Art Direction + Illustration

Art direction, mountain metaphors and baby steps


Kelly Scheurich

on 1/17/2017

Wait, what do you do?

There’s a funny video I saw a few years ago entitled “I’m an Art Director.” It features a son and his mother, who asks him questions about his new ambiguous job title as art director but still can’t figure what exactly he does. This clip pertains to a more traditional art director role - probably in an advertising firm - where one is responsible for the visual concept and unification of the art style, but is usually hands off. Here at VIA, we’re all hands on designers and roles flex across every project.

However, on a recent internal project working with Pat (our in-house illustrator), my goal was to maintain that hands off role. I’ve worked for several years as an illustrator myself, so the temptation to step in and take over was definitely there. In terms of process, this wasn’t an instance of reinventing the wheel, but became more of an interesting study of how to work together and communicate to yield the best product. Some words of wisdom I read a few years ago that I kept in mind:

A good art director is a sherpa, not a shepherd. A shepherd guards. A sherpa guides.


I typically start a project by pulling inspiration that coincides with the style envisioned for the project. Working in examples is invaluable when explaining visual style to a visual thinker. However, when Pat was going through the first round of illustration, there was a little resistance. As a professional artist, he has a very distinct style. He’s a strong willed individual and I sensed his frustration was stemming from his characteristically intricate style battling with this more subtle interpretation.

This is probably the number one most misunderstood thing about art direction. It’s beyond picking colors and type and bossing around photographers - it’s being able to problem solve. Not only that, but communicating that solution in order to help guide a team, all while ”staying in your lane.”

Yo, use a blinker at least.

20,000 Feet

I not only had to identify what the problem was (in why we were missing the mark) but determine ways to best solve that problem. I thought about attempting to redo it myself, but that would be the easy way out. And what would we have learned?

This woman is not enjoying her job right now.

Often when you’re too far down the rabbit hole, it’s really hard to just … start over. When all you can see is what you’ve already done, sometimes the best thing is to clear your mind. And your art board. We were going for a very flat, minimal, yet handmade style. A few things we talked about:

“Start with the bottle alone on an art board. Take out all of the detail and move it off to the sides. Piece by piece, start adding it back in. Ask yourself, does this detail have purpose? How to know when to stop: does it read?”

“Pretend like you’re using construction paper to cut out the shapes. Obviously you wouldn’t go into a lot of detail. There would probably be minimal layers and the edges will have a slightly wonky, yet handmade/hand cut look.”

Illustration evolution from beginning (far left) to final (far right) of the initial bottle and glass.

Reaching the Summit

Pat came in the next day with his new illustration and a new understanding (of what the heck I was trying to tell him.) From there, it just clicked. Soon we had an overflowing bank of assets, all custom, all beautifully stylized consistently. Granted, this project was small in scale and centered solely around illustration, it was still an interesting challenge. Larger projects involving the direction of more disciplines are definitely tough, but taking experiences such as this to flex those muscles and ‘use your words’ definitely have value. Taking baby steps to make it up the mountain may take longer, but you’ll reach the summit either way.

Update: Our internal project, a client gift in the form of a cookbook, won a design award at the 2017 AAF Awards Show.

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