Art direction, graphic design, and creative direction: How are these disciplines different, and which do you need for your project?

Art direction came in at no. 6 on Upwork’s 2018 Skills Index of the fastest-growing skills, proof that marketing teams are looking for more than just graphic design when it comes to their creative projects; they’re looking for guidance and ideas as well:

Let’s take a look at what art directors—and creative directors, and graphic designers—do to help determine the best fit for your next design project.

Understanding the roles of art directors and creative directors is crucial when assembling a creative team. While they work closely together, there are some important distinctions between these two positions.

Key Takeaways

  • Art directors focus on visuals and executing the creative vision. Creative directors set the overall creative strategy.
  • Art directors manage graphic designers, photographers and other visual specialists. Creative directors oversee art directors, copywriters and account teams.
  • Art directors bring creative ideas to life visually. Creative directors connect creative work to business objectives.

Graphic Designer vs. Art Director vs. Creative Director: What’s the Difference?

It might seem that these titles are as simple as junior, advanced, and senior designer—and their rates may reflect that—but it’s not that simple. Their responsibilities and what they contribute to a project can vary, depending on the structure of the team, design shop, or agency.

Marketing manager Joe Lesina makes a great analogy of creative work as music to help explain how the roles differ:

  • The creative team: All the professionals who make high-quality creative work possible are the orchestra, from copywriters and project managers to video producers and graphic designers. Each has his own instrument that contributes to the final production.
  • Graphic designer: An orchestra member who’s highly skilled in one instrument—say, the violin. He plays notes (and sometimes solos) that contribute to the sound.
  • Art director: A composer who writes the song the orchestra plays. He works with the orchestra to pull it together and polish it for performance.
  • Creative director: The director of the orchestra who selects the songs to be included in the production. He chooses songs that support his clear vision for the final, full-length performance.

Let’s look a little closer at each role, with examples of how each might complement the others’ roles on a real-life creative team.

The Creative Directive: Translating Goals to Strategies

Creative direction is focused on strategy.

In any industry—fashion, music, advertising, event planning, hospitality, interior design—creative directors act as guardians of a brand’s vision.

They’ll oversee the what, when, and where of visuals and messaging.

They are also the keepers of creative briefs, translating business objectives into projects and ensuring they align with the strategy.

Example: A pharmaceutical company hires an ad agency to handle the branding, marketing, and sales materials for a drug launch. It conveys the business goals to the creative director, who brainstorms the specific projects to address each need, from TV ads and drug packaging to sales brochures and shelf talkers. After sitting in on market research, the creative director drafts a creative brief for each project, then reviews and approves concepts from creative teams.

Note: Whereas graphic designers often “graduate” to art directors, the step between art director and creative director isn’t quite as linear. Copywriters, who are often paired with art directors, have been known to become creative directors too.

The Art Director: Wrapping a Startegy into a Vision

If the creative director handles strategy and a graphic designer handles execution, the art director creates the vision that brings the strategy to life. Art directors have a well-honed sense of graphic design, although they may not be the ones carrying out the smaller tasks. They’re responsible for translating a creative brief into tangible concepts, and their creative eye can focus on everything from photography to video to illustration.

Example: The pharmaceutical company wants a brochure created that reps can take with them on in-office visits. An art director and a copywriter team up to brainstorm the new branding, including a color scheme, a logo, and a tagline. They’ll create an entire system for the brand’s materials, with guidelines for how text, colors, logos, and messaging are used in different applications. For the brochure project in particular, they might create three options: a trifold, a folder kit with inserts, and a spiral-bound booklet. The creative director chooses a winning concept, then provides feedback as it is produced.

The Graphic Designer: Executing the Vision

When design files need to be created, graphic designers are your hands-on executors. They put their creativity down on paper or into pixels, whether it’s for web design, print, mobile UI design, or logos. Using Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or InDesign, graphic designers execute the vision provided by an art director; however they’re perfectly capable of dealing with clients themselves.

Example: Using the branding system and concept created by an art director, a graphic designer might take over the brochure project as it goes through rounds of revisions from the client. He might flow in copy, tweak margins and kerning, make edits from the client or the editor, update logo versions, and upload the files to the production server.

Comparing Roles on Creative Teams

A real-world creative team illustrates how art directors and creative directors interact:

  • The creative director sets overall branding/messaging strategy for an upcoming ad campaign.
  • Art directors work with designers and photographers to design campaign visuals.
  • Meanwhile, copywriters develop accompanying scripts and content.
  • The creative director oversees all these specialized roles, ensuring unity.

The art director translates high-level creative direction into tangible visuals. The creative director connects business goals to executions across media. Understanding these nuances helps match talent to creative needs.

Which Creative Do You Need?

In the above examples, we looked at each role in terms of an agency, where titles are very structured.

However, it’s more likely that designers wear a few different hats and are capable of everything from ideation to execution—especially freelance designers.

Keep in mind that what you need from a creative professional will come down to the level of execution you need vs. the level of vision and concepting you need.

You might not need a creative director to help design a logo or a home page, while a junior graphic designer might not be the right choice to execute your top-to-bottom rebrand by himself.

If you need a team of designers to carry out all aspects of your project, it might make sense to have a hierarchy with a more senior designer guiding the vision and junior designers building the files.

If one creative will suffice to complete your project, be sure it’s someone with the breadth of experience you need—something you can gauge by asking the right questions and reviewing portfolios of prior work.

Design roles are easily blurred, as many creatives regardless of title are capable of everything from ideation and conception to execution and production. A solo designer can wear many hats—and sometimes all of them, at one time.

Here are a few questions to help decide which of these creatives you need:

  1. What size is your company? A larger company with more resources has the capacity for more hierarchy in its design roles, in which case a creative director and an art director might not overlap as much. A small start-up might need only an art director or a senior graphic designer who can help with both ideation and execution.
  2. How complex is your project? How many assets do your require? How much strategy and planning is required to get started? If you need a more layered design system, you’ll want an art director or a creative director. For simpler, one-off tasks, an art director might be overkill.
  3. What does your project need? Do you need a thinker or a doer? In other words, what could your design project benefit from more: planning, brainstorming, and concepting or execution of specific deliverables? For the former, a strategic role like an art director would be a better fit.
  4. Do you need specialized visual executions? For initiatives centered on visuals like photo shoots, videos or redesigning branding collaterals, an art director should lead creative. They will expertly guide photographers, graphic designers and other visual specialists.
  5. Is your priority aligning creative to business strategy? For high-level oversight ensuring creative aligns to branding and messaging strategy, a creative director is best suited to lead. They will connect business goals to creative concepting and provide unified guidance to subordinate creative roles.
  6. Is your project limited to a single campaign or initiative? For concentrated efforts like an ad campaign or website redesign, an art director may sufficiently lead creative execution. But for ongoing branding strategy encompassing multiple campaigns and initiatives, a dedicated creative director oversight is preferable.