How to Become a Creative Director: Experts Outline 5 Steps
You’ve lived your whole life practically bubbling over with sketches, photos and other creative flights of fancy. Now that you’re trying to figure out what you’d like to do professionally, it makes sense to start in a field that puts your creative energy to use. One creative role that may have caught your eye is that of a creative director. While the role of a creative director is not typically an entry-level position, it’s good to know the potential road ahead in a creative career as well as the things you’ll need to do along the way to become a creative director.
But before digging into how to become one, you may want to know what a creative director does. Put simply, they oversee and guide the overall the look-and-feel of all the work that goes into a creative project.
“Creative directors have to oversee all the creative projects of the company and ensure quality and control over all elements of design,” Srajan Mishra, CEO at TSI Apparel, says.
Mishra explains that creative directors maintain brand standards and are responsible for ensuring all marketing objectives follow the company’s mission and goals. Creative directors need to stay up-to-date on industry trends and are responsible for training team members with a focus on developing the team as a whole.
5 Steps to become a creative director
It’s true there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a creative director, but there are a few important steps you’ll likely need to take to work your way into one of these positions.
1. Get educated
The first step for anyone looking to work their way into a creative director role is to get educated—preferably by obtaining a college degree in a subject like Fine Art, Graphic Design or Advertising. Nate Masterson, CMO for Maple Holistics, says it’s possible to enter the field without a Bachelor’s degree, but the road is much longer. Remember, a creative director position is a management role. Some employers may be fine with less education for entry-level positions, but as you progress in your career, a lack of education can be an anchor holding you down.
A Bachelor’s degree shows employers that you are serious about your profession and that you have the fundamental skills needed for success. Additionally, a degree program will give you an opportunity to create work that is critiqued by others and used as potential portfolio-booster.
2. Build your portfolio and skill set
In college, you’ll learn all the technical skills you need to become a successful designer. However, having the right tools is only half the battle; you’ll need to demonstrate that you can actually create strong work. Creating a well-rounded design portfolio is the tried-and-true answer. Employers want to see that you can deliver high-quality, creative work that doesn’t lose sight of client objectives.
During your time in school, you will work on applicable projects that can help you begin building your portfolio. While employers won’t expect you to have as many pieces of work as a senior-level designer, you should have pieces relevant to the job you’re applying for. A portfolio isn’t just for fresh graduates looking for their first design job, either. You’ll want to continue to add work examples that show off the breadth of your knowledge and experience. Remember, a creative director oversees a wide variety of creative work, so a portfolio that’s 90 percent photography or logo design might be a red flag for employers.
Your portfolio is an excellent way to tangibly show your technical skill, but there are other abilities you’ll want to focus on refining.
“You need to have more than just design skills,” says Damien Buxton, director at Midas Creative. “You’ll need to work on your face-to-face communication, presentation and negotiating skills.” He says that it takes time to hone these traits, but with practice and persistence, you can develop your leadership skills.
3. Gain experience
As mentioned previously, you shouldn’t expect to qualify for a creative director position right out of the gate. You’ll most likely need years of experience.
Many creative directors begin their careers in specialist roles like copywriting, animation or graphic design. This “production” time in your career is important for anyone who wants to be a creative director. Not only will you have a steady stream of potential portfolio-quality work, you’ll also get a firsthand look at the work of a creative director as they oversee what you’re producing.
This kind of experience is invaluable if you’re trying to steer toward a creative director role. Knowing what everyone on the team does and why it’s important will help you better understand the industry and allow you to build applicable cross-functional skills. Use this time to pick the brains of creative directors you work with—they were once in your shoes and wouldn’t mind offering constructive professional feedback.
4. Seek out ways to expand your responsibilities
“If an opportunity presents itself and it involves leading something, especially a creative initiative, take it and own it!” says Dianna Lyngholm, creative services director at HalloweenCostumes.com.
Creative directors are leaders, so even if you haven’t ascended to that position, you’ll still need to show that you’re capable of leading a team and making decisions. Seek out opportunities to help with new employee training, administrative tasks and other areas that may fall under the purview of a creative director. Additionally, it can help to seek out personal and professional projects in areas outside of your expertise. Trying your hand at video editing, animation, writing, design, photography, etc. will help give you a deeper pool of experience to pull from, which can come in handy when guiding others’ work.
“Work harder and do more than you think you can,” Lyngholm says. She advises to get your work done early and give more insight and information than the minimum needed. “It will be noticed. Always do more.”
5. Keep advancing & networking
If you are serious about becoming a creative director, you will need to show your dedication through patience and hard work. It’s not always a straight shot from a junior specialist role to working as a creative director—your career will likely zigzag through titles and roles, and that’s okay. The key is to remain persistent and focus on building the skills and experience that are relevant to becoming a creative director.
Advancing into a creative director role will take time—especially if you stay put at one employer. You’ll want to keep an eye out for opportunities to build your network and seek out ways to get noticed outside of your immediate circle of coworkers and friends.
“Attend industry events and network with industry people,” Joe Robison, founder and chief consultant at Green Flag Digital, says. “Running a well-read blog and speaking at industry events will also get you noticed.”
Take the first step to becoming a creative director
The path to becoming a creative director will take years of patience, determination and hard work. It’s not a job for those looking for an easy route. If you have passion for design and leadership, then you are capable of working your way to this creative leadership position.
The sooner you begin your educational journey, the faster you can get out into the field and work your way toward your goal of becoming a creative director. Visit our Graphic Design program page to learn more about the options you have for jumpstarting your creative career.