Art direction remains unexplained, for now

Paul Belford is frustrated by a new book that promises to explain the complexities of art direction – and fails

It’s high time someone wrote the definitive guide to art direction. Unfortunately, Art Direction Explained, At Last! isn’t it. And surely you’d expect a book about art direction to be well art directed? I struggle to get past the rather ugly cover (and that exclamation mark doesn’t help).

Once inside, we find four sections, preceded by a preamble, an intro­duction, a foreword and a preface. During the introduction the two authors inadvertently point to why this book is a failure. Both Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne explain their background in editorial art direction. And it is this skew towards editorial that makes the book far from the all-encompassing professional bible promised in the blurb on the back cover. The same blurb goes on to imply an insight into the wide range of roles and environments in which art directors operate – magazines, news­papers, advertising, corporate identity, museums and publishing, to name a few. We don’t get this. In fact I think it would take about six books to begin to adequately cover all those areas. I’m afraid the authors have well and truly bitten off more than they can chew. For example there is hardly any discussion of advertising art direction in the entire book. What little there is betrays a rather sketchy knowledge. And there are absolutely no examples of good advertising art direction any­where to be seen. A crazy omission.

But of course it’s not all bad. Both authors are accomplished practiti­oners. And to be fair, there are many useful insights to be found within the 250 pages. The following passage from the introduction struck a chord with me: “The only higher authority art directors defer to is the project itself. The [great art directors] of this world work for an ideal, not a person. They take the abuse because they feel they signed a contract with themselves, not with an individual or an organi­sation.” I also love the quote right at the end of the book from Milton Glaser who says that his role is “to inform and delight”. A pretty good definition of what art directors should aim to do with their work.

But back to the beginning. Section One: What is an art director? This starts off with a discussion of what makes a great art director, in terms of character traits. We are told that circumstance and luck also play a large role. Very true. So that’s all fair enough. But then the section inexpli­cably and tangentially catapults us into discussions on the history of picture magazines, 1930s typography and the difference between pastiche and retro illustration styles. Oh, and then a piece about magazine art directors who become editors. All very interesting. But more than a bit random don’t you think? And in the following pages we are asked to take ‘The art director test’, one of several silly quiz-like spreads scattered through­­out the book. I can’t quite put my finger on why I found them so cringeworthy. Maybe it’s just me.

Is Section Two any better? No. This is where we have the chance to get down to the nitty gritty: what makes art direction work. This really is a missed opportunity. The intention is good. A discussion of various techniques – tricks of the trade – as demonstrated by a series of case studies. But again, the examples and particular techniques are somewhat random and woefully incomplete.

We are presented with a mere nine examples (out of a possible several hundred). Weird. And even weirder still, one of those examples is ‘The impact of strikethroughs’. That’s crossing things out to you and me.

I would probably put that one towards the end of my list of several hundred and certainly not in the top nine.

And just when we thought this has got to get better, we are confronted by Section Three: Auto art direction.

Now this probably seemed like a good idea on paper. But on this particular section’s 122 pages of paper, I can confirm that getting 13 different art directors/illustrators to write and art direct their own thoughts does not make for a coherent, readable, enjoyable book. In fact this sort of self-indulgence, in the context of a single book, gives art direction a bad name.

I hasten to add that this is not really the fault of the contributors (a few of whom I had to Google – some more leading practitioners would have been useful in this section and please, some­one good from advertising). Their contributions are, for the most part, interesting. And of course they wouldn’t have known what their fellow contributors were designing. But visually it was never going to work.

I did enjoy John Fulbrook III’s piece about book cover design and art direction. It’s always fascinating to see how a project evolves and to hear both art director and designer talk honestly about each stage of the process. Whenever I see this sort of piece, I hardly ever think the client picked the best option. A useful demonstration that we shouldn’t give clients multiple solutions to choose from, we should only give them the best solution. But I digress.

Khoi Vinh is the token digital contributor (there is a distinct lack of digital work in the book). He makes good points about the difference between print art direction and digital art direction. His digital art direction is no doubt excellent. His writing is repetitive and full of jargon and waffle.

Christoph Niemann and Nicholas Blechman, however, prefer to use cute illustration to turn the tables and give us a witty take on the illustrator’s guide to art direction. But the contri­bution from Vince Frost is probably the most useful to aspiring art directors. Inspirational even. Stuff that we all kind of know but there’s something very compelling about seeing it as a stream of consciousness across the page. I get a real sense that it’s written from the heart. Here are some examples: “It never gets any easier and in fact it can become relentless. Projects are vulnerable and at any moment in the process they can crash. Every project deserves to be great. Great ideas are hard to find and therefore require a lot of effort. Sponge up every drop of information. The fluidity and lack of divisions between work and play, personal and professional, is greatly empowering on one hand and completely fucked on the other.” And, particularly relevant to people who want to become art directors or, perhaps some people who already are art directors: “If you don’t enjoy what you do, change careers.”

Sadly, I’m really not sure if this book would sort out any potential confusion for someone considering a career as an art director. It may even add to it. Partly through insufficient rigour in choosing contributors and partly through shallow, disjointed content throughout the book. A useful reminder that art direction is nothing without great writing.

Paul Belford is founding partner and creative director of This is Real Art, thisisrealart.com. Art Direction Explained, At Last! by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne is published by Laurence King; £22.50. A sample chapter from the book, Take the Art Director Test, is available to download from laurenceking.com

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