Magazine Article


How to Spot a Super Art Director


What to Look for & How to Nurture This Creative Partner


You've had them all. The art directors who give you nothing but Excedrin headaches, and those who understand their clients' goals and create an atmosphere of trust, perfection, and excitement during a shoot.

What are the qualities that separate the "I can't wait until they leave" from the "I can't wait for them to return" art directors? It comes down to three areas: talent, communication skills, and trust.


If an art director has no visual sense or power to make a decision, you're doomed to a day of guessing. I remember a simple food shoot where the relative sizes of packages and jars were very different from the layout drawing. I wanted to switch two items so the picture would hold together and the products would have their proper billing. The art director, who couldn't understand what I was trying to do even after several Polaroids, spent over an hour on conference calls, faxes, and emails to get the change approved.

Ah, but when the art director has a strong concept that makes both commercial and visual sense, a feeling of joy can permeate even the most difficult shoots. I worked on a dental-equipment catalog years ago with Jerry Robertson of Reese, Tomases & Ellick, a master at communicating his needs. We had three days of shooting technically difficult still lifes with things hanging from thin wires, lots of light painting, color gelling, reflective objects, and a very exacting layout. His contagious creative joy kept our positive energy flowing.

Can the art director communicate upfront what he, she, or the client needs? Recently I was in Texas photographing hay farmers, working with Michele Reinecke, from Dudynck Advertising, an art director I met for the first time at the airport departure gate. We spent two days location scouting, talent interviewing, and pre-planning. Her positive attitude, grasp of the client's goals, and ability to mold them around what we found made this a most successful shoot.


Did the art director ask you to bid on an orange then expect you to plant an orchard? How do you ensure good communication and trust? It starts with pre-shoot communication, when you discuss:

1. Where and how the photos will be used . . . the client's and art director's expectations and desires for the shoot.

2. What can be done when your proposed budget is too high . . . does the art director understand the rights usages in the contract . . . does the client understand what they're buying.

3. Whether the layout is a starting or ending point . . . the client's expectations . . . if color accuracy is important or if color can be altered for mood.

4. What props will be needed . . . who'll buy and pay for them . . . what talent is needed, and who will do the casting.

Beware Minefields

Other factors can influence a shoot's success, too. For instance:

o When an art director builds in time to shoot unscripted stuff and can communicate the strategy behind the campaign, you often spot unexpected visual opportunities that enhance the story.

o Your pre-shoot questions lead to a firm understanding of what's expected, you're better prepared creatively.

o If confronted with having to do something that will bring poor results for your client, say no to protect your reputation as an image creator.

A good art director is a great communicator and a valuable partner in the creative process. Help the good ones by asking the right questions . . . and listening to the answers.

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