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  1. Blog
  2. Career Development

What Does a Creative Director Do?

“Creative direction is more about reading the map in the passenger seat than it is having your hands directly on the steering wheel.”

Woman with a tattoo smiling into the distance
Photo courtesy of Brooke Cagle

This article is part of InHerSight's What Do You Do? series. This series explores the working lives of women by job title. Readers can get a glimpse of what it's like to work as an account executive, software developer, restaurant manager, and more.

What does a creative director do?

Any brand needs cohesive, engaging content to further its mission and to drive connection with the right audiences. In comes the creative director, an individual who knows how to align brand vision and strategy, design and marketing. 

These professionals come from a range of backgrounds like design, writing, or advertising, and they typically manage creative teams to fulfill the brand’s goals and mission in digital content, print publications, video, and more.

Creative directors have to think on their feet, bring lots of creativity and problem-solving skills to the table, and be passionate about a company’s vision to lead teams most effectively. 

I talked to two experienced creative directors about what led them to become a creative director and what a typical day looks like.

Amy Schwartz

Creative director at Hologram with five years of experience

What does a creative director do?

A creative director leads teams of designers, art directors, illustrators, photographers, and copywriters. The creative director is responsible for maintaining a cohesive brand vision that achieves the project goals. Creative directors can work in agencies or in-house for brands. 

What’s your professional background, and why did you pursue this line of work?

Before becoming the in-house creative director at Hologram, I was the creative director at Bright Bright Great, a design agency. Prior to BBG, I was the design director at Cards Against Humanity. My expertise is in both web and print, and I’ve fluctuated between in-house and agency roles. 

How do you help out companies?

As an in-house creative director, I ensure that Hologram has a cohesive, robust brand across all of its touch points—from the marketing website and emails, to pitch decks and white papers. I work closely with every team to meet our company goals, like driving lead generation and explaining complex technical concepts in easy ways.

What does a typical workday look like?

In a typical workday, I check in with my team on active projects and help guide the creative process. I coach the team through tough decisions, keep projects on time and the high-level goals in mind, and provide constructive feedback. I also have regular one-on-one meetings with each member of my team where we discuss professional development. On any given day, I may be meeting with another team to review the status on a project they are involved in or reviewing a new project request.

What are the three most important parts of your job?

  • Effective communication: You must distill complex projects and ideas, keep team members informed, and sell ideas to clients and stakeholders.

  • Project management: You’re responsible for keeping the project on time (along with a project manager), but also making sure it achieves the goals of the project.

  • Mentorship: Creative direction is more about reading the map in the passenger seat than it is having your hands directly on the steering wheel. You’re also responsible for the professional development of your direct reports.

What skills are necessary for a creative director?

Visual design, effective communication, project management, coaching.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

In an agency setting, I found the hardest part to be adapting to new clients expectations, workflows, communication styles, and operations. It’s challenging to constantly be building successful working relationships from the ground up.

As an in-house creative director, a big challenge is prioritizing projects and explaining that rationale to the rest of the company. Every team has their own objectives and results to push forward, and it’s a balancing act to help everyone deliver on those goals equally.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love working with talented, mindful people across the company to bring complex ideas to life. I also love that I can work across different media, such as websites and video and ad campaigns, while keeping everything cohesive and compelling.

What’s something people might not know about what creative directors do?

Creative directors don’t just bark their creative ideas at their teams – we act as guides to help individuals explore new ideas and solve problems through effective communication. Also, some creative directors focus on design or copy, and some focus on both. In my role, I am the steward of every aspect of our brand—including our voice and tone, grammar, and general writing style—as well as the visuals.

What’s one piece of advice you could give to someone interested in being a creative director?

Learn as much as you can about your clients / the teams you work with. The more you understand their business goals, operational complexities, and workflows, the more successful you’ll be at solving meaty problems through design.

Tara McCarthy

Creative director at Atlanta Magazine’s HOME magazine with 15 years of experience

What does a creative director do?

While I have managed other graphic designers, art directors, and photographers in other roles I’ve held, and a creative director does typically manage a team, my current role at Atlanta Magazine’s HOME is a little different. I am the one person in the art department who handles the production and design of the magazine, which has been really rewarding. I love the responsibility of shepherding a magazine through its initial planning phase all the way through to when it arrives on newsstands and in readers’ mailboxes. I collaborate with the editor-in-chief and our homes editor to select the interior design/architectural projects we want to feature in every issue. We review what we call scouting shots, which are either images of a home that have been previously shot professionally or were taken on someone’s cell phone to give us an idea of the spaces and style of a project. 

In addition to that, I develop concepts for the front and back sections of the magazine (typically one to three pages on different subjects relating to interior design and lifestyle). I manage the art/photo budget and assign photoshoots to photographers and attend all the interior design shoots for our features. I assist with styling each shot and deciding the best angle to shoot every space from. The most surprising thing about this part of my job is that there’s a lot of heavy lifting! We typically move furniture around, because how a space looks in person is not how it looks on camera. I learned very quickly that flat shoes are a must on shoot days, in addition to clothing that is professional yet comfortable enough to move around in, as a lot of bending and stretching happens. I also do lots of market research for our “Trends” page, and I order and/or borrow products from local and national brands and style the composed shots we do for the opening page. Finally, I handle the graphic design for every story. 

What’s your professional background, and why did you pursue this line of work?

I’ve been a graphic designer since the beginning of my career, including college internships at national magazines in New York. I studied advertising in college and realized early on that what I most enjoy involves a hybrid of developing both written and visual concepts. Graphic design is perfect for that. Many people don’t realize it, but a graphic designer’s role isn’t simply to create beautiful visual things in programs like InDesign. It’s much more involved than that—we are very adept at translating ideas and stories into something that can be instantly understood by a large audience, and we know how to draw people into consuming content with different visual entry points. 

How do you help out companies?

Atlanta Magazine’s HOME features and informs readers about the Atlanta area’s talented group of interior designers, architects, artists, local makers (such as independent furniture designers), and other creative professionals. We love the opportunity to give our readers an in-depth look at the projects these professionals are currently working on or have recently finished. In addition, we feature national and local brands on our product pages.

What does a typical workday look like?

It really depends on where we are in the production cycle of the magazine (ie. how close a magazine is to going to print). I really like the variety that brings. Some days I am doing product research and production work, including setting up photoshoots, acquiring images of projects previously shot (which can involve some detective work to find out who shot it), and attending photoshoots. Other days it is graphic design–intensive, as I design the stories we are publishing in the upcoming issue and prepare them to route through the proofing stage, before I prepare the final pages for printing. 

What are the three most important parts of your job?

  • Art direction for photography and graphic design concepts.

  • Meeting and developing relationships with local creative professionals.

  • Problem solving when logistical issues come up.

What skills are necessary for a creative director?

The ability to adapt and adjust on the fly at photoshoots is essential. People tend to think of creative professionals, specifically in the art/design world, as free spirited and a little wild, but most of us are actually very Type A and love having a lot of control. The catch is, a lot of what our job entails doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are weather issues, talent issues, so many things can come up. You may have an idea of how a shot or overall photoshoot should look like before arriving on set, and either something is very different about the space in person, or on a lifestyle shoot, so many things can go differently than expected! 

You can’t get emotionally invested with what you originally wanted. I’ve learned it’s actually best to keep a looser idea of what you want to achieve visually and go in with a more open mind. It’s much easier to problem solve quickly when you move past your disappointment or frustration because your original vision isn’t going to pan out exactly as you thought it would. That being said, knowing what you ultimately want is also very important. People are looking to you as the final decision maker for how things will go on a shoot, so once you’ve worked through any problem solving needed, being decisive and moving forward is key. 

What’s the hardest part of your job?

As mentioned previously, the heavy lifting on photoshoots! I recently had a terrible back injury unrelated to work, so I have to be really careful going forward with how much muscle I can contribute on set. Sometimes I’m outside in the beating Georgia summer sun for photoshoots, which also isn’t pleasant, to say the least. 

What’s the best part of your job?

This role has helped me grow professionally with every single skill that’s essential to my work—creativity, art direction, organization, time management, and a very important “soft” skill, confidence. 

What’s something people might not know about what creative directors do?

If we truly love and believe in the brand we work for, we are the fiercest advocates and protectors of it that you will ever find. An exceptional creative director isn’t worried about being the squeaky wheel and pushing back when needed. Every creative endeavor within a company is, of course, tied to a business with the goal to turn a profit. A lot of compromises have to be made on the business side of things, and while we understand that, we are also acutely aware of the big picture of things, of how it all looks as a finished project or product, of how it represents us to our customers and community (in the case of magazines, readers). We do everything we can to uphold the integrity and overall visual style, voice, and mission of the brand, while still being realistic about the limitations and parameters we have to work within. 

What’s one piece of advice you could give to someone interested in being a creative director?

Have a strong idea of the identity and style you want to build or improve upon within a brand, but also push yourself to be more flexible and open-minded. Collaborate as much as possible—you can get great ideas and learn things from anyone on your team, no matter how much less or more experience they have than you. Don’t feel threatened by those more talented than you, and don’t underestimate those with less experience. Learn from everyone. Toss aside your ego, and you’ll be able to grow and succeed more than you ever imagined.

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