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Art direction on the web

By Paul Boag
Posted Sunday, September 26, 2004

Your site might be the easiest to use, most accessible site in the world but without a good concept it may well fail to sell.

The sad truth is that although art direction has proved itself in every other advertising and marketing medium it has been largely ignored on the web

What is art direction?

The first thing to say is that art direction is not a new concept. In fact, it is one that is found in almost every other creative medium. You find art directors in film making as well as in print design and the world of advertising. Their job descriptions differ slightly from sector to sector but fundamentally they work alongside graphic designers and copywriters to come up with concepts that sell products or communicate ideas. They often communicate with us on an emotional level through the use of metaphor and symbolism. Art direction finds the switch that makes us buy into the product or concept they are trying to sell. We are constantly exposed to the end product of art directors. Just try looking at billboards as you walk down the street or watching TV commercials and you will immediately see art direction at work.

How does this relate to the internet?

The sad truth is that although art direction has proved itself in every other advertising and marketing medium it has been largely ignored on the web. When it comes to web site design, developers focus almost exclusively on the interface, its usability, accessibility and functionality. Some attention is given to copy but only in an attempt to keep it easy to scan and digest. All too often little thought is given to the concept behind a site. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Suppose a company who produced stair-lifts for the elderly were looking to launch a new website. Most web design agencies would focus on making sure it was easy for the elderly to use. They would ensure that the buttons were easy to click, that text was large and had sufficient contrast to improve readability. The graphic designer would probably include lots of stock photography of people using stair-lifts and warm reassuring colours. He will focus on whether to have a two or three column layout and how to incorporate the logo. Although all of these things are important they fail to address the overall concept that will sell the product to the user. The approach lacks art direction. An art director focuses on a concept that will promote the benefits of the product. Stair-lifts provide freedom to an elderly person and open up areas of their house which have not been available to them for sometime. The art director may then focus on concepts of unlocking closed doors, breaking free of chains and flying free like a bird. This would be reflected in the choice of imagery and the copy used. This subliminal messaging reinforces the more traditional approach to web design and helps to move the user further along the sales process. It connects with the user on a deeper emotional level than traditional web design.

The way forward

So how do you begin to apply these techniques to your site?

Establish your concept

Have it clear in your mind what it is that you wish to communicate - be that the unique selling points of your product or the key message of your site. Also ensure that this message ties in with your objectives for your site. Always ask yourself, is this going to help me achieve my goals?


Do whatever it takes to come up with as many ideas as possible. The more ideas you generate the higher probability one of them will be a gem. Don’t censor yourself. Write down everything that comes into your mind however bizarre it may seem. Also don’t worry about the details. That can come later. Focus on keeping up the flow of ideas and getting them down on paper. And remember, focus on symbolism and metaphor. The idea is to communicate your concept on an emotional level not necessarily a literal one.

Narrow the field

Now that your ideas are down on paper start to work through them and remove the weaker ones. Once you have narrowed the field to a few of the best start to flesh them out and add detail. Compare them to your objectives again to make sure they clearly communicate the right message. This process should make it clear which is the best concept to proceed with.

Managing the team

Now is the time to work with your designer, programmer, copywriter or external design agency to apply this concept to your site. Remain flexible, since a good idea can always be better, but don’t allow your concept to get lost in the practicalities. It is your job to bring all of these people together to turn your concept into a reality.


So is that all there is to art direction? Of course not. To a large extent art direction is a creative process that is hard to quantify. If you are not confident thinking in this way then maybe you are better finding a web design agency that offers these services. However, don’t be afraid to experiment. A good concept can have a dramatic effect on the response levels your site generates and shouldn’t be lightly ignored. Also with so few websites making use of art direction techniques there is a real opportunity to put yourself ahead of your competition.

About the Author
Paul Boag [ Director ]
Web: strategy, usability, design, development, marketing.
t: 02392 432 829 | m: 07760 123 120

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