Providing a sense of direction
If you’ve ever worked in the creative industries, or even looked at the credits for a film or stage play, art director is one of those job titles, like producer, gaffer or best boy, that you notice and think you have a vague sense of what they do, without being sure.
So, what is an art director? They’re the people who take a concept and turn it into reality. They oversee a team of creatives in whatever disciplines are necessary and see a project through from idea, to production and final execution. They might work in creative agencies, on newspapers or behind the scenes of stage and screen, and their skill set could include typography, photography, design, printing and production, moving image, construction and more. That’s an official definition. But like a lot of creative roles, in reality, the job of art director can be a lot more elastic, bleeding into the more conceptual territory of the creative director, into writing, and whatever else is necessary to get the job done.
To explore precisely what an art director does and how someone finds themselves in that role, we talked to some art directors we know to see whether they could enlighten us further.
First up is Tim Hughes, Art Director at Farfetch, the online luxury retailer where you can shop for desirable brands from all over the world. As you’d expect from an art director, he’s a dab hand with everything from magazine editorial to photo shoots to overseeing videos, and has previously worked with brands including Burberry, Stella McCartney, Porsche and Harvey Nichols.
How would you define the role of an art director?
I would personally define the role as a conduit. Art Directors (in my world anyway) are those pieces of the puzzle that pull together ideas to answer a brief, we channel that concept through the executional team (with the help of our amazing producers) and ensure that the output of any creative that’s commissioned answers said brief.
Do you define yourself as one?
Yes ! I LOVE IT !
Did you always intend to end up in that role yourself?
To be honest, absolutely not. When I started off my career, I didn’t know what an Art Director was, I didn’t know they existed. I wanted to be a graphic designer but early on I saw this new world and have slowly transitioned over to do more image and video work alongside that design work that is absolutely key in my role.
What was your background before your present art director role?
I started as a Digital Designer in a publishing role where I worked with the most incredible Art Directors. I watched them create things (ideas, videos, imagery, stories) and knew that I wanted to become this for myself. From there I moved into advertising (agency side) where I saw how you could inform the strategy and a new vision for brands. The role I own now is a mixture of both, and it’s a really nice mix.
Do you get to work on your own concepts in the role, or is art directing more about executing ideas rather than having them?
My role is client-facing, so we answer briefs – sometimes the briefs come with a concept, but most of the time concepts are part of answering the brief. I have a great team alongside me and we bounce off each other wherever relevant but I predominantly concept and execute my own ideas (in response to the brief) whilst feeding in to the rest of my team’s executions.
How does the part art direction plays vary between different sectors, like fashion, editorial and advertising?
I think, in some ways – it’s always there. For pure fashion it’s more of a position of brand guardian – for editorials, it’s not a person – it’s the crew. The photographer, the stylist – they own the creative, they direct the art. Finally, for advertising – it’s a position that spans creative and client.
As an Art Director you have to respect both sides of the street and ensure that your vision aligns both the executional crew and the crew behind the brief. It’s a tricky balance as you’re putting your creative soul into something that inevitably needs to answer a set of statements and isn’t only from a place of creativity – The trick is making commercial work you are proud of.
What example of your own art direction were you most happy with?
Visually… we created Four Stories of London for Burberry FW19 and it was genuinely the most beautiful thing I’ve done. The creative team we commissioned was out of this world – Luca Anzalone is the most incredible photographer and we managed to work with James J Robinson on the video elements of the shoot and I was blown away with the output.
Pride-wise, I commissioned a personal shoot for MacMillan (which I am still trying to run somewhere as we want to expand on the casting) but it was great to put together my own creative that didn’t have to answer a brief from a client.
Do you find there are challenges working for a larger brand like Farfetch and a positive side as well?
The larger the company, the larger the brand, the more voices there are. This can be both limiting and expansive. In some respects, the wealth of experience to draw upon is fantastic and bouncing off other creatives and strategists inevitably builds a stronger vision which in turn creates a much stronger output. Conversely – sometimes it makes communication difficult and especially during a pandemic, communication is key. Sometimes, you need one strong voice to follow instead of declaration by committee. Not saying either scenario is right or wrong.
At the end of the day, it’s an Art Director’s job to inhale references, trends, research, strategy and ideate based on the information we’ve processed. Doing that in a big company just means there’s more of that to get though (and usually in a shorter period of time). But hey, you can’t make a diamond without a bit of pressure.
Image – Karen Alexander wearing Burberry for Farfetch by Luca Anzalone and Peghah Maleknejad
Still – Didier wearing Burberry for Farfetch by James J Robinson and Peghah Maleknejad