Establishing your role as an art director — Frank derFrankie Neulichedl

Establishing your role as an art director

Not every advertising agency or design/communication/marketing department of firm need an art director. But when they grow (in size or quality) they create this position sooner or later. At this point they will hire an art director or promote one of the graphic designers already on board. One of the main difference between a graphic designer and an art director is its "leading role". This leading role extends into leading the graphic designers working with him on the projects. Team-leading and human-resource management is not usually taught in schools and universities - at least not in the design oriented colleges I know. They are sometimes part in post-graduate studies for managers. But how can you establish your leading role as an art director if you have been promoted or you are on your first assignment and have to lead a team? Here some insights from my personal experience.

The foundation

There are plenty of ways to lead a team and none can be considered "the best". There right way depends on so many factors so I will present approaches. You have to choose and adapt them to meet your needs. I will try to make some examples to clarify the concepts, but if you have doubts feel free to contact me or put your questions in the comments. For now I will present two approaches. Both approaches need strong "leading" characters to fill the position of art director. The art of leading people can be a natural part of the character or can be learned. The first approach meets more the classic agency environment and the second works best for inhouse agencies. I may expand this series (putting everything in one lesson was too much) in the future, so if you want to share your experience feel free to contact me.

The strict hierarchical approach - aka King of the Hill

This old-school approach, the one you can see if a advertising agency is portrayed in TV and film, sees the role of the art director above the graphic designers in every sense. He is the only one who creates, judges, presents and gets the glory. He is the boss of his team, deciding not only what jobs a graphic designer does, but also his salary and if he gets fired. Everything passes through his office, the way in and the way out. He sketches everything, the graphic designer transfers the sketches into designs. The art director reviews the designs and after a correction cycle presents them to the client or to the contacter.

This model seems straight forward and has no obvious downsides - but here lies a big mistake. This approach was established in a world where the graphic designer was a trained person who stitched films together or transferred type from Letraset foils. A manual job, much like a tailor adjusted a pattern for sewing but does not design a dress. Today this "manual" process does not exists anymore, the graphic designer is now more in charge and more and more responsibility has been attributed to this role (color management, image resolution, layout, digital delivery to name a few technical ones). This added responsibility gives the graphic designer more self awareness and he wants to get the reward for his work. The result is that the art director is a limiting factor, a bottleneck or a oppressor (I exaggerated the terms) for the creativity of the graphic designer. This leads to often to bad results and costs in the end a lot of money, since the projects are tedious and need more time to be executed.

Conclusion: If you have graphic designers in your team which have a personality, are passionate about design and believe that they can contribute to the creative process this model is not for you. If you have graphic designers who are "clerks" who like the 9 to 5 thing and do this job with the same passion as they would every other office job this may be the right approach for you. You are in charge and have the responsibility, they are the workers.


  • Easy to overview hierarchy
  • Leadership is implied by the position
  • All the merits go to the art director


  • The art director can be seen as the "evil boss"
  • Responsibility of the single team members is limited
  • The art director is in charge of all projects (bottleneck)
  • Every project going wrong is blamed on the art director
  • You need to be responsible for the personnel

The next lesson features the "coach" approach, my preferred way to see the role of an art director, which is most appropriate for art directors recruited from a existing design team.