What Are the Best Art Director Degrees?

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

You’ve made a major decision to study art and design in college. Now what?

First, you need to gain knowledge and develop your skills for success in your desired career.

Most people work in art and design because of a personal passion and talent. And if you know how to put your talents to work, you won’t be a “starving artist.” After all, that term is a thing of the past.

One of the top-paying jobs for art and design majors is an art director. A senior art director in the graphic design field earns over $70,000/year.

In this article, you’ll find out how to become an art director. You’ll learn what art director degrees you need to land a job and what is the best art director major. You’ll also learn about the best schools for art directors and what to expect after college.

What Does an Art Director Do?

All types of projects need art directors, from movies and magazines to the packaging of commercial products. Art directors develop the style of visual elements in an art or design subject. They form the vision of what a work should look like and execute a plan to bring the work to fruition.

Art directors collaborate. They also supervise artists. Their work involves the creation and design of images and projects.

But the first step toward a career as an art director is to complete art director schooling.

Art Director Education

The first step toward an art director position is to earn an art director degree. But how do you know what path to take?

Candidates for art director jobs need a formal education. In college, you develop leadership skills and knowledge to work in the field. A Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) is the preferred bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What do art directors major in?

Interested in the work of graphic designers? Then it makes sense to major in graphic design from the start. But any art or graphic design subject or major will prepare you for a career as an art director.

Common majors for this career path include:

  • fine arts
  • industrial design
  • photography

Most art director colleges offer art director degrees that help you qualify for a job.

Some art director positions call for an MFA, or Master of Fine Arts. An MFA shows that an artist has completed advanced courses in a specific art form. MFA education for art director roles include specialties like:

  • film editing
  • graphic design
  • technology-free fine arts, such as drawing or painting

In MFA programs, you refine your artistic skills and improve creative techniques. MFA programs not only prepare you for all types of art careers, such as graphic designers, but also jobs as art directors.

These programs also prepare you to teach art courses at colleges.

But if you plan to work as an art director, consider taking business classes to supplement your art major.

While getting your art director required education, focus on building your professional portfolio. A portfolio contains a collection of your work. It demonstrates the different styles and abilities you have as an artist. Most employers want to see a portfolio. They look at your portfolio when deciding whether to hire you or offer you a contract on a project.

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

Work Experience Required

You won’t become an art director right out of college. Plan on spending time gaining professional experience. But some colleges for art directors offer internship opportunities that help you gain experience in the field.

Aspiring art directors might start their career as:

  • fine artists
  • graphic designers
  • interior designers
  • photographers
  • publication editors
  • set designers

After earning a bachelor’s degree, they go to work for at least five years before advancing to an art director role. They also earn an advanced fine arts degree, such as an MFA. This degree improves the likelihood of getting an art director position.

Rewards outweigh investment

Art director jobs are for creatives. But to become an art director you need to plan. You have to find the right colleges for art director jobs, then earn your bachelor’s degree.

But the rewards for this career are worth the investment.

Senior level jobs offer generous pay. Art directors also master their creativity. For example, they get to influence the look and visual style of:

  • magazines
  • movie and television productions
  • product packaging (brands)

Art directors oversee production. Art directors typically manage others. They get paid to develop stylistic ideas and lead teams of talented artists.

Important Qualities for Art Directors

To work as an art director, you need to have:

  • a bachelor’s degree
  • work experience
  • other skills

But what are these other skills? And are they taught in the classroom?

To succeed as an art director, you should have unique qualities that make you good at your job. But these skills aren’t always taught in college. Read on to find out if you have the qualities needed to work as an art director.

Ability to lead

Whether working as graphic designers or exhibit designers, art directors must be good leaders. And leadership skills develop over time. But if you’re able to organize, direct, and motivate people, you’re on the right track. Your creative or managerial ability will improve the longer you work.

Art directors articulate their creative visions to other artists and colleagues. Art directors typically oversee members of their team while a work is in progress.

To manage a project or team of fine artists, you should be able to lead and guide a team, especially when your team faces challenges.

Communication skills

As in any art or design occupation, communication skills are necessary. The art director’s ability to communicate is also important for this role.

To work in this job, you should listen and speak clearly with staff, clients, and administrators. You must discuss your ideas and ensure your team executes them with ease.

If you’re an assistant, you communicate the art director’s vision. You also lead an advertising or media campaign.

On movie sets, art directors convey their ideas to influence the aesthetic of a film.

When you develop advertising campaigns, you must listen and address your client’s needs and desires. These tasks demand strong communication skills.

Creativity

You develop talent and creativity over time. On projects and visual communications, assistant art directors develop new concepts and ideas. They also come up with interesting and innovative ideas for:

  • advertising campaigns
  • layout options
  • set designs
  • specialized design services firms

Time-management skills

An art director must:

  • balance projects
  • meet strict deadlines
  • deliver timely updates to clients

To carry out the role of an art director, you should 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

By 2030, job growth for art directors will grow 11%. This rate is faster than the average of 4% for all art and design workers.

But the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 11,500 job openings for art directors and assistant art directors for the next decade. Openings will result from the need to replace workers who retire or transfer to other jobs.

As traditional print publications lose ground to other media forms, many art directors will shift their focus. They will become skilled in website design and mobile platforms. In college, aspiring art directors will expose themselves to new graphic design technology and art forms. By shifting focus, artists will find better job prospects.

How to compete

You need to compete to find the best job prospects. Since the industry is small, it’s important to showcase your leadership skills and talent.

To separate yourself from your competition, work on a strong portfolio. A portfolio should show artistic abilities. It should also show how you conceptualize and develop artwork using various media platforms.

If you’re currently a college student who wants to create art and work as an art director, consider earning an advanced degree after you finish your bachelor’s degree.

This degree will offer insight into who you are as an artist. It will also improve your chances of finding a job. Remember, a bachelor’s degree is only the first step.

Potential Earnings for Art Directors

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median annual wage for art directors is about $97,000. The lowest 10% of earners in this art or design occupation make under $54,530/year. The highest 10% see more than $199,000/year.

Earnings for this job exceed the national average for art careers by $20,000/year. Certain industries offer even higher wages.

According to the BLS, there are four top-paying industries for art directors. The highest-paying industries for most art directors are in:

  • motion picture
  • video industries

In these industries, art directors earn higher wages than the national average. In fact, art directors in motion picture and video industries earn $122,960/year.

Other high paying industries for art directors

  • advertising
  • public relations
  • related services

In these industries, art directors earn $99,890/year, which is also more than the national average.

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. Newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers see median annual wages of $83,020.

Both industry and location impact earnings for this job. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, there are five top-paying states for art directors.

  • New York
  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Washington

New York 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 job. In California, art directors earn $140,740/year. New Jersey is the third highest-paying state for art directors. In NJ, art directors earn $121,940 in annual mean wages.

Other top-paying states include Oregon ($115,070/year) and Washington ($113,610/year).

Metropolitan areas also offer strong wages for art directors that exceed the national average.

Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim, California have over 4,700 art directors. The annual mean wage for this job is $147,070/year in this metro area.

San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, California also report higher-than-average wages for this job. In the northern California metro area, art directors earn $144,660/year.

In New York, Newark, and Jersey City, art directors earn $142,260/year.

Other high-paying metro areas for art directors

  • San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, California ($129,990/year)
  • Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, and Ventura, California ($125,820/year)
  • Hartford, West Hartford, and East Hartford, Connecticut ($123,220/year)
  • Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina ($122,770/year)

Also ranking among the highest-paying metro cities for art directors are:

  • Trenton, New Jersey
  • Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Portland, Oregon

You find most art director jobs in larger, metropolitan cities. It’s unusual to find positions in non-metro areas. But there is one non-metro area where art directors see a competitive wage.

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

Many art directors are self-employed. According to the BLS, art directors hold over 99,000 jobs. Of that number, 56% are self-employed. About 13% of work for:

  • advertising agencies
  • public relations outfits
  • related services

Four percent of all art directors work in motion picture and video industries. Three percent work in:

  • newspaper publishers
  • periodical publishers
  • book publishers
  • directory publishers

Another three percent work in specialized design services.

Where self-employed art directors work

While most art directors are self-employed, they also work with others, such as:

  • ad agencies
  • business professionals
  • designers
  • marketing teams
  • visual effects and creative directors

Office environment for art directors

The office environment is fast-paced, as art directors must work under pressure to meet tight deadlines.

Most work takes place in offices. But some projects lead art directors to other locations and settings. Art directors in movie and video production, for example, work in unique settings. Most work with other team members.

Office hours vary by art director position, but they often exceed the traditional work schedule. It is not uncommon for an art director to work late evenings and weekends when under strict deadlines.

BDP Staff
April 2022

Related:

This concludes our article on the best degree for art director jobs.

Brenda Rufener
Author

Julie McCaulley
Expert

Carrie Sealey-Morris
Editor-in-Chief