Kollective Learning Ep 01 - Art Direction Part 1 - The Broad Definition

General / 16 January 2018

Hello there!

There are plenty of definitions around the web describing what is Art Direction, and i'm sure many artists stand by their own definitions of it. In this post, i'd like to take time and establish my base understanding of this broad term and  to hopefully give you bite-sized definitions of how to look at it. As I mentioned before- these are my views and understanding of it so far! 

without further ado- here is blog post 01;

What is Art Direction? (Part 01)

       Art Direction is the series of informed and Intuitive creative decisions that are in service to the visual language of a project.

Now, the keys points i'd like to stress on are- 

Informed and Intuitive; so let's upack these two points.

A) Informed Creative Decisions

As the name states, all informed creative decisions must stem for objective and finite frameworks. I define these factors as objective ones as they are information that should be either gathered, researched or given too ahead of time. I am currently categorizing these frameworks into three areas-

  1. Budget/Time or Medium/Technology Limitations or Needs
  2. Story outline or Game Play outline
  3. Media Tropes or Psycological landmarks

1) Budget, Time, Medium and Technology

Unless its the main project goal of pushing or breaking technological limitations of the time- most projects are bound by the limitation of a budget. I believe any artists should be aware of the time and technological challenges of any project they're on board on. Working within these limits can actually even improve your design sensibilities- as you are forced to take more creative routes to solve a problem.

"Mad Max, 1979 was Director George Millers' dystopian film set in a post apocalpytic Australia. With a modest budget- of USD 375,000.00 it grossed USD 100 Million worldwide. Working with the dystopain timeline and setting; the costumes, vehicles and setting were fabricated from found materials- establishing the lovely gasoline punk look we remember today."

image from MAD MAX ; 1979

2) Story Outline or Game Play

As art direction aims to establish a visual appearance to a film or game; all of it's core values should service the intended reaction of the audience/player. Understanding the core story values of a script or the cory gameplay factor of a video game will greatly bridge the visual decisions made for it. 

"Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a new open world take on the Zelda franchise. The muted colors and atmospheric values created a visually stunning art direction that tied together incredibly well with the gameplay and story. "

image from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild ; 2017

3) Media Tropes and Pyscological landmarks

Character archetypes, tropes, recurring themes are actually usefull in creating relatable content. Although there is a risk of repeating similar themes or subject matters- understanding the landscape and tastes of your audience reduces your risk of alienating them. 

A good design should be easy to read; easy to understand and easy to relate to while still looking fresh and exciting.

"Blizzard's Overwatch took the gaming world by storm when it's fun, appealing and lively characters match it's equally competetive and balanced gameply. Each character is a vibrant accumulation of character tropes- ranging from a wide range of nationalities and traditional character classes."

image from Overwatch ; 2017

B) Intuitive Creative Decisions

Intuitive creative decisions in my opinion are the more in-depth and less obvious routes to look into Art Direction. This mindset approaches more to self reflection and putting more of your own unique values into the project. As with the Informed section; I have broken this section to three categories.

  1. Target Emotions
  2. Your own Flavor
  3. Pushing/Breaking the visual mold

1) Target Emotions

The ultimate goal of any product or story is to connect with the end user or audience. The stronger and more meaningful the connection- the better outcome. So before establishing any connection- we must first set the target emotions we wish our viewer to feel. Looking at the six basic human emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) as a base; any succesful project would have tapped into these emotions at some level. 

Without this emotional targeting- designs might be perceived as lifeless or disconnected with the current emotions of the story. 

"Disney Pixar's WALL-E had the immense challenge of telling a love story between two robots that didn't have any real dialogue. The team succesfully achieved this by extracting the most of a characters ability to act and emote purely through a clever combination of design, gestures, sounds and limited facial movements."

image from WALL-E the game ; 2008

2) Your own flavor

There are some projects where the Art Direction is still vaporous or even when it's partly established- however, it's still missing the x-factor. There are numerous titles and storiesof how one painting or one sketch by an artist tied an entire project together. Most often, the best ideas are the deepest more honest ones; and this includes style and art direction. 

"Artists Nicolas Marlet and Heidi Smith both helped establish the core visual DNA of the films Kung Fu Panda and Paranorman respectively. Each bringing on board to the project their unique taste and approach to form and lines."

image by Nicolas Marlet; Kung Fu Panda

image by Heidi Smith; Paranorman

3) Pushing/Breaking the mold

Every now and then an Art Direction briefing starts with the feared "I want you to create something the worlds never seen before". A near impossible task- but always an intersting endeavor. The most reasonable way to push your design past the media landscape is to stop looking at that very landscape itself; by absorbing deeply more outside content- even surfacely irrelevant ones. Through time and persistence, you will be granted the possibility of a creative miracle.

"David OReilly and Damien Di Fede;s everything game is my example of a mold breaking take at how a video game is to be played and experienced. From the name, the choice of music to the limited animation; aims to simplify the concept of a game to it's atomic level."


image from Everything; 2017