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The Differences Between Art Directors and Graphic Designers

4 min read

I'm a Creative Director, working in the advertising and design industries for over 15 years.
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Ever since I was in school, I was confused about the subtle differences between an art director and a graphic designer.

I was like a lot of people, and just figured that one came before the other, as far as promotions were concerned. You were a graphic designer, eventually moved on to become an art director, and one day a creative director.

Then, I started my career as a designer. I talked to my bosses, mentors, and other designers, and realized that they all shared the same skills. As I shifted careers, moving into an art director role, I asked around. And I noticed the same thing, they shared the same, yet now a completely new, set of skills.

That's when it finally clicked: designers and art directors are totally different careers. And what's expected of those positions are entirely separate. These are the main areas of confusion:

  • Job Titles
  • Skills
  • Responsibilities

Now, I figure, if I was confused, then others must be, too. So, here are the differences between the two.



Job Titles

Let's start with the easy one: job titles. The funny thing is, this is where the most confusion happens. Because there's an "art director" title in both of these career paths.

For instance, if we're looking at an advertising agency:

  • Junior Art Director (or Copywriter)
  • Art Director
  • Senior Art Director
  • Associate Creative Director
  • Creative Director

But when we look at a design firm:

  • Junior Designer
  • Designer
  • Senior Designer
  • Art Director
  • Design Director

In an ad agency, "art director" is a specialty, half of a creative team, like a copywriter. But in design, it's a level of the hierarchy, someone who's leading a team of designers.

Who knows, maybe back in the day, when art directors weren't considered conceptual creatives, they were the same job, But now, they're totally separate.

To be clear, you don't start out as a designer, then a senior designer, then work your way up to be a junior art director, and so on. These are two completely separate career paths, that will have some overlap along the way.

So, same name, but competely different.

Skills

The simple difference is that a graphic designer is focused on the execution and the art director is involved in the concept of the project.

But, it's not that simple, because, there are plenty of designers that are conceptual and a lot of art directors that execute. So, we need details.

Graphic Designer

A lot of art directors start as designers, but it's actually not a requirement. You'd be surprised how many art directors I've known and worked with, who completely lack basic design skills.

Those skills are mainly around the elements of visual communication and craft. When I say craft, I mean things like layout, typography, color, and even illustration. You focus on the "how" of a project. How is it going to come to life visually? You're experts in making it look amazing.

Art Director

As an art director, your skills move more into the conceptual side. It's less about "how" it looks, and more "what" is the idea? So, those skills are a little more abstract: ideation, conceptual connection of pieces, and creative direction.

However, with those skills comes the requirement to be able to see, understand, and direct others' unique skill sets. And to do that, you usually need to have those skills, as well. Which is why so many art directors are expected to have design chops.

Responsibilities

Graphic Designer

As the designer, you're responsible for the look, feel, and like I said earlier, craft of the project. Depending upon what that project is, it could mean you're creating a design system, assembling a layout, developing typography, building the UI/UX, etc.

You'll work with others who are even more specialized in their trades: typographic designers, UI/UX designers, retouchers, producers, etc.

Basically, if it involves making the project look good, it's on your head.

Art Director

On the other hand, the art director's responsibilities are much more varied. First, there's the executional side. Brainstorming, idea development, presentation or deck building, and comping up pieces are a few of the more concrete, labor-intensive parts of the job.

Then it gets into the managment side, because an art director's role is in its name: you direct the art. In reality, an art director works with a designer. But you also work with photographers, illustrators, animators, colorists, editors, mixers, and pretty much anybody that's involved in the creation of a project. You help direct all those experts towards the same goal of executing a project cohesively.

You're the conductor of the orchestra, helping all the musicians play the same song.

Most of the time, you need to work very closesly with a producer, because along with you, they are the connection between these different experts. And that will involve going to shoots, edits, mixes, press checks, etc.

But at the core of it, you need to sell that idea through, the entire way, from the client to the finish line.



Separate Specialities

The list of responsibilities may be a little longer for an art director, but that's simply because their specialization is in their ability to create an idea, then work with the experts to bring it to life. And that has a lot more moving parts. A designer's specialty is more focused, and allows them to be one of those experts.

And that's what you need to remember: these are specializations. One is not above another or leads to another. They are unique in what they do and in what's expected of them.

In the end, it's up to you to decide what your specialty is, and whether that means directing experts or being the expert yourself.

Thanks for reading!

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