On Creative Direction

A primer on creative direction as compared to art direction and design… and what they all mean in a digital context.

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Three years ago, I wrote an article on A List Apart about one of my favorite topics: the difference between art direction and design. One of the most common themes in the comments was the request to write a follow-up that included creative direction. This is that follow-up.

For what it’s worth, I’ll start by admitting that we’re a pretty pedantic bunch, and this discussion certainly fits the mold. We love to define and redefine the terms we use every day. And I’m glad we do. In a talk I heard from master storyteller Andy Stefanovich, he said, “Words make the world.” Indeed. Beware: pedantry below.

Defining Creative Direction

Creative direction is a tricky thing to isolate and define. There’s a lot of overlap between creative direction, art direction, and design, so it’s no surprise that the words are often used interchangeably. I’ve had friends that own agencies list jobs for an Art Director, when actually what they needed was a Creative Director. I know people that hold the title of Creative Director and have no idea what’s part of their job description—and neither do their bosses.

Creative Direction is the intersection where Art Direction & Design meet Strategy.

In the same style as my previous article, I’ll first try to define the discipline before addressing the responsibilities of the role; that is, I’ll try to explain creative direction before talking about Creative Director. Hopefully, you’ll see what that’s important in just a minute.

Creative Direction is championing the intersection where Art Direction & Design meet Strategy. Let’s quickly define each of those terms:

  • Art Direction: the visceral resonance of how a piece of work feels. In other words, what you feel in your gut when you look at a website, app, or any piece of design work. Usually described in touchy-feely words like elegant, grungy, retro, and more.
  • Design1: the physical or literal aspects of a piece of work. Whoever said “design is subjective” wasn’t trying hard enough. Good design is measured in precision. Is a headline kerned? Do the baselines align? Do the colors vibrate? Is the image resolution too low for the medium? A piece of work that doesn’t adhere to the basic principles graphic designers learn in school, you can say it’s poorly designed (even if the art direction calls for something poorly designed… see where we’re going with that?).
  • Strategy2: the particular means used to achieve a particular goal. The goal of every football team is to win, specifically by scoring more points than the other team. If you have a fast running back and your opponent has a weak defensive line, your strategy—i.e. your particular way to win—is to run the ball. If you have a great quarterback and your opponent has a weak secondary, your strategy is to pass the ball. Your strategy changes as your circumstances do: who your opponent is, weather conditions, injuries on your roster, etc. In digital, if your goal is to sell more retirement funds, your strategy might be to target senior citizens, and one tactic of that strategy might be to buy Facebook ads (burn).

(I go into more detail about the specifics of art direction & design in my original article.)

Back to our definition of creative direction: championing the intersection where art direction & design meet strategy. The primary concern of good creative direction is making sure the art direction & design approaches always support the client’s bottom line. If any of those pieces fall short—even if the others are brilliant—that’s poor creative direction. You can have a brilliant strategy and art direction, but if it’s not appropriately designed, that’s poor creative direction. You can have appropriate art direction and gorgeous design, but if the strategy’s not sound, that’s poor creative direction. You get the idea.

One of my favorite examples of great creative direction is Wieden+Kennedy’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign for Old Spice:

I have no inside knowledge of how this project or the team worked on it, but I’ll speculate about it based on what I’ve seen. The components:

  • Goal: Sell more body wash.
  • Strategy: Target both men and women, because no one in the category does that (or does that well).
  • Art Direction: Create a set that looks like “the everyman’s shower” and then transform it into a fantastical fantasyland.
  • Design: Pick neutral shower curtain, average shower tile, etc.
  • Creative Direction: Make sure all of that stuff holds together.

Have you ever been so focused on writing a JavaScript method that you forget the point of the site for a minute? Or have you ever been so involved in tweaking a bezier curve that you lose sight of the how important it is to increase donations? Creative direction is about the forest and the trees. More specifically, it’s about helping those in the trees see the forest, and helping those who only see the forest remember the trees too.

The role of Creative Director

Now that we’ve established what creative direction is, let’s talk about the role of Creative Director. While the fact that a Creative Director should do creative direction seems obvious, that’s not always the case.

Many companies treat Creative Director as the next step up in the hierarchy. A designer moves up to being an Art Director and then to being a Creative Director, regardless of whether she has the skills or experience to do creative direction.

To make matters more complex, Art Directors can sometimes do creative direction and so can designers. As a Designer, I’ve inadvertently done poor creative direction. I’ve also worked on projects where my Art Director has given me better creative direction than the Creative Director. Thoroughly confused yet?

One of my favorite things about working at Big Spaceship was that there was no Creative Director there. Even more important to me was the reason. No one had “creative” in their title. They weren’t any “creatives” there, nor did we ever send over “the creative.” Everyone there was required to be creative; that was table stakes. If you didn’t consider yourself creative, you probably shouldn’t be working there.

Along that same line of thinking, a literal interpretation of Creative Director would mean that someone was necessary to “direct the creative,” again antithetical to the setup. That resonated well with me. However, now that I’m in a position with SuperFriendly that I’m in a role that is traditionally a Creative Director role, I see the responsibility a bit differently. Rather than it being someone that directs the creative, I see it as someone who directs what is being created. That means there’s always someone who’s acting as Creative Director, even if the title isn’t explicit. Who is overseeing everything being created for quality? Sometimes it’s a producer. Other times, it’s an information architect or a developer or a writer. Now you see how it’s feasible for a Creative Director to come from any discipline.

Regardless of what discpline the Creative Director comes from, though, an important responsibility of the role is to value quality equally across all involved disciplines. If a Creative Director whose background is in design only values design but doesn’t understand development well enough to know if the developer is doing a good job, that’s poor creative direction. Great Creative Directors understand each portion of what’s being created and can push every member of the team to produce the utmost quality. The best Creative Directors are jacks-of-all-trades and masters-of-all-trades.

A Creative Director also has lots of other responsibilities, like mentoring, growing teams, seeing a vision through for each project, establishing a positive culture, and more. While those are important, those are traits of good leaders. A Creative Director is a leader and should certainly be concerned with those things. However, so should anyone that is a manager or has “Director”, “VP,” “Head,” or “Chief” in her title; none of those are specific to creative direction. (You see now why it’s hard to distinguish Art Director from Creative Director; they both have the Director part in common, but most miss the main responsibility.)

A great Creative Director has the answer to everything, not because she’s smarter than everyone else but because she’s spent more time thinking about all of the possible scenarios before everyone else even realized that was important. When I’m working on a project with a Creative Director, that’s the expectation I have of her—to make well-informed decisions amongst tough choices. On projects where I’m the Creative Director, that responsibility is on my shoulders.

[Added Feb. 23, 4 days after original publishing:] In an article called Who Has a Seat at the Table, Seth Godin wrote:

Who is obsessed with creating delight, with building in remarkability, with pushing the envelope (every envelope—money, tech, policy) to get to the point where you've created something that people will be proud of, that will change things for the better, that will make a dent in the universe?

That’s the job of a Creative Director.

Creative Directors, creative direction, and me… oh my!

What does this mean for you, dear reader? Here are a few scenarios you might find yourself faced with that need clarification:

  • I’m a client, looking for someone to set the visual tone for my new app/product. You need an Art Director.
  • I’m an agency owner, looking to hire someone who can see higher-level things than my Designers and can impact my business and that of my clients. You need a Creative Director.
  • I’m a Designer, looking for a mentor that can help me hone my skills so that my designs evoke just the right feel. You need an Art Director.
  • I’m a client, looking for someone to tell me why that particular color scheme for my new product is better for my users and will make me rich. You need a Creative Director.
  • I’m an agency owner, looking to hire someone who can ensure that my Designers’ work is of the highest quality, the typefaces are well chosen, and the grids are pixel-perfect. You need a Art Director.
  • I’m a Designer, looking for guidance to help develop my critical thinking skills so that I can better understand how my designs can affect my clients’ business. You need a Creative Director.

Any questions?

Bibliography

Footnotes

  1. Please note that I’m talking about design as a synonym for graphic design or visual design, not Design that indicates a larger, holistic system or process.
  2. This lovely definition comes from my friend Chris Matthews.
  3. This article has also been published on Medium.
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