What’s the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Art Director?

An image of an artist for our FAQ about the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Art Director

When you make the major decision to study art and design in college, you want to be sure that you are not only enhancing your natural creativity, but also developing the knowledge and skills you will need to succeed in your desired career. While most professionals are in the art and design field because of a personal passion and talent, the term “starving artist” is a thing of the past, if you know how to put your talents to work for you.

One of the top-paying jobs for art and design majors is an art director. A senior art director in the field of graphic design earns a competitive salary well above $70,000 per year. Art directors develop the style of visual elements in a work, forming the vision of what the work should look like and supervising the artists involved in designing and crafting those images. Many types of projects require art directors, from movies and magazines to packaging of commercial products. The first step toward a career as an art director is to earn a degree from a college or university.

An Art Director’s Education

The job of art director is a high-level position. Unsurprisingly, candidates for art director jobs need to have a formal education, both for the purpose of building their skills and showing they have the skills and knowledge to succeed. A Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) is typically required, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If you already know that you are interested in graphic design specifically, then it might make sense for you to major in graphic design from the start. However, any art or design major could prepare a student for a career as an art director. Common majors for this career path include fine art, industrial design, photography, or any other relevant area of study.

Some art director positions call for an MFA, or Master of Fine Arts. An MFA signifies that a professional artist has completed rigorous courses in a particular art form and is adept at a chosen craft. MFA programs for art directors may include film editing; graphic design; or technology-free art, such as drawing or painting. In MFA programs, students refine their artistic skills and improve creative techniques. Programs prepare students for all types of art careers and provide credentials that allow them to teach courses at colleges and universities. If your goal is to become an art director, you may take a series of business classes that supplement your art major.

During your education, you should focus on building your professional portfolio of work. A portfolio contains a collection of the artist’s work, and it demonstrates the different styles and abilities the artist possesses. It is essential to have a portfolio to show a potential employer. Employers evaluate portfolios when they are deciding whether to hire an employee or offer a contract for a project.

An image of artists for our FAQ about the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Art Director

Work Experience Required

Art directors aren’t hired for their positions right out of college. Instead, they need to spend some time gaining professional experience and further developing and proving their skills. Aspiring art directors can start out as fine artists, interior designers, set designers, photographers, or publication editors. They often work in roles such as these for at least five years before advancing to the role of art director, the BLS reported. To further improve their job marketability, aspiring art directors can earn an advanced college degree, like the Master of Fine Arts (MFA).

For a creative person, there’s plenty to be excited about in the career of art director. Aside from the generous pay at the senior level, art directors have a direct opportunity to influence the look and visual style of a movie, magazine, or product packaging. They get paid to exercise their creativity and develop stylistic ideas. They can also enjoy the challenges of leading a team of talented artists. While education and experience are required to attain this high-level job, the rewards of this position are well worth the investment.

Important Qualities for Art Directors

In addition to education and work experience, certain qualities are essential for art directors to succeed in their career. The following are skills necessary for this occupation that are not always taught in the classroom.

Ability to lead – Art directors must possess leadership skills. While the ability to lead may develop with experience, new art directors must be able to organize, direct, and motivate other artists and designers. They must be able to articulate their creative visions to other artists and colleagues, and they should encourage the work in progress. In order to effectively manage a project or team of artists, one must be able to lead the team, especially during times when issues arise.

Communication skills – As in any occupation, communication skills are necessary. Being able to effectively communicate is especially important for art directors. Individuals working in this role must be able to listen to and speak with staff, clients, and administrators to ensure that ideas and concepts are being clearly executed. On movie sets, directors convey artistic direction to art directors, who in turn deliver information to other artists. In advertising, a client’s desires must be listened to and addressed. All of these tasks require strong communication skills.

Creativity – While many argue that talent and creativity can’t be taught in the classroom, they can be honed and developed over time. Art directors must develop interesting concepts and innovative ideas that lead to the development of advertising campaigns, layout options, and set designs.

Time-management skills – An art director must balance projects, meet strict deadlines, and deliver updates to clients in a timely manner. To carry out the role of an art director, one must have strong time-management skills.

An image of a director's chair for our FAQ about the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Art Director

Job Outlook for Art Directors

Through 2029, employment of art directors is projected to decline by two percent. The projected decline is expected due to traditional print publications losing ground to other forms of media. As a result of this decline, art directors could see nearly 1,800 jobs dissolved over the next several years. Strong competition should be expected as fewer jobs become available. However, there are ways to stand out above your competition.

The BLS reports that many talented designers and artists seeking to move into art director positions will focus their attention on website and mobile platform design. Rather than spend their talents on print layout images and text, art directors with experience and knowledge in other forms of media will focus their attention elsewhere. By doing so, these artists can find better job prospects. Prospective art directors with a strong creative intuition and a knowledge of how to design user-friendly services will find the best job opportunities. To help set yourself apart from competition, you should have a strong portfolio that demonstrates abilities in visual design and conceptual work across various media platforms. If you are currently a college student aspiring for a role as an art director, earning an advanced degree with specialized knowledge in a particular area of art design and creation will improve your chances of finding employment.

Potential Earnings for Art Directors

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for art directors is just over $97,000. The lowest 10% of earners in this occupation make under $54,530, while the highest 10% see more than $199,000 per year.

While earnings are favorable, exceeding the national average for art careers by $20,000 or more, certain industries offer even more favorable wages. According to the BLS, there are four top-paying industries for art directors. The highest-paying industries for art directors are in motion picture and video industries. Art directors working in these industries earn a median annual wage that is well above the national average. In fact, in motion picture and video industries, art directors make $122,960 in median annual wages. The second-highest-paying industry for art directors is advertising, public relations, and related services. Within this expansive industry, art directors earn a median annual wage of $99,890, which is also above the national average for this occupation. The next two industries do not report earnings above the national average, but they do offer competitive and favorable salaries for this occupation. In specialized design services, art directors see median annual wages of $92,870, and newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers see median annual wages of $83,020.

While industry can impact earnings, so does geographic location. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics published by the BLS, the five top-paying states for art directors include New York, California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. In New York, which is the highest-paying state for art directors, the annual mean wage reported by the BLS is $142,210. California offers the next-highest annual mean wage for this occupation. In California, art directors earn $140,740, on average. New Jersey lands a spot in the top three highest-paying states for art directors. This state offers $121,940 in annual mean wages for this occupation, which is higher than the national average for all art occupations. Other top-paying states include Oregon ($115,070) and Washington ($113,610).

In addition to high-paying states, certain metropolitan areas offer favorable wages for art directors that exceed the national average. For example, in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim, California – a metro area reporting over 4,700 individuals working as art directors – the annual mean wage for this occupation is $147,070. San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, California also reports a significantly higher-than-average pay for art directors. In this northern California metro area, art directors see an annual mean wage of $144,660. And in New York, Newark, and Jersey City, art directors report an annual mean wage of $142,260. Other high-paying metro areas exceeding the national average in earnings for this occupation include San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, California ($129,990); Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, and Ventura, California ($125,820); Hartford, West Hartford, and East Hartford, Connecticut ($123,220); and Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina ($122,770). Also ranking among the highest-paying metro cities for art directors are Trenton, New Jersey; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon.

Since most art director jobs are located in larger, metropolitan cities, it is unusual to find positions – let alone high-paying roles – in non-metro areas. However, the BLS reports one non-metro area where art directors see a competitive wage. According to the BLS, Northern Indiana offers the highest earnings of any non-metro area in the country. In this region, art directors report an annual mean wage of $66,010.

An image of an artist for our FAQ about the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Art Director

Work Environment of an Art Director

Most art directors are self-employed. According to the BLS, over 99,000 jobs are held by art directors, and of that number, 56% are self-employed. About 13% of all art directors work for advertising agencies, public relations outfits, and related services. Four percent of all art directors work in motion picture and video industries and three percent work in newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers. Another three percent work in specialized design services.

While the majority of art directors are self-employed, they still work closely with designers, marketing teams, and other staff on visual effects and creative direction. The office environment is fast-paced, as art directors must work under pressure to meet tight deadlines. Most of the work takes place in offices, though some projects may lead art directors to different locations and settings. This is especially true of art directors working in movie production and video industries. However, the majority of art directors focus their efforts in an office, working closely with other team members. Office hours vary by position, but they often exceed the traditional work schedule. It is not uncommon for an art director to work late evenings and weekends when a strict deadline must be met.

BDP Staff
August 2021

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