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A Day in the Life of a Web Art Director

A Web art director works with Internet Web sites and is responsible for translating the overall business objective into a visual solution. The art director works closely with the creative team to figure out the best way to communicate the site’s strategic goals and brand message in an online environment. Web sites contain very complex technical elements, so art directors in this industry need diverse experience. It’s not enough to be a designer; you also need to understand the technical aspects of Web design. Whether or not you can write code, you need to comprehend what the code can do, otherwise you end up designing something that can’t be built. The Web is interconnected, and its nonlinear nature allows for a variety of ways to navigate to a piece of information. Therefore, you need to understand the principles of information architecture, which deal with the flow of information and how effective the user finds it. “It’s a lot more than deciding Ôthis is blue or red’ or Ôthe button goes here or there,’ but whether there needs to be a button, what the button will do, and how it will function,” says one Web art director. “For instance, if it’s a shopping site, what is the ideal e-commerce experience for the user? What information must consumers fill out and in what order if they want to purchase something?” During the actual design process, a Web art director can spend many hours on their computer designing the content and functionality according to plan. One Web art director sums up his work like this: “I sit in front of my computer 90 percent of the day, trying to figure out what stuff’s going to look like and what the best interface is to create the best user experience.” The job is very team-oriented, more so than other print design work. Because Web-site development is so complex, one person can’t be an expert in all the necessary disciplines of design, information architecture, and programming. Thus, a Web art director works closely with a variety of different people on a day-to-day basis, as well as throughout all phases of the project. An art director’s core computer programs consist of Photoshopª, Illustrator ª, and Freehandª. Flashª is also good to know, as is Macromedia Directorª. 3D programs are a nice shiny bonus. “Gain as much technical knowledge as you can without sacrificing basic design. If you have a choice between a technical class and a design class, go for the design,” recommends one art director.

Paying Your Dues

Five years ago, most art directors came from traditional print design backgrounds and had no interactive experience. Today, expectations are starting to change in the industry, but if you are a good designer with good design sensibility, it’s still relatively easy to get a job and learn the interactive side on-site. You might not come in at as high a level as if you went into print, but the field is pretty wide-open now, and it’s not too hard to move up. However, there is a big disconnect between designers with solid design skills and those with interactive skills. “We get a lot of young designers who are technical wizards but don’t have the design background, and a lot of really good designers who don’t have the technical background,” notes one art director. “More than technical experience, we’re l “Generally, we want to see a BFA-a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design,” says a Web art director. “But because so much of your hireability depends on your portfolio, your degree is not that critical. We would hire someone who never took a design class, provided their portfolio shows fabulous designs.”ooking for solid design, which a lot of the people don’t bring to the table. My advice is to focus on being a good designer and problem solver.”

Present and Future

The structure of an art department and how an art director fits into the picture is pretty standard across industries. The model that exists in the interactive world is borrowed from traditional advertising, modifying the structure to encompass the complexity of new design. The history of Web design is quite brief, but it’s already evolving. The field initially focused only on content, as people simply threw information up onto the Internet. Now the Web is very oriented toward advertising and sales, and it’s important to have an understanding of these fields. The Internet is changing so quickly that we can only imagine what the future will bring. Contextual shopping is not far away, in which users can interact with the content of a piece, download information on the products, and purchase them. As programming, entertainment, news, and commerce converge, the Web art director will take on new and varied roles. For example, a user may read a piece on Ricky Martin, choose to download his MP3, watch his video, load a slide show of a storyboard, click on an outfit he’s wearing, and purchase it directly from the site. Web art directors will be key in conceptualizing the interactive flow and setting up the design that contextualizes this chain of information.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Junior designers may be assigned smaller tasks of a larger project and work an hour or two less than the art director, who is juggling more work. However, during the actual design phase, anyone involved will put in long hours.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Some Web art directors are involved in the actual hands-on design while others manage a team of designers and focus on delineating tasks. In the design world, every company has a different title for their positions; an art director in one place may have the same responsibility that a senior designer has in another-there is no standard across the industry. Generally, moving from a junior position to a full-fledged art director requires three to five years of experience in either interactive or advertising work, and many people make the switch from print jobs into the interactive world. The more senior the position, the more hats you wear and balls you juggle when dealing with collaborative teams. Being more senior does not mean your hours are reduced because other people are handling the work. In the Web environment, things happen all the time, and you need to be there to manage the crisis.

TEN YEARS OUT

As art directors continue to find new and inventive ways to manage design on the Web over the next decade, the more experienced staff will take on a bird’s-eye role in managing projects in their conceptual stages-dealing with the design’s requirements and strategic objectives, and working through the methodology of a solution.