Co.Design

How To Be A Design Boss Without Losing Your Soul

Paper Leaf's Jeff Archibald shares five tips for making the move from designer to art director.

My design firm Paper Leaf started as a two-person operation (four if you count cats). Andy, my wife, and I did everything in-house ourselves: design, development, client relations, proposals, you name it. We checked each other’s work here and there, but there was no art director-designer relationship on any projects.

Now? We’re a five-person team with a project coordinator, a developer, designers, and art directors. Our roles are more specialized, and specifically for me, I’m learning how to make the switch from designer to art director. It’s been a challenge. Here’s what I’ve learned, and what you can expect to learn if you’re moving into an art director role, too.

Learn how to analyze and communicate properly.

When I’m in the visual design role, which I still am here and there, although less than I used to be, I don’t think and communicate internally in the terms used in a design critique. When I’m struggling with a design I’m producing, I’m not looking at my work and thinking, “Hmm, the typographic hierarchy is disjointed” or “The overall visual contrast in is too low." Instead, I just trust my eye and work until I’m happy with the result. The thousands and thousands of hours I’ve put into design have afforded me the ability to do that, with good results.

That method—working until you’re happy with the results—doesn’t fly when you’re reviewing someone else’s work. You can’t just glance at a designer’s work and give vague feedback; it’s extremely frustrating (you’ve had clients who’ve done that too, I’m sure). In the role of art director, I’m also not going to get hands-on with someone else’s design. So if you aren’t going to get hands-on, and you can’t “work until it feels right," what do you do?

I’ve had to learn how to analyze a design and verbally communicate the problems with it that need fixing. That’s been a big change. I’ve had to go over the principles of design, the elements of design, and use those to figure out where a design needs improvement. It’s the difference between feedback like “I don’t know, it’s just not there yet” and “the typographic voice is too friendly, and these sections should be closer in proximity since they’re related."

The difference is really comprehending why something isn’t working, and then communicating that clearly. It’s a whole different skill set than visual design.

Ask questions and listen first.

The designers you’re working with are probably good at their jobs. You should try asking them their opinion, asking them questions, and listening to them.

I needed to learn this. If designers are hours and hours into, say, an interface design, they’ve probably thought of a bunch of the questions you’re asking, and have designed solutions around them. The designers will likely have a good reason for designing something the way they did.

So ask them. Then listen. Then use your experience and self-awareness to figure out if something actually needs changing, or if you’re just trying to put your own (needless) mark on the work.

Talk about problems and solutions.

We always encourage our clients to talk in problems (eg. “It’s unclear how to sign up”) instead of solutions (eg. “Make the sign-up button fluorescent pink and five times larger”). Why? It allows us, as designers, to come up with the proper visual solution, as opposed to the client doing so. It’s a common refrain in the design industry.

With the art director-designer relationship, it’s not always so cut-and-dried. When reviewing work, my instinct is to talk in problems, so as to let the designer solve those problems (and thus help the designer grow). Usually, that’s the best option.

However, sometimes I might have a specific solution in my head I’d like implemented or that I know is the right one from experience; it’s important to communicate that solution, in those cases. Otherwise, the designer will be wasting time trying to figure out what’s in your head. We’ve all been on the “I’m not a mind-reader” side of the fence, and it sucks.

In other cases, we might be under a time crunch and there just isn’t time for exploration on the designer’s side—another instance where talking in solutions is warranted.

There’s no clear answer to the problems-solutions talk, as it depends on a host of variables, but if I were to sum it up: designers shouldn’t be reduced to pixel pushers by clients or art directors; however, if the art director knows what the solution is, they should give it.

Improve the work while helping the designer grow.

Another shift from designer to art director: it’s not about making the work, it’s about improving the work someone else does and helping make it as good as possible. It’s also about listening to, empowering, and helping the designer improve.

The better I get at being an art director, the better our designers get. When we all get better, we need to do less work. There’s less revision, less frustration, and in general a happier work environment.

It's not about your style.

I needed to learn that the work I was overseeing wasn’t going to look like “my” work, and that was okay. My role was to make sure that the design solved the problems it needed to; to make sure that the design followed the principles of good design; to make sure the design was up to our standard.

It doesn’t need to look like “I” made it. It just needs to be of the same overall quality.

Besides, the whole idea of a singular person making a piece of design work is strange to me. Designers are influenced by the work they see around them; those influences help shape a piece. The client then reviews designers' work and usually suggests revisions, so the client helps make the piece, too. Sometimes a broader audience's input informs the design work, as well.

That was my takeaway: it’s not going to look like “I” made it, and that’s fine. But it does need to be of the same quality.

TL;DR

The shift from designer to art director is a challenging one; I’m sure I’ll be learning and improving for a while. To sum up what I’ve learned so far, it's:

  • How to analyze a design and articulate, clearly, what needed improvement
  • How to speak in clear “problems” and when to offer solutions to the designer
  • How to improve the work and help the designer improve
  • Not about “my” work or style, and it never really was
  • The overall quality of the work is my responsibility

Are you a designer? What are your experiences with your creative director or art director? Or maybe you’re an art director: What have you learned about your role and responsibilities? Sound off in the comments.

A version of this article originally appeared at Paper Leaf.

[Image: Marbled and crumpled paper via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment

17 Comments

  • jamesharoldcanque

    I'm a Web Designer: cool article, I have read everything on this page makes me realize and matured, makes my eye open more wider. My Client or my boss let me design first then do some iteration / suggestion and it's part of building the pieces of website to make the website wonderfully done... I am the only designer in our company, and no art director only the boss who suggest . so I hear and explain and also suggest, It looks like I am on the training to become Art Director.

  • jamesharoldcanque

    I'm a Web Designer: cool article, I have read everything on this page makes me realize and matured. My Client or my boss let me design first then do some iteration / suggestion and it's part of building the pieces of website to make the website wonderfully done... I am the only designer in our company, and no art director only the boss who suggest . so I hear and explain and also suggest, It looks like I am on the training to become Art Director.

  • Vanessa Burgett

    Great perspective. Any opinions on whether being an art director and one of the designers is a model that can work or not?

  • This is an awesome article, as an avid designer I am now managing a team of 15! Good to know that with good direction and support I can hand over the design reigns with confidence and not end up being a pixel dictator!

  • Thanks for this. It's confirmation of thoughts I've had in the past, and the experience I'm having now in my own transition. A few additional benefits I'm seeing to having to articulate clear feedback is that it's actually improving my work as well, plus it'll prepare you well if you ever decide to transition to teacher / professor at any point in your career.

    Andrew

  • Thanks for sharing those Art Director's insights and tips. The point that resonated with me was "learn how to analyse and communicate properly" Thou I'm not yet in the post of art director is good to know how far I'v come with regards to learning how important to do this well with others. As well as how to handle the lack of proper feedback from clients / supervisors on design with the rephrased questions so I can funnel it through to others team members.

  • Jennifer Peirce Whitney

    I had a really hard time switching from designer to art director. There were many times where I would direct - and time and time again the design wouldn't get there. So I would go in an fix it myself. Then my supervisor would approve it and say..."Wait, who did this? It looks like your work. You gotta stop this!" The thing I do like is that while it may not be the piece I originally envisioned, it's still a good solid piece. Another designer brings different ideas to the table and that can be eye-opening. That way you don't pigeon hole your firm with a certain "look". I will say going from designer to art director is not for everyone. You have to look at all sides and learn to manage people. And not everyone is built for that.

  • Kim Zoulek

    Great article! I am a designer and have been for 10years. The questions that Allison Deangelis Brown raised are great and I am also wondering the same thing, at what point in a designers career do they switch to an art director role? How can a designer make this transition? I have lead teams of 5 and given feedback on their artwork and am ready for the next step, the only questions is how.

  • Allison DeAngelis Brown

    This article was great. But I'm still curious, at what point in a designers career do they switch to an art director role? Do some people stay designers all their life? How can a designer make this transition?

  • We actually design and build custom furniture and these notions are spot on for us as well. Fixing the actual build of something made out of steel or giant wood slabs is a lot more 'permanent' and costlier than websites so we have really been working more on the Problems and Solutions communication with our designers. It has been challenging to balance everyone's egos with our experience but we're getting there.

  • Joel Emmett

    Here's my version:

    Rule 1: Stop trying to make the design "yours."

    Rule 2: Re-read 1, because I was talking to to you, the Art Director, not the Designer. But since you're an Art Director, you undoubtedly assumed that was something you'd say to the Designer, instead of to yourself.

  • Jason Mullin

    I had the same AH HA! moment Joel did. I am not a designer but I manage a 6 person team and your insights on the transitioning process are spot on for any field. As managers we are taught how to handle other people's egos when sometimes it's our own we should look at. Good Stuff thanks for sharing.

  • Fabulous article and I wish it had been around when I made the transition to Art Director. I absolutely agree about letting go of a piece not being designed how you would do it, and allowing the designer their own creative voice. That takes trust and it's often hard to let that go when you're used to also designing your own stuff.

    I've found for me, the role of Art Director is to often help keep the goals of the project in mind, sometimes all a designer needs is to have someone with fresh eyes seeing the piece and refocusing on the goals. Sometimes as a designer I find we often spin our wheels and get lost in the details and it's great to have someone come in and say you're on the right track, or stop pushing - you're there.

  • Isaac Fox

    Great article! Hit the nail right on the head. I am making this switch, coming from Music Production to Creative Director of festivals, websites, etc. I am learning that thinking about things moduarily allows the greatest flexibility and efficiency. I feel like the role of the Director is simply to keep things in balance, rather than Create.