The Lost Art of Art Direction

Alexey BrodovitchFor a year-end round-up on the state of Web design that ran last week over at, I provided, among other quotes, this little bit of crankyism: “There’s so little illustration, photography and adventurous typography going on [in Web design], that I genuinely worry that we’ll never match the heights of graphic design achieved in the last century.”

Now, I know that there are lots of terrific designers out there doing genuinely daring work today; I grant that freely. But it’s reasonable to say that the vast majority of that work can be tagged with the familiar descriptors ‘personal’ and ‘experimental.’ There’s absolutely nothing wrong with design created for those ends; I applaud and admire those who are making genuine efforts to push the medium forward with excursions into the non-commercial, because they’re doing important advance work upon which the rest of us will eventually feed.

However, with respect to what I was talking about — the commercial application of our craft — there remains, to my mind, a somewhat conspicuous gap in its practice: almost without exception, the Web is a medium in which all of us design and almost none of us art direct. I think of the former as a mode of work that’s closely wedded to execution, whether that means pushing pixels in Photoshop, bringing ideas to life in code or even ‘directing’ teams of designers in the development of a design solution.

Thrilling Stories of Design Ambition

Art direction, on the other hand, is somewhat more difficult to explain in that it entails a generally more expansive definition of design. Certainly, when one art directs, one deals with execution and the practical matters that must be overcome to bring an idea to life. But art direction is also more deeply entwined in the development of an idea, and in expressing that idea through a larger narrative — both in the sense of a more ambitious, less practically-minded creative process as well as in the final product, which makes liberal use of storytelling in the invisible spaces between typography, color, shapes and illustrations.

Below: Skin mag. A reproduction of a Brodovitch-directed spread from Harper’s Bazaar, April 1946.

These are clumsy arguments, to be sure. But after giving that quote to, I happened to come across a perfect example of how different art direction is from design when I wandered past a used bookstore one morning and spotted a hardback copy of “Alexey Brodovitch,” a portfolio of the pioneering art director’s work at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. This book is a catalog from a 1998 Paris exhibition of Brodovitch’s work, but it almost completely eschews long-winded prose in favor of luxurious, true-to-size reproductions of some of his most ground-breaking page spreads.

Spread from Alexey Brodovitch

Designers & Co.

In each of these, there’s a sweeping creative ambition at work that bends every bit of content into its own compact, engrossing narrative: typography plays wildly and sparsely across wide expanses of negative space, interacting brazenly with gorgeous illustrations and photography. And it’s that juxtaposition of a designer’s spatial intuition alongside richly visual raw materials that is one of the hallmarks of art direction: a willingness to reach beyond the pasteboard, physical or virtual, and a willingness to tap into the creative repositories of other artisans. Brodovitch would have been a legend on his own merits, but he also played a pivotal role in bringing the visions of major photographers to bear: Richard Avedon, Man Ray and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among many others. It’s a much more encompassing, much further-reaching vision of what design can be than just reflective user interfaces, cascading style sheets, remote scripting and even strides in productivity.

After poring over these pages, many of which I’ve never before been able to see at a size much larger than a thumbnail, I started to realize how impoverished Web design can really be. It’s not just the richness of the printed page that makes HTML-rendered design pale by comparison; it’s the richness of storytelling, too.

Platform Distraction

At this stage in the development of Web design, we have become, I think, engrossed thoroughly by the practical difficulty (and the legitimate challenges) of achieving aesthetically rewarding user interfaces. As a result, our focus has become trained almost exclusively on designing platforms, on investing our innovation efforts within the infrastructure of our design solutions — in navigation conventions, mnemonic devices, user inputs, system feedback, etc. And we’ve given up, at least for now, on the opportunity to innovate within the presentation, the shaping of visual constructions specific to a given piece of content. We might design an aesthetically impressive delivery mechanism for the news, say, but we haven’t yet developed aesthetically rewarding presentations of the news (or, admittedly, of fake news). Partly because of the limitations of our technology and partly because of a lack of ambition, we’ve resigned ourselves to building beautiful Web sites, but not in building beautiful expressions within them.

All of which sounds like grousing, I realize, but I’m optimistic. First, because I think our current case of “platform distraction” represents an important building block towards a Web that is more conducive to the kinds of rich visual executions I’m talking about — in the larger arc of design’s journey into the digital age, it’s still very early yet. Also, I have a great faith in the human attraction to storytelling — we look for stories in everything we do, and with every new medium we progressively increase our demands for greater, more immersive storytelling techniques. The evolution of that kind of demand will soon create a need not just for creative visionaries who can design online spaces, but also for those who can art direct a compelling narrative through them. That’s what I want to see, and that’s what I want to do.

  1. Great article, Khoi. I actually foresee a re-emergence of the term “graphic designer” in the web design context, an industry where the title is rarely heard.

    For the last 8-10 years, many graphic designers were apparently led to be ashamed of the term, as if the term itself suggested that they had nothing to offer beyond “decorating” web sites with their archaic print-based skillsets. Terms like “interaction designer” or even just plain “designer” came out of this need.

    The causes of this were both good and bad: good insofar as it was (and is) important that web design teams are collaborative across disciplines, but bad insofar as it suggested that the core skills of graphic design were somehow insufficient or even irrelevant to interaction design.

    “Art Direction” was the collateral damage of this battle, and I think the visual elegance and inventiveness of web site design suffered as a result. But graphic designers are making an impact again: The re-emergence of grid systems, increased consciousness of typography (and techniques to go beyond the fonts included with browsers), the widespread adoption of CSS, have all largely been pioneered by people whose appreciation of the “graphic” part has been core to their professional identity.

    Hopefully this will continue to change and “graphic” designers will make a comeback.

  2. “The Web is a medium in which all of us design and almost none of us art direct.”

    Maybe we (i.e. “us”) have branched out into other, new types of design — doing jobs that didn’t exist in the print days. Today there are information architects, front-end developers, accessibility experts and many others who are designing but not art directing.

    This isn’t to say that art direction is dead. It’s just that working on the web requires new skills and new roles. Art directors have become somewhat lost in the cloudy new workspace, but over time they will re-emerge as important creative forces in the work we do.

    (On a far more practical level… I’ve always wanted to work with a true art director on a web project. They are hard to find.)

  3. I completely agree with John when he states, “I’ve always wanted to work with a true art director on a web project. They are hard to find.” Indeed. I would expect more than strong narrative and art direction skills on this person’s resume. I would suggest that a true art director possesses a solid understanding of web development technologies, usability principals, interaction design, information architecture, and Internet business strategy. They don’t have to do all these things, but they do have to lead theses disciplines and be the visionary. I have never worked with a man or woman that has or understands all these skills and is a true leader, even if a few have come close. I do believe this type of person is what will carry graphic design on as a valuable service and tradition. I would love to work with this type of person, heck I would love to be this type of person.

  4. Chris: I agree that the field has gone through/is going through a semantic purging, and some of the victims of that have been titles like “art director” and “graphic artist.” It’s been a relatively short process so far, but I think there are good reasons to think that those terms may yet re-emerge: they’re generally well understood by the public at large (conceding that the public at large will never really understand what we do anyway) and amonst our peers they’re actually useful descriptors of what we do.

    John: You make an interesting point about new roles. It’s actually my belief that, in the evolution of the Web design field, we’re still in the very early days. To draw a comparison with cinema, you could say we’re still in the stage of development where we’re figuring out who’s going to run the camera, and if that person should be the one determining how the lights are held, and whether another person should be directing the production, and if so what responsibilities should fall to the producer, etc. Which is to say, we’re still sorting things out, but eventually these job descriptions, their relations to one another and their titles will be settled upon. Then, I think, you’re going to see some real innovation.

  5. Well said, Khoi. Your article also makes me wonder if aesthetics are being sacrificed in favor of simplicity at all costs, if the current trend of “less” (apologies to 37 Signals)is any indication.

    Not to say by any stretch of the imagination that “keeping it simple” is a bad thing, but I sometimes wonder if the balance of form and function has tipped too far in one direction at the expense of the other.

    And I agree with John as well; as the dust settles and the medium in which we work matures even further, Art Directors may indeed return to the fold.

  6. An idea I’ve been playing with recently is creating a series of pages that are simply an attempt to demonstrate what can actually be done with the power of CSS and the like. I think part of the problem is that most people either don’t realise the full potential of the tools they’ve been given, or they’re afraid/unaware of how to go about using them. Perhaps when people see what’s actually possible, they’ll begin to use it more (which is sort of how technology always works).

  7. Great post, Khoi.

    I also think that there is this problem – most of the things we read about on the web are coming from people who are not actually art directors, but UX/XHTML/AJAX/put-another-web20-acronym-here professionals. Which could be increasingly boring.

    I would like not only to work with web art director but to read the blogs of people who created sites like for example and . But I can not. And that’s pretty sad.

  8. Interestingly, and disappointingly, the AIGA recently dropped the word “graphic” from their name entirely (don’t know the date of this, actually, maybe it’s been up for months):

    AIGA has changed its official name from “American Institute of Graphic Arts” to “AIGA, the professional association for design.”

    Come to think of it, they’ve also dropped the word “arts” from their name (and American!)… I think it’s a shortsighted move, frankly.

  9. Fantastic post! Very insightful and very true. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. And I know that I for one, absolutely want to help make the Internet a little more beautiful and engaging one website at a time.

  10. I think some of the problem is that the web is turning into one big CMS and designers don’t get to design for events and their work is less then inventful (sorry, couldn’t pass up the pun). In print design, you design for a specific event. With the web we’ve got way to caught up with “it has to be reusable.” We need to make it easy for non-designers to update it.

    It’s a shame that most companies don’t have in-house designers or a team to continually update for the web. If they did, then these corporate sites would be more daring. We are afraid to design something that content editors can’t update. If you knew that each issue of the Onion was designed and they had capable designers to make those weekly designs then I imagine more daring decisions could have been made.

    The irony is that things like CSS is supposed to help make art direction easier to happen, but this rarely happens. It would be awesome to see things like this happen.

    It would be nice to see more of things like Borders did online.

  11. Well said…..

    I am one of, I would imagine, many who are transitioning from print to “e”, and I lament the inability to express one’s self adequately given the constraints of lines of code and a static screen.

    For many years I art directed and published a magazine for high-end property on the Mediterranean coasts. I used an oversized format (34 x 24 cm), which on a spread gave a luxury of space, a beautiful canvas. We gained a reputation, certainly amongst peers, for our work. And our contributing photographers, world-class artists all, loved how we displayed their craft.

    I am struggling to be creative on the Internet, as the constraints are overbearing. One must remember that the technology was invented for monochrome screens and the textual content of academic papers. Even with the addition of colour and many innovations, it is still a vertically scrolling roll of player-piano paper.

    In my site, I have been able to transfer some skills, but have resorted to PDF downloads of pages to achieve the vision, and this is counter intuitive in the new medium. With my paper and ink title, I broke new ground and broke the rules and invented some new ones. And I will continue to try to do the same as I mature into the new medium.

    The other disturbing attribute of the internet, for an Art Director at least, is that visitors want information fast and clean. They do not linger over a printed page, sensing the movement and dynamics, the pacing of pages, visual texture and content. This, I feel, will be possible as more innovators push the envelop of a 1024 x 768 pixel canvas, explore more fully the movement of full-screen FLASH possibilities…and create a demand pull consumerism on MicroSoft, which still dominates the Internet with IE, and is, undeniably, piece of tripe.

    My site is my art, as was my title, but I feel it is still in a primitive state. Yet, I am optimistic about its future.

    All the best.

    Steve Russell

  12. Steve: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree, there is a disparity between what’s visually possible in print and online, but that disparity isn’t what I’m lamenting here.

    The constraints imposed on visual expression by code aren’t that different, really, from those imposed on visual expression by a static sheet of paper or the technical limits of an offset press. One can certainly art direct within both sets of constraints, making the most of the possibilities and limits that code offers as one would with the possibilities and limits that a printing press offers. To say that the online medium is flawed because it uses a vertical scrolling paradigm and offers little typographic control is basically the same as arguing that printed works are flawed because they don’t allow animation and user-controlled font scaling.

    My point is that, with its longer history, print has become a medium that is more directly conducive to the greater visual challenges of art direction, and with its shorter history, digital design is only gearing up to becoming a medium in which art direction can take hold.

  13. Clients like the web because of the whole idea of content management, beng to update on the fly with no technical knowledge etc.

    Art direction requires a careful, thoughtful and purposeful presentation of content. The uniqueness, customization and clarity of art direction is (to me at least) hampered by a conflict between the desire for posting things as quickly and cheaply as possible.

    As far as illustration goes, many illustrators aren’t offered extra for digital rights by many publications, which limits the amount of illustration online.

    In the future there may be illustrators who use flash as one of their principle ways of publishing work. Already people like cubancouncil have translated the online aesthetic to print campaigns such as Bell Canada’s Christmas transit campaign.

    Art schools are slow to respond to market demand as established teachers often have build their client base over several decades in a specialised but slightly more technologically dated paradigm.

    At the moment there is a lot of opportunity for good illustrators with flash skills and I see this will increase over time as companies and publications continue to add value to their online brands.

  14. Khoi,

    As one of the vistors to Subtraction not working in design, I was pleased to see you invoke my chosen medium in a response above: “To draw a comparison with cinema, you could say we’re still in the stage of development where we’re figuring out who’s going to run the camera, and if that person should be the one determining how the lights are held, and whether another person should be directing the production, and if so what responsibilities should fall to the producer, etc.”

    I like that because it’s an aspect of filmmaking’s relatively short evolution few take note of, as well a fitting example of a similar shift occuring now. Amidst the accelarated use of digital grading, shooting and production, those same cinematographers who so soundly defined their place in the filmmaking process are now scrambling to re-evaluate, re-term and re-appropriate their titles as the proprietors of a film’s “look.” Currently, most films carry the titles “Visual Effects Supervisor”, “Digital Intermediate Producer”, “Digital Colourist”, “Digital Cleanup Artist”, etc. in addition to “Director of Photography” and “Timer” or “Colourist.”

    As a poster above stated: “I would suggest that a true art director possesses a solid understanding of web development technologies, usability principals, interaction design, information architecture, and Internet business strategy. They don’t have to do all these things, but they do have to lead theses disciplines and be the visionary.” I think in the future the same will be said of someone deemed the author of the visual langauge of a film. While the Director of Photography will still be a usuable title, the amount of work done to said photography “beyond” its initial acquisition demands either the creation of a new title or a shift in definition. Someday you’ll see cinematographers owning their own digital grading houses (as a collective, perhaps) in an effort to singularly control their images from start to finish. For now, the energy created by the need to reconcile the use of digital tools in a manner that can preserve and not diminish the power of a concise visual aesthetic (i.e. one formulated and maintained by a singular vision realized through the guided work of countless others) is an exicitng shot in the arm for today’s cinema (a film like this year’s “The Constant Gardener” is a great example).

    Of course, I admit the integration of digital tools into the filmaking process is child’s play compared to the design shift from print to web. You folks have a more complicated reconciliation to grapple with through the sheer madness of mismatched codecs and other mumbo jumbo, but I think at the end of the day it’s a very similar (and stimulating) beast.

  15. Regarding Jim Renaud’s comment, “With the web we’ve got way too caught up with ‘it has to be reusable,'” I as a web developer am definitely guilty: It pains me to think of any user of a system I build having to enter the same data twice.

    All we need do is open up the C in CMS a little to include more stylistic elements. As Mr Renaud says, that’s what CSS is for. Absolutely.

    Among that wider C in CMS should be judicious and surprising hiding-and-displaying of elements: If you click or mouseover something and get a beautiful thing revealed, this will help supply more online oohs and ahs and perhaps slow people down a bit.

  16. Good point.

    But its going to be a long road to get there.

    I don’t know any of your ages, but I’ve grown up with the internet, I can’t really remember not having it. My peers have learned to use the internet in a certain way.

    We want our information quickly. If it doesn’t happen NOW, then see ya, its off to the next site.

    And my generation are the ones who are building the future of the internet. We don’t have the appreciation of art direction, and I think that is going to seriously hamper bringing it to the web.

    It sort of reminds me of when my dad used to make me change oil in my car. He wanted me to get a feel for the car, learn how everything works together to form a working machine, etc. But now that I’m on my own, why would I spend all my time changing my own, tracking down parts, getting rid of the old stuff, when I can bring it in to Goodyear and have it done in 15 mins.

    The pull of quickness and convenience is so very strong.

  17. Khoi et al:

    I had a month’s hiatus and am now back to work, and I must say that the highlight of being away from my site, yet still “working” on it, has been to stumble across this dialogue. It has been truly profound, inspirational and heartwarming to know that there are all you folks that genuinely care about the direction of the Internet vis-Я-vis the “art.” I hope to be counted among you.

    I have given this deep thought, and I can agree with all said. As a medium, the Internet is still nacent, I would say metaphorically that we are in the post-Guttenburg era…and there’s loads more to come to excite us all.

    I have also had time to ruminate over the whole craze to SEO and I have made a decision. Yes, I adhere to good manners, responsible and intelligent use of titles, meta-descriptions, prudent keywords, and carefully edited textual content. But I’ve taken it to another level in my thoughts and actions. I’m subscribing to the “if you build it, they will come” school of thought. That is, I am going to extraordinary lengths to make my site a rich and enjoyable experience, artistically clean, easy to navigate (you don’t ever need to use your back button on, and that alone took weeks of thought and hierarchical planning), visually exciting and intelligently presented. My target audience is well-educated, sophisticated and moneyed, and I feel it is my obligation to make a fine presentation. Not at all meant to be snobbish, my site is egalitarian in that one is able to gain an insight to much more information that doesn’t require a large wallet.

    If it takes a bit longer to get my message spread around, so be it. It took me years to get my title well known, yet it eventually became a benchmark by which others were measured. I’m quite content to be the tortoise in this race.

    I will still have my art and if patient, perhaps even a living.

    All the best,


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