Is art direction dead in digital advertising?

A highly respected digital advertising executive, who loves digital stuff said that it seemed to him that digital art direction was dying. And he was bummed about it. It is an interesting question: Is digital art direction on some kind of deathbed, or is it just evolving?

I’m not talking about ides or general creativity. When I say digital art direction I’m referring to the specific practice of applying aesthetic emphasis in the digital space. Ideas and creativity are still king, but does the “look and feel” still matter?

A bit of backstory, for digital art direction the years from 2000-2008 could just as well be called "the microsite years." We digitally-focused designers got stoked when a microsite assignment came along. The expanding visual opportunity with microsites was art director heaven. Life for microsites was good, until it wasn't.

The microsite got news of its terminal condition in the fall of 2009. The recession reared its head and all budgets puckered up. But more significant than the recession was the rise of social and mobile. These two forces have had an enormous yet conflicting impact on the practice of digital art direction. While facebook seemed to pull the rug out from under freedom of design, the mobile realm opened up a brand new art director sandbox to explore.

On one side you have Facebook's iron fist of a design regime which intentional or not, squashes design exploration. Yes, you can share you're nice looking piece of whatever, but it must fit their format. You can have your own page, but you must follow facebook rules and Facebook must surround your design at all times. You can use a like button in your layout, but it must be the Facebook designed like button and no other. Other social media outlets follow this model, a model where everything is managed with near sadomasochistic consistency. Facebook has creativity in a head-lock and to art direct within it is to simply suck it up and start hating life.

On the other side you have the iPhone app, which has popularized the notion of a digital product in the minds of consumers. Before iPhone you had sites you visited, digital places you went to. After iPhone those sites you visited became apps you own. The digital destination has become a digital thing. And, that digital thing can be anything opening an avenue where digital art direction can flourish. Angry Birds, Evernote, Hipstamatic, Panoramic, Bloons, Bump, you name it art direction is booming in the app world. And, of course all of mobile is now following suit.

We have the fascist Facebook out to kill design and we have Apps where creativity is quite limitless. How do advertising agencies handle these two forces?

Most agency people can understand facebook, they say "if everyone is going to facebook, then let's just put our advertising stuff on facebook. People will “like” us and we'll make status updates." Sure that’s easy enough. But it doesn’t help the art directors who want to make something beautiful.

Apps revitalize the art direction opportunities but apps are harder to sell to clients because they are not ads. They are expensive and time consuming. And because of that agencies have a hard time fitting apps into their marketing world view. Some agencies understand the importance of creating products as well as ads, but not many.

So, is art direction dying in the digital advertising space? That depends on your agency.

If your agency thinks it only makes ads, then your digital efforts are relegated to social media campaigns and yes, digital art direction is dying and you're probably becoming irrelevant hopefully you plan to retire in the next 5-10 years. Just joking (but not really).

If your agency thinks it makes products as well as ads than no, you're agency will be venturing happily into app land and your digital art direction opportunities aren't just surviving, but thriving.

True, we did leave advertising to go all-in with digital products or apps. And that makes us either a biased source, or a case in point. Either way, it's nice to be doing digital art direction again.

Categories: Apps Ideas iPhone Social


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