How to Art Direct Yourself

1 August, 2015

The Art Director. Designers love them and hate them. Some will stand over your shoulder delegating changes, others will give you vague feedback in the hope that you come back with something original and brilliant. Whatever their style, most creatives will agree that the role is hugely beneficial.

In this post, I'm referring to the Art Director role from a traditional design agency view. Their goal is to make sure the design meets the strategy given by the client and that the design is at a high standard, but they are not directing the creative strategy of the entire project.

Unfortunately many designers don't have one on their team, some have never worked with one, and many of us have to critique our own work. But there are ways that every designer, even those that have worked as an island for years, can benefit from intentionally art directing yourself.

So why is an Art Director beneficial? Anyone that's worked under one knows that showing them your work is always a bit scary. Yet it's the worrying about what they think that pushes you to do better work. Some of the ways an Art Director helps is by making you let go of bad ideas, by pointing out flaws in the design you hadn't noticed, and ultimately toughening you to hear criticism.

What if you don't have someone to look at your work? If you freelance or work as the sole designer at your job, you have to somehow learn how to critique yourself. Unfortunately, for many designers the absence of that pressure can lead to laziness and working to only please the client.

So how do you think like an art director for your own work?

One way would be to think of it like switching hats. At some point you take off the designer hat and put on the AD hat. In other words, you have to stop changing the design and intentionally use a critical eye to look for problems.

First look for the obvious issues, like whether things are lined up or if the headline should be kerned. These are the basic quality control items that you don't want the client pointing out.

Then ask yourself the harder questions:

Finally, ask the very hardest question:

We all know that not every job we do will end up in our portfolio. But it's important to push ourselves to meet our own design standards, and continue to raise those standards. The designers that have been blessed with taste and have developed an eye for good design should be doing all they can to show work that they are happy with themselves.

At the end of the day bad design can still pay the bills, but there comes greater satisfaction from creating something you are proud of. Much easier said then done.

End Note: This method will help when coming up with the original idea, it would take several other posts to go over how to sell the design, and how to work with the client as revisions come so the end design isn't compromised.