concept comes could be from him/her self, or any team member. But the skills is in keeping a team of people productive and thier work within the concept of the piece as a whole.

  22. Robert said:

    >>Our company has recently laid off its high priced art and creative directors because they realized the strongest concepts were coming from its junior and senior designers.

    … Or because they were downsizing and firing senior people to make the firm appear more profitable.

    It’s true that juniors often create some of the strongest, freshest work. But so do some seniors. I’ve worked for people 20 years older than me who did stronger, fresher work than I did at the time. And even when senior staff can’t come up with hot, cutting-edge work any more, they offer something of equally great value: namely, experience.

    When a place cuts senior staff, it’s almost always a sign that they’re in trouble — no matter what kind of smiley face they put on it.

  23. Great article – the fictional toothpaste campaign was a great way to explain art direction. I’m currently studying art direction at one of those few schools that teach it – Portfolio Center in Atlanta, GA. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in art direction in the advertising world.

  24. Graphic Design is conceptualization. It is the product of research and problem solving. In my experience Art directors are there to help with creative concepts not to create them. They also have expertise in the technical aspects of the media and ensure the quality of the outgoing product. If you are simply playing out some one elses designs and creative concepts your job title should be Mac Technician not Graphic Designer.

  25. re: by shaZam

    The bathing ape article is my favourite ALA article!

    I thenk though, you forget (as does 99% of everyone everywhere) there are more than one sorts of ‘design’ professions. e.g. ‘graphic design’ where you are concerned with using a visual media to communicate, e.g. Real ‘design’ solving problems / creating solutions.

    I’m sick and tired of people thinking that a ‘designer’ is someone who does graphics. Especially the people that just do graphics and call themselves a ‘designer’!

    But I think in this article that designer refers to graphic designer and computer graphic artists.

    I think there’s one thing we all agree on for sure: All these job titles are very mis-understood by the people who do the jobs (and their collegues) and the people who hire them.

  26. >> Robert said:
    >>>>Our company has recently laid off its high priced art and creative directors because they realized the strongest concepts were coming from its junior and senior designers.

    >> and then apartness said
    >> … Or because they were downsizing and firing senior people to make the firm appear more profitable.

    Point 1: Or even worse…your company is run by someone who doesn’t understand the importance of idea generation or value of a good concept – I won’t pick on anyone in particular, but there’s an acronym that comes to mind. They work something like this:
    : the job is for x amount of dollars
    : your billing rate is y
    : you have z hours to poop this out so we can be profitable.

    To toss out the idea that you’d like to spend time “thinking” about this to come up with a memorable concept instead of just making it look pretty and getting it done is just shy of kicking them in the whoo-haas. And god bless you if you can generate a good (maybe great) concept AND execute it (yes, do the design part as well) in z hours (which is usually not more than 1 work day).

    I’m not in any way suggesting that profitability is bad, it’s not. The problem is that when a company is so focused on profitability that it’s creative suffers, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. They’re not building a strong portfolio. They’re not proving themselves worthy to take on “the big jobs” because everything they do lacks substance. It doesn’t show the larger companies (yes, with the bigger budgets) that they “get it” and therefore your company will never win a larger account…

    Point 2: I touched on this a little in the 86th paragraph above. There are a TON (read: lots) of us out there that work for small shops and are expected to where the hat of creative/art director, designer, user experience expert, html coder, barista, etc. It seems that a lot of the posters here are getting upset by the authors depiction of a designer. You Must Chill! It sounds like you’re all smart enough to figure out that you probably play both parts from time to time (or everyday), whatever. Read the article again and think to yourself, “when I’m directing, I’m creating the concept” and “when I’m designing, I’m choosing the colors, the typeface, etc.” — it’s really okay if you’re doing both of those things. You’re playing both parts. Maybe your resume needs updating because if you’re just calling yourself a designer, you’re really selling yourself short.

    Okay – enough of this – back to watching the Cubs lose.

  27. Fantastic article – thanks. Personally I’ve always been unware of the differences in roles between an Art Director & Creative Director…

    …perhaps somebody could clear up my abiguity.

  28. For those looking for concrete material on idea generation, I recomend Edward de Bono. He’s like the YODA on creativity. Amazon is full of his work and what I really enjoy is the pratical way you can apply his techniques.

    I especially recommend “the six thinking caps” & “serious creativity”. Happy reading to you and good luck with the websites.

    six thinking caps

    more books

  29. Truly a useless article. I come to read an article highlighting the differences between art directors and the riff-raff, and not word one about the proper way to order a skim milk latte? Puhleeeeeze…

  30. Art Director is just a title, it means a million things, people interpret it differently, there’s no authority dishing out certificates, it’s just words.
    I never know what to call myself, i do music and video as well as graphics, I direct as well as produce, so I just say “artist” or “director” or “designer” or “producer” depending on the person asking. Ironic that I can’t think of a catchy word for it. Art Engineer maybe. But if you say that people say “What?” and think you fix photocopiers or something.
    I am not a 100% artist, I do think my stuff should work, and serve its practical purpose, and the only way to ensure that is to get to know your medium in detail instead of conceptualising with little technical knowledge.
    The main problem is that people think art is optional, that practicality is everything, and it isn’t. Also it is impossible to commoditise, which really annoys the breadheads and makes freelancing a nightmare.

  31. I’ve heard this word alot when dealing with the idea that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts – gestalt. it’s a fun word!

  32. Mr. Hay did an excellent job writing this article. Informative, easily accessible to the layman, and interesting, Mr. Hay is to be commended for his work!

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