Creative Director vs. Art Director: 6 Major Differences

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A creative director and an art director are arguably the most commonly confused job titles in the creative field. The confusion is understandable because, in small agencies, there are significant overlaps between these two roles, as some even combine them into one position. However, closer examination reveals significant differences.

A creative director differs from an art director in that the former:

  • Sits higher on the corporate ladder.
  • Does more than just creation.
  • Earns more money.
  • Requires more experience to land a job.
  • Focuses more on “the big picture” than the fine details.
  • Requires both leadership and technical skills.

Stick around to learn more about these differences and what they mean for someone trying to choose between a career in creative direction and art direction.

A Creative Director Sits Higher in the Corporate Ladder

A creative director functions as the creative lead in an advertising/marketing agency. They plan and supervise the creation of promotional campaigns and are usually tasked with making the big calls, particularly when it comes to steering a client’s brand in a new direction. 

A Creative Director’s Job

Creative directors lead teams composed of designers, copywriters, and art directors. In some cases, they also suggest who should be included in these teams. Many creative directors simultaneously manage several projects, consistently informing their teams (through briefs) what needs to be done for each project to convey the desired brand message effectively. 

And as you’d expect, the creative director signs off on each project before it’s passed on to the client. 

An Art Director’s Job

On the other hand, an art director functions as part of a team headed by a creative director. They may head a team of painters, photographers, graphic designers, and videographers.

As the head of the visual department, an art director ensures that each project’s imagery and visual style is up to par with the client’s needs as communicated by the creative director through team briefs. He collaborates with his team to generate ideas beyond what’s provided on the creative director’s brief and presents them to the creative director for approval.

A Creative Director’s Role Goes Beyond Creation

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

A creative director’s role cuts across the business and creative aspects of a project. 

They hold meetings with clients, strategic partners, and other stakeholders to build relationships and discuss the business aspects of a project. Their creative capacity provides input on product photography production, design, and branding through team briefs. 

Both aspects of their jobs are reflected in their duties. A typical creative director’s job involves:

  • Developing and pitching campaign ideas and presenting them to clients.
  • Communicating with the client throughout the project, updating them on progress and any challenges that might crop up along the way.
  • Recruiting, training, and managing the creative team.
  • Planning the project from the beginning to the end and supervising it to ensure that the vision materializes and budgets and timelines are observed.
  • Presenting the project to the client once complete.

On the other hand, an art director’s job is purely creation-focused. 

Art direction combines design and art to create aesthetically pleasing photography that triggers a predetermined reaction from consumers. It doesn’t include setting up meetings with clients or any other corporate stuff.

A typical scope of duties for an art director includes:

  • Choosing the best types of photos, art, and other visual elements for the project. 
  • Drafting the overall stylistic outlook for the campaign.
  • Instructing photographers, designers, videographers, producers, and editors on the finer details of production that the creative director might not have time for.
  • Following budgets and timelines set by creative directors.

Creative Directors are More Concerned with “The Big Picture”

The creative director usually has a birds-eye view of the entire project and isn’t too concerned with the finer details of product photo production. 

They often manage several department heads (including the art director) to ensure that each department is working as it should towards the actualization of the project’s vision. In fact, expert creative directors can visualize the final result of a project before it even begins.

On the other hand, art directors get bogged down in the finer details of production. 

They are the individuals who’ll examine every pixel and sweat over questions like “Should this model be wearing light blue or dark blue in this scene?” or “Should the product’s label be turned more or less to the camera?” 

Since they’re so preoccupied with the nitty-gritty details of image aesthetics, they rarely worry about the project’s big picture. 

Their job is to execute the creative director’s vision.

A Creative Director Earns More Than an Art Director

According to Indeed.com, the average base salary for a creative director in the US is $88,434 per year. According to the same platform, art directors make less than that per year, with an average base salary of $69,889.

There are slight variations in these figures across different data sources, the level of expertise, and company size. 

However,  the general trend remains the same: creative directors earn more than art directors, because they are responsible for more.

You Need More Experience to Work as a Creative Director 

A bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum for both positions. 

In many advertising agencies you need to have a degree in art, communications, design, or a similar field to be hired as a creative director. On the other hand, art director job positions usually require a degree in a design or art majors such as visual communications, digital media, or fine art. 

The difference is, creative director positions require more experience than their counterparts because they are actually leadership positions. 

Most employers require creative director candidates to have five to ten years of experience, preferably in closely related creative roles. By contrast, you might be able to land a decent-paying job as an art director with only three to five years of experience.

Creative Directors Need Both Leadership and Technical Skills

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

A creative director’s role involves providing creative vision and effective team management. To fill both shoes, these experts need leadership and technical skills.

Managing and executing a project from start to end requires a thorough understanding of the technical aspects of the entire process. 

The technical skills and tools involved include:

  • Graphic design
  • Photography
  • Copywriting
  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • Social media marketing

As for their leadership skills, they usually come in handy when creative directors need to manage their teams. 

Such skills vary from one expert to another, but most creative directors are:

  • Excellent communicators in both speech and writing.
  • Open-minded so they can consider their subordinates’ ideas and opinions.
  • Highly adaptive to the needs of their teams and clients.
  • Critical and analytical thinkers.
  • Decisive

On the other hand, an art director’s skill set comprises mostly job-specific skills. Even though some leadership is involved when overseeing other artists, a creative director is more of a consultant for their team than a manager. 

Skills commonly required for this role include:

  • Outstanding aesthetic judgment
  • Strong collaborative capabilities
  • Ability to work under pressure to meet deadlines
  • Systems Evaluation and analysis
  • Illustration Design
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • Photography
  • Typography
  • Social media management and marketing

The Bottom Line

Having learned the differences between creative directors and art directors, you’re probably wondering whether you’d be better off choosing one career path over the other. 

A quick way to decide is to ask yourself whether you’re a natural leader who prefers to look at the big picture in a project. If so, a creative director may be a better fit for you. On the other hand, individuals who cherish working hands-on to actualize a concept without feeling overwhelmed by the details might enjoy art director roles more.

If you found this article helpful and landed a gig as either a creative director or an art director, don’t forget to give us all of the money in the advertising budget by hiring us for your next product branding job! 🙂

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi, I'm Benjamin, Digital Media Strategist and product photographer for Skyline FBA.I have been involved in content creation for over 10 years and love helping people develop strategies to grow their business. My wife and I are Product Photographers that are experienced in Amazon FBA, eCommerce, Lifestyle, and Advertising photography.

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