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What is Digital Art Direction?

Gerry Human is Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy & Mather and has previously played the role of Jury Foreman on the D&AD Awards Art Direction Jury.

Asking, "what is digital art direction?” Gerry teases apart the fabric of the field, explaining art direction in relation to design. In doing this, it becomes clear is that art direction is not as valued in digital media as it is in print. Something's got to change.

Digital Art Direction – Something's Got To Change | D&AD | Gerry Human

My hippy design lecturers at Art College regarded a career in advertising as a vulgar sellout to commercialism, the equivalent of studying medicine only to get a job washing bodies at the morgue. We were trained to aspire to the prodigious philosophies of Constructivists and Modernists like Moholy-Nagy, Lissitzky and A.M. Cassandre; wizards who established design principles and ideologies nearly a century ago, but whose ideas still exist today. Unlike those materialistic and self-obsessed advertising gits, who were mainly concerned with banalities like flogging breakfast cereal and television sets.

Digital Art Direction – Something's Got To Change | D&AD | Le Creuset

Back then, and I suspect it’s the same these days, a job in a small, purist design partnership was the only worthy way for a burgeoning graphic designer to make a living. The hippies took no pity on anyone desperate and unprincipled enough to take a job in an advertising agency.

Imagine how privileged I felt when I was employed by…er, an ad agency - as an art director.

Luckily the agency (Hunt Lascaris TBWA) turned out to be the opposite of what I’d been indoctrinated to believe about advertising. It was an inspiring place to be. To help me learn, my boss Sandy De Witt handed me a few copies of THE BOOK and, well, my head exploded. Not just because of how beautiful everything looked, but because the art direction compelled you to read further. And when you did, you were richly rewarded and importantly, you wanted to buy stuff as a result (Saatchi’s great 1989 ads for Le Creuset are the reason I still have so many under-utilized but nice-looking orange pots).

Le Creuset

This thing called ‘art direction’ actually utilized design principles, but it was fundamentally different because its primary function was to be in service of ideas rather than be the idea itself.

We live in a different world now. The relationship between art direction and design is just as relevant, but sometimes it’s difficult to tease one out from the other, especially when it comes to digital formats.

The best work in the world is proof of that. Of the 24 D&AD pencils awarded for art direction over the last 20 years, 20 were for print work; only two pencils have been awarded for digital art direction.

Does this mean there are not brilliantly art directed examples of digital innovation among the current winners and in the world at large? Of course not. I think “art direction” merely has a less perceptible role in digital media and that design is the more dominant discipline. “Tokyo City Symphony”, last year’s digital winner from Hakuhodo for Tokyo building company Mori, is a beautiful example of how great art direction and design can work hand in hand in digital media.

Droga 5’s outstanding “Decode Jay-Z” idea for Bing from a couple of years ago is another good case in point. The campaign won Yellow Pencils in Integrated Media and Outdoor, but no mention for Art Direction, even though the individual pieces within the campaign were actually superbly art directed. In fact, you could argue that the whole idea relied on exceptional art direction. Maybe the art direction was so good that nobody noticed it. For that reason alone it should have won a Black Pencil for Art Direction.

RGA’s 'Beats music' campaign is a more recent example of the blurred role of art direction in digital media. The idea is an extraordinary fusion of music, technology and personal data, all carefully designed to give users an emotional experience. Technically, it’s more virtuoso design than art direction per se. But to me, that’s the whole point. Art direction makes it possible for this idea to be great. You may not notice it, but you’d certainly notice its absence.

Digital Art Direction – Something's Got To Change | D&AD | Beats

Advertising is obviously more complex than it once was. But it’s also more exciting. Ideas work across many channels and formats, making great art direction just as relevant today as it was for A.M Cassandre.

But then again, I’m a vulgar and narcissistic ad man, so what do I know?

If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.

For more creative inspiration and the opportunity to get up close and personal with the world’s best design and advertising, join us at D&AD Festival.


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