Multifont Buckle by Steel Toe Studios
Collaborative Design Practices: Concepting

The Eight Archetypes of Art Directors


After you've worked in a lot of creative shops, things start to blend together: hectic days, never-ending meetings, major deadlines looming like fiery blimps on the horizon just threatening to crash down and raze whole townships.

And then there's the art directors. At my first few agency jobs, I just couldn't figure out where they were coming from. Add more "air" to my layouts -- did you mean leading, sir? Shall we spend yet another hour pondering the esoteric quality of the letter "b" in a serif or sans serif typeface for that identity? Every new job seemed to bring a new personality to the table. I would need to learn to take feedback from them in a constructive manner.

I feel like I've been doing this long enough that I'm finally starting to recognize the various hats that we may wear throughout each day. (Some more so than others.)

Designers, do you recognize any of these characters as your boss? Art directors, did I miss any of our ilk?


The Collaborator

They're right there with you in the trenches, figuring things out through collaborative brainstorms, long walks to talk through big problems. They're ever-willing to share a hand, and selfless to a fault. When the work is all put together for the client, you really can't put your finger on what they contributed to the overall process, other than an active sort of facilitation that led to a good finished product. It was all a sort of big mush.


The Designer-er

This fine fellow or gal is still a designer, but they're a manager. They just can't let go of the act of designing, and as a result, the designers that they manage endlessly suffer.

AD: Hmm... I don't think the layout is quite there yet. Tell you what, I'll go back to my desk and just play around with the elements a little bit. You just keep working.
Designer: But I think what I've got here is really good --
AD: Don't worry. We're just exploring some new possibilities.
[time passes]
AD: [whips out completely new layout] So, whaddaya think? Let's show this to the client.
Designer: Errr... I don't like it. At all.
AD: Too bad. I just didn't like where you were going. [Note: this is always shared after the fact]


The Architect

This fine art director thinks in very elegant frameworks that gracefully encapsulate whole reams of client thought, distilling them into succinct visual languages that are rarely questioned in their execution. This style of art director must be ever-mindful of the constant quest necessary to balance charts with heart, as the human spark is ever elusive in the final design.


The Backseat Driver

A good buddy of the Designer-er, they want to work out the design problem through you, not with you. They'll sit in a chair next to you and watch every move closely, waiting for their chance to completely work out their vision through your hands (and butt) in a chair. And if you're really lucky, they'll ask if they can drive! Then you can sit and watch them work while you receive the essence of their wisdom and keep on billing time to the client. Who knows, you might learn something in the process. If you don't kill someone first. Speaking of killing...


The Gunman

This art director doesn't formally schedule face time to give feedback on the design work at hand. Instead, whenever s/he is passing by your desk, they will immediately stop you in your tracks and offer you frank and direct advice about exactly where they think you should go with the work, based on whatever's on your screen. Repeatedly. Designer: "Dude, you're totally impeding my flow." AD: "Sorry man, I just had all these ideas and I had to share them with you right away." In your mind, the computer screen is filling up with holes. Glass is shattering everywhere... must... resist... strangling... boss...

We love to call this at work "the drive-by."


The Absentee

Just where is this guy? Hey, is Harry around? He needs to give feedback on the two Web site comps going out today. And he's supposed to guide casting for the photo shoot. I think he's upstairs. Did you see him come in this morning? Oh hell, if we don't raise him on his iPhone by 2 PM just send out the proposal and he'll have to be good with it. At least he got the layouts done for the brochure. They were waiting on my chair when I got in this morning. So he must have been here at some point.


The Explorer

This AD is always prepared for a long journey. Get out the checklists! Up there, twinkling at the summit, is a jewel of a concept flanked by phalanxes of Gold Pencils and Addys. "The trip will be long and arduous. But thankfully, I have concocted this map, which explains in detail the route we should take for the life of this project. Let us begin at phase one, where we write how we feel about apricots and place it onto sticky notes onto the whiteboard. For phase two, we will distill your impassioned words into a mood board that will help guide us on our way." Don't worry -- there's no risk of us getting lost in the thorny thickets of cliche. We will explore at least 50 layout directions before settling on what might be the right path. Hold on... let me get out my GPS...


The Dreamer

"I've got this vision, okay? It just came out of nowhere, while I was walking home from yoga class. And before I can share it with you, we should fortify ourselves with with some little lollipops and a few O'Douls. It's a little fuzzy, the concept I had in mind. I don't even quite understand it myself. Perhaps you can help me get some language around it, do a few sketches or whatnot. It seemed so good when I was mulling it over on the bus in. Maybe it's just the pot interfering with my creative brain. Not pot I smoked today. From a long time ago. Or maybe I was just having flashbacks. Oh, yeah -- back to the concepts. Can't force a great thing, ya know? You gotta stoke the inner fire in order to really reach that place within yourself where the best ideas lie."


So, which of these art directors am I most like?

All of them, really.

I think we often pin our habits or behaviors on something that is intrinsic to our personality, and end up gravitating towards one of these personas out of habit. In my case, I lean towards the Architect and the Dreamer with an embarrassingly high quotient of the Gunman and the Collaborator. But I've been all of these people, at one point or another. And I've been managed by every one of these people, at one point or another. (For better or for worse.)

And really, I need to be able to put one of these faces on at a moment's notice. Even in the case of the Designer-er (when desperate) or the Absentee (when unneeded by your creative team). There are many, many times where the best thing for you to do as an art director is to step aside and let the very talented people that you manage shine ever more brightly.


ChrisG, Art Director

What about "the teacher"? I've never "taught" formally— I've known a lot in the profession that have taught at University at some point in their career. But I'm often been compared to a teacher... I think in a good way. Sometimes it's design advice, sometimes business or industry advice... and frequently recommending books.

For better or worse, I've put on several of those hats above at one time, I'm sure, whether I noticed it or not.

FYI- In another window, I'm watching/listening to David Kelly's lecture at Stanford, from your Delicious bookmarks.

Mike Kemery

I can relate to most all of these archetypes from a designer's perspective and some as a creative leader. I've always felt that it helps to identify the communication style of my designers first and then try to find which archetype they best relate with.

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