Over the past 20 years I’ve worked my way up from graphic designer to art director to senior art director and now I’m a creative director/ad agency owner heading up my own creative team. I’ve had many people ask me what these job titles mean exactly since they sound very similar, but they are actually very different and indicate various levels of experience. Here is a description that should explain the differences.
GRAPHIC DESIGNER, ART DIRECTOR, CREATIVE DIRECTOR
It might seem that these titles are as simple as junior, advanced, and senior designer but it’s not that simple. Their responsibilities and what they contribute to a project can vary, depending on the structure of the team, design shop, or agency. Marketing manager Joe Lesina makes a great analogy of creative work as music to help explain how the roles differ:
The creative team: All the professionals who make high-quality creative work possible are the orchestra, from copywriters and project managers to video producers and graphic designers. Each has his own instrument that contributes to the final production.
Graphic designer: An orchestra member who’s highly skilled in one instrument—say, the violin. He plays notes (and sometimes solos) that contribute to the sound.
Art director/copywriter team: The composers who write the song the orchestra plays. They
work with the orchestra to pull it together and polish it for performance.
Creative director: The director of the orchestra who selects the songs to be included
in the production. He chooses songs that support his clear vision for the final,
full-length performance. A creative director can be all of these things but a graphic designer cannot say they are a creative director until they have experience in all of these roles. Let’s look a little closer at the actual job descriptions:
THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR: TRANSLATING GOALS TO STRATEGIES
Creative direction is focused on strategy and the creative directors act as guardians of a brand’s vision. They help the client determine strategy and translate business objectives into projects. They’ll oversee the entire project as well as the team, keeping them on the right track, providing guidance and approvals, eventually presenting the work to the client.
THE ART DIRECTOR: WRAPPING A STRATEGY IN A VISION
If the creative director handles strategy and a graphic designer handles execution, the art director creates the vision that brings the strategy to life. Art directors usually work with copywriters to translate a creative brief into tangible concepts, and the art director’s creative eye can focus on everything from photography to video to illustration.
THE GRAPHIC DESIGNER: EXECUTING THE VISION
When design files need to be created, graphic designers are your hands-on executors. They put their creativity down on paper or into pixels, whether it’s for web design, print, mobile UI design, or logos. Using Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or InDesign, graphic designers execute the vision provided by an art director.
Hopefully this clears it up a bit and next time you are working with a creative team, you’ll understand who is doing what on your project.
Deborah Hayes is the president and creative director for Deborah Hayes Advertising (DHA). She has over 20 years experience in advertising and design. DHA specializes in branding, design, and advertising for local and national businesses, with a focus on multifamily marketing.