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The Difference Between Art Directors and Copywriters

6 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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I've always been a visual person.

From an early age, I'd fill up sheets of paper and large sections of sidewalks with drawings of the worlds I'd build in my head. Then, as I moved into the academic world, art classes helped me hone those doodles. Learning design gave me the chops to bring my love of art into the commercial world. When I decided to get into advertising, it was a simple choice between art director and copywriter.

But it's not as simple as that for lots of aspiring creatives. Once they decide on diving into the creative field, choosing between the path of an art director or copywriter can leave them stuck at that fork in the road.

So, hopefully this article will help give you travelers a map. It's not going to tell you which way to go, but at least you'll know what's out there, whichever path you choose.



The Myth and the Reality

Figuring out the differences between art directors and copywriters is actually easier than I thought. But I realized the bigger issue was around the myths about the differences, not the reality.

It all comes down to how each creative is most comfortable at expressing their creativity.

Which means we need to address both. Now, let's get the reality out of the way first. It's the easiest.

Similar & Different

Actually, copywriters and art directors are more the same than they're different. Once you move past the executional specialties, both need one thing: consistent and dependable creativity. It all comes down to how each creative is most comfortable at expressing that creativity.

Ideas

Simply put, the main difference is that art directors use visuals to express ideas and copywriters use words. But, that's an oversimplification.

True creatives are kinda hybrids. Writers know what looks good. Art directors can say things. Sure, one may be better at a skill than the other, but all creatives need to be adept in language, whether it's visual or words.

Skills

Okay, so you understand creativity is number one on the list. But when you actually look for a job at an agency, they're going to expect you to be able to execute. They'll look for your skills, beyond your thinking. And each specialty has their own tools:

  • Art Directors: Typography, imagery, layout, and color are your weapons of choice. And to wield them, you better feel at home in places like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.
  • Copywriters: Basically, you need words. The right words. Sure, you may want to grab a thesaurus or favorite book of poetry to inspire you. But your craft will rely on your grasp of language, so that every word you use does the work of ten.

Disproving the Myths

You may have read all that above and thought, "Oh, that's pretty clear. Why is everyone so confused?" Well, it's because that's the simple way of seeing these two creative types.

After doing a little competitive research about what others think the differences are between art directors and copywriters, I saw that there's so much that's just wrong out there.

Myth #1: Art directors are only into pictures. Copywriters are only into words.

Like I said, superficially, it's about words and pictures. So, when I saw these illustrations (check them out, they're pretty good), I had to forgive the artist for looking at the world so simplistically. I mean, brevity is the soul of wit and all that, right?

But, realistically, it's not so simple.

Maybe each creative longs to execute in their opposite specialty.

I know more copywriters that do photography on the side than I know art directors that wield a camera. And as an art director myself, I obviously do some long-form writing (you're reading it), as well as songs.

Maybe it's the whole "grass is greener on the other side" type of thing, where each creative longs to execute in their opposite medium. Or maybe it's deeper. That, as creatives, we're always looking to balance our creative muscles. Like they say, never skip leg day at the gym, or else you'll be top heavy. Well, maybe this whole writing exercise of mine is my way to get in some squats within my art direction life.

Myth #2: Art directors are the "idea people" and copywriters execute (or vice versa).

"Art directors lead a team of creative professionals that includes copywriters. One takes charge, the other creates words."

I saw that quote in a study.com article and it made me want to write a sternly-worded letter to them about how wrong they are. In fact, traditionally (back before Bill Bernbach paired up art directors and copywriters as creative equals), copywriters were the "idea people" and art directors executed. The good news is, Billy figured out that was a bad idea and threw the two into a room together to ideate.

That was revolutionary. It resulted in better work than previous decades of advertising had ever churned out. Mainly because it allowed the idea to balance between language and visuals, not depend on one or the other.

So, we need to realize that neither the art director nor the copywriter should be looked at as the "idea person." They're both ideators and they're both the executors. Thinking any other way just limits the work.

Myth #3: Being a copywriter is easier than being an art director.

I've met, talked to, and taught lots of aspiring creatives. And more than anything else, they've wanted to be copywriters. Hey, follow your passion and pursue what you're good at. But make sure you know what you're getting into.

The problem was, lots of them chose copywriting because they thought it was easier.

Having the tools of a creative doesn't make you a creative.

Well, look at the necessary craft skills we talked about in the first half of this article. Art directors have to spend hours, years maybe, to learn the ins and outs of some of the most complex and expensive visual software out there (Adobe is a beast). Meanwhile, a copywriter can walk into a project with a thesaurus and a notepad, right?

I mean, if you know how to write words, you could be a copywriter. Which is why so many people see their entrance into the ad world as a copywriter easier than that of an art director. But if that's all you've got, you wouldn't be a very good writer. It's not that easy. Having the tools doesn't give you the job.

But you don't figure that out until you get a job. Or until you try to. And along the way, it's difficult to understand why you're being passed over. Because while the technical skills needed might put the barrier to entry a little lower, that just means that more people are competing against you. Which also means you can't just piece together a few words from Webster's and expect a creative career. And the same goes for art directors. Technology has made gaining the visual chops easier and more attainable.

So, is being a writer or an art director harder? Of course, the answer is neither. They each have their difficulties. Art directors will be on call to direct the visuals of the campaign up until the last deliverable is sent. But the copywriter tends to drive most of the campaign up front: articulating the idea, writing headlines, developing scripts. Plus, depending on the client or project, one or the other may take more responsibility. In the end, the workload may flow back and forth, but it'll balance out.

Creativity at Their Core

Art director. Copywriter. There's no quiz you can take to decide which one you should be. The path isn't always clear, but if you know what's down the road, it might make your choice a little easier.

Just remember: no matter which choice you make, keep creativity at the core of your career.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson. LinkedIn Instagram

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