In the Seventies, a famous recruitment drive for the army used the phrase: “Join the army. Travel the world and meet interesting people.” (There was also a T-shirt advertised for sale in the back pages of the New Musical Express every week that added the line “and kill them”, but that’s another story.)
As a designer, you’d have to be pretty naive to go into graphics for the same reasons. Of course, it can be exciting, creative and rewarding, but graphic design doesn’t often involve spending months in exotic locations, working with massive budgets and egos, and hanging out with Naomi Campbell. Unless, of course, you get to play art director, in which case you can do all those things and a lot more, including the boring preparatory bits like setting the budget and choosing photographers, models, locations and stylists, and the scary bits like persuading the client that it will all be money well spent, and no they really won’t get the same effect from a stock library and Photoshop.
As Intro’s creative director Adrian Shaughnessy puts it: “The art director is the individual who retains control of the overall vision and direction of a project. In film terms, the art director is the director. He or she makes sure that everything comes together as a single cohesive statement.”
In design, the role is usually filled by a designer or creative director with the necessary nous, confidence and experience, because “the design is a seamless process”, says Shaughnessy. “What’s the point of creating a document with immaculate typography, but second-rate photography? It’s essential to have an overview; in other words to art direct. And the best art directors are often good designers.
“For example,” Shaughnessy continues, “Intro’s Mat Cook combines high-end art direction with sophisticated graphic design. The photographers who work with him love working with him. When it’s right, it’s right for everyone – the client, the designer and the photographer.”
David Dalziel, founding and creative director of retail and graphics group Dalziel & Pow, is responsible for the consultancy’s art direction for retail clients such as River Island and gift emporium SF Cody. Dalziel regularly does the Britain-Belize run (Belize, for some reason, is a popular shoot destination), so it’s no surprise to hear him agree that the art director is a key member of the design team. “We have to trust people enough to let them do their job, be organised enough to structure the whole thing, but confident enough to respond to unplanned situations very quickly. We have to be authoritative even though our day rate is far less than any of the other team principals, and successfully interface between the client and the job, as we’re usually the face the client sees as being behind the project’s success,” he says.
Caroline Ellis, art director at graphic design group Ashley Carter, agrees. She recently art directed a packaging job for a new range of flavoured waters for women’s magazine/brand Cosmopolitan. She used Simon Griffiths for the photography/illustration “because the job called for someone who could take photos, then translate them into abstract graphic representations, subtle silhouettes that wouldn’t alienate women whose body shapes were different to those on the packs. Using Simon to see through the whole thing was the best way to achieve what we wanted,” she says.
So how do you ensure you’ve got the right person for the job? Armed with client-approved sketches, storyboards, mood boards and design direction, many art directors then turn to tried and trusted photographers, people with whom, over years and shoots, they’ve achieved what David Slater, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Design, calls synergy.
Slater, one of four Saatchi designers who art direct car campaigns, has won numerous art direction awards for his work and has just finished a new brochure for Toyota’s Celica. Over the past four years he has worked on three shoots with German photographer Willy von Recklinhausen: “It adds up to around three months of our lives. After a while you build a rapport, begin to get inside each other’s heads. We generally agree on the locations and have a fair understanding of how the image will turn out. It’s this marriage of design and a photographer’s vision that has led to some amazing results,” he enthuses.
The rapport is important not just for creative cohesion but because of the amount of time spent together not doing very much: “Because Willy only shoots for ten minutes a day – five minutes at sunrise and five minutes at sunset – we spend hours and hours setting up and waiting,” says Slater.
Von Recklinhausen echoes Slater’s comments eerily, even using the same words to describe their relationship. “The flow of exchange is like a brain drain, very symbiotic. David is perfect as an art director. He has the right language and communication skills to always push me towards a higher goal, while still giving me the freedom to express my creative side. And he does it while keeping the goals of the client and overall design vision in sight.” Von Recklinhausen likes to “go pregnant with a project – carry it around for a while and really familiarise myself with it”.
John Simpson, creative director at Sea, had worked with photographer John Ross on several jobs, and picked him for Ted Baker’s annual report for his attention to detail and experience of shooting still life.
The brochure features close-ups of detailing on the clothing range. Simpson got Ross to photograph the objects as pieces of art, “lighting them in such a way that the contrasting shadows created depth”, says Simpson. He describes the exercise as a joint effort – this is easier to achieve with a familiar photographer.
Sometimes, though, you do have to use people you’ve not worked with before; to get the right mood, a different style, a lower day rate, landscapes instead of still-life food shotsÃ¤ when this happened to Williams Murray Banks’ Garrick Hamm he followed up his portfolio choice with lunch and breakfast meetings to determine that photographer Pete Seaward had the right personality for the job – shooting the Sri Lankan landscapes that would form the visuals for a new premium range of Brooke Bond teas. “The lunch enabled us to study and judge each other. I was very upfront so he knew where his parameters lay, he was keen to put his own spin on the job so that gave us the basis for some in-depth discussions,” recalls Hamm.
Hamm also admits that initially the client was keen to pursue the straight pack shot route, as many fmcg clients will initially baulk at the cost and necessity of a shoot. But a cohesive design solution, coupled with a great art director, can persuade them it isn’t about getting a free trip.
“The whole area of client evaluation of art direction is a very contentious one,” says Shaughnessy. “We sometimes struggle to convince clients that art direction is necessary, especially in the record business, where the labels think all they have to do is commission a photographer and the result will be perfect. But usually we can win them over and demonstrate the real benefits of good art direction.”
Dalziel agrees: “Clients tend to be very literal, they don’t know what they’re looking for and can be very narrow in their thinking. Many of them have no sense of the value of a great photo. You may only get the chance to record it once, but a great image will prove its worth over and over again.” And what makes that great image? “As with any creative process, it’s difficult to pin down. But a mix of drama and what’s in the background will enthuse the team to help achieve the best they can,” answers Slater.
‘Always cast as close to the shoot as possible. People’s hair colour, body shape and whole appearance can change pretty quickly.’
‘Be ruthless. Don’t be fobbed-off by photographers or technicians. Most people prefer working with someone who is demanding; the end result is better for everyone. You can do this and still be civilised, by the way.’
‘Don’t do things like shoot in west Wales to cut costs. Good weather and light are very important, and losing ten days to bad weather obviously isn’t cost effective.’
‘The cheapest part of any shoot is the film, so shoot the hell out of it.’
‘Have the confidence to let the photographer do their job.’
‘Don’t try to wing it. Get the permits, insurance and everything else you need, because a controlled environment frees you up to concentrate on the creative side and get the best shots.’