No matter how long the list of credits is at the end of a film, it’s clear that the director is the one person who’s taken lead. We know that the stars’ acting talent and the scriptwriters’ genuine creativity all come together under the director’s vision and meticulously crafted tone. ‘Movie director’ is an easily understood job description. But when we speak about art directors, does a similar concept apply? It might only seem this way to us, but it feels like the career buzzword, ‘art direction,’ happens to be as broadly-recited as it is elusive. We chatted with a few professionals with the hope of understanding what art direction really is and what it is that art directors do – in an attempt to demystify this position.
Great visuals from start to finish
Yamit Haddad, art director at Wix, agrees that her job title is not always that clear. “There are many different kinds of art directors. Some are team leads that manage graphic designers, some direct photoshoots and others are set-designers or set-dressers. It did take me time to get my head around why we all share the same job description,” she elaborates. “I always get uncomfortable when telling people what it is that I do. It brings about too many questions.” During the course of conversation with Yamit, she kept coming back to the fact that her job requires having a broad outlook on things. We asked her whether she sees this large perspective as a key element in art direction, and she immediately agreed. “It’s about being able to envision how all the different visual components of a project would eventually come together, beginning at the very early stages of a project.” At Wix, Yamit does art direction for the leading website builder’s different photoshoots and video commercials. These are usually multi-faceted productions that involve very large teams, from the Marketing Team creatives who develop the concept, to the talent sitting in front of the camera. “My job is to look over all visual aspects of the ad. From graphic design to photography and set styling, down to the outfits that the actors are wearing or the particular lighting that we go for on each set.” Yamit refers to her latest Rhett and Link video to explain her work process. It’s a one minute ad showing the duo as they launch a new website for their made-up spa, ‘Nacho Typical Spa’. Yamit pauses on one shot, right as Rhett pours a bucket of Queso cheese over Link’s relaxed body, with only a towel over his thighs. This salsa-spiced joke would hardly have been as funny if it weren’t for the high contrast between the loud yellow color of the cheese, against the soothing spa in the background. This contrast was Yamit’s meticulous planning. “We’ve built this set from scratch,” she recalls, explaining the reasoning behind each item in the final frame. She works closely with set dressers to create the perfect look-and-feel for her sets, and she does the same with graphic designers. For this Rhett and Link video, Wix graphic designer, Erez Attias, created the spa logo – a lotus flower made of nacho chips as petals. When Yamit received the final logo, it was up to her to decide how and where to implement it on set, opting for one logo printed on a large sign made of glass, and another embroidered on Rhett’s uniform. There are also additional logos incorporated into the duo’s website on screen. “Having a good understanding of design helps me envision the project as a whole and see it all come together in the exact tone we were going for,” she says. As a graphic designer too, Yamit says that her understanding of design plays a huge part in the job. She constantly thinks of design elements, such as composition and brand language, and applies them to as many aspects of the project as possible. She admits this makes her pushy now and then. “There are times when I just yank the camera out of a cameraperson’s hands because I know exactly what angle we need to go for. And when I sit with designers, it’s not uncommon for me to want to grab their drawing tablets and do all the work myself,” Yamit laughs. “But honestly, the bottom line is that art direction and design truly complement one another.”
Synthesizing narrative and visuals together
LA-based designer and art director Branden Collins offers his own interesting take of what art direction is all about. “I define my job as essentially a synthesizer,” he tells High on Design. “In my opinion, a great art director is an exceptional synthesizer, composer, collaborator and idea communicator. It’s about being able to look at individual components of a project or creative problems, make important connections, then consolidate them into a singular expression.” As Branden sees it, his job is to articulate a narrative and vision effectively, across all aspects of a project. He agrees that the line between art direction and most graphic design positions is somewhat blurred, and in fact, “seems to be blurring more and more.” This vagueness comes with obvious drawbacks, he mentions, such as how often many creatives casually claim the title of art director without the work to back it up. But Branden is not intimidated by these changes. In fact, he finds it interesting: “I see the merit in challenging some of our preconceived notions about what defines this role.”
We asked Branden about his works for Adult Swim. He’s worked on a few projects for the cable network’s music compilations in the past. His work for Adult Swim 2013 Singles Program spans over many mediums and applications – from posters and animated gifs to web design. The project involved creating images for different independent music artists, and Branden was both directing other professionals, as well as doing some actual hands-on work. He was there to direct the photographers on set and conceptualize the web experience alongside the developers and designers – but he also single-handedly created the props and costumes. “Not every art director necessarily is, or needs to be, that hands-on,” he explains. “But the key thing is being able to have a clear sense of the broader vision, and being able to execute on that.” To explain this, Branden comes up with an analogy that’s much in line with his musical project. If most graphic design projects can be compared to creating a great single, he says, art direction would be the ability to craft a whole album. “Being able to conceptualize an album, create a story across multiple different sonic and emotional territories, then make these feel cohesive and resolved into a singular expression, takes a different degree of synthesis and composition,” he concludes.
Designs that set a tone and dictate a vision
For freelance visual designer and art director Jose Checa, art direction is about overseeing the multiple visual aspects of a single challenge. “From my point of view,” he says, “an art director is the person in charge of the overall look of a project.” Like Branden, Jose too is the kind of art director whose involvement in the project is hands-on, doing some of the actual designing himself. “I enjoy getting as involved as possible during the entire design process, from the concept to the production of the final image.”
For his commercial work, collaborating with brands such as Verizon and Paco Rabanne, Jose often teams up with different design studios. His role in these large-scale productions varies from gig to gig, but in each, his designs set the tone for the entire project. For the Fios by Verizon campaign, CHRLX (an animation studio in New York City) invited him to research, develop and create all of their concept art visuals. The studio then reinterpreted the images as animation. “The process took several weeks and it involved a lot of different tasks,” Jose explains. “From gathering references, creating mood boards and sketching ideas to modeling, texturing and lighting the separate environments and their elements in 3D.” Another project Jose collaborated on was the Paco Rabanne’s 1 Million campaign, for which he was called upon by Barcelonian studio Dvein in the hopes of formulating a winning pitch together. “Dvein invited me to explore, visualize and creatively design different ideas and concepts.” When the designs Jose developed eventually won the pitch, they served as the visual guidelines for the studio in creating the final ad.
Two for the price of one: taking on design and art direction
We’ve looked into a few art directors who collaborate with very large teams, but there are also graphic designers that double as their own art directors. This duality of positions implies that art directors are the ones who come up with the concept, while designers are in charge of the execution and leg-work. Paris-based Margot Lévêque can relate. “Art direction is a bit of a marketing concept,” she states, noting how abstract the title is. “I consider myself to be both an art director and a graphic designer. I create the concept, define the limits of the project, and I’m also the one to design it from scratch.” When Margot collaborated with illustrator Sue Doeksen on Cookeloere, a visual identity for this Dutch culinary program, they created all design for the project. Together, they applied it across their web presence and printed products.
Cookeloere website, created by Margot Leveque and Sue Doeksen
Even the definition of a graphic designer isn’t set in stone. Some projects are of smaller scope, and others require us to deal with topics and scopes that we’ve never dealt with before. Perhaps, projects that are bigger and involve a larger team onboard, lean towards the art direction. Or could it be that we’re underestimating graphic design to the degree that we need to dress it up in fancy terms? We undoubtedly trust that graphic designers are more than capable of a deep understanding of each project as a whole, seeing it through from start to finish. Perhaps, then, there’s something to the title ‘art director’ that better suggests having those skills. Eva and Marta Yarza, a.k.a. the Yarza Twins, view art direction as a flexible title. “It is just a way to define a position,” they explain. For the two sisters, it’s simply a matter of hierarchy. “A graphic designer would just generally work under the supervision of the art director.” When creating a website for the HEAD Genève University in Switzerland, showcasing their MA program, the two of them acted as both art directors and designers. They were in charge of large-scale concept and vision, as well as nit-picking through the execution. As art directors, they were challenged with the task of bringing together many students’ projects – all drastically different in style – under one cohesive look. Eva and Marta ended up creating a series of animated 3D icons, each representing a different student’s work. The website, they write, is thus turned into a “contemporary virtual exhibition of the students’ ideas,” and is an exciting page to browse through. As the mouse forms the words ‘wow’ and ‘go’ – we have to agree with the sentiment of the cursor. Whether art direction, graphic design, or something else – we know good creativity when we see it, call it what you may.