what is an art director?

(excerpt from my book, Art Directing for Video Games) 

            What is an Art Director?  The title has many different meanings across the wide range of industries, multiple meanings within videogames and sometimes it varies from project to project within the same company!   Because the title can mean so many different things to different people (and organizations) it is useful to ask the question: what are the primary, secondary and tertiary responsibilities of most ADs in the videogame industry?

            The core concept behind the AD role has always been the same; a single person the organization can identify as responsible for the visuals in the game.   In the early days of game development (gen1 to ~gen4) games were simple, and sometimes a single artist could create all the visual elements (and sometimes the sound, design and code too).  Around gen5, the software began to develop visually beyond the scope a single artist could create.  Once the first artist began working collaboratively with another artist,  it quickly became clear that some kind of hierarchical organization would be necessary to provide clear direction, visual consistency and (gasp) management duties.

            Around gen5, games began to require mid-sized art teams with discipline experts in domains like character modeling, animation, visual effects etc.  The visual fidelity of the new hardware meant that consumers would demand ‘more’ from their videogames visuals.   Each discipline had dedicated tools and aesthetics that required artists to specialize.  With all these artists came an increased need for management and direction.  For most developers at this time, the AD was both.  He/she would be part producer, part manager, part director and sometimes also an individual contributor.  Teams were big enough that the AD role was critical but not big enough that he/she  had much support (beyond the perhaps a single Producer per project).

            With gen7 and (and now especially gen8), games and teams became so large that the role of the AD began to bifurcate.  Many studios added Art Producers; production people who are dedicated to the art schedules, dependencies and deliverables.  We also saw larger teams split the AD role further into both Art Director and Art Manager.  This subtle distinction would essentially place all traditional ‘management’ responsibilities onto the Art Manager leaving the Art Director to focus exclusively on the ‘look’ of the product.  One way to consider this distinction is the AD would be holding the WHAT while the Art Manager would be responsible for the WHO & HOW.   Blizzard utilizes this structure on their larger projects.  To further confuse things, this art manager role is called an ‘Art Producer’ in some studios, while in others the Art Producer is strictly schedules and the Art Manager handles remaining management responsibilities.

            Another important position to discuss is the Visual Director.  Sometimes called ‘Lead Concept Artist’ or Visual Design Director, this role is also common on larger projects that have a strong reliance on Concept art.   This person is often also very responsible for the ‘look’ of the game.  For an AD lucky enough to have a skilled Visual Director with strong conceptual illustration (and visual design skills) this relationship should best be considered a partnership.  Both the Visual Director and the AD will bring something unique to the table and the final results will almost always be better than any one individual doing everything.  A non-technical, non-manager Art Director is essentially a Visual Director under this description.

In PC and console, it's also not uncommon to find a Technical Art Director.  These individuals are rare and extremely valuable to their teams.  They focus on enabling the vision of the AD (and/or VD) and other creatives involved.  Tools, pipelines, technologies, tech support for artists, training....often land on the TAD's plate.  A great TD has a fantastic command of both their rational/logical and creative/visual capacities.

            When considering the role, or perhaps even what kind of AD you are (or aspire to be) it can be useful to consider the Process vs. Visionary spectrum. On one side, is a very Process heavy focus with attention to the HOW of making games.  On the other side, is the Visionary; the classic ‘artist’ who has a strong imagination and sense of visual direction and is much less concerned with the HOW than the WHAT.  My recommendation is to develop both aspects equally so you can fulfill a wide range of roles throughout your career.  The downside to this approach is you may never truly be world-class in either extreme.

            Regardless of your specific art team management structure, there are characteristics of the AD job that are universal.  The most important aspects are:


- Strong vision and able to articulate it clearly

- able to voice artists needs/concerns to upper-managers

- able to solve problems of priority with minimum negative impact

- clear and logical thinker

- able to ask the right questions of both artists and non-artists

- able to ‘shield’ team from political and other noise ‘above’

- able to communicate to team important information from above

- open to criticism and be challenged; humility

- technical enough to understand each discipline at Competent or better level

- pro-active leadership pushing to make things happen.  A driver.

- provide communication between art disciplines who may otherwise remain isolated

- ability to assess risk and communicate choices to upper management

- champion for his/her artists to promote their skills

- mentor and train artists in a variety of disciplines so each grows in skill

- mentor and train artists in management skills /techniques if they so desire


- inflexible in face of facts

- un-able to articulate vision

- poor organization and planning skills

- ego driven

- poorly defined direction ie.“just make it cool” or “make it more realistic”

- overly reactionary

- takes credit for other’s work

- shows favoritism either to individuals or art disciplines

- not ‘hands on’ or available enough

- too hands on.  micromanager ; it communicates lack of confidence.


thoughts & feedback welcome!