How To Be A Design Boss Without Losing Your Soul

Paper Leaf’s Jeff Archibald shares five tips for making the move from designer to art director.

My design firm Paper Leaf started as a two-person operation (four if you count cats). Andy, my wife, and I did everything in-house ourselves: design, development, client relations, proposals, you name it. We checked each other’s work here and there, but there was no art director-designer relationship on any projects.

Now? We’re a five-person team with a project coordinator, a developer, designers, and art directors. Our roles are more specialized, and specifically for me, I’m learning how to make the switch from designer to art director. It’s been a challenge. Here’s what I’ve learned, and what you can expect to learn if you’re moving into an art director role, too.

Learn how to analyze and communicate properly.

When I’m in the visual design role, which I still am here and there, although less than I used to be, I don’t think and communicate internally in the terms used in a design critique. When I’m struggling with a design I’m producing, I’m not looking at my work and thinking, “Hmm, the typographic hierarchy is disjointed” or “The overall visual contrast in is too low.” Instead, I just trust my eye and work until I’m happy with the result. The thousands and thousands of hours I’ve put into design have afforded me the ability to do that, with good results.

That method–working until you’re happy with the results–doesn’t fly when you’re reviewing someone else’s work. You can’t just glance at a designer’s work and give vague feedback; it’s extremely frustrating (you’ve had clients who’ve done that too, I’m sure). In the role of art director, I’m also not going to get hands-on with someone else’s design. So if you aren’t going to get hands-on, and you can’t “work until it feels right,” what do you do?

I’ve had to learn how to analyze a design and verbally communicate the problems with it that need fixing. That’s been a big change. I’ve had to go over the principles of design, the elements of design, and use those to figure out where a design needs improvement. It’s the difference between feedback like “I don’t know, it’s just not there yet” and “the typographic voice is too friendly, and these sections should be closer in proximity since they’re related.”

The difference is really comprehending why something isn’t working, and then communicating that clearly. It’s a whole different skill set than visual design.

Ask questions and listen first.

The designers you’re working with are probably good at their jobs. You should try asking them their opinion, asking them questions, and listening to them.

I needed to learn this. If designers are hours and hours into, say, an interface design, they’ve probably thought of a bunch of the questions you’re asking, and have designed solutions around them. The designers will likely have a good reason for designing something the way they did.

So ask them. Then listen. Then use your experience and self-awareness to figure out if something actually needs changing, or if you’re just trying to put your own (needless) mark on the work.

Talk about problems and solutions.

We always encourage our clients to talk in problems (eg. “It’s unclear how to sign up”) instead of solutions (eg. “Make the sign-up button fluorescent pink and five times larger”). Why? It allows us, as designers, to come up with the proper visual solution, as opposed to the client doing so. It’s a common refrain in the design industry.

With the art director-designer relationship, it’s not always so cut-and-dried. When reviewing work, my instinct is to talk in problems, so as to let the designer solve those problems (and thus help the designer grow). Usually, that’s the best option.

However, sometimes I might have a specific solution in my head I’d like implemented or that I know is the right one from experience; it’s important to communicate that solution, in those cases. Otherwise, the designer will be wasting time trying to figure out what’s in your head. We’ve all been on the “I’m not a mind-reader” side of the fence, and it sucks.

In other cases, we might be under a time crunch and there just isn’t time for exploration on the designer’s side–another instance where talking in solutions is warranted.

There’s no clear answer to the problems-solutions talk, as it depends on a host of variables, but if I were to sum it up: designers shouldn’t be reduced to pixel pushers by clients or art directors; however, if the art director knows what the solution is, they should give it.

Improve the work while helping the designer grow.

Another shift from designer to art director: it’s not about making the work, it’s about improving the work someone else does and helping make it as good as possible. It’s also about listening to, empowering, and helping the designer improve.

The better I get at being an art director, the better our designers get. When we all get better, we need to do less work. There’s less revision, less frustration, and in general a happier work environment.

It’s not about your style.

I needed to learn that the work I was overseeing wasn’t going to look like “my” work, and that was okay. My role was to make sure that the design solved the problems it needed to; to make sure that the design followed the principles of good design; to make sure the design was up to our standard.

It doesn’t need to look like “I” made it. It just needs to be of the same overall quality.

Besides, the whole idea of a singular person making a piece of design work is strange to me. Designers are influenced by the work they see around them; those influences help shape a piece. The client then reviews designers’ work and usually suggests revisions, so the client helps make the piece, too. Sometimes a broader audience’s input informs the design work, as well.

That was my takeaway: it’s not going to look like “I” made it, and that’s fine. But it does need to be of the same quality.


The shift from designer to art director is a challenging one; I’m sure I’ll be learning and improving for a while. To sum up what I’ve learned so far, it’s:

  • How to analyze a design and articulate, clearly, what needed improvement
  • How to speak in clear “problems” and when to offer solutions to the designer
  • How to improve the work and help the designer improve
  • Not about “my” work or style, and it never really was
  • The overall quality of the work is my responsibility

Are you a designer? What are your experiences with your creative director or art director? Or maybe you’re an art director: What have you learned about your role and responsibilities? Sound off in the comments.