From Doing to Directing


By Geoff Coates

I’m a first time art director! It’s something I’ve been a lead artist for years and have wanted
to make the jump to art director, because I’ve always wanted to have more of a say in the overall
direction of a game. Plus I look good in thick black framed glasses. But here’s my problem: I
don’t feel like I have any value any more as an artist! Most of my day is spent in meetings, and I
never get to make anything anymore. I’m afraid that I’m losing my skills! What should I do? Do I
need to turn in my black turtleneck sweater and go back to just creating?

Feeling Devalued

Dear Devalued,

The “black turtleneck sweater” thing is an offensive stereotype! We don’t all wear them. Mainly
because it would hide the long, graceful neck that each and every art director has.

But what you’re going through is pretty common. In fact, I don’t know of any art director who’s
been promoted to that position who HASN’T struggled with the transition from Doing to

Being clear on why you want to art direct is important here: some artists want to be the
artdirector for the reason you gave: to have a larger voice in the overall direction of the game. Or,
just as commonly, some see art direction as the next logical step in their career.
This happens to a lot of artists: they become leads in their discipline, and can’t see any further
career advancement other than art director.
The problem is, the skills that got you to the top of your discipline usually aren’t the same ones
you need as an art director.
To put it bluntly: Your value to the studio changes. You’ve been valued so far in your career by
what you can make. Now, as art director, your value lies in how well you can help others to

Communication is your greatest tool as an art director. Communicating direction to your art
team, and communicating progress and intents to your producers, studio, and clients is your
number one responsibility.

There are a LOT of tools you can use to communicate which I’ll talk about in the future, but
for now, you can start shifting your thinking around where your value lies with these 3 basic ideas:

1: If you’re at your desk, you’re doing it wrong.For most of your career, you’ve equated hard
work with long hours at your desk, building worlds
or creatures or the like. You had a case of Cherry Coke next to your sleeping bag, and you
hunkered down for long, unwashed hours of creating. That’s what got you to where you are
today! So it’s strange to think that now, as art director, you’re more effective OUT of your chair
than in it.
At the concept stage, you’re working with designers and producers to flesh out the ideas behind
the game. You’re working with concept artists to develop a signature look for the game. During
production, when development is moving at a rapid pace, your team needs you to be available
to them to answer questions, provide feedback, and approve work. You need to bring artists
over to a level designers to discuss problems, you need to break up slappy fights between
artists and level designers.
So if you find you’re spending more time at your desk than you are at other people’s desks,
make an effort to switch it up. Force yourself to get up, go to another artist’s desk, and see
where you can help them with their work.

2: Use your words.It happens: you have an artist who’s just not…getting it. You’re at their desk, trying to describe
what’s “off” about their work, but it’s kind of hard to describe. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Why
aren’t they getting it?
They’re probably not getting it for the same reason you can’t describe it. Sometimes, direction is
subtle, and it can be easy to get wrong. If you’re having a hard time putting it into words,
chances are that the artists on your team will be creating work that doesn’t fit your expectations.
This is when it’s important for you to step back and work on the definitions, the pillars of the
game direction. Is it painterly? Bright? Weathered? Decayed? What are the artistic influences?
What other games, or movies etc. are touchpoints for you? Having pillars and keywords you can
rely on will prevent you from saying the words nobody wants to hear from an art director:
“MOVE! Let me show you!”

3: You’re SUPPOSED to be in meetings.
You wanted to have a say in the direction of the game, remember? Well, meetings are where
that happens. It’s easy (and fun!) to complain about the number of meetings you have to attend
now that you’re an art director. Depending on where you work, and the studio culture around
meetings, you could go from having one or 2 hours a week devoted to meetings as an artist, to
having one or two hours a week without a meeting. This can be a little soul crushing at first.
Again, you’re used to thinking that your value lies in in making things, when in fact you’re of
much greater use to your team by discussing, planning, and shaping the direction of the game.

Here are a few tips to help you cope with your new reality:

Change your perspective.
Like I said, meetings are where the game’s direction is decided on. Sometimes it’s in leadership group
meetings, sometimes it’s design brainstorms…sometimes it’s in one on ones with another
artist. But no matter what the meeting, if you go into it with an expectation that questions will get
answered and decisions will get made, you’ll start to change the way you see meetings.

Say no.
It’s tempting (and fun!) to just click “OK” on every meeting request. But ask yourself: Do you REALLY
need to be there? Are you going to add anything to the meeting? Are you going to get
anything out of it? If the answer’s no to both of those questions, then you might not need to go.
It seems overly simplistic (because it is), but you can usually clear about 20 percent of your
meetings out of your calendar this way.


Maybe you’re not the best person for the meeting. Maybe one of your artists, one of those lucky stiffs
with one meeting a week on her calendar, would benefit more from attending. Delegating
to your artist is a great way to get them to meet with other team members they might not
otherwise interact with, and it helps grow them in their roles. They can give you the summary of
the meeting afterwards.

And if all else fails, and you’re stuck in your fourth meeting of the day…you can always fill your
notebook with drawings of your coworkers.