I was recently asked to fill out a questionnaire as a class assignment for an aspiring art director. After writing and sending what became a fairly lengthy diatribe, I discovered the student is actually interested in being a film art director. Not an advertising art director. Oh well. It makes a nice blog entry.

  1. When you were younger, what did you hope to be?
    If I hadn’t gotten into the graphic design program at Penn State, my backup choice of major was Administration of Justice so I could be an FBI agent. Anyone who knows me finds this quite hilarious. 
  2. What did you study in college?
    I got a BA with an emphasis in Graphic Design. 
  3. How long did it take to become an art director? Describe the process.
    The design program at Penn State prepared me for a career in advertising without actually teaching advertising. The program is heavily concept based, and by learning how to solve a wide variety of design problems, I was able to seamlessly transfer what I learned about graphic design to an ad career. I graduated in 1991 during the a Gulf War recession. No one was hiring. Over a period of three months, I had close to 50 interviews in Erie, Cleveland and Pittsburgh before I was mercifully hired by Dymun Nelson, a great, small boutique agency in Pittsburgh. Good thing, too because my dad had forced me to apply at Red Lobster –  they called the same day I was hired at Dymun and I had the pleasure of telling them I had accepted employment elsewhere.
  4. Describe a normal day as an art director.
    There really is no such thing as a “normal” day in art direction. I worked at a variety of agencies for 21 years then, three years ago, I decided to go full time freelance. I work from home in my dining room office. As a freelancer, I’ve done everything from TV to logos to trade show booths to Prezi presentations to corporate videos, to signage, outdoor, packaging and web sites. The only thing predictable about this business is that it’s not at all predictable, and that can be overwhelming. Thankfully, there is a common thread to it all, and that thread is ideas. There is comfort for me in knowing that no matter what the type or size problem, no matter what media is used, no matter how fast technology changes, no matter that no day is “normal”, all problems can be solved with an idea.
  5. Name one thing you enjoy about your job. Describe.
    The chaos. This job is totally different every day. You never know what could happen next.
  6. Name one thing you don’t enjoy. Describe.
    The chaos. This job is totally different every day. You never know what could happen next.
  7. Would you recommend the career path?
    Absolutely. You can dress however you want and swear at work. But it’s not for everybody - I’ve had advertising interns leave for lunch and never come back. Art direction is incredible, but it’s insanely intense and demanding. It looks like great fun from the outside, but it’s often stressful to the point that I wonder if I shouldn’t have maybe just gone into the FBI after all. (Air traffic control? Bomb squad? Emergency medicine? At least those fields actually LOOK like work.)
  8. Do you have any advice for an aspiring art director
    Don’t be an art director if you don’t love it. And not just love it, be willing to eat sleep and breathe it. Go to a good school that teaches you to think. Make a killer portfolio. Don’t put more than 20 pieces in it and don’t put anything in it that you have to apologize for. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to stay up all night to create good work. You will, however, put in lots of long hours. Spell check. Call all the phone numbers and double check all the email addresses. Be good to young account executives –  they will all be your clients one day. Crying is okay but try to do it in the bathroom. Fear is okay too (blank pieces of paper and blank computer screens can be terrifying), but use fear to motivate yourself, don’t let it paralyze you. Learn from your writers. You’ll be a creative director one day and you will need to know how to write, or at least fake it well enough until you can get to a real writer. Be nice to people. Be especially nice to your vendors –  they will work twice as hard if you are nice and ad photographers make great wedding and family portrait photographers later on. A computer is just a tool – it won’t think for you. Stand up for yourself – don’t be a pushover. The business world is rough. Know who you are and what you are willing to do and not do and don’t compromise your ethics. Know what your strengths are – no point in working forever at a place that specializes in annual reports if your passion is broadcast, but do try everything once. Don’t use ellipses, go easy on the exclamation points. Kern. Practice, practice, practice your presentations. Then practice them again. Sometimes the best learning experiences are learning not what you want but what you DON’T want. You will get laid off, or fired. At least once – don’t let it kill you. Don’t let any ad agency define you – if you are truly unhappy, quit and go work somewhere else. Ask for raises and promotions when you know you are ready – no one will ask for them for you. Feel free to pat yourself on the back if you’ve done a great job and no one seems to notice. Be yourself. Try not to gossip. Vent appropriately. Listen – it’s hard to learn when you are talking. Ask questions. Lots of them. Never walk away from a photo shoot or a press check or input meeting with questions in your mind. Demand creative briefs or write them yourself – you can’t solve a problem until you define it. Make lists – the work piles up fast and you will lose track of what is due when. Read – stay current on award-winning work. Work you ass off, entrench yourself in assignments, but know when to get up and walk away for a while. The best ideas come when you are actively not thinking about them. If you ever get the chance to work with an account planner, get to know that person really well. They are some of the smartest people in the business. Don’t give clients what they want, give them what they need. Go to happy hour. Remember there is no such thing as an advertising emergency –  life is plenty full of emergencies and advertising doesn’t qualify. Mostly, have fun. No reason to be an art director, or anything for that matter, if you don’t enjoy it.


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