Art Director vs Graphic Designer?!
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
The fine line between graphic design and art direction
As an art director, the title misleads people into thinking that an art director takes home a hefty managerial wage. It gets more confusing when trying to define that line of work since what follows is often a request to explain the difference between graphic design and art direction. Assigning distinctions, especially in situations where perplexity originates from likeness and not difference is very exhausting.
Even though art directors may have more responsibility in the advertising sense in that they supervise or 'direct' work, it is a misconception that the difference between a designer and an art director is the difference between look and feel; or that the art director creates a concept which a designer implement. This oversimplified and inaccurate distinction stems from the advertising industry where the designer is placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of the creative team. It does not, however, apply to graphic design as a discipline in that an advertising agency is not a superior version of a graphic design agency. Another myth is that art directors generally work in above-the-line advertising while graphic designers work in print media. Though statistically this may be true, many art directors specialize in below-the-line advertising (and design). Some people see the graphic design process as a mere creation of pretty pictures, while art direction as a process driven by emotive appeal and strategy. However, good graphic designers are just as concerned with overall concept and strategy as they are with technical execution.
Art director as designer
During the golden days of print, when copywriters ruled the advertising scene, the art director was the designer. The copywriter came up with the ideas, and the designer put them together. But after the advent of television, when the visual needed to evoke as much as the written, the art director was born. Most art directors are designers; in fact most art directors start out as graphic designers. Because 'art direction' is not offered at mainstream academia, graphic design programs involve art direction. A student who wants to work for an advertising agency will most likely want to become an art director, though design skills are essential. Conceptual skills drive all things creative, and so the designer cannot simply hide behind pixels and color swatches. Some believe that no one can be a designer; without some art directing skills - unless by 'designer' we mean the guy at the corner print shop who confuses Photoshop and Corel Draw skills for a graphic design qualification. In fact, in many parts of Europe, graphic design, copy-writing and art direction all fall under the umbrella of 'visual communication'. The term 'graphic design' is avoided in favor of visual communication because the responsibilities of a designer comprise a little of everything.
Even though graphic design is generally understood to be the how and art direction being the why, in reality the result is a collaborative effort of the two. Some companies will hire designers and never art directors, and others will hire art directors who spend most of their working hours designing. In my opinion however, whether one creates packaging for a milk brand or a billboard for a petroleum giant, conceptual and strategic thinking always comes into play. The difference between an art director and a graphic designer is often a matter of context (and titles - art directors will kill me for saying this!). I personally don't agree that designers blindly choose colors, fonts and images with little reasoning and strategic planning. If anything, that's the definition of a bad designer. Strategic thinking may be more apparent in a television advert than in a logo. Yet a good brand applies strategy whether it is through the corporate 'vision' mounted on the wall of the CEO's office, the well-crafted pay-off line or the layout of its website. The end result is a collaborative effort from the marketing manager to the illustrator. Perhaps, the question one needs to ask is not what the difference between art direction and graphic design is, and the same may be asked about copy-writing and art direction, but the relationship between the two because it is clear that there are more overlaps than disparities in the two disciplines.