Screens, Research and Hypertext

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Art Direction

At Soapbox, we frequently make a distinction between art directed and templated content.

Templated content is relatively simple to understand. It's your ordinary blog post or publication. You enter content into a set of fields in the CMS, and it then spits that information back out in a predefined way. Each blog post basically looks like all the others. Sure, they will have different content inside the body field, but they'll largely look identical.

Art-directed content doesn't work like this. It applies unique styling intended to enhance the story. Here's Dan Mall describing how art direction works in print:

Magazines don’t set out to simply decorate stories individually. Their goal is to combine visual imagery and language to enhance the story’s meaning. Design variations are a result of that desire, not a cause in and of itself. On a magazine staff, art directors and copywriters spend a tremendous amount of time brainstorming different ways to enhance a story, from choosing the design style, selecting related content features, and honing the story’s tone of voice.

In the world of research organizations, art direction is most obvious with annual reports, which often have a completely bespoke design and layout for each individual page.

A working paper, by contrast, is normally templated, either as a Word document with some simple predefined styles or perhaps as a document that has been typeset in InDesign, following a more sophisticated set of styles.

Art direction on the web has tended to happen in splashy "long reads"—Snow Fall-style scrolling items that make heavy use of multimedia elements and various JavaScript enhancements. These one-off items are often hosted outside the main website.

Perhaps the most useful metaphor for understanding art direction also comes from Mall, who writes:

Many consider “look and feel” to be synonyms instead of complements, treating them interchangeably. Creating a design is creating the “look.” The “feel,” however, warrants specific attention from a seasoned art director to ensure that the message isn’t compromised.