How To Become A Professional Art Director: The Real Truth

How To Become A Professional Art Director: According To Experts

Want to see what a creative project looks like without the steady hand of an Art Director?

A never-ending nightmare. Chaos in the streets. Cats and dogs living together…

Why is that? Because an AD doesn’t just pull together the vision of what a project should look like…they also get everyone on board to row in the same direction. Like a film director, they’re the keeper of the vision. They take a rough-hewn idea and mold it into the final product—be it a beer commercial, a promo website, or a full magazine spread.

Naturally, such an important gig takes a fair amount of skill and experience. And when organizations go looking for a director, they can be more than a little picky.

Study Your Craft

Any professional position that becomes sufficiently important and well-respected will eventually attract a crowd. As a result of that crowd, things get…competitive.

Art Direction is no exception. On the one hand, it’s a growing field, with bright prospects for new graduates. On the other, the best available positions have become coveted—and the gatekeepers that do the hiring have come to expect a certain level of ability from their new creatives.

As a result, the expectation has come to be that any rising Art Director has studied the art and theory. It’s assumed that their new employers won’t necessarily be forced to do much training on the job. In their eyes, that’s what school and internships are for (we’ll talk more about interning in a minute).

Is this to say that formal education is an absolute necessity for a would-be AD? Of course not. There are still those who can make their way alone, as there are in many fields. There are also, notably, those who train in another creative field (say design or copywriting) and then pivot to directing later on. Both are valid paths…but can be somewhat risky. Not least because you’ll inevitably be competing with young guns who have a wealth of experience on the job.

Intern (Work Experience)

How do you learn to build a table? How do you complete a marathon?

In either case, it helps to read the best information available. You can find out what all the world’s experts have ever said about the endeavour at hand. But…

When you’re standing there with the hammer in your hand. When you’re pacing at the starting line…

You’ll want to have been there before. You’ll only know if you’re ready for the big time if you’ve practiced it all a million times.

And that’s what an internship is. A real internship (not a half-summer gig in the coffee corps of an insurance company).

Art Directors, in particular, will benefit from some on-the-job training. Your first serious project can be a serious kick in the pants (as well as as a serious thrill). There’s simply no way to replicate the high-speed, high-pressure exhilaration of a full-scale shoot or a rush to the deadline. You have to be there. That’s the only way to learn.

Passion Projects

OK, you’re in school. You’re working as hard as you can on whatever projects your instructors can throw your way. In a perfect world, you’ve got a nice internship set up as well, coming up as soon as the semester ends.

Pretty good…but it’s not enough. Seriously. It’s great—but you’re still missing a critical piece.

You still need to discover your voice. And there’s one way to do that beyond anything else: self-driven projects.

It could be a self-published magazine. Maybe you connect with a film student and offer some consultation on their set. Maybe, just maybe, you work with a UX designer to refine a website’s visual style.

What you do isn’t necessarily the most important thing. What’s crucial is that you understand what it’s like to lead your own team. Feel the pressure and excitement of working to fulfill your own impeccably high standards.

Find your passion by exploring what exactly you have to express.

Find your limits by testing the results of what happens when you’re left to your own devices.

Experience the challenge of juggling stakeholders and goals and deadlines—like wrangling the tentacles of an unruly octopus.

And, hopefully, feel the utter joy of watching it all come together. There’s nothing like it.

Build a Portfolio

Creative work isn’t like insurance, or sales, or even retail. Hiring managers will take a look at your resume, sure…but it won’t ever be enough. No creative professionals do their hiring exclusively based on a page filled with 12-point Times New Roman bullet points.

No, in the creative world it’s all about the portfolio.

Your portfolio should be an extension of yourself—a pure representation of your skills and sensibilities. A stranger should be able to look through it and understand what your creative spirit is all about. They should also look at it and think to themselves, “Goddamn, this kid has it“.

Prototypes, apps, books, web pages, art pieces, even a freaking speculative TV pilot…they could all find a place in your portfolio. You don’t want to be stymied by your perception of what a job application ought to look like. You want to wow a prospective interviewer with an overwhelming impression of your professional skill.

In fact, that’s why MAD Art Direction programs place such an emphasis on crafting a thrilling portfolio. Because at the end of the day, it’ll be your key into the wonderful world of creative work.

Finding Work As An Art Director

OK, now the hard part.

You’ve studied. You’ve trained. You’ve thrown so much of yourself into your passion projects that you feel your soul is ready to explode.

And to top it all off, you’ve got a portfolio that you happen to think would make any Madison Avenue hiring director scream with joy.

So, any second now someone should be backing up the dump truck of money straight into your Scrooge McDuck money-pile.

Right? Right guys?

Don’t panic.

Getting the right job isn’t always easy. It might take months of interviews and cover letters and tedious networking events.

There are, however, ways to cut the line.

The MAD Advantage

We get students jobs. That’s just what we do.

For more than two decades, the Miami Ad School has been the go-to name for professional creative education in America. Our reputation is unimpeachable. And there’s a reason our grad placement rates are consistently in the high-90s: we focus on teaching you the skills and giving you the tools that real employers really want to see.

At MAD, students develop a professional network of reliable contacts that can help you advance through your career for years in the future. Our grads consistently point to the friends and mentors they found while here as a source of help when beginning their careers. Add in a professionally curated portfolio of projects for real-world clients? It would be difficult to graduate with a bigger leg up in the job race.

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