From ID to Art Direction

I’m a 32-year-old industrial designer looking to expand my creative “field”. I’m interested in many things beyond product design and in fact, find myself enjoying directing creative work (when I have the rare chance) much more. And at the suggestion of a personal confidant, I’m thinking to start educating myself to be an art director. However, upon some quick research, it seems like most art directors have backgrounds in graphics and branding (which makes sense), not industrial design. Has anyone here gone the route from ID to art direction? Can you share your experience on how you got to your position and what being an art director is like?

Hi Dhu,
While not an “art director”, I am a 32 yr old design manager for a large corporation, which is equal parts project management and creative direction of agencies. My background is ID, but as a part of my role I am being exposed to and required to manage graphics and branding as well. I have been in this role for about 4 years - with the graphics and branding being added in the last two.

The group that I work in has a range of backgrounds (ID, GD, Branding, and some Apparell). Everyone is crossing over into different territories and diversifying right now, as our responsibilities are broken down by brand. It is much easier to learn to manage the graphics work coming from an ID background than it is for the the graphics folks to manage the ID work. The learning curve on ID work for a GD person is much longer because of all the engineering considerations.

As far as career path, I somewhat fell into this through some good fortune and timing. I was hired into the company as a doer (designer), and built experience managing projects with agencies over time because our internal capabilities couldn’t handle the scale of the requests. Our group evolved to an exclusive design management model to be able to scale our design capability to suit projects much quicker than we could with internal designers (a nod to attracting and retaining talent to the midwest) - and so it was somewhat of an adapt or go somewhere else situation. That being said, I find the work to still be very creatively satisfying, and I have wider control to ensure end-to-end execution of a vision. To be good at it, you have to be good at “selling” the design process - at least for me, I don’t own the budget that pays for the work, so oftentimes the hardest part of a project is being able to get something off the ground with the alignment on what we need to do the work right, because the ask is always for the best possible work without the proper time or money. Once you have the cross functional alignment on the plan (you have to be able to write or manage a good creative brief), the creative piece is easy and will come more naturally, although you have to learn to inspire and motivate, not just be perscriptive in how you would want to do something.

Best of luck with your career!

Thanks, Booner. It’s comforting to hear that there’s some benefit to going from ID to GD rather than the other way around. But it certainly seems like (just within my own field, which happens to involve a lot of packaging) GD has an advantage in terms of going the art direction route.

Do you feel that you’ve benefited from being at one company instead of advancing through job transitions? I ask because it’s my feeling that by having worked internally through the company, your studio was able to pick out the intangible values and assets that you possess that would otherwise be harder to convey through a portfolio or even a brief in-person interview. If you were to apply for an art director/manager job at another studio, how would you go about expressing your experience and creative vision?

I probably have benefited from working my way up through different opportunities here. This plays well to who I am - I have not mastered the art of the interview, there is still room to improve! I have definately grown in confidence in proportion to experience.
My take: The portfolio is still important and shows your design sensibility - if you can’t show nice work in a beautiful presentation, I don’t want to hire you to manage my next product launch. That being said, you are being equally evaluated on your ability to tell a good story as well as demonstrate your ability to work well cross-functionally.
So many subtleties are being evaluated in an interview - remember one of the core tenets of design - “everything communicates, whether intended or not”

Thanks, Booner, for sharing your thoughts.

I’d love to hear others’ experience on being/becoming an art director as well!