Creative Director vs. Art Director: Drawing the Line Between Commonly Confused Creative Careers (2023)

Creative Director vs. Art Director: Drawing the Line Between Commonly Confused Creative Careers (1)

You’ve always loved the thought of a creative career. What could be better than making the everyday things around you beautiful and visually intriguing for a living? And if you’ve done any research, you’ve likely encountered two job titles that seem very similar: creative director versus art director.

Both seem like positions that could help you leverage your creativity in a meaningful way. And you’re not wrong. The roles can be very similar in some settings. “Creative direction and art direction at small agencies will typically have a significant amount of overlap, if not being just one combination position,” says Brian Smith, creative director at FullStack Labs.

Even though the roles aren’t always totally distinct, there are some specifics associated with each career that can help you compare and contrast the duties of creative directors versus art directors.

“To any student considering becoming an art director or creative director, spend time focusing on your true talents and gifts,” says art director and brand storyteller Rachel Pesso. “The world needs you all so much.”

So how do these roles overlap and how do they differ? With the help of creative professionals, let’s take a closer look at these two roles and set the record straight.

What is a creative director?

The creative director is typically the head of the creative team. These professionals have the final say on what goes to the client and make important upper-level managerial and creative direction decisions.

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Creative directors generally develop and oversee projects at the earliest stages. They cast vision, form concepts and pilot design philosophy. These are the big-picture thinkers of the team. They can close their eyes and see the finished product, even though it hasn’t been created yet. And while their focus is typically on the bigger picture of getting the work done and the direction it’ll take, that doesn’t mean an eye for detail falls to the wayside.

“Because I have the mindset of wanting to understand even the smallest piece, I’m able to look beyond the normal details others see and create something more thoughtful and impactful,” says Teal Nicholson, creative director of LLG Events.

What does a creative director do?

You’ll find the creative director in meetings with clients, heading up team brainstorming sessions and spearheading the initial concepts of a project. They map out future plans and make sure the result and process match the client’s goals and objectives. The role really centers on team management and providing creative vision.

“It’s important to realize that creative direction involves more than coming up with cool or innovative ideas,” Nicholson says. “You need to be a good leader, have fine-tuned analytical skills and be open to other people’s opinions and concepts.” This job title involves managing people—and success can hinge on your ability to adapt to your team.

It’s also important to understand an entire creation process, Nicholson adds. You’ll manage a project from start to finish, including execution. “It’s my job to clearly explain how to maintain our brand image, how to execute our design process for each event, and how to make sure everything we do is reflective of our company and our clients in tandem.”

After these parameters are clear, creative directors delegate each part of the process to their team members.

Depending on the size of the company, the creative director might get further into the nitty-gritty with the team and contribute to certain aspects of the project. Other creative directors may observe from afar and continue steering the ship, making course corrections as needed.

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How do you become a creative director?

As you can see, creative directors have quite a bit of responsibility. That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in most cases you’ll need to be formally educated to join the ranks of these creative professionals.

We used job posting analysis software to analyze more than 3,000 creative director job postings from the past year and found that 90 percent of job postings are seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree or higher.1 The most common option is earning a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design, but some opt for degrees in advertising, fine arts or another creative field.

Education is only the first step. Unless you already have experience in related fields, you’ll likely need to work in the field to learn the ropes and start climbing the ladder. Creative director isn’t an entry-level job. According to our analysis, over 70 percent of creative director positions asked for six or more years of experience with approximately 25 percent of postings asking for candidates with three to five years under their belts.1

These years of building experience are important opportunities to understand how other roles function. Mastering skills and tools like graphic design, illustration, photography, copywriting, Adobe Creative Suite® and social media can all give you valuable insight into what needs to happen for a project to succeed.

“I learn by doing,” Nicholson says. “So I found the best way to learn best practices was to perform them myself. I wanted to try what I could to understand processes holistically, as opposed to piece by piece.”

What is an art director?

While a creative director provides the conceptual idea behind the project, the art director executes the details. Once the concept is out on the table, art directors are responsible for heading up their teams and creating the aesthetic of the piece. They see the project through the phases of production, edits and final execution. Art directors rely on their technical skills to help a team get the job done.

What does an art director do?

Leading a team of artists, art directors will determine which artistic elements to use; articulate the vision to their team; review and approve copy, designs or photography; develop budgets and timelines; and determine how to best represent the creative director’s concept.

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Freelance art director Melissa Yancey emphasizes that art directors engage in multiple art forms instead of zooming in on just one. Designing, printing, making custom boxes and papier-mâché props, constructing, painting, decorating entire sets and researching tasks all fall under her role.

You can find art directors working in a vast array of fields, including advertising, on movie sets, in public relations firms, with theater and TV producers and directors, or at book and magazine publishing houses.

How do you become an art director?

“My entire life has been preparing me to be an art director,” Yancey says. “I’ve always had wide and varied interests.” Her education began in areas like graphic design, painting and textile design as she tried to find the right career fit.

“When I had the chance to art direct a music video, I realized I could put all these things I love dearly, but haven’t mastered entirely, to use.”

As with creative directors, education is an important first step for anyone seeking the role of an art director. We analyzed nearly 2,500 art director job postings from the past year and found that 90 percent of employers prefer candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree.2 Common degree options include graphic design, web design, art or animation.

Work experience as a graphic designer, editor, photographer or in another artistic occupation will help you master the technical skills you’ll need for leading a team of artists. If you’ve been there and done that, you’ll be able to direct and advise more easily. According to our analysis, most art director positions in the last year sought candidates with at least three to five years of related experience.2

Creative director vs. art director: Choosing a path

If you like the idea of creating concepts and really selling the idea behind them to key stakeholders, then creative direction will fulfill you, Smith says. “If you want the hands-on work of making your concept come to life, then art direction will be an ideal fit.”

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Yancey recommends asking yourself whether you’re “big picture” or “little picture.” Big picture people who feel weighed down by the details that get something from A to B will likely prefer creative direction, Yancey says. Little picture people who love toying with the details and making an idea into a product will probably enjoy art direction more.

“Truly though, I wouldn’t recommend picking one path without having explored a few others,” Yancey says. Creative directors and art directors will both be better at their jobs when they have a wide base of experiences and interests.

The good news is that this isn’t a decision you’ll be pressured to rush into as you start a creative career. The years you’ll spend building experience in roles like graphic designer or production artist will give you plenty of exposure to what the work of both art and creative directors looks like. Use that time to pick the brains of these experienced design professionals—what do they like about the role? What’s challenging? Their experience can help guide your future career ambitions.

Capitalize on your creativity

Now you know the different roles and responsibilities of the creative director versus art director. Creative directors are the visionaries who maintain a holistic view of a project to ensure it meets the needs of the client. Art directors are responsible for the actual execution of each step in the process.

If both career descriptions of a creative director and an art director appeal to you—our experts agree, you don’t have to choose just yet! “I found that identifying and honing the skills that fulfilled me professionally was more important than deciding which title I wanted to achieve,” Smith says. “By mastering the skills you love, you will naturally evolve into one role or the other.”

The beginning of this journey is in education. As you enroll and learn the technical skills and foundational knowledge in design, visual communication and more, you will have more tools to decide on either of these coveted creative roles.

Check out the Rasmussen College School of Design to learn how a design education can provide a foundation for you to grow into these creative careers.

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1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 2,536 creative director job postings by education level, Feb. 01, 2018, and Jan. 31, 2019).
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 2,451 art director job postings by education level, Feb. 01, 2018, and Jan. 31, 2019).
Adobe Creative Suite is a registered trademark of Adobe Inc.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019.

FAQs

What is the difference between art director and creative director? ›

By definition, an art director is focused solely on aesthetics, whereas a creative director will handle strategy, campaign execution, art direction, and more. A creative director may request a bold font to exude strength; an art director will know the names of the fonts that will work.

Who is higher creative director or art director? ›

The creative director comes up with the idea and foresees the bigger picture, while the art director executes the former's vision. The creative director heads the overall team of specialists such as art directors, copywriters and design directors.

What is a creative director in art? ›

A creative director is a creative leader, they pitch and present all the ideas to the client and materialize the vision of the project by handling the execution and following through with the ideas.

What position is higher than creative director? ›

and Beyond. Group Creative Directors (GCDs), Executive Creative Directors (ECDs), Chief Creative Officers (CCOs) may all exist above the Creative Director role, depending on the agency.

Can art directors become creative director? ›

As Art Directors become more senior, working on bigger and more important briefs within the agency, they are often referred to as 'Middleweight' or 'Heavyweight' Creatives, with some then becoming Group Heads then Creative Directors in their own right.

Is art director a good career? ›

Is an art director a good career? Ans. Most of the creative fields have an art director. It's a remarkable career path that exists in graphic design, branding, advertising, publication, television and film, web development and computer games.

Who does a creative director report to? ›

These professionals often report directly to CMOs and other directors, and they rely on extensive experience and professional judgment to plan and executive projects. A Creative Director must be a great leader with the ability to maximize the talents of their teams.

What is another title for art director? ›

Depending on the size of the company, an Art Director may also take on the role of the Creative Director; sometimes called the Design Director.

What is a creative director salary? ›

Creative Director Salaries in London Area

The average salary for Creative Director is £86,284 per year in the London Area. The average additional cash compensation for a Creative Director in the London Area is £14,314, with a range from £2,487 - £82,372.

What degree do you need for creative directing? ›

Most creative directors have a bachelor's degree in journalism, advertising, or communications, according to the BLS. Additionally, courses in business, management, finance, computer science, and graphic design can equip creative directors with skills in technology, design, and more.

Is becoming creative director hard? ›

The creative director position usually requires a bachelor's degree or master's degree in a specific creative field, such as marketing, graphic design, or fine arts. On top of that, you'll typically need seven to 10 years of experience working in your field.

Do you need a degree to be an art director? ›

Art directors typically need a bachelor's degree in fine arts, a design subject, or a related field, such as communications technology. Many art directors start out in another art-related occupation, such as fine artists or photographers.

Is art director above senior designer? ›

While senior graphic designers lead their team of designers in projects, art directors may be in charge of all designers, as they take a broader look at work and consider the entirety of the visual design.

What is before creative director? ›

You need to gain anywhere between five to 10 years of experience before becoming a creative director and may start as a graphic designer, photographer, or artist to gain creative experience. Start by applying for an internship, fellowship, entry-level job, or junior role.

What is the highest position in graphic design? ›

The Creative Director is the top leadership placement will come around 10+ years of experience towards the end of your career. Learning about the hierarchy and different positions of a Graphic Designer can be confusing, especially when you went to school to be a Graphic Designer but never learned what comes next.

What is the best career for a creative person? ›

25 Creative Jobs to Explore
  • Art Director. Most people would probably agree that “art director” is a vague job title. ...
  • Multimedia Animator. ...
  • Marketing Designer. ...
  • Graphic Designer. ...
  • User Experience Designer. ...
  • Video Game Designer. ...
  • Web Developer. ...
  • Industrial Designer.
Jul 7, 2021

Is art director a hard job? ›

You have to work towards becoming one, and it takes time, effort, perseverance, and in many cases, a university degree. No doubt, attaining such height requires some level of skills and years of experience as you cannot just start in the industry as an Art Director. However, the reward of being one can be overwhelming.

Do art directors make good money? ›

Art Directors made a median salary of $97,270 in 2020. The best-paid 25 percent made $136,310 that year, while the lowest-paid 25 percent made $71,610.

What are the cons of being an art director? ›

Cons
  • The erratic schedule. ...
  • It can take years before you qualify for a job as an art director. ...
  • There is a lot of competition, as many talented designers and artists are moving into art director positions.
Feb 15, 2021

Is art director a stressful job? ›

This is a stressful job. As the person in charge of designing and building the sets for a movie, you're going to encounter a lot of problems, and you're going to be expected to handle them quickly.

How long does it take to become an art director? ›

Most positions as an art director require you to have a minimum of three to five years of experience in a lower-level art-related job. For example, you could work as a graphic designer , copywriter, photographer or other creative within your chosen industry.

What skills do creative directors have? ›

It's essential that creative directors have stellar communication, presentation, problem-solving and project-management skills, too. Successful creative directors have polished soft skills that enable them to inspire creativity and work well with different personality types — all while juggling various projects.

What makes a strong creative director? ›

Good Creative Directors Manage and Inspire Their Team(s)

While being a good leader means bringing your team together to achieve goals and complete projects on time. A good CD creates an environment for their team to think outside the box and produce their best work.

How many hours do creative directors work? ›

Creative directors work about 40 hours a week. It is usually a full-time job, so you will often have to dedicate long hours to each of your projects, often working on more than one at a time.

Who works under the creative director? ›

They work with the creative team to create, plan and deliver a strategic vision for clients. You'll be involved in planning advertising, supervising the entire creative process and guiding the team that works under you. The creative team includes art directors, copywriters and designers.

Can there be two creative directors? ›

The union of two creative minds allows the mixture of different points of view, of different nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds, ages, experiences, thus offering a composite and broader final vision (if, once again, we don't consider the fact that all those mentioned so far are white designers).

Is art director a manager? ›

Design managers and art directors both supervise designers in designing various projects for clients. While art directors do take part in the creative process, design managers typically ensure productivity of the designers they are overseeing rather than actually creating art.

Why are creative directors important? ›

Creative directors are the glue that holds creative teams together. They act as a big-picture visionary to ensure that the many facets of a creative project – from design to video production, graphics, copywriting, and beyond – all work seamlessly together from the creative brief to the final iteration.

What master degree should I get if I wanna be a creative director? ›

The most useful master's degrees for a creative director are the two-year Master of Arts or Master of Fine Arts degrees. You can focus on visual design, mass communication, marketing or other specialties that suit your career goals.

Are creative directors in demand? ›

Creative directors are most in-demand in New York, NY. Creative directors are paid an average annual salary of $121,428. San Francisco, CA pays an annual average wage of $179,011, the highest in the US. Creative directors average starting salary is $72,000.

What tools do creative directors use? ›

Apple and Microsoft (and others) have retooled their machines (and packed them full of apps) designed specifically to court the creative market.
...
10 Tools to Keep Creatives Happy and Productive
  • Designinspiration. ...
  • ONTRApages. ...
  • Adobe Photoshop LightRoom. ...
  • Clique University. ...
  • The Noun Project. ...
  • Sketch. ...
  • Hemingway Editor. ...
  • Lynda.

What types of art directors are there? ›

The title 'art director' can be used within a variety of industries, such as the publishing, marketing, advertising, theatre, gaming, fashion, film and television, and online industries. The job itself takes on different responsibilities depending on the company and industry one works for.

Does the creative director do graphic design? ›

A Creative Director is responsible for all creative design output, quite often including staff supervision and work production even if simply by email. The core responsibility of the Creative Director is to determine the best way to visually represent an idea and produce high-level concepts for design projects.

How do you go from art director to designer? ›

In order to make the transition to art director a designer needs to stop not waiting to be told what to do and start thinking about the problems the ACD/CD is facing and how can you start helping. Think things through like they have to do and offer solutions. Design with more creative uniqueness in mind.

Do you need to be a graphic designer to be an art director? ›

A lot of Art Directors start as Graphic Designers, but it's actually not a requirement. You'd be surprised how many Art Directors I've known and worked with, who completely lack basic design skills. Those skills are mainly around the elements of visual communication and craft.

How do you become a creative art director? ›

Art directors need at least a bachelor's degree in an art or design subject and previous work experience. Depending on the industry, art directors may have previously worked as graphic designers, illustrators, copy editors, or photographers, or in another art or design occupation.

What qualifications do you need to be an art director? ›

Employers will often expect you to have a foundation degree, higher national diploma, degree or postgraduate qualification in: graphic design. advertising design. illustration.

Who do art directors report to? ›

Art directors set the visual tone for—and ultimately direct—all visual aspects of an ad campaign for a client. Though they usually report to the creative director, their managerial role involves overseeing the aesthetic vision of an advertisement.

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