What is an Art Director?

An art director is someone who is responsible for the visual style and images in magazines, newspapers, product packaging, and movie and television productions. They create the overall design for a project, and also direct others who develop the artwork or layouts. Art directors work for advertising and public relations firms, newspaper and magazine publishers, specialized design services firms, and the theatre, motion picture and video industries.

What does an Art Director do?

An art director typically oversees the work of other designers and artists who produce images for television, film, live performances, advertisements, or video games. They determine the overall style or tone desired for each project and articulate their vision to artists who submit images, such as illustrations, graphics, photographs, charts and graphs, or stage and movie sets.

An art director is responsible for the visual style and images in magazines, newspapers, product packaging, and movie and television productions.

An art director will work with the art and design staff in advertising agencies, public relations firms, and book, magazine, or newspaper publishers to create designs and layouts. They also work with producers and directors of theatre, television, or movie productions to oversee set designs. Their work requires them to understand the design elements of projects, inspire other creative workers, and keep projects on budget and on time. Sometimes, they are responsible for developing the budgets and timelines.

An art director will typically do the following:

  • Determine how best to represent a concept visually
  • Determine which photographs, art, or other design elements to use
  • Develop the overall look or style of a publication, advertising campaign, or theater, television, or film set
  • Supervise design staff
  • Review and approve designs, artwork, photography, and graphics developed by staff members
  • Talk to clients to develop an artistic approach and style
  • Coordinate activities with other artistic or creative departments
  • Develop detailed budgets and timelines
  • Present designs to clients for approval

Note: Although art directors are expected to have some graphic design judgment and technical knowledge of production, it is not necessary for them to hand-render layouts or even be able to draw (as basically all but the most preliminary work is now done on computer).

Strong conceptual skills are needed as an art director. According to Kaitlyn Angstadt, senior art director at Brownstein Group in an interview with MediaBistro: “To create something meaningful, you must start with a strong idea. This is the backbone of commercial art. Good communication skills are also essential. Your team has to understand what you want in order to deliver it. Clearly articulate your vision or risk jeopardizing the quality of the project."

As an art director, you’re always on, Angstadt says. “There’s never a time when you’re not thinking of new ideas,” so loving what you do is important. Ditto having a thick skin. In this line of work, as with other creative jobs, you have to be able to take criticism, even when you don’t agree with the feedback. If you don’t hit it out of the park the first or second or third go-round, dust yourself off and try again. It’ll make your home run that much sweeter."

Art directors work in a variety of industries, and the type of work they do varies somewhat with the industry. However, almost all art directors set the overall artistic style and visual image to be created for each project, and oversee a staff of designers, artists, photographers, writers, or editors who are responsible for creating the individual works that collectively make up a completed product.

The following is a brief outline on what art directors can do in different industries:

In publishing, art directors typically oversee the page layout of newspapers and magazines. They also choose the cover art for books and periodicals. Often, this work includes web publications.

In advertising and public relations, art directors ensure that their clients’ desired message and image is conveyed to consumers. They are responsible for the overall visual aspects of an advertising or media campaign and may coordinate the work of other artistic or design staff, such as graphic designers.

In movie production, art directors collaborate with directors to determine what sets will be needed for the film and what style or look the sets should have. They hire and supervise a staff of assistant art directors or set designers to complete designs.

Most art directors will have worked for several years in another occupation before being hired as an art director. Depending upon the industry, they may have spent some time working as a graphic designer, fine artist, editor, photographer, or in another art or design occupation before becoming an art director.

For many artists, including art directors, developing a professional looking portfolio (a collection of work that demonstrates one's style, ability, and expertise) is essential in landing a job. Agencies, directors, publishing houses, and clients all look at artists’ portfolios when they are deciding whether to hire or contract for a project, big or small.

Strong competition for jobs is expected in the future, as many talented designers and artists are looking to move into art director positions. Individuals with a good portfolio, which can demonstrate strong visual design and conceptual work across all multimedia platforms, will have the best prospects.

Are you suited to be an art director?

Art directors have distinct personalities. They tend to be artistic individuals, which means they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive. They are unstructured, original, nonconforming, and innovative. Some of them are also enterprising, meaning they’re adventurous, ambitious, assertive, extroverted, energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.

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What is the workplace of an Art Director like?

In a typical work environment, art directors:

Have a lot of social interaction
Work with customers
Work with creative staff
Have responsibility for work done by designers, artists, photographers, etc.,
Work with teams or groups of people
Select and work with teams
Resolve issues over the direction of a project
Communicate with customers

According the Bureau of Labour Statistics, art directors held about 90,300 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of art directors were as follows:

Self-employed workers - 59%
Advertising, public relations, and related services - 13%
Newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers - 4%
Motion picture and video industries - 3%
Specialized design services - 3%

Even though most art directors are self-employed, they must still collaborate with designers or other staff on visual effects or marketing teams. Art directors usually work more than 40 hours per week in a fast-paced office environment, and they often work under pressure (and on weekends) to meet strict deadlines.

What types of industries do art directors work in?

The title 'art director' can be used within a variety of industries, such as the publishing, marketing, advertising, theatre, gaming, fashion, film and television, and online industries. The job itself takes on different responsibilities depending on the company and industry one works for.

For the most part, however, all art directors will set the general artistic style and visual image that needs to be created for each project, managing the output from writers, editors, designers, artists, and photographers in order to bring a project to fruition. An art director's main concern is to inspire and guide their team so that each and every component of a project will come together to produce an appealing visual whole.

Art director looking at various photographs to use in a magazine layout.

The Publishing Industry
In publishing, art directors typically work with the publication's editor(s) and oversee the concept for specific sections and page layouts of catalogs, newspapers, or magazines. The art director is ultimately responsible for the look and feel of a publication, and the editor is responsible for the publication's written content. Art directors also choose the cover art for books and magazines, and because this work often includes publications for the Internet, they often oversee production of the websites used for publication.

There is a significant amount of multitasking involved in being the art director of a publishing house, such as juggling the different stages of production that multiple books or magazines can be in.

As Diane Chonette, an Art Director at Tin House, describes in an interview with Writers & Artists, "There are always books in various stages of production and the quarterly magazine is either at the beginning of the production process or ready to go to the printer. A lot of art department support is also given to our marketing and publicity team, which includes creating clever press packages, printing galleys/ARCs (Advance Reader Copies), or generating website and social media banners. A single day can include sending a book off to print, showing cover concepts, reading and researching for magazine interior art, and obtaining galley quotes from a printer for an upcoming book. There are usually e-mail requests for files or jacket images that I squeeze in between the other bigger tasks. I think having so many balls in the air is one of the best parts of my job though—keeps my mind active and the day goes quickly."

The Advertising & Public Relations Industry
Art directors that work for advertising agencies are a very important part of the creative team. The team typically consists of an art director (responsible for the overall visual aspects of an advertising campaign) and a copywriter (responsible for the text of an advertising campaign). The art director and copywriter are usually overseen by a creative director, or chief creative director.

In this type of industry, art directors are also responsible for coordinating the work of other artistic staff (for example, graphic artists) and bringing everything together for the client so that the desired message and image are properly conveyed to the consumer. Each person involved in the project collaborates together and welcomes suggestions and constructive criticism from each other, which serves to enhance the final product.

Advertising firms are no longer limited to advertising in print or film media. New age media outlets are now taking over and are now the industry norm (such as social media marketing, mobile communications, and the web). This means other types of services are being offered to clients, such as media planning, brand management, public relations, and promotional events. Therefore, the art director has a wider range of responsibilities than in the past. These responsibilities may include going over things with the management team and the client's representatives, coming up with ideas and concepts in collaboration with the creative team, preparing campaigns for client approval, and making arrangements for creating the advertisement and bringing the project to fruition.

In a large company, an art director may have the responsibility of also overseeing other art directors, image developers, production artists, and junior designers. In small companies, an art director may end up fulfilling all the aforementioned roles.

The Movie Production Industry
Art directors in the film and movie production industry work directly below the production designer, and also work very closely with set decorators, set designers, and assistant art directors. They collaborate with directors and screenwriters in order to understand what style or look a set should have, and to know exactly how many sets will be required for a production. Screenwriters are key in providing the art director with a feel for the type of story that needs to be told, and in shedding light on how the visual selections will help to set the ambience of a film or episode.

Visual selections can provide the audience with an incredible amount of insight into a character's personality and background. Everything, from a picture hanging on a wall, to the colour of a dress, is a visual design choice made by the art director and the heads of various departments. The various departments usually include the art, construction, locations, property, transportation, and special FX departments. Art directors are responsible for assigning tasks to the personnel from each of these departments, and for keeping track of budgeting, scheduling, quality control, and attending production meetings.


Regardless of the industry an art director is in, there is a consistent theme to being successful in this career. As Blimp Creative founder James Fenton explains: "As an art director you must be a leader; someone who inspires and guides the vision of the design team. You have to be able to recognize the talent in those around you and learn how best to get the best from them."

"The role of the art director could be compared to that of a chef, fusing together ingredients to produce a menu of delightful dishes," he explains. "All designers inject their individual personalities, tastes and style into their work. It is the art director's role to identify and understand the different flavours each member brings to the team, and then carefully infuse them to complement one another."

Art Directors are also known as:
Art Supervisor Creative Director Design Director Advertising Art Director