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July 2016written in Dublin, Ireland

The difference between Graphic Designer, Art Director and Creative Director.

Lately I’ve been engaged in interesting conversations about startups – specifically about what they need the most when it comes to creative and design. I realised how much misinformation there is and that most people are confused regarding what roles are there and what these different figures do. In fairness, the nuances between these positions and the "creativity" in their titles can sometimes overcomplicate the matter – Fortunately, I covered most creative roles in my experience and I feel I have a moral obligation to shed some light on where the boundaries are, so there you go:

I like to think of creative projects as music projects:

– The Graphic Designer is a skilled musician, plays one instrument well – the guitar.
– The Art Director writes a song and works with an orchestra of artists to execute it – guitar ( the graphic designer ) the piano ( the illustrator ) the drums ( video maker )
– The Creative Director select the right songs and work to make them consistent under one clear vision and create a full-length record.

See what I did there? Let's dig into it:

— Graphic Designer
Graphic designers vary in skills and areas of work: some are specialised in print, magazines while some others are focused on web design, UX, UI and some other go even more specific in areas like typography, and logo design. Graphic designers use technical and manual tools to create visual works of all kind like posters, books, websites, you name it – Yes, they are the ones using Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch InDesign and other creative tools to produce tangible visual work, or “art-works”. It's very straight forward; they are makers and they create visual stuff, on paper, on the internet on the walls. I started as a Graphic Designer in a fashion studio creating visuals for clothing. I would use Adobe Illustrator to create graphics and print executives based on the requests; for a summer collection, for example, I would use graphic elements like stripes and navy symbols, fonts like Circular and Kepler and colours like Pantone 653 and Red CMYK to create cool visuals that would then be printed onto t-shirts. 

  • It’s different from Art Direction because the focus is on design and graphic creativity – not visual creativity in general.

  • It’s different from Creative Direction because their focus is on design and not on strategy or communication.

— Art Director
Many graphic designers “evolve” into Art Directors because of their visual background and focus but this isn’t necessarily the predefined career path, they’re just two different jobs. The role of art director is in fact seen in a variety of industries including fashion, theatre and cinema where graphic design isn’t even involved. In advertising and tech industries good Art Directors understand graphic design well but don’t necessarily handle the task themselves as their projects might require a broader visual work outside the graphic design space like photography, video, illustration – these are all part of an Art Director’s scope of work. The work of an Art Director can then be divided in two phases: idea and execution. The idea is the result of brainstorming sessions possibly with copywriters or with other creatives and execution is the result of the management of visual artists such as graphic designers, illustrators, photographers or whatever the idea requires. When I worked in the biggest ad agency in Italy, Armando Testa, my job as an Art Director was to constantly come up with ideas for different projects and "sell" them to the Creative Director. If it was a video I would draft a storyboard, if it was an ad campaing I would sketch my ideas or draft a layout in photoshop. Many senior Art Directors only sketched their ideas on paper – no computers – I think this helps a lot understanding the role and the importance of the idea above execution. Once the idea was approved by both Creative Director and the client we would then move on to execution, contacting video makers, illustrators and graphic designers. My job there was to coordinate these figures in order to make my idea happen the way I wanted ( And the way the Creative Director wanted... And the way the client wanted )

  • It’s different from Graphic Design because the responsibility is on everything visual including video, illustration, photography – Design can be part of their wider creative concept and execution.

  • It’s different from Creative Direction because the focus is on visual creativity only. Copywriting, communication and strategy are not parts of the Art Director job description.


— Creative Director
This is probably the most overused term in all industries – it sounds a lot like “Big creative deal” or “Big graphic designer but more than that" so most people identify themselves as such and it makes it harder to understand what they really do. Many Creative Directors have a graphic design or Art Direction background but again, not necessarily – copywriters often become creative directors too. As matter of fact, different industries like events, art and hairdressing adopt this figure to overlook everything creative in their business. Creative Directors differ from Art Directors as their job goes beyond visual; Their focus is on communication and strategy meaning everything from copywriting, art direction, messaging, design and media distribution. In an advertising agency the Creative Director translates the marketing brief into a creative brief, managing different projects at the same time and different creative figures like Art Directors and Copywriters. In smaller companies like Startups the Creative Director manages product design, creative strategy, communication and art direction.
I covered the Creative Director role when I started my own company in china; for that project the overaching marketing goal was to go to market with a new idea and to generate sales. Most of the creative direction was done beforehand, planning what to do, when and how to do it; I opted for creating a compelling website that focused on content, one video ad to focus on emotional attributes and less on product USP's, a specific photography style, a bold design direction, clear contemporary messaging and friendly tone of communication. I can't stress enough how important messaging and communication were, these frameworks set the ground and guidelines for rest of the visual pieces – without these it would have not been creative direction. The whole project took a lot of time and a lot of work with management and taking the right creative decisions and eventually it returned outstanding marketing metrics while me and my team were showered in Awards! check out some of them here: Awwwards SiteInspire Behance AdsOfTheWorld 

  • It’s different from Graphic Design because a creative strategy might not need graphic design at all – It’s a mix of creative vision ( not just visual ) and strategy.

  • It’s different from Art Direction because the focus is on the integrity and vision of a creative project, not just its visual side.

So which one should you be looking for? It depends on the size of your company and your needs. In startups, resources are often limited and you would ideally find someone that can do all of the above but the reality is you’re gonna have to compromise. You would either look for a graphic designer if your focus is on the product or for an Art Director / Creative Director that does design as well if you’re looking into the visual identity of your company. 

Thank you for reading – Let me know what you think on Twitter.com/Joelesina I would love to talk more about it!


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