What is the difference between an Art Director and a Graphic Designer? Good question and one I would like to answer for you by looking at 1) the career path, 2) skills and 3) responsibilities.
THE CAREER PATH
An Art Director tends to work in an advertising agency with the following career path:-
Junior Art Director
Senior Art Director
Associate Creative Director
A Graphic Designer tends to work in a branding/design agency with the following career path:-
In an ad agency, "art director" is a speciality, half of a creative team, like a copywriter. But in design, you tend to work closely with the wider creative team.
The simple difference is that a graphic designer is focused on the execution and the art director is involved in the concept of the idea.
But, it's not that simple, because, there are plenty of designers that are conceptual and a lot of art directors that execute. So, we need details.
A lot of Art Directors start as Graphic Designers, but it's actually not a requirement. You'd be surprised how many Art Directors I've known and worked with, who completely lack basic design skills.
Those skills are mainly around the elements of visual communication and craft. When I say craft, I mean things like layout, typography, colour, and even illustration. You focus on the "how" of a project. How is it going to come to life visually? You're experts in making it look amazing.
As an Art Director, your skills move more into the conceptual side. It's less about "how" it looks, and more "what" is the idea? So, those skills are a little more abstract: ideation, the conceptual connection of pieces, and creative direction.
However, with those skills comes the requirement to be able to see, understand, and direct others' unique skill sets. And to do that, you usually need to have those skills, as well. This is why so many Art Directors are expected to have design skills.
As the Graphic Designer, you're responsible for the look, feel, and like I said earlier, craft of the project. Depending upon what that project is, it could mean you're creating a design system, assembling a layout, developing typography, building the UI/UX, etc.
You'll work with others who are even more specialised in their trades: typographic designers, UI/UX designers, retouchers, producers, etc.
Basically, if it involves making the project look good, it's on your head.
On the other hand, the Art Director's responsibilities are much more varied. First, there's the execution side. Brainstorming, idea development, presentation or deck building, and comping up pieces are a few of the more concrete, labour-intensive parts of the job.
Then it gets into the management side because an art director's role is in its name: you direct the art. In reality, an Art Director works with a Graphic Designer. But you also work with photographers, illustrators, animators, colourists, editors, mixers, and pretty much anybody that's involved in the creation of a project. You help direct all those experts towards the same goal of executing a project cohesively.
You're the conductor of the orchestra, helping all the musicians play the same song.
Most of the time, you need to work very closely with a producer, because along with you, they are the connection between these different experts. And that will involve going to tv and/or photography shoots, edits, mixes, press checks, etc.
But at the core of it, you need to sell that idea through, the entire way, from the client to the finish line.
I hope that has made it a little easier to understand the roles and how they differ.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the difference and if you agree to be an Art Director or Graphic Designer does indeed differ.