If you have a passion for art and design, you may have thought about becoming a creative director. Creative directors use their creativity, imagination and technical knowledge to create unforgettable visuals.
How do you become a creative director? Here’s the usual career path:
- Get a degree in the right field.
- Get several years of experience as a graphic artist, illustrator or copywriter before moving into management positions.
- Manage your career so you can move up the ladder to the top position.
What Is a Creative Director?
A creative director is an important link in the product development chain. Whether your product is a consumer product, an entertainment product or something else, a creative director has to show how to best represent that product in eye-catching, unforgettable images.
Branding and Design
Creative directors often supervise graphic artists, lead designers and copy chiefs. They direct their teams to develop branding for a company, product, person or idea.
Creative directors make sure the branding and design are consistent in all company materials. That means everything from the fresh building sign to the company stationery. Many creative directors develop brand usage guidelines to ensure that everyone agrees regarding the correct use of company logos, slogans and artwork.
They’re Involved at Every Level
Creative directors take part at every level of a project from initial concept to final launch. They supervise graphic artists, photographers, designers and copywriters to create the final product. This product might be a game, an advertisement, a marketing plan or an in-house publication. If it involves design and layout, the creative director plays a key role.
Creative directors usually report to the chief of marketing or public affairs. They work independently most of the time, but they have to get their chief’s approval for major projects and major spending.
What Do Creative Directors Do?
A creative director’s principal function is figuring out how to turn ideas into visual images. A creative director can help a company develop the colors and images that are key parts of its brand.
Think of the iconic symbols that immediately make you think of a particular company or brand. When you see Clydesdale horses pulling a wagon, you think of Anheuser-Busch. The Geico gecko is an indelible part of that company’s image. These are all parts of image, branding and fixing a company’s reputation on peoples’ minds. The red and white swirls on a can of Coke serve the same purpose.
All those colors, images and characters came from a creative director’s team somewhere.
Everyone Needs Branding
It’s not just consumer products that need branding. Nonprofits and charities need the same level of instant recognition and positive association that companies have. If you recognize the panda that represents the World Wildlife Fund or the cupped hand that symbolizes the United Way, you see that in action. Those symbols are instantly recognizable as integral to branding for those nonprofits.
Magazines and newspapers all use creative directors to design the layout, choose pictorial layouts and select the cover art.
What about your favorite video game? The graphics and storytelling behind the game play all come from the imaginations of creative directors.
A Day In the Life
A creative director’s job duties might include:
- Supervising a team of graphic designers, writers and illustrators.
- Planning marketing campaigns.
- Creating original design concepts.
- Approving artwork and photographs for a magazine layout.
- Developing a budget and timeline for an advertising launch.
- Working with outside public relations and advertising companies.
- Overseeing a digital design overhaul.
Where Do Creative Directors Work?
Creative directors work in many industries. Any business that needs to be visually appealing or have a forceful brand presence will need the skills of a creative director. These include:
- Advertising agencies.
- Marketing consultants.
- Public relations companies.
- Newspapers and magazines.
- Movie and TV studios.
- Website design companies.
- Game developers.
- Recording industry.
They also frequently work as the in-house creative directors for companies that have their own marketing, advertising and public relations teams.
What Talents and Skills Do Creative Directors Commonly Have?
Creativity. It seems obvious to say this, but a creative director needs the insight and imagination to see both the overall picture and the small, day-to-day images that align with a project or brand. Most creative directors have spent years as artists, designers, layout professionals or photographers. They have a great understanding of how visual elements work together.
Leadership skills. Knowing the ins and outs of design isn’t enough. A creative director needs the ability to get other people excited about a project or an idea. Creative directors inspire and guide teams of other creative people to produce their best work. They hire, train and mentor talented writers and artists.
Professionalism. A successful creative director can collaborate with executives at all levels. As a creative director, you have control over your department, but you have to work closely with other departments that might have competing agendas. In a contentious work situation, your professionalism will set you apart.
Technical knowledge. In today’s world, there’s no excuse for not being familiar with the top design software applications. A creative director should know how to use PhotoShop, InDesign, WebPress, CorelDraw and other digital design programs.
What Are Typical Salaries for Creative Directors?
According to the website Salary.com, “The average creative director salary in the US is $123,006 as of May 28, 2020, but the range typically falls between $102,662 and $146,361.”
Do Creative Directors Enjoy Their Work?
Most creative directors seem to enjoy their work.
In a 2013 interview with Fast Times magazine, Nathan Frank, the cofounder and creative director of Help Remedies, said, “I’m biased, but I think a creative director is the most important person in the company. They establish and develop the company’s personality, perspective and reason for being. They do so using whatever means are at their disposal including packaging, displays, advertising, social media and websites. If a company has no creative direction, it shouldn’t exist.”
Creative director Chris Jones, who has worked for some of the biggest names in advertising, told the CreativeBloq blog in 2019 that, “My role still involves some hands-on design and copywriting, but often it’s about me taking a lead on a project, working with the client on an overall approach and then briefing my team to create something wonderful.”
Top 10 Undergraduate Degrees That Will Help You Become a Creative Director
If you want a career as a creative director, you might wonder what degrees will help you do that. Here are the degrees you should consider.
1. Graphic Design
This is the most logical choice for people who want to be creative directors. A degree in graphic design can set you up for a career as a freelance or in-house graphic artist.
Graphic artists create images that reflect the company’s viewpoint. They design logos, product packaging, advertisements, publication layouts, websites, brochures, catalogs and presentations. Graphic artists need the ability to work quickly. They must also express the client’s position rather than their own.
A degree in graphic design will ease your way into a position at a publisher, marketing company, advertising agency or in-house department. You’ll be in the direct line of succession for a creative director spot.
2. Multimedia Design or Animation
Multimedia design involves animation, and it’s an exciting field. As an animator, you need artistic talent besides an understanding of the animation process. This degree will teach you to develop your animation ideas, create storyboards, draw your figures and work under tight scheduling deadlines.
These are all qualities that a creative director will look for when hiring you. Your experience taking a complex project from start to finish and working under time and budget constraints look good to a prospective employer.
A degree in animation shows you have strong technical and artistic skills. It will help you get a position as a creative director.
A degree in advertising is an excellent choice if you want to blend creativity and business knowledge. A degree in advertising covers marketing, consumer behavior, market research, sales, communication methods and graphic design. That’s excellent training for your future position as a creative director.
Once you begin your advertising career, you may find your company promoting you to advertising management positions. If you really want to be a creative director, be sure those promotions include close supervision of the creative team. Keep up your skills in graphic design and design software.
Build a portfolio that shows off your most artistic work. Use it to turn your success in advertising into a position as a creative director.
4. Fashion Design
A degree in fashion design is another highly visual, creative degree. It shows you have an eye for color and a strong sense of what is marketable in the business world. Like a degree in graphic design, a degree in fashion design includes extensive training on digital design software. It’s a good way to position yourself as someone who’s ready to take over the design reins at a company.
There’s no question that working in the fashion industry adds glamor to any resume. If you get your first job in the fashion industry, you’ll probably find it easy to switch to a job as a graphic designer or in-house marketer.
You can also switch your concentration to fashion merchandising. Merchandising and marketing are central to a creative director’s work. If you have a love of fashion and a desire to be a creative director, a degree in fashion design or fashion merchandising is an excellent option.
Many people find a journalism degree helpful when landing that first copywriting job. A journalism degree teaches you to write quickly and without fluff. If you’re more of a creative writer than a visual artist, copywriting is your ticket to a position as a creative director.
If you choose this route, make it your business to learn everything you can about the graphic design side of the journalism business. Working on a newspaper or magazine is a good way to learn.
Many copywriters work as freelancers, but if you’d prefer a regular job, you can find in-house spots as a blogger for the company website, marketing copywriter, public relations writer, website writer and other positions.
6. Fine Arts
A degree in fine arts like painting or sculpture shows a genuine commitment to your art and a total immersion in creativity. Many employers in creative fields come from backgrounds that emphasized artistic pursuits. If you choose a degree in visual arts, you need a plan for turning that degree into a career.
Some visual artists can market and sell their work successfully. Others develop networks with companies that need art on demand like calendar publishers, fabric designers, wallpaper designers and makers of cell phone covers.
If your goal is to become a creative director, learn more about graphic design and commercial art. Learn to use one or two graphic design software packages. Learn about marketing, layouts and graphic design. Gaining these skills will help you land a job as an in-house graphic artist.
7. Marketing and Communications
If you feel your creative skills aren’t strong enough to land you a job as a graphic artist, game designer or animator, focus on the marketing side. It will put you in an excellent position to become a creative director down the road.
A degree in marketing can prepare you for a career in public relations or marketing. You’ll get a solid grounding in the techniques to develop promotional materials, marketing strategies and large-scale marketing plans. You’ll be able to find a position in a company’s marketing department or as a consultant to companies.
To turn that position into a creative director’s spot, keep up your knowledge of the creative side. Learn the design programs. Spend time with the artists and designers. With the right moves, you can translate your marketing experience to a position as a creative director.
8. Game Design
Are you ready to design the backgrounds and characters for the next Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto? Many people think game design would be a dream job. The reality may be different. The job can be stressful, and the work isn’t easy. That said, a degree or experience in game design can help you jump-start your drive to become a creative director.
A job with a game designer immediately gives you experience working quickly, under deadlines and to a client’s specifications. You’ll get a solid grounding in technology and design. These experiences will help you when you look for a job in a graphic design or marketing department.
9. Public Relations
Like marketing and advertising, this is a degree that will put you into a highly visible creative position right away. Public relations attracts people who are talented writers and excellent public speakers. You also need the ability to understand and respond to business needs.
Public relations is the art of managing a company’s image and reputation. It requires tact, creative thinking and the ability to launch and oversee large-scale campaigns. A background in public relations can take you into marketing, advertising and copywriting. You can leverage your background in public relations into a creative position. From there, focusing on your goal will get you to the creative director’s spot.
10. Web Design
A degree in web design is another way to blend technical knowledge with artistic skill. In a web design degree program, you will learn graphic design, motion graphics, coding and computer engineering. You’ll have a varied, creative and unusual set of skills.
If you want to work as a creative director, don’t let your degree in web design lead you down a narrow career path. You may not want to stay in web design, and you don’t have to. Web designers can successfully work in a wide variety of industries. Everyone needs web designers, and you’re qualified to work in graphic design, publishing, marketing, new media, multimedia and other settings.
Start Planning Your New Career Today
If your goal is to become a creative director, start preparing while you’re still in school. Get a degree in a related area and work hard to develop your design artistry, technical knowledge and marketing skills. With the right degree and experience, you’ll be wearing that title in just a few short years.