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The New Role of the Art Director



By Jason Fell
11/01/2007

The role of the art director continues to evolve as the magazines they work for keep ramping up their presence online. Someone who just a few years ago was using InDesign or XPress to design pages is now learning HTML and Flash and using streaming video to accompany editorial content online.

"Online is a totally different reading experience, and you have to design accordingly," says Ben Barbante, a long-time magazine/Web designer who most recently was in the IT field. "There is some carryover in the philosophies of print design to Web design, but I basically had to empty out my mental cup of print design knowledge and experience in order to design for a new medium. Designing magazines is very dimensional. It's about pacing. Online, pacing isn't so much of an issue because the user decides where he or she wants to go next. It's our job now to keep users visually interested so they don't click outside of our Web site."

One significant difference is how the design and layout need to not only attract but keep a reader's attention. "People online, initially at least, are in a hurry," Barbante explains. "On home pages, magazines need to make sure their link-throughs are obvious. You need to give your elements contrast and make them stand out. Give the users bites of information so they can easily find what it is they came to your site for, then read it."

The Digital Shift: A Learning Curve in Progress
Last year the Thomas Register-a directory for industrial information, products and services-joined the growing contingent of titles that have ceased publishing in print to become an online-only brand, moving all of its content to its Web site, ThomasNet.com. One hurdle the management team had to overcome was determining how many, if any, of its dozen print designers had the skills and desire to work in a digital-only environment. "We hired a new manager who had significant Web design experience to lead the new team," says Tom Greco, ThomasNet vice president of publishing operations. Greco oversaw the design team through its transition to online. "We then had to assess everyone's skills and weaknesses and did two things: We created a general training program on everything from content development to technical HTML and CSS and Web design; and held individually tailored training sessions where people weren't as strong."

The ThomasNet team, which also designs Web sites for its clients, primarily uses HTML, CSS and Dreamweaver for its design projects. Part of the training regimen included having the designers create mock Web sites from scratch. "We worked with them on an experience level to get their skills up," Greco explains. "What we have seen over time is that their skills continue to improve.

"If people have the motivation, then learning this stuff is possible, and very necessary," Greco continues. "There is a ton of content on Web design available on the Internet. There's no shortage of books and training sessions. These are skills that can also be self-taught."

Barbante agrees. "I learned Flash by reading books and subscribing to the online learning site Lynda.com," he says. "I learned step-by-step, fumbling my way through until I got things right."

Looking Forward
Art directors need to be flexible, unafraid of change, and as knowledgeable about Web-based design tools as they are proficient in print design fundamentals, says Greco. "The art director has a multitude of different skills now, not just one," he says. "Anyone who is in the graphic-design business today needs to possess Web skills. It's imperative."

"With the downsizing of staffs at many magazines, it pays to be versatile," Barbante says. "There is room for specialists in the creative field, but you have to be damn good in order to be so specialized."

To navigate the evolving industry, Barbante agrees that a good designer should find a balance between technical knowledge and design basics. "Before getting neck deep in technology, like learning Photoshop and Flash, get a good solid grounding in design," he says. "Change is the only constant, and you have to be willing and able to change in order to survive."

By Jason Fell
11/01/2007







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