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Fabien Baron's 5 Lessons For Success as an Art Director

One of the industry’s most respected and successful art directors tells BoF how his profession has changed and the skills it takes to break into it today.
Fabien Baron | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Megan Doyle

LONDON, United Kingdom —In his role as art director, Fabien Baron was the man behind some of fashion's most iconic campaigns and brand logos over the past 30 years. With his knack for instantly recognisable typography and striking imagery, Baron now wears multiple hats, including those of creative director, editor, photographer and designer — sometimes all in the space of a week. "One day I'm working on something commercial, the next day I'm working on a film shoot as a set designer, the day after that I'm at Interview magazine and laying out our cover stories," he explains.

Indeed, having founded his design and advertising agency Baron and Baron in the late 1980s, the art director has since taken every opportunity to expand his skill set. “I now understand how a product is manufactured, calendars and scheduling in terms of product launches, events and PR. I have had to grow to stay relevant,” he explains.

Kanye West on the cover of Interview magazine, 2014 | Source: Courtesy

But beyond personal and professional growth, Baron’s decision to expand his skill set reflects how much the role of an art director has changed in recent years. “Developing strategy is our job now — we have to create business plans and strategies. It’s not just shooting a campaign. Now we have to consider the why, the how, the market, the business, what we spend. The list goes on and on.”

Over the course of his three decades in the industry Baron has witnessed a “huge shift,” in the industry he entered in his 20s. “Print is dying, for sure, as time goes by it’s less and less important. I don’t think people connect with it anymore. But the throwaway nature of digital is a huge problem for fashion. The amount of content you need to produce for a company has changed dramatically, and it requires a lot of energy and sometimes a lot of money to feed that machine — that social machine is unbelievable,” he continues.

Crucially, the shift towards digital media has altered the role of imagery in the industry, and decreased its potential impact. "Fashion is based on imagery and the business is based on image building. Right now, we have all these luxury companies that are still living on the DNA of print [publishing]. For an ad to work it requires a lot — a lot of meetings and marketing, a lot of emotion and work. When all these companies are pushing into digital, they need to know it's throwaway. There's no dream factor and no dimension. If you make something that is high quality, it's just going to disappear. Gucci is the first brand that understands that digital is an amazing platform to share a message. They're developing programmes that are actually in the right theme," believes Baron.

An art director should be a maker, someone that has an opinion on everything.

However, despite the disruption caused by digital media, Baron believes that the fundamental aspects of an art director’s role remain much the same, but must be reapplied to fit the needs of today’s market. Below, fashion's most famous art director shares five lessons for success today.

1. Have an opinion, develop a point of view

“You have to be original. I look for people that have their own point of view. That’s the most important thing. That’s the key, because if you can take a stand and have a place where you believe ‘I like this, I like that, I don’t want this, I don’t want that,’ then number one you can make decisions and number two, you can have a genuine opinion on fashion. I worked that out very early on. I had a very clear idea of what I liked, I was very specific about what I liked visually, on an image level, on a design level and on a graphic level. And I stuck with that. What I’ve been doing over the years, is developing all the other necessary tools to make that voice more serviceable to each client.”

2. Focus on the client’s needs

"When I work with a client, what I really want is to service that business and deliver what they need and what they expect. I can be at my office working out a campaign for Coach or doing the next campaign with Jennifer Lawrence for Dior. Then I can be looking at a book that I've designed for Calvin Klein, or designing a perfume bottle and the packaging to go along with that, but for each brand that I work on, the end result is very much what that specific brand wants or needs. My personal work is very 'me, myself and I', but when I work with a client I have to truly understand what they want, so I am able to maneuver my approach to fit their expectations and deliver the right work for their needs."

Dior magazine | Source: Courtesy

3. Embrace trial and error, new challenges

“[Junior art directors] need to acquire the mindset to be able to say that: tomorrow I’m going to direct a film, the next day I’m going to do this, the day after I’m going to do that. If you want to be an art director, you can do that, that’s what an art director should be. All the art directors working at Baron and Baron, even if they join and they’ve never worked on a film, I put them on a film. Because I believe they can do it. If they have an opinion, they should have an opinion on that too. It’s scary for people, but they manage. It’s trial and error, at the start they don’t know what to do, but they learn. An art director should be a maker, someone that has an opinion on everything, and has a very precise point of view that they can apply to different mediums. That’s what a good art director should be.”

4. Don’t let specific skills box in your career

“At the beginning of my career I was mainly working for magazines, so my skill set was really specific. I would take materials, editorial, imagery, etc., and create a great magazine out of it. I was a packager of goods. But if you put yourself in a box too quickly, it’s very dangerous. I didn’t want to do that to myself. [A magazine art director’s] point of view is like a language, and that language can be translated into different mediums. I feel that is up to people to say, ‘I don't want to be in a box, I don’t want to be the guy in the office stuck at my computer all day, doing layouts and putting text here and there.’ I didn’t want to be the guy who just does the type on the package.”

5. Keep learning 

“I’m never bored because I create opportunities to learn all the time. Throughout my career my point of view has remained very consistent, I’ve stuck with it all my life but what I have changed is what I can do. I learned other skills — photography, copywriting — a lot of other things that allowed me to have that point of view in different mediums. The more you know, the more you learn, the more knowledgeable you are, and the better able you are to resolve problems."

Visit BoF Careers to discover exciting career opportunities in Art Direction like below:

Art Director, DigitalTory Burch - New York, United States

Art Directorcarrecouture.com - Gestel, Belgium

Art Director (Design)Need Supply Co. - Los Angeles, United States

Jr. Art DirectorModa Operandi - New York, United States

See all of our jobs and career-related content on BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent.

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