Art Direction And Design

What is art direction? Is it the trend from a few years back to give every blog post a different look? Not really. That was called art direction, but the trend wasn’t quite art direction, even if it did present different aesthetics to different sets of content.

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What is design’s relationship to art direction? Are they the same thing? Similar? Is one a subset of the other? What’s the connection between art direction and design?

A few week’s ago I listened to an episode of Andrew Clarke’s Unfinished Business podcast. The guests on this particular episode were Dan Mall and Jeffrey Zeldman and all three had a very interesting conversation about design and art direction.

The conversation arose out of a question about why the current state of web design is considered by many to be boring and lacking creativity. A lack of art direction was suggested as the main reason or one big reason for the less than exciting web design currently online.

If you haven’t listened to it, do yourself a favor and listen. It was definitely interesting and worth the time.

While I listened I realized a lot of what I think of as improving the sites we design with meaningful aesthetics and communicating extra levels of communication is really art direction.

I’ve probably misused the terms art direction and aesthetics at times and thought I would do a little research to make sure I understood art direction and design and their connection. Naturally since I put in the time to learn, I thought I’d share what I learned and offer some thoughts I have in general.

I want to talk today about what art direction is as well as the relationship between art direction and design. I also want to offer some other reasons why the web doesn’t look as aesthetically interesting as it might.

Next week I’ll share some additional thoughts and try to answer the question of how important is art direction to the web.

What is Art Direction?

I thought I’d start my research with a dictionary definition and found this.

Art direction (n) — the management of the artistic and design elements of a project, esp. in film, television, advertising, or publishing.

Seems reasonable enough. In a larger organization there are usually multiple people contributing to the content, art, and design of something like a magazine article. One person writes the article, another edits, a third designs the page layout or creates the illustrations or choose the photos or all of those things.

Someone needs to direct all these people and ensure the work maintains the vision. Everything should be working in harmony, in unity, to communicate the same message.

One part of art direction is having someone direct all the people who’ll work on the project. Another part is having that someone create the vision, the concept, in the first place.

Art direction is concerned with the message, the story being told. It’s concerned with delivering an emotional impact. Art direction wants the reader or visitor to feel something that enhances the experience they get reading or viewing content.

When you come up with a concept for a website, you’re art directing. If you’re thinking of words to describe the site and the emotion its aesthetics should carry, you’re art directing. When you decide a site should be sophisticated or playful or adventurous or elegant, you’re art directing.

Art direction creates the vision, defines the tone, style, mood, and emotion that should be conveyed. Then it oversees the project to ensure the design remains in harmony with the vision and that the proper emotion is communicated.

The Connection Between Art Direction and Design

Design is the execution of art direction. If the art direction calls for a playful mood, the design might use a color scheme made from bright primary colors.

Does this the right image convey the message? How long should a line of text be? Is a grid the best layout choice? Decisions likes these are design. It’s how the art direction is executed.

Art direction says the site should be dynamic and design uses diagonal lines to show dynamic. Design choose colors that work well together. Art direction ensures the color scheme is in harmony with he communication, the brand, the message.

Art direction provides the guiding vision. It tells you one typeface is better than another because the face aligns better with he overall vision, even if the other typeface looks better out of context. Art direction provides the context for design. It answers questions about how the site should feel.

Art direction is the concept, the strategy, the why. It’s concerned with the whole, even beyond the site. It wants to unify the brand message. Design is the tactics, the execution of the strategy. It’s the how. It implements the concept and it’s concerned with the details in the parts.

Is a Lack of Art Direction the Reason the Web Looks Boring?

As I mentioned earlier, the subject of art direction came up in response to a question about the lack of creativity exhibited by most websites today. Is a lack of art direction the reason why the web looks boring?

I’m not sure. I do think more art direction online would lead to less websites looking the same and I do think you would see more creativity and less sameness. I’m not sure that a lack of art direction is the reason for the current state though.

Here are a handful of other causes and contributing factors.

Flat Design Trend

We all have our own tastes and something that looks good to you may not look good to me and vice versa. Either of us could thing something looks good while the other thinks boring.

There will always be trends that appeal to certain tastes. Some people will like every trend and some people won’t. Trends come and go. If you don’t like the current trend, just wait awhile. A new trend will replace it.

Today’s trend is flat design, which strips away ornament and gets back to the basics of type, color, and layout. Designers work with less so there are less ways to differentiate one site from another. It can certainly be boring when so many sites aren’t distinguishing themselves from one another.

I’m sure the aesthetic details will come back. Prior to flat design the web was too far in the other direction. Flat design is the reaction. Before long you’ll see the reaction to the reaction. The detail and depth will start to come back, though not to the extent it was before.


More people are working with frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation and insert your favorite framework here. If you start in the same place, you aren’t going to end up in vastly different places.

The more the industry turns to frameworks, components, and patterns, oh my, the less the industry is doing anything resembling art directing or even designing as so many decisions are made for us and out of context of a particular project.

The idea with frameworks is not so much the art as it is the efficiency. it makes a lot of sense for business. It’s less work for the same or sometimes more money, but it doesn’t help with creativity, uniqueness, and differentiation.

However I don’t think the use of frameworks and components and pattern libraries means we can’t also be creative. Tools don’t make you creative and they don’t take away your creativity. They’re just one way to express your creativity.

You can be creative using a framework. Just because most aren’t, doesn’t mean you can’t. Instead of using someone else’s framework, build your own and keep it to yourself. It’ll at least be unique to your work that way.

The Technical Medium

We work in a technical medium so more thought goes into the technical aspects of web design. Many people who design a site also develop the site. Time spent learning to develop and rapid changes in web development mean less time for visual design. Less time for visual aesthetics and art design.

Perhaps the answer is more specialization, though we’ve learned through responsive design that design and development are better when they work together throughout a project. Less barriers between the two is good for the finished product.

There’s more focus on the technical though, because there needs to be and creativity could potentially suffer with it. Ideally you’d put in more time to both design and development, but practically you can’t.

Lack of Design Education

I think part of this could be attributed to the design education (or lack of education) for many in the industry. I assume most print designers had some formal training, though I could be mistaken. I’m sure plenty didn’t, but I would think more did.

That’s unlike web designers where I’d guess most don’t have any formal design education. I’m speaking about myself here, but I’m pretty sure most web designers are similar. We started as web designers because we could build web pages with HTML and CSS and we wanted to make them look better and function better.

We entered web design from the front end development side. I knew how to develop web pages first and then learned how to design them after. That probably contributes to less interesting designs as many in the industry haven’t been exposed to design thinking. They know development thinking, but less about design thinking.

It’s a the Natural Cycle

To a certain extent this is just a cycle. Like I said, a trend will emerge before it too becomes tiresome. A few years ago people criticized web sites because they were all style and little to no substance. Skeuomorphic details were everywhere though they often had no real connection to the content they were dressing up.

Many were rightly criticized for being style without substance. Flat design is the reaction. Now it gets criticized for not having what skeuomorphism had.

Most skeuomorphic designs weren’t exactly art directed. They went after a style, but few if any were truly art directed. They weren’t called boring though.

I think a flat design can still be art directed despite the lack of depth and details. Choose colors, type, and layout all based on the emotional impact you want to create. Color is especially good at setting mood. That kind of art direction would probably still be called boring by some people.

I’m not sure the reason for what some perceive as boring web design is a lack of art direction unless art direction requires more than making design decisions that are unified with the concept and vision for the site.

If it requires all sorts of images and illustration then sure more art direction would lead to more interesting sites. But I don’t think art direction means add images and illustration for the sake of adding images and illustration.

I don’t think a lack of art direction is the reason for boring design, but I do think more art direction would lead to less boring design and more original sites

Closing Thoughts

I often say we could do a better job with our aesthetics. It’s not my strong suit, but I think we should all do better aesthetically. The aesthetics we add can and should be meaningful and add another layer of communication to our designs.

I think what I’ve always meant is that we should art direct more. We should communicate the emotion to trigger a response with visitors. We should make our sites look better while we enhance our communication visually.

The trend to give every blog post a different look was not art direction, though I suspect the trend did come from a desire to add more art direction to the web. Still it wasn’t art direction because the aesthetics were more random than they should have been. They were often added at the end instead of being the guide from the beginning. They weren’t purposeful or from a unified vision.

The trend wasn’t so much art directing as it was visually dressing up web pages just to visually dress them up. Art direction is more than a different look for each page. It’s about creating a concept and vision for what will be communicated to emotionally impact the viewer in a way that helps the site achieve its goals. Design is how that vision is executed.

While it’s probably true that a lack of art direction contributes to the current boring state of web design, it’s hardly the only reason and I think plenty of sites could be art directed and still be seen as boring by the same people.

One question I haven’t really answered in this recording and probably have’t really asked yet is how important is art direction to the web? You can probably tell I like it and would like to see more online, but how important is it to the success of a site or business?

I think the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no and I want to try to answer the question in another recording. I’ll pick things up again next week.

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  1. “The idea with frameworks is not so much the art as it is the efficiency”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact, I’ve said similar phrases for years.

  2. Very nice piece.

    I’ve been an art director about three times as long as I’ve been a webhead, and you’re right about the difference between art direction and design.

    I do find the idea of art direction meaning a different look for every page a little bit odd – that may be true of publication design, where every article has a hero visual and some leeway with typography. But in marketing, the opposite is true, and it’s an art director’s job to maintain consistency without losing freshness in every new execution.

    As for frameworks: I love Foundation, so much so that I baked it into a Genesis child theme.

    But similar markup with similar JS should NOT make for similar looks. Foundation is a whole lot of CSS to rewrite, but a compact file of custom styles should be enough to transform a given install completely.

    Finally, remember what the real job is: not to follow trends or even to start new ones. It’s to attract a client’s most profitable audience with the design elements that send the message, “This is for me!”

    • Thanks Mary. I like how you state an art director’s jobs as

      “maintain(ing) consistency without losing freshness in every new execution.”

      I agree it’s not just a different look for each article, though I think that’s often a result. I agree too that similar markup shouldn’t automatically lead to the same look, but sadly I think a lot of people are less interested in doing a good job as they are a quick job. But that’s a story for another time

      Thanks again.

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