How to Be an Art Director: The Designer’s Guide

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How can I become an art director?

There’s no single way to become an art director, and if you want to become one, that’s actually pretty good news. There are numerous paths to this career destination, and many of them overlap. Some of these paths include:

  • Traditional schooling
  • Specialized schooling
  • Experience + Internships
  • Building an eclectic portfolio

Many designers are conceptual, meaning they have a cohesive vision for their designs. This vision often develops into a desire to lead campaigns—to create large-scale, multi-faceted projects.

In other words, some designers want to direct the artistic process. For creatives with foresight, ambition, and some hustle, art direction is an ideal career choice.

In this post, we’re going to discuss the various ways a designer can work up the design ladder to become an art director.

What is an art director?

You may find yourself wondering how to be an art director, or what an art director even is. Like most positions in the design sphere, an art director does a little bit of everything.

In the same way different developer positions require varying expertise and responsibilities, art directors are hired in a number of fields, from publishing to advertising to theatre.

In general, art directors are responsible for leading innovative campaigns. They’re the ones with a creative vision in mind, and it’s really up to them to execute that vision.

Using traditional schooling to become an art director

In the United States alone, there are numerous traditional, four-year colleges that offer programs in graphic design, advertising, social media, marketing, and other creative fields. In fact, finding colleges that offer a specific major is simply a Google search away.

These traditional schools (private and public) provide the opportunity to take courses in one field while also learning about other subjects.

Take, for instance, someone who studies advertising. This person will almost certainly study media, communications, and stats. However, this person may also take available courses in social sciences or humanities, either to satisfy an elective or simply because the class seems interesting.

These additional classes provide additional knowledge, which may benefit a student’s creative work. A psychology course, for example, can inform behavior in the workplace; a creative writing class may improve written skills for future projects.

But how does this help an aspiring art director? Firstly, a rounded education can’t hurt anyone or any profession; in fact, learning information outside your field and combining unrelated ideas are just a few ways people can actually learn creativity.

Secondly—and this may be the most valuable point—traditional schooling can offer you traditional experiences. By experiences, we mean opportunities: opportunities to meet peers from different backgrounds; opportunities to learn more about money-management (you mean we have an electric bill and a gas bill?); and opportunities (or disasters) that prove how resourceful you can really be. You know, regular college stuff.

How specialized schooling can benefit your art direction journey

In a specialized school setting, you will still have plenty of opportunities to meet strangers, go broke, and experience life lessons. The main difference is this; your peers and classes will constantly be part of what you want to do with your life.

So, while you may not have the chance to take an obscure elective like An Introduction to Chinese History, you will have an incredible opportunity to network, pursue in-depth projects, and potentially learn from the best and brightest within your field.

What are some examples of specialized schools for art directors? These schools focus on establishing a portfolio, meeting likeminded people, and immersing yourself into your field.

Examples of specialized schools

Promotion LA has put together a list of the best schools for people who want to pursue art direction and advertising:

For information on each school, visit the article here.

Whether you want to go the traditional route, specialized route, or a combination, the choice is yours. Finances and personal preferences will certainly play a role, but even then, there’s no rule that says you have to attend school at all. However, for someone looking to pursue art direction, it’s a good start.

Gain experience through internships and junior positions

Luckily, you can gain experience and find internships both in and out of school. In some businesses, you may be able to begin as a designer or marketing specialist, then move your way up through in-house experience.

Alternatively, you may want to pursue internships, which could give your skills a push and your resume some color. At the end of the day, you might even decide you want to begin your own company.

If you’re in school or have connections with former peers or professors, it’s worth your time to contact them about open positions, available opportunities, and even coffee dates.

In other words, network. Shamelessly. You don’t have to be fake or pushy, but believe it or not, most people do understand the struggle of the job hunt. Most people are happy to help when they can.

If you’re unable to to network, or your connections aren’t turning up opportunities, consider online resources. Behance, Dribbble, and Indeed are just a few places that frequently list professional opportunities for creatives.

Glassdoor is also a great tool that allows you to review companies, employee happiness, and available positions. If, for instance, you’re looking for an art direction internship at a highly-rated company, you can use available filters to search accordingly.

The Internet is a perfect place to find—well, everything, so utilize it any way you can. (For a comprehensive list of company-rating sites, go here.)

The utility of building an eclectic portfolio

Because art directors are expected to lead others, their personal work must also be impressive and varied. According to Jennifer Pugh, an author for The Hired Guns Talent Agency, portfolios should be seen as an opportunity to present a range of skills. She also adds portfolios should showcase design-related talents only. In other words, people want to know about your creative skills, not your life story.

Luckily, you can build a portfolio whether you’re a student or a worker bee. And with user-friendly, web-building platforms like Squarespace, Wix, and WordPress, it’s relatively easy to DIY your own site.

Keep in mind that while your portfolio can be unique, it should also be clean and easy to navigate. We’ve all seen a website that’s trying to reinvent the wheel with edgy designs and exciting copy, but you’re actually better off with a simple design and clear explanations.

For instance, which of the two following sentences make more sense? “We are the future, changing the way brands experience consumers.” VS. “We are an advertising agency specializing in high-end, pharmaceutical clientele.”

The second one actually tells us something, whereas the first sentence simply sounds cool. People want to hire you for your work, which means they need to know what you do.

If your website looks pretty but runs slowly, can’t be navigated, and makes no sense, you’ll probably lose some potential clients. And for those of us who work for ourselves, losing clients equals losing money.


If you’re a designer who’s looking to become an art director, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news? It’s gonna take some work. The good news? You can do it. And in a way that works for you.

Learn as much as you can. Take on projects; step outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to network. The more experience you gain, knowledge you acquire, and connections you make, the more you’ll build a path in line with your own goals. Keep at it, and you’ll end up right where you need to be.