After all… What is the difference between a Designer, an Art Director, and a Creative Director?

Watch out!  This is a topic that’s been known to generate discussion. Even given its complexities in practice, you probably at least understand it theoretically. So read on, but carefully, because the lines can be as blurred as a single pixel trace. So after all … what is the difference between a Designer, an Art Director, and a Creative Director?

Advertising agency team choosing key visual

Let’s start from the beginning …the word “director,” according to various dictionaries, means “an individual with leadership responsibilities who administers and regulates steps, processes, and people.” To become a Director is one of the highest positions an employee can achieve.  Just look at any medium- to large-size enterprise to understand the importance of directors.

Art and creation are complementary skills.  They are a part of our innate human nature and hold immense meaning and consequence.  Their merits are widely accepted, and thus, we will not elaborate here.

The word “designer,” as commonly used in today’s society, is a remnant of twentieth-century British-English. Like the term, “design,” which refers to a creation or construction of a plan or project, designers today include both artists and designers involved in visual information projects. Any artist who can capably execute the visual development of a technical project is a designer!

This might get your feathers in a ruffle at first, but stay with me! This does not mean that anyone can be a designer (even if there are some who call themselves one when they really aren’t.) Now back to my starting point. What is the difference?

Some issues cannot be understood literally, seeping into the gray area of life. I can honestly say this is one of those gray areas. Perceptions of these functions are dependent on the environments in which they are performed. For example: there are design firms that do not practice, require, or differentiate between these positions in projects. And there are advertising agencies that stimulate and definitely practice these differences. So when we talk about differences in roles, we need to think of them in terms of the types of places in which they are carried out.

Happy young people having a business meeting

In the hierarchy of steps within a project, theoretically, we have first the Art Director (with an editor), second, the Creative Director, and third, the Designer (titled as such in this case and assuming he/she does not occupy a position with another title). Please note that for an individual to exercise a leadership role in whatever area of operation, the minimum requirement is to be responsible and have full knowledge of all the steps and processes that will drive the operation.  This does not always happen, and I can say today, rarely happens.

The hierarchy of steps specifically establishes the differences of each position based on the roles within a project. They do not determine who is superior or subordinate, as they are all on the same plane embedded in stages within the process.

The structure of the hierarchy does not express the differences of each function, only the range of positions. Therefore, it is not necessary in actuality or to be explained. In the end, the difference between each position is based on its function and not on who is superior or subordinate.

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Does this mean that the designer is the least important in the hierarchy? No, it means that the most skilled professionals direct others; they could be at the level of their directors, but without the capacity to manage. 

Does this mean that a designer is able to hold a position of direction? Not of other designers, art professionals, or their technicians.  The individual has the ability to manage people and processes that involve the environment. In actuality, in this framework the designer is the cornerstone of the project (design). No wonder their name derives from the term! The Art Director leads and drives the guidelines formed in conjunction with a writer, polishes the creative direction provided by the Creative Director, and coordinates the Designers to follow the same line of reasoning during the creative process. There may be two involved in this process. It is teamwork.  The directors may establish themselves during the project (designer), but to have a specific function within the processes, roles are defined as Art or Creative Director.

And what would a watch be without hands? It could mark the time, but without the ability to move its hands, it would be a useless accessory. Get it? In short, on the micro-level, the designer is autonomous and able to drive everything. But in order to execute all functions of creating and displaying results, the same mind-thinking would be required. On the macro-level, it would be quite difficult for all minds to think along the same line of reasoning, performing accordingly and presenting results homogeneously without support. We observe this hierarchy working “quietly” in multinational companies and in those with their own specialized department. As for the flexibility of current professionals, we can say that they perform masterfully the functions of each step regardless of their titles.

The article was supplied to us by Brazilian blog Design Culture. It was written by Caio Régis.