The term ‘art direction’ can itself be misleading, depending on whether or not you view advertising as art. This question has been the topic of many undergraduate dissertations, and has fuelled substantial debate. It’s also an issue that splits advertising practitioners, between those who do, and those who don’t consider it to be art.
There’s a risk that in setting out to create a work of art, you can lose sight of those objectives – or put simply, the ‘art’ can get in the way of the advertising message. Although it can be argued that advertising itself may not be art, it often borrows images from art or emulates distinctive artistic schools or styles in its visual execution. It does this for one purpose only – to communicate the message in the most effective and appropriate manner possible. So, in short, it’s not just about art – it’s about communication!
The idea comes first
As a conduit for communication, art direction is the means by which the creative idea is visually expressed. It can never be a substitute for the idea itself. As another art director, Steve Dunn, once put it: ‘The ad is the cake. The art direction is the icing.’ He points out that if the advert isn’t great, it’s not worth art directing. Indeed, it’s often the case that a great idea is still a great idea even if the art direction is poor.
However, the best art direction in the world won’t make a poor idea any better. With this in mind, it is important that the visual execution, styling, use of post-production effects or computer-generated images aren’t seen as the ‘big idea’. These methods and techniques may be part of the idea itself but it’s very rarely the case that the central idea or concept is based solely on the visual execution.