Creative Director vs. Art Director: What’s the Difference?

Creative director writing down notes about her ideas

If you think of the term “creative career,” you might envision an artist putting together a show at an art gallery or perhaps a movie director creating the next Hollywood blockbuster. But there are also creative careers in the corporate world, and these can be easier to break into than, say, directing Hollywood films.

One wonderfully creative career is that of a creative director. What is a creative director? Quite simply, they are the professional responsible for leading a team of creative individuals, such as graphic designers and marketing professionals, in order to bring the creative vision for a project or brand to fruition.

The job title “creative director” is often interchanged with the title “art director.” However, they are distinctly different roles. In this career guide, you’ll explore the differences between a creative director vs. art director, and you’ll be able to make an informed decision about which choice is right for your future.

In This Article:

What Are the Roles of a Creative Director?

A creative director is essentially the project manager and team leader of a creative department. They are responsible for the quality of the work produced by that department, and for ensuring that each product they deliver fulfills the creative vision of the client.

A creative director and their team members can work on all types of projects, such as marketing campaigns, video game production, magazine publication and fashion line development. These vastly different projects do share one thing in common: They each have a unique voice and style. The main roles of a creative director involve ensuring that each deliverable (digital, print or film) for every project is aligned with that project’s voice and style.

Consider this example: Kate, a creative director for a toy company, is responsible for planning the release of a new line of toys. It’s her responsibility to develop the creative vision for those products. She must also ensure that all product packaging, marketing materials and backstories for the toy characters fit that one cohesive vision.

Here’s another example: Pedro is the creative director for an international nonprofit that works to end child hunger. It is Pedro’s job to ensure that all marketing and fundraising materials released by the nonprofit, like the TV commercials and fundraising letters, fit the brand voice and style.

The specific tasks of a creative director can vary from one company to the next. In general, however, they are likely to include the following:

  • Meeting with clients or other in-house professionals to develop the creative vision for each project
  • Turning general marketing objectives into concrete strategies
  • Directing the creative team as they produce all marketing material
  • Reviewing the creative team’s work, troubleshooting problems and providing feedback or revision requests
  • Supervising pitches and proposals to clients

In addition, since creative directors typically head their departments, they are often responsible for planning the departmental budget and developing timelines for deliverables. Some creative directors may be responsible for recruiting, hiring and training their creative staff, as well as establishing professional development initiatives.

Creative Director vs. Art Director: What’s the Difference?

The terms “art director” and “creative director” are often used interchangeably, but they are quite different roles. To recap, the creative director is the leader who is in charge of liaising with the client, spearheading each campaign and overseeing all deliverables. They are in charge of their departments.

In contrast, the art director is only in charge of the visual elements and aesthetics of a project. While the creative director supervises both copywriters and graphic designers, the art director will only supervise graphic designers and other visual professionals. Furthermore, rather than focusing on “big picture” issues, art directors will focus on smaller details, such as the color palette and fonts of a project.

At some organizations, the art director will report to the creative director. For example, after exploring visual ideas with their team, the art director will choose a few of the top ideas to present to the creative director. The creative director may then work collaboratively with the art director to determine which visual elements are most closely aligned with the overall vision of the project.

Both creative directors and art directors play important roles in the development of marketing campaigns and other projects, but their roles are distinctly different from each other. To sum up, if the creative director is like the head coach of a football team, the art director is like the offensive line coach — one of the leaders of the team, but not the senior-most leader.

Although the roles of a creative director aren’t quite the same as those of an art director, both professionals can benefit from similar skill sets and characteristics. For instance, both of these professionals need strong graphic design skills, communication skills, leadership qualities and a collaborative mindset. However, creative directors need a greater emphasis on project management and understanding how the finer details fit together to form the larger picture.

What Exactly Does an Art Director Do?

To better understand the differences between a creative director vs. art director, it’s helpful to take a closer look at the main roles of an art director. As previously noted, the art director is responsible for leading a team of artists to establish the visual elements of a project. Based on the direction provided by the creative director, the art director will develop the overall artistic vision for the project and delegate tasks to individual artists on the team.

An art director may do any of the following tasks:

  • Figure out how to represent ideas in a visual manner.
  • Select specific visual elements for inclusion in the project.
  • Manage a team of graphic designers and other artists.
  • Present the work of the team to the creative director and sometimes to the client.
  • Pass along feedback and direct the team to make any needed revisions.

How To Become a Creative Director or an Art Director

Now that you’re familiar with the roles of a creative director and art director, you may have a better idea of your future plans. Keep in mind that these roles are not entry-level positions. You will need to start your career in a non-supervisory role (such as that of a graphic designer) and then work your way up toward the position of art or creative director.

The process can begin right now. If you’re still in high school, meet with your guidance counselor and see if you can adjust your course load to suit your career ambitions. It’s ideal to take as many art and computer courses as possible. Taking a communications or public speaking class would also be a good idea.

It’s generally expected that art and creative directors hold at least a bachelor’s degree in an artistic field, such as graphic design. While you’re in college, you should take advantage of the career services department. Ask about internships in your intended field, as these can help you build invaluable professional connections and gain relevant work experience.

It’s possible to land your first job in this field with just a bachelor’s degree. Creative and art directors aren’t usually required to hold master’s degrees. However, if you’re having trouble moving up the corporate ladder after having worked as a graphic designer for a few years, you might consider going back to school to enhance your career qualifications.

You can also improve your competitiveness as a job applicant by joining professional organizations in order to strengthen your personal brand. Some examples of professional organizations to consider joining include:

  • The American Institute of Graphic Arts
  • The International Council of Design
  • The Society of Illustrators, Artists and Designers
  • Graphic Arts Guild

Additionally, throughout your time in college and later during your professional career, it’s important to spend some time curating your portfolio. Graphic designers need a strong portfolio comprised of their best work. As a student, this will include projects from classes; later, you may include work completed for clients. An excellent portfolio can help you land your first job and climb the corporate ladder toward a position as a creative director.

Earn a Graphic Design Degree to Prepare for Director Roles

It’s common for creative directors and art directors to hold some type of art-related degree, such as a fine arts or graphic design degree. A graphic design degree will give you a strong foundation of knowledge and skills for your future career. For example, you’re likely to study the following topics:

  • Design fundamentals, including the use of graphic design software
  • Digital photography
  • Web design, including site layouts and aesthetic elements
  • Image creation, including pixel-based imagery manipulation

These are all important topics for a future creative or art director to master. However, remember that these professionals often work on marketing campaigns. If possible, it’s also helpful to include the topics of advertising and marketing in your studies.

You may decide to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Advertising and Graphic Design degree. This type of program will cover both graphic design elements and the necessary components of marketing campaigns. Otherwise, you might consider minoring in an advertising-related program and majoring in graphic design.

You can begin building a strong foundation for a future career as a creative director or an art director when you earn a graphic design degree at Grand Canyon University (GCU). The Bachelor of Arts in Advertising and Graphic Design degree program offers a unique hybrid curriculum that explores the principles of both marketing and graphic design. Graduates will emerge with strong competencies in both fields, making them competitive job applicants.

Fill out the form at the top of your screen to begin setting the stage for a creative career.


Approved by the dean of the College of Arts and Media on Feb. 9, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.