Advice from Hal

This article originally appeared in September/October 2002 issue of Communication Arts. Hal Curtis is a brilliant creative, and this is one of the best articles ever written to students of advertising. We've linked to this article a couple of times, but since it's become harder to track down online, we're including it here so you can refer to it in the future. Enjoy.

A Note To Student Art Directors
by Hal Curtis

Dear Student Art Director,

In the last decade, advertising schools that teach you how to put together a portfolio have prospered. If you are currently enrolled in one of these fine institutions, well, good for you. But there’s something I’d like you to think about.

First, let me just say this. Advertising schools are a blessing to our industry. They provide a constant stream of talent that, more often than not, is able to acclimate to the agency environment and contribute.

Which is good.

But the focus of these institutions on advertising, advertising, advertising, has a price. There is a good chance you are not being exposed in depth to the things that constitute an art director’s fundamental foundation, that you are not collecting the tools that will enable you to exhibit a high level of executional craftsmanship.

Here’s the thing. While you’re getting a terrific education in the advertising aspect of art direction, you are studying less and less the fine-art aspect.

You are getting the ad part.

But not the art part.

Which is not so good.

I write this letter because I want you to become an art director. I don’t want you to become an ad director. I’m very sure we have enough of those already.

I should mention that one of the nice things about Wieden+Kennedy is that a whole bunch of people send their work to us. I’ve looked at literally hundreds of student art director portfolios over the last several years.

Your competition.

Here’s what I see:
1) I see competent conceptual thinking.
2) I see underdeveloped typographic skills.
3) I see underdeveloped layout skills.
4) I see the computer more than I see the art director.
5) I see work derivative of other advertising.

Hey, I’m really happy that today’s art director is more conceptual than ever. Because it’s a fact and that’s great. We all know that concept is king. But never, never, never—Young Student Art Director—underestimate the importance of execution.

Here’s a little creative director mathematics for you to think about.

Assume you are a creative director and you need to assign a project.

You have a good writer available. You need to team that person with a partner. Here’s the math part:

A) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual and executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

B) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual, but poor executional skills = A good idea not fully-realized.

C) Good Writer + Graphic Designer with strong executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

It’s complicated I know. But to the creative director, A and C are happy scenarios. But B? Decidedly not happy. It produces weak advertising.

What should you learn from this?

That unless you develop the ability to execute, the creative director might as well hire a graphic designer. And why not? They put it down better than you do. And a good writer is providing the conceptual part. So while your conceptual ability is a good thing, the fact that you can’t execute has hurt the final product.


Agencies are not in the business of training art directors. Agencies are in the business of selling a quality product to clients who are willing to pay for it. Agencies require personnel who contribute to the creation of that quality product.


As an aspiring art director, you may exit a technical school with a portfolio that can get you a job, but if you find yourself standing at a lightbox beside a print production manager unable to give competent direction because you don’t understand basic concepts like value and chroma, it’s a problem. And if I’m the creative director who hired the portfolio, it’s my problem.

The point of all these paragraphs and silly math equations is simply this: Make sure you know the fundamentals of art direction. If you are not getting enough of this currently, go get it on your own. It’s all out there if you’re willing to look for it.

I’m not an educator, but my guess is that the drop in the executional proficiency of today’s entry-level art director is due to some horrible collision of the computer and the curriculum.

The computer because it teaches art directors how to be lazy.

The curriculum because it focuses on making ads, not art.

Here are a few ideas. You’ve probably heard most of them before. That’s probably because they are important.

1) Learn how to draw. I never trust an art director who can’t draw. I know there are those rare examples of great art directors who can’t draw, but it still drives me crazy. Drawing is simply an understanding of how lines and shapes fit together to communicate an object. If you can draw, you can probably lay out a page. Or compose a television frame. Or do all sorts of other art director things.

2) Develop a passion for typography. Good type is rapidly becoming a lost art and that’s sad. If you don’t know what a ligature is or you’ve never heard of Jan Tschichold—go ask one of your instructors. I hope they know. And hand letter a couple of alphabets while you’re at it.

3) Understand value and how it behaves.

4) Become a closet editor. Other than music, it’s the single most effective way to impact a piece of film.

5) Make photography a hobby.

6) Use your hands. It’s the quickest way to make your work distinct because no one uses them anymore. I will quit the business the day “hands on” becomes an item on a pull-down menu. The computer is a wonderful tool, but your brain and your hands are much, much better. And they’re yours. Not everyone else’s.

7) Look to anything but other advertising for inspiration. There’s culture all around us. Pay attention.

And may I also add that Communication Arts is a wonderful publication.

Influence it. Don’t copy it.

Best regards,