It’s not unusual to want to advance your career after accruing a few valuable years of experience as a graphic designer. You love that your work provides an opportunity to exercise your creativity alongside your technical skills, but you’re ready to take on more responsibility and climb a rung on the corporate ladder.
One logical move is to become an art director. This transition will allow you to continue working in a field you’re passionate about while also providing you the leadership opportunities you’ve been seeking. It would also provide the financial stability you’ve been seeking for your family, considering the average art director earns upwards of $80,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).*
Now that you’re paying attention, you’re probably wondering how to become an art director. We gathered a combination of expert insight, government information and real-time market intelligence to help you understand exactly what it takes to become an art director.
What does an art director do?
Let’s start with the basics. It’s important to have a good understanding of exactly what this position entails before taking the necessary steps in becoming an art director. The main responsibility of an art director is to manage the overall design direction of a project, according to the BLS.
Art directors must also be able to develop break-through solutions to communications problems, says Jennifer Wagner, senior art director at New York-based Catalyst. She explains that while these professionals work in a variety of industries—advertising, editorial, retail, etc.—they all direct a team of experts to achieve a common goal.
Teams are made up of a variety of experts including illustrators, photographers, coders, designers and copy writers, Wagner says. An art director must have a reasonable understanding of each of these disciplines in order to provide appropriate direction to the team.
What are some natural characteristics of successful art directors?
There are a few inherent qualities shared by many successful art directors. We spoke with professionals in the industry to identify a few soft skills that play a pivotal role in the day-to-day operations of the job. Here’s what they shared with us:
1. You need a flexible attitude
Clients will always want to make changes at the last minute, says Jeff Goldman, a freelance writer and creative director who frequently hires art directors. So being able to adjust on the fly and uphold a positive relationship with the client is crucial. A successful art director can smile and say, “No problem” when a curveball is thrown their way, Goldman says.
2. Always think BIG
Goldman insists that a portfolio bursting with ideas is a must for anyone hoping to become an art director. He says when hiring an art director, it’s easy for him to find someone with sufficient technical skills but he’s looking for someone with a great conceptual mind. Being able to push the boundaries and be innovative will make you stand out.
3. You must love learning
New techniques and technologies are being introduced every year that change the landscape of the graphic design industry. As an art director you’ll need to keep up with the latest visual, media, software and cultural trends, Wagner says. This will help you better understand how to direct your team’s efforts and maximize their talents.
What education and experience is needed to become an art director?
There are several ways to acquire the knowledge needed to become a graphic designer. Whether you are a self-taught designer or have some education, you’ve clearly gained enough knowledge to build a successful career.
But transitioning into a leadership role often requires extensive education and experience. We used real-time job analysis software to identify more than 7,000 art director job postings from 2013.**
We found that 90 percent of employers prefer candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree. A graphic design degree is the most common degree held by art directors. We also learned that 76 percent of employers required at least four years of experience. This should come as no surprise considering it’s one of the highest-paying positions in graphic design.
Many technical graphic design skills can be learned outside of a classroom, but the expert mentoring and interaction that come with a formal education are invaluable, says Kristina Howell, art director at Chicago-based Collegis Education.
Howell credits much of her professional development to the relationships she built with her instructors and the hands-on experience she acquired while interning during school. This extra support is what prepared her for the real world, helping her become an art director just two years after earning her bachelor’s degree.
What’s the next step?
You have the natural characteristics; you’ve acquired the experience; and now you’ve done the research. The formal education may be all that’s missing in your quest to becoming an art director. Take some time to explore the degree options that can help you advance your design career and support your family in ways you never thought possible.
*Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
**BurningGlass.com (Analysis of 7,135 art director job postings, Jan. 1 - Dec. 31, 2013)