The art director as a coach — Frank derFrankie Neulichedl

The art director as a coach

This approach, to start with the conclusion, works best for small design teams and firms that upgraded their marketing department with an art director. They reached a point where they feel the need to get to the next level - in quality and organization. Most of the times, the art director role is not full time. I mean by saying this, that the art director is not just directing, creating and reviewing, but is also part of the execution. He is not only part of the workflow, but he actually finishes projects himself. This is no limitation, and with time the execution part will become smaller and smaller eventually. This sets the art director on the same level with his team and this is even more true if this role is filled by a designer formerly in the team. This is very important and is one of the main distinctions between the two approaches I'm presenting here. The art director is not above the team, but on the same level and part of the team. So how does it work?

How can you lead them if you are not above them. Well, you lead by merit and competence and not by status. If you are choosen to be the art director your boss thinks that you are the most appropriate candidate - in the best case your coworkers think the same. If not, you have to prove it, or induce them to think you are the better designer they can learn from. Imagine and present yourself as the coach who wants to bring all your coworkers on a higher level. Having a coach is nothing bad - every highly successful sportsman has a coach his whole career. The difference to a sports coach (who are mainly retired sportsman themself) you are not retired yet, so you can still prove your value. As a coach you can give advice and even better you can decide the amount of rewards you give to you coworkers.

Gaining value

One easy way is to ask the opinion on your work. I know what you think, by doing that you just enforce the same-level-thing. The trick relies in asking opinion about nearly finished great work. Something they can not say anything bad, so they will say: "Cool, I cannot add anything to this." They brag about your work instead of you. Its leading by giving good example. Giving good example by doing great design work and by asking opinions. Another good way is sharing your new findings. Lets say you stumble over a site with great inspirational videos - send an email to your coworkers and tell them. You will become "the" source for new, inspirational and design related information - this source is also called authority and an authority is always leading.

Reviewing the work of your team

There are two main scenarios we have here. First, you are the original creator of the designs and your team executes it or develops derivates. Derivates can be folder or other projects that have to fit into a corporate design that you designed or you have to supervise. Reviewing this projects is not so hard. As the original designer you are in charge, you know how it should look like and you know if something fits or not. But be warned, you have to brief your coworkers correctly and you have to explain the reasons why they should change a design if it doesn't fit. You cannot get mad about something you didn't explain in the briefing and they didn't get it by themself. Be polite and use phrases like "Why don't you try to ..." or "I would stick to the corporate design, ..." or "I try in this cases to ...". You should induce them to try your solution. They keep a copy of the layout they did and then you look what works best. Often they realize it without you reviewing the work together. Reviewing design jobs this way is a clever way to give the coworkers the feel that they did the whole project and they learn how to do it while doing it. Be aware that you cannot blame your coworkers for not coming to you to show their works - this will happen over time when you gain status through value and merit. You will have to go to them and ask them if you may have a look at their work because you are interested.

Now lets see the other scenario, where you want to improve the quality of the projects with your competence. The difference to the first scenario is not big but decisive, as you no longer are the one that actually "knows" how the finished product should look like. You must enter the mind of your coworkers and think where he is heading to. You have to do this without going through the whole briefing process of course, but it often helps when you ask before reviewing his work what the he gives you a short-briefing. You then review the design, which is maybe halfway done and imagine how it will look when its finished. Find out if its ok, both graphically and conceptionally, and if it is then compliment him and go ahead to the next. If you think that something is wrong you have to tell him, but again as in the first scenario imagine yourself as a coach not the king of design. If there are conceptional issues address them first, there is no point to talk about graphic design when the whole idea leads in the wrong direction. Incorporate your comments into a story for example by telling how on a similar project you did the client got mad because you forgot about X or Y. Another way is to ask him how he had come to this concept and then ask if the target group will understand it. This way you are driving your complaints to the target group, they are the stupid ones, not the designer. Very powerful, because he will change the concept to comply with the stupid target group and not to comply you. Its important to get into a conversation about the subject and to not fall into the "You do it because I know it better". On graphical issues works more or less the same, blame the target group if the font is too small, or the budget if he wants special features that you think are too much. By shifting your mindset into being a coach you not only get the results you want, but you invest into your team and they will pay you back by remembering the comments you made. This comments will become part of their mindset and you don't have to say them over and over again, they make them to themselves.

Giving and receiving credit

The most difficult part is to balance the amount of credit you and your coworkers get. If you claim all the credit for yourself you will spoil all your efforts in becoming the leader by merit to your coworkers and if you let all the credit to your team, then your boss might think that your position is not necessary. In my opinion you can work on three levels. You have to advertise yourself, compliment your team when they work well (positive reinforcement) and when you present the work of the team use the word "we".

Advertising yourself means talking about the projects you work on and what off-project ideas you had. But you have to talk to "outsiders" to make it work. By outsiders I mean your boss, high-level coworkers from other departments (if you are in a inhouse agency) and even clients (if you have time and can give out the information). Don't blow in your own horn, talk like you have an interesting story you want to share. The occasions for this talks can be before and after executive meetings (you are a head of department, so you should be there), conferences, informal client dinners, etc. If you want to lead you have to be with the leaders of the company anyhow, so why not use this opportunities.

Complimenting your team is fairly easy. When you review the work give compliments if they do it right. Don't make them feel, that they finally did comply to your standards, instead you should praise them to get the positive reinforcement. Yes, praise them even for "correction" work. If you did your reviewing job correctly you didn't force them to do it your way, therefore when they do it by choice you can compliment them. Its safe to compliment about the whole project and not on the single items they corrected. This way you praise them for their work and not for complying to you.

Presenting your work to your boss/coworkers and clients is a wast field. Its too much to cover right here, but I advise you to use the "we" always. It spreads the responsibility to your team/agency and gives the impression, that the agency doesn't rely solely on you. But you are presenting - so must be the leader and saying "we" will show you in the correct light.

Conclusion: Growing teams and agencies can benefit from a coaching art director. The management expertise an art director needs to master this task is closer to its natural passion for the job. An art director who loves his work wants to share this passion and therefore is suited to be more of a teacher then a boss. But it sure helps to improve skills on how to relate to the coworkers. A good read in this purpose is Working with Emotional Intelligence. Its cheap and literally full of examples. It will help you so much to find the what it take to lead without being the "mean boss".


  • Status by merit (lasts longer)
  • Distributed credit and responsibility
  • Performance and quality improvement for the whole team
  • Good working environment
  • Easier management technique for creative people
  • After a period of time the art director can concentrate more on creativity and research


  • Status by merit (you have to improve steadily)
  • Virtual hierarchy - is only implied by status
  • High demand on emotional intelligence

This two approaches to establishing your role as an art director come directly from my experience and I've hoped I made them clear. I must admit that the coach-approach worked better for me and brought me to the point where I could really invest time in research and innovation. The more I helped the other to become better, the more status I gained and the more time I could spend (I had to review less) in finding new products, trends, techniques, you name it and the more status I gained again by knowing about this new things. So give it a try and if you have questions put them in the comments I will get back on you as soon as possible.

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