A/Dvertising today

New media, new tools, new people. What is the state of art direction today? Campaign asked J Walter Thompson's head of art and design, Dave Dye

When asked to write about art direction today, I thought the best way to answer was to look into whether it’s any different to art direction yesterday.


Free has replaced expensive

Believe it or not, there was a time in the world when nobody could get Wi-Fi. It was scary.

If an art director wanted to know about a subject, a photographer, artist or adman, the only option was a hard copy or "book", as it was known.

That’s assuming a book on the subject existed. If it did, you had to find it. Without using the internet.

If you were lucky enough to find one, you then had to hand over hard cash before you could look at it.

Today, every art director’s home is fitted with a library the size of Milton Keynes. And it’s free.

Key skill

Searching has replaced drawing

Clients rarely see scamps today, so it’s difficult to know how useful a skill drawing is.

Being able to locate the most accurate, best-quality reference material is now crucial.

It could be the difference between a campaign living or dying.

(Note to editor: I don’t know any really good art directors who can’t draw. Is this a coincidence?)


Macs have replaced everything

I typed this on a Mac. Mocked up the layout on a Mac. Realising that I couldn’t commission or use images that Campaign would have to pay for, I shot the pictures, cropped and pushed the contrast on my iPhone 6.

No Grant Projector, magic-marker roughs, tracing type, photographer, typographer, waiting for film to be developed overnight, Cromalins, studio to cut and paste the type, or bike to deliver the artwork. (That’s a lot of redundant people, but those Apple products are cool.)


No change. Undervalued then, undervalued now

It’s used more today than at any other time I’ve been in the business.

The reason? It’s cheap. Well, cheaper than photography.

It’s a shame as it’s still one of the best ways to give a brand a "look", some humanity and glue together a multitude of channels.


Gotham has replaced variety

Fonts are voices. They can sound serious, frivolous, smart-arse, friendly or whatever you like. Brands’ personalities should be as unique as fingerprints. So why is everyone using the same voice?

Gotham came to prominence with Barack Obama – he used it in his 2008 "YES WE CAN" campaign.

It’s very nice.

But there are now approximately two gazillion different fonts out there. And whereas it used to cost money to see your headline in one of them, it now costs nothing.

So come on, give one a whirl.

Job titles

Creatives have replaced art directors and writers

If you don’t call yourself an art director, you’re unlikely to become a good one. You have to commit.

I’ve found that many of the creatives who say "we both do both" often do neither. Sure, they may be competent, but they rarely use language convincingly or use art direction in a way that surprises and engages.

In a car rally, there’s a driver and a navigator – each owns a part of the task. I’m sure the navigators are able to drive and the drivers can operate a map, but they work better by owning a part of the task.

When creatives show a piece of work and the art direction is criticised, it’s a bit awkward for them.

When an art director shows a piece of work and the art direction is criticised, there’s nowhere to hide. The art director will feel mortified, lonely and sweaty.

He or she won’t want to be in that position again.

They’ll work harder. Working harder will make them better. Besides, you can count the number of creatives who have been as good visually as they are with language on one finger: John Webster.

Art directors 

Jolyons have replaced Bobs

True, the country as a whole has grown more middle class, but creative departments have grown really middle class.

There were always a few poshos in creative departments, usually writers (yes, I’m talking about you, Lord Lowther). But art directors were generally working-class kids who could draw.

For those kids, advertising was the number-one creative outlet. Now, it’s one of a number of creative outlets.

Google, Apple, the gaming industry and a whole bunch of other tech companies now get first pick.

It means our industry has lost some of the most competitive, determined and talented people.

Downside: creative departments are slightly less hungry.

Upside: creative departments are slightly nicer.


Options have replaced focus

Digital cameras and Photoshop have made shoots less stressful.

You can now retouch your way out of virtually any problem. (Heard the term "reshoot" lately?)

Instead of receiving a single, recommended image, I now get a basket of options. Options are good.

But, personally, I miss the total focus of trying to make a single sheet of film great. It could be a white-knuckle ride, but I suspect the current lack of fear and anxiety on photographic shoots causes many to simply coast along.


Treatments have replaced reels

Not completely, but jobs are awarded on treatments.

They’re very helpful, removing uncertainty, giving us a much better idea of what we’ll get.

Sometimes great treatments from average directors will beat average treatments from great directors. Which is a shame.

Treatments don’t run. But it’s now hard to imagine life without them.


No new colours had been discovered at time of going to press

The title "art director" is unhelpful – it leads people to believe the job has something to do with art. It hasn’t.

Art direction is a business tool. It can get companies heard, it can get them re-assessed and it can shift their products.

So although an art director’s tools will change, as well as the channels they work in, an art director’s job will remain the same: making information engaging, relevant and simple.

Whether you use a shovel or a JCB, the output is the same: a hole.