Learn 7 Habits of Highly Successful Art Directors from Blizzard

As an Art Director it is your responsibility to supervise and make sure that what is being created fits within the overall vision of the project and that everything works together in unison. This week at GDC 2015 Ben Thompson of Blizzard gave some great insight into the 7 key habits of a highly effective Art Director, and discussed some of the things he's learned as an Art Director on video games like Hearthstone.

1. Hire to Your Weaknesses

One of the first habits he talked about was in the hiring process. Hiring to your weaknesses is extremely important, because weaknesses are things keeping your team from being balanced. The goal is to have resources available to you that will help you tackle problems that arise during a project. One of the reasons you want to hire to your weaknesses is the simple fact that you can't do it all, even though we'd all like to think we can tackle any challenge that comes our way, but that just isn't the case. The truth is however, that many Art Directors are afraid to hire artists that are too strong of a talent on their team, because it may highlight their own weaknesses, but that shouldn't be the case. If you only hire weaker candidates then you will stunt the teams creativity. Do not be afraid to hire those stronger talents. They will challenge you, just as you challenge them, they themselves are not good at everything, just like you, but the key is to hire artists that complement each other.

2. Cultivate Successful Failures

During his time as an Art Director on Hearthstone, Ben mentioned that cultivating successful failures was a huge part of the project, specifically on the art team, but also the game as a whole. A successful failure is a failure with deep insight and clarifies the path forward. This idea of not being afraid to fail is a culture that is only possible on your team if everyone feels comfortable proposing any ideas that comes into their head without fear, and ultimately it's up to you as the Art Director create and nurture that type of culture. As an Art Director you shouldn't be afraid to show your own weaknesses and failures. You also want to find the successful pieces in the failures, and learn from mistakes. There are often failures that look like good ideas, and you'll likely run into these types of failures during a project, these types of failures are much harder to recognize they hide behind beautiful concept art from your art team, or even something you created yourself. But the ideas that you shepperd and defend throughout the process should be ideas that you truly believe in, and ultimately you have to maintain a healthy separation between ideas and yourself, that is where the failures will come to the surface. Anything that does not push or promote gameplay first should be taken out, no matter how pretty it is.

3. Get Comfortable in the Middle

Often times we see the Art Directors as the person up front, and they are the final world and at the top of the organizational chart, but often times an Art Director should be in the middle. First and foremost an Art Director is not king of the hill, they are not the the head man in charge. The fact of the matter is that being king of the hill gives you a great perspective of everything surrounding you, except the hill itself. You can't see what you're standing on because you're too busy looking out, and you have a hard time keeping an eye on where you came from and how you got there. A very popular model is the creative funnel, the idea of taking everything at the top and taking all the chaos of the creation and jamming down this creative funnel, so whatever comes out the other end is right. This is helpful for finding a solution but the problem is that it makes you the Art Director the pinch point where all the answers have to come from and that is a lot of pressure, and you'll have to carry the weight of all the visions. Instead, it's better to keep that creative funnel, but instead place you and your team directly in the middle of the creative funnel and that widens the pinch point. All the choices still have to go through you as the Art Director, but what comes out the other end of the funnel is organized and inline with the style of the game.

4. Don't Have the Right Answers, Have the Right Questions

Ben Thompson also stated that we all assume the Art Director has all the right answers, and as an Art Director you may feel compelled to give an answer at times, even if we are not sure that the answer is the right one. By doing so you're creating more free from those who are asking the questions, and can weaken their trust in the Art Director which is not a good place to be. It can be good to turn a question into another question, because you want your team to be able to learn how to solve their own problems if they are going to be successful without your presence at all times.

5. Art Direction, Not Art Dictation

As the Art Director it is your duty to guide those responsible for the day to day, the people doing all the bulk work. Your method of delivery is always important, you may be setting yourself up to be the sole source for all the information and dictate that out to the rest of the team with little to no reason or education as to why, a dictator tells someone what to do, if the they don't do it they start over. Instead, try to be the "nice guy" this kind of Art Director educates those around them along the way, the power of educating your people and staff will lead them to trust in you and advocate your vision. Try to leave out that nagging response, or the "That's how I would do it" feeling when communicating with your team.

6. Guidelines & Gameplay Evolve

It's important to remember that guidelines and gameplay always evolve, and so should you as an Art Director. Gameplay is leading priority for every decision you make along the way. Ben mentioned that on Hearthstone they had four things in the "Style Guide."
  1. Charming & Whimsical
  2. Simple & Clean
  3. Real & Physical
  4. A Valuable Collectible
These are the things as an Art Director you should be focusing on, but it's also important to remember that things can change and you need to be ready to adapt to those changes.

7. Does It "Look" Good vs. Does It "Feel" Good?

Does it "look" good is really a quality thing, that is a team thing, that is what you took all these steps to build. Does it "feel" good is really a vibe and consistency question, and one you should be asking as an Art Director. It's up to the Art Director to decide what looks right, and also what feels right for the art direction of the project, and what fits within the overall game. The ultimate goal as an Art Director having done your job well, you should be able to pull any little element out of the game and anyone will be able to instantly recognize what game its from, that is your responsibility to make sure everything feels cohesive.