Art direction is a waste of time

A fool’s errand?

An article by Oliver Hall 12-09-2016

A fool’s errand, a merry chase, a waste of time. Art direction is simply an unnecessary overhead and an excuse for the creative designer to have a play. Using some valuable resource at the client’s expense before actually designing a website, right? Well, not exactly...

It’s a given that expressing your corporate identity consistently across all media is an essential requirement for a contemporary and engaged brand. There is however, a gaping chasm between what’s specified in brand guidelines, and the highly functional designs found on a website (even if there may be some nominal conceptual mockup of a homepage design under the ‘digital’ section).

To bridge this gap, and to ensure that your digital estate has every opportunity to articulate your identity appropriately, exploring all that this highly engaging medium has to offer, we include a create stage called art direction.

But I’m often asked what the particular role of art direction is in the design of a website, its benefit and indeed, its necessity. So I will aim to answer the often uttered double pronged question...



What is Art Direction?

Simply put, art direction is the exploratory stage of a creative project; the objective of which is to deliver creative concepts which provide a mood, look and feel to guide the visual direction of the project as it goes forward. 

But is it really necessary?

Dan Mall’s message in his 2010 article “Art Direction and Design” stands the test of time, presenting a pretty emphatic case for the benefits of art direction, and helps to differentiate the different outputs and value, for the various phases of the creative process.

"Without art direction, we’re left with dry, sterile experiences that are easily forgotten...How do candles transform a regular meal into a romantic evening? Art direction is about evoking the right emotion, it’s about creating that connection to what you’re seeing and experiencing."

- Dan Mall. “Art Direction and Design”. A List Apart 

So yes, in short, art direction is necessary. Below, I’ve provided some specific reasons for my conclusion:

It is conceptual and creative. 

Not that there isn’t creativity in the detail and efficiency of forming a well crafted interface design, but there needs to be a place within the creative process where the values and personality of brand expression can be explored before the constraints of functionality are applied. For successful and effective design, form must always follow function, but form must be permitted adequate presence, as without it, design lacks cohesion, direction and expression beyond its practical building blocks.

It is efficient. 

Art direction allows us to explore creative avenues without producing high fidelity templates. Ideas and themes inherent within the brand can be quickly developed and iterated with close involvement with the client.

It is timely. 

Not only is it efficient from the perspective of devoted time, it also an efficient approach for the project as a whole. While other phases of work are underway, creative workstream can run concurrently as there are no immediate dependencies. For instance, once the UX production is completed and signed off, the project can flow straight into creative production of interface designs, without lag.

It promotes distinctiveness. 

Art direction provides the time to research market trends, industry competitors and examples of best practice, but most importantly, it helps us to identify where we can capitalise on a unique characteristic of your brand, not expressed by others. 

It’s collaborative. 

In my experience, big reveals should be reserved only for the circus tent or magic shows; in both of these cases we anticipate and delight in the unexpected. This is not so much the case when re-articulating an organisation’s identity and expression. Being in on the surprise is essential, it is afterall the result of a shared journey; stakeholders need to be investors and advocators of both the solution and its delivery. 

It provides options. 

As the saying goes “There are many ways to skin a cat”. I’m not totally sure what those different ways are (or indeed if I want to know) but what I do know is that this saying can be applied to websites. There are many successful ways to provide an attractive, exciting and engaging digital experience amplified by its aesthetic. However what’s important is that it is skinned in a way that resonates and reflects your brand. Art direction allows for different avenues to be explored ensuring that you get what looks and feels absolutely right.

It’s iterative. 

As already mentioned, we encourage the creative phase to be very collaborative, and based on your feedback, we’ll iterate moodboards to the point where you’ll have a clear idea of the overall aesthetic of your new design. Only then will we look to apply our chosen direction to interface design.

It’s pertinent. 

Art direction is guided by themes which conceptually explore the core messages and drivers inherent within the project vision and brand. By grounding each design route within a conceptual theme, we ensure there is a single idea which binds the aesthetic together, every element of the design will have been considered with this narrative message and theme in mind.

What do you actually get out of art direction? I hear you say...

Art direction means you'll get a variety of concepts, ordinarily between 2-3. Each of these visual routes get mocked up into moodboards, which will consider the key values, personality and objectives of the project and explore the use of the following elements:

  • Graphical themes and furniture
  • Image treatment and selection
  • Typeface selection
  • Typographic treatment
  • Styling of headings, quotes, body copy, pull quotes and wysiwyg styling
  • Layout design concepts
  • Functional components: icons and buttons
  • Colour palette selection and function
  • Styling and thinking around interface components such as:
    • Link blocks
    • Hero zones
    • Navigation  
  • Animation styles and interaction effects
  • Inclusion of digital media

In conclusion

Art direction is an invaluable stage within the digital creative process. Without out it*, there’s little investment in developing a rich, considered and distinctive visual language which broadens and extends the brand experience. In a recent study, it was calculated that website visitors make judgements about an organisation’s credibility within the first 50 milliseconds of entering a site. In less headline grabbing studies, it was noted that... 

“people quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more. Of course, not all sites gain credibility by looking like The visual design should match the site's purpose.”

Distinctiveness, clarity and authenticity all need to be communicated to increase the likelihood of a positively engaging experience. None of which can truly be explored without concerted time devoted to it. 

So, is art direction really necessary? Yes. 


*and trust me, prior to working at Edo, it was considered an unnecessary luxury

Contact Kieran McBride, Strategy & Planning Director

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