User Experience Designer vs. Creative Director

Professionals within our industry are completely awash with opportunities by which they can tweak and cajole better user experiences from their projects. The difficult part is maintaining quality across the channels. Because of how multifaceted a user’s experience can be, designers can begin to take on a more directorial position within a project/company, which I see as analogous to that of a creative director.

Creative Directors “oversee all aspects of product design” (so sayeth wikipedia.org). Historically, this means that creative directors focus on matters of branding, vision and, of course, direction. In traditional mediums, such as print or television, this meant strategic use of color, typography, music, imagery, etc. – content. This a full–time job; mass–market creative campaigns aren’t small endeavors. Initiatives require a “man behind the curtain,” (or a very closely-nit team) controlling the madness, ensuring quality and consistency.

The formula for a successful brand is simple enough: consumers trust companies that are unique, holistic, consistent, and strategic in their approach; companies that leave nothing to chance. Everything from product design and packaging design to branding and customer service builds a relationship with a consumer. By creating brands that are beautifully consistent and consistently beautiful, a creative director sends positive messages to consumers, building the trust that successful brands live by.

A contemporary analog

Today, the the prominence of UX designers has increased as many products and services occupy the online landscape. While User Experience certainly is nothing “new,” its modern practices reference many aspects of professions that were heretofore only related tangentially. For example: System Architecture, Product Design, and Human–computer Interaction.

It’s not surprising, then, that the artifacts of UX design are many and varied: sketches, sitemaps, user–flow diagrams, mental models, user research, website analytics, etc. (None of which adds perceived value to a client. Clients want to know when their website will be done and why it hasn’t been done faster.) These UX artifacts, in turn, expedite future processes and, hopefully, direct the project in its (often forgotten) effort for quality and consistency. Sound familiar?

What makes the role of the UX Designer even more challenging is that there exists a sort of “brand preemption” online—users begin to with a number of expectations for products and services they use online. This means that not only does a UX Designer have to ensure a consistent and quality experience, they also have to appeal to their users sensibilities. In sum, there are plenty of responsibilities to go around when it comes to UX direction on a project.

The state of things

Today, project roles are loosely defined because many project teams are small in scale. It doesn’t take too many distinct roles to create an online identity: generally one designer and one or two developers. Cap this off with a CEO or a project manager, add in a nice budget, and in a couple of months you’ll have a shippable product.

Especially with the economy the way it is, it seems that this model has become the norm. For success or failure, depending on the weather. How do CEOs and investors hedge their bets? They hire a project manager. Projects managers have traditionally been good at making teams deliver a functional application on time and within budget. But as a UX designer, I know that isn’t all that matters.

To begin with, “functional” requirements only determine if an application can do something, not how one goes about making an application do something. The evolution of the application landscape says that the latter has quickly become a key differentiators. Therefore, the importance of the role of someone who understands users rises.

I would like to suggest the necessity of championing the UX Designers role on projects. Indeed, if modern brands are built entirely online, their role may supersede (or cannibalize) the role of the Creative Director. If the modern User Experience director/designer doesn’t replace the creative director within an organization, she must certainly work hand-in-hand with her colleague, as each of these roles promotes the other one.

If nothing else, that’s the one thing we can be assured of: as long as there are products (online or off) the field of user experience will always have a market.

Write for UX Booth

Contribute to UX Booth
Contribute

Contribute a guest post to UX Booth and let the community know what's important to you!



Comments

  1. Great comparison, though I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. I believe 1 to be analytical and the other to be creative.

  2. I liked the article, but agree with Brian – it seems that one is more analytical (i.e. the experience architect, conceptualizing the framework of the experience) while the other is more creative, and helps to guide the building of said project from a birds’ eye view, within the larger framework of the brand personality.

    Thanks for your piece, I’ll be sure to share. :)

    Best,
    Andrea

  3. Nice read Andrew,
    I have definitely noticed that in smaller firms these lines are blurring more and more, and traditional roles are becoming more hybrid as creative teams are being built around people with multiple skill-sets. I see this especially happening in the area of web and mobile apps.

    Though there are distinct differences in each role, I don’t see it as a bad thing for them to come together more. Especially for people like myself who work in smaller firms, and are trying to creative usable, appealing applications and sites. This might be the one of the areas where is is helpful to be multi-disciplined.

  4. Great article. I agree that it’s not so much CD vs. UX but more a combination of those skill-sets that will be the future of the business.

  5. Interesting parallel’s you point out, but I think it over simplifies the role of each. A creative director doesn’t simply tie various parts of a campaign together – he actually is responsible for creating that string that ties them together.

    This doesn’t mean color/typography/design like you point out – it’s about the IDEA. Any good CD will tell you the hardest thing to do is have an idea bring everything together – and that’s their main task. Then they go about and pick apart everything that comes across their desk that’s supposed to communicate that idea. Knowing what’s best when it comes to creativity is an intangible skill.

  6. Thanks for the comments, guys! @Andrea Pegg, @Jeff DeGeorgia: I haven’t discussed this position with any creative directors, so the argument isn’t vacuous, it’s just not well-informed. I think that UX designers have an *idea* in their heads as well. I would like to posit that UX designers aren’t without (that is to say, they do have) some design sensibilities. By the same token, creative directors require some knowledge of what is technically feasible (and still usable). Both disciplines are about non-verbal/non-textual communication, so they will have plenty of intersections. I am merely suggesting that, at length, their roles seem similar.

  7. To muddy the waters further, I think a User Experience professional is not necessarily a designer. They may not design a single part of the UI, but rather generate high-level ideas and concepts, and then formulate strategies to help define products. To this point, I see both creative and analytical thought required to articulate UX vision and strategy holistically.

  8. The CD’s I work with oversee everything but do not concern themselves with the minutia of color, typography etc. If they are concerning themselves with that stuff, they need to fire their Art Director or ACD and get a new one. CD’s manage the whole create process in a broader sense, but most importantly they think/talk about Strategy and they pitch/present the creative to clients and win accounts for the agency. -dp

  9. @David Platt: So, is it fair to say that a “Director of User Experience” does a similar thing for User Experience? I only ask because design *is* part of the User Experience. I think this is where my contention lies.

  10. At Blue Flavor we have both a Creative Director (Kevin Tamura) and a Director of User Experience (myself, Nick Finck). I would agree with the statments made in the comments, there is a need for both. The Director of UX is more analytical and focused on the experience the user has with the product, where the creative director is more.. well, creative and focused on the visual experience that the user sees in the product.

  11. @Andrew Maier I believe one major point of contention between the two disciplines boils down to the client’s perception of importance. If the client feels that the design is the more important of the two then design “wins” while UX takes a back seat. Conversely, if the client thinks that the UX team is the more valid of the two, design “loses” and ends up revising their work numerous times.

    From experience, it really comes down to whether or not the creative and the UX teams have a strong rapport and level of trust with one another. If the relationships are strained then the process, projects and clients will suffer.

    Understanding fully what each teams strengths and weaknesses are helps to mitigate that strain and stress considerably. Understanding that the two disciplines look at the same problem differently and come to a solution differently is also important to factor in.

    Creative and UX are not separate states onto the themselves but two very needed and important elements that combined can provide their clients with what they asked for, needed and probably never expected.

    Both teams should work together in a seamless fashion and constantly come up with unique and creative ways to solve the most mundane of issues and come up with innovative ways to present them.

    My two cents.

  12. @Brian Cray: Can both be either? I think there is room for creative to analytical and ux to be creative. Where the problem lies is knowing when NOT to cross the line. But I guess that’s where working as a cohesive unit benefits the client.

  13. I love all the input from you guys! Keep it coming :).

  14. Are we talking European or African creative director? They could still beat a UX Designer, unless it’s TWO designers working in tandem….

  15. andrewnim September 9, 2009

    I agree the lines have blurred. As a project manager on software development I start from how the end user will use the product, not just what it should do. Building a usable app is more important than building on time and in budget. Of course its nice to have all. But you have to be willing to leave something out if it makes for a better user experience. I don’t need to be “creative” but I do need to understand UX to work with everyone to get the right result.
    Design must include UX. If it does not then its not good design. Its just pretty. Some designers get it some don’t and often the client will side with the designer. I have had a few “discussions” around there and can usually win on budget.
    In my perfect world I would work out the process and requirements and the designer and I would work out the UX, they would then give it great a design. Iterative process helps with this. The old SDLC created silo’s which compounded these sort of issues.

  16. @Nick Finck: I think it’s rare to find a company both contemporary and mature enough (talk about opposing forces) to have both roles working in tandem––which made contemplating this article hard to do.

    Do you find it easier with clean divisions of labor? –do you find yourself learning design, or the creative director learning the practice of UX? I think work isn’t silo-ed so easily today. Ultimately, you’re both working towards the same goal, but I wonder (and this article guesses at) how much overlap there is.

    It used to be that creative direction would encompass website design and that would be the end of it. But Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience clearly says that “presentation” is but one small part of UX.

    So with that in mind, does the creative director report to the director of UX? Of course not; but the question itself really manifests the change in perspective that our industry and the development of websites has undergone in the past decade.

    Like many things in an emergent industry, these questions are open-ended. In practicing my own blend of creative direction and user–experience direction (I’m the sole UX practitioner & Interaction Designer at Hashrocket) I’ve found the forces not competitive but complimentary. I simply wonder if it *should* be run by one person.

  17. Yeah, we’re in this exact boat. We’ve been contracting with a really talented designer/UX guy and we have been able to rationalize the need for someone full time in this role. He can’t do it but we want someone that would focus more on UI experience & dev but with a design eye/background.

    We’re even having problems figuring out how to put together job description for it. Any help would be great and anybody interested would be greater! ;)

    Great article, thanks for sharing.

  18. @Brad J Garland: A job description for that position would probably scare away more people than it would attract.

    I think that the best way to get a UX designer with UI background is to find someone who is good at UI design first and then champion User Experience throughout your company. Anyone interested in hearlding that initative should make themselves known. UX doesn’t take too long to understand, but (I imagine) it takes many many years to master.

    A lot of UX best practices are simply Human–computer Interaction or psychology-research that has been translated or applied to the internet. It takes a good blend of right- and left-brain thinking to make a “User Experience Director”

  19. Thanks for this thoughtful article, Andrew! I admire the quality of content you add to these kinds of discussions; it gives aspiring UX designers (and the direction of UX, in general) some sturdy legs to stand on.

    Your comparisons of the Creative Director and UX Designer lead my mind on a related and slightly naive aside: the idea that these roles are in fact equal (as you’ve intelligently explored), and have perhaps been born from unique needs.

    Being part of an agency that has it’s roots firmly planted in the printing and production-house world, we’re used to seeing projects quickly and successfully come in and out, like people in a revolving door. With print projects, there is a process which inevitably leads to sending the final piece to a trusted printer. The end result is static: a poster, an album cover, a tee. When orchestrating these short-term projects, the Creative Director seems to have a foreseeable end in sight, something they can hold on to.

    As we take on the challenges of the web and begin to expand our roles however (usually wearing more hats than we know what to do with), the projects take on a different complexity. In these situations, the end is not always clear because (at least for us) the medium feels so ethereal. Unique to this kind of problem-solving is where a UX Designer seems to flourish, acting as a Creative Director would, but with a more fine-toothed approach.

  20. I think a lot of UX Designers/Directors assume that Creative Directors do not understand the principles of of IA/UI. This may actually be the case with some CD’s with a more traditional background and I’ve actually heard quite a few UXD’s of them say that directly.

    Almost all Interactive CD’s I know and have worked with have a foundation in development, interaction, designing interaction models, in addition to the traditional creative aspects of Web development much longer than any UXD I know.

    In organizations where there is not a defined line between the two roles, what ends up happening is that both the CD and the UXD fight for control of a project. I know we don’t all want to admit that, but it seems to happen more times than not. The UXD might be focused on getting the user from point A to point B, while the CD might be focused on the same thing, but they may want a person to have an “experience” between point A and point B. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but it’s a matter of how you determine which approach to take. Someone needs to be the decider and that’s where the conflicts start.

    When UX first came on the scene as a discipline within Web development, it was primarily focused on being the “user advocate.” Somewhere along the line everyone decided that the users were correct and that we should build experiences only with them in mind. This may be the case with transactional applications, such as banking software, but when it comes to branded experiences, there needs to be a balance between what the user wants and the brand wants. UXD’s and CD’s can, and should, work in tandem to ensure that both sides are satisfied. The problems begin when either side becomes dogmatic about their approach.

    I’ve seen more UX professionals have to defend their practice lately, either from a deliverable or as an overall approach. As budgets continue to shrink, the stuff that a UXD might like to work on is often times put in direct conflict with what the client wants: a pretty picture.

    In short, there are times when UX should lead and when a CD should lead. Any person that’s not willing to accept that as a reality is doomed to fail.

  21. I think this is going to sound over-excited, but Andrew – THANK YOU. As this is an issue and a discussion that I myself have tried to talk and write about for a while, I’m ever so happy to see someone else bring this up too, and write a clear, concise and considerate article about it. This is great.

    I’d worked mainly in Northern Europe, but also in the Middle East for a short while before I moved to North America two years ago. My title in the past was concept designer, as opposed to experience architect now, and I was doing _almost_ exactly what you suggest – it was a combination of the creative director and user experience designer roles. That was not only my situation, but it was the generally recognized way of doing work and aligning roles across most agencies doing digital work in where I come from.

    Since I started working in NA, a lot of that changed, and there have been many times I’ve felt extremely frustrated by the new situation. I’ve tried to address this issue and get further conversation going with creative directors as well as everybody else by doing presentations and bringing the issue up in other conversations. The response I’ve got so far has been a mixed bag. Some people feel quite clearly threatened while some others are willing to discuss further.

    Despite all that, I agree with many of the comments here. Like Brian Clay, I don’t see that the two roles need to be mutually exclusive. As long as agencies are willing to see the meaning and value of expanding their teams to include a greater number of people whose roles overlap in some senses, I don’t see the need for the UXD role to cannibalize the CD’s role. And I personally don’t advocate that. Instead, in my head I have a model where the CD and UXD co-exist but on different levels, with a clearer understanding of each others’ roles, and this is the model I share with people when we talk about this issue.

  22. The tricky point arises when in a company so small that you are the project manager, CD and UXD. Ultimately when meeting the client you want to wear your PM hat, but also put the creative and user experience hats on when appropriate. Sometimes you just feel like a hatstand and not much of a software or design professional…

    Great article – thanks for a thought provoking read. Comments very useful too.

  23. Sandy Marsh September 13, 2009

    Andrew, I couldn’t agree more… on all points.

  24. Patrick Walsh September 15, 2009

    This is an interesting argument, but I would suggest that Interactive Creative Directors have been involved in UX design and its methods for quite some time now. As the disciplines of UX design and interaction design have become more formalized within our space we have been moving along in lockstep. I work as a ICD in an interactive agency and have always used user experience architects as a critical role on the team, however I have not yet met one of these individuals that could champion the creative component for a Fortune 500 brand engagement. Maybe I just need to look harder?

  25. A modern Creative Director, that works on interactive, should always have roots in UX design. It’s that simple; I can’t see how you would be able to “envision” or “create” new digital experiences, without having a profound understanding of what a user wants or needs. Just a great idea, or immense creativity won’t cut it in digital.

  26. Patrick Walsh September 16, 2009

    @Thijs Jacobs: Absolutely agree.

  27. @Patrick Walsh, I know a few User Experience Designer types who have successfully worked for Fortune 500 brands – for example #37, #81 and #85 on the Global 500 list – championing both the creative as well as the functional component. :)

    But I agree with the rest of your comment, and go back to what I and several others have said earlier – there is need and (needs to be) room for both roles.

  28. I agree with the general consensus on here from acting Interactive CD’s – you cannot concieve, pitch or direct great digital experiences without a fundemental understanding and appreciation of UX (and even IA for that matter). What you do need though is access to “deep knowledge” from an expert at the point where your “conceptual idea” needs defining in detail. This is not unlike other aspects of project delivery such as development where you know fundementally how a page should yield the content results you believe create the perfect proposition – but a dedicated developer would be consulted to draw up the logic and data structure to support that “vision”!

    The UX specialist should feed the creative vision but ultimately that vision is owned by the CD (on behalf of their client).

  29. I’m constantly baffled by people that think there is some divide between design and user experience. Design *is* user experience. Any designer that isn’t designing with the user experience in mind is not a designer, they’re just an artist with the wrong job title.

    Likewise the Interactive Creative Director must be, as many others have stated, a true web designer with equal talents in visual design and user experience design. Not to mention a healthy sprinkling of dev experience. If your team is big enough, or you can’t find someone with that kind of talent, then you could split the job between two people, but that would never be my first choice.

    (BTW, I’m a ICD, and I definitely do both visual design/branding and UX. I’d never hire a designer for my team that didn’t)

  30. Great Article! I am currently a UX Designer at a large Fortune 500 company. I believe that a successful UX Designer must have not only knowledge about the user and building a clear experience but also have that creative mind of a creative director and also the code mind of a front-end coder. Without these the final product will take longer to design and develop.

    Having a UX Designer is a must on any web project. Having a Creative Director I believe can help the overall direction and quality of the end product. Also, it would allow the UX Designer to focus more on what they need to focus on. I have actually proposed including a creative director on our team to help the communication on all levels of the project.

    I am curious of what other creative/web teams in this group are made up of.

  31. As an Interactive Creative Director myself I find that I also take on the role of UX, UI, Project Manager and even a bit of QC. All company organizational charts are different and that’s where the problem lies. I know a colleague whose title is Interactive Strategist and does most everything that I do. It’s having a well defined role within a company that makes the difference.

  32. Jeremy Pope December 26, 2009

    @Andrew Maier: Thank you for publishing this article. It was certainly interesting and the valuable insights it generated from others were equally thought-provoking.

    I am puzzled, however, that the definition of “Creative Director” in your section with the same title has not been addressed to any great degree by any of the article’s respondents, including yourself. David Platt contributed a solid two cents back in September, but still did not uncover *the* major difference between the two creative positions being contrasted within this blog.

    To be fair, all creative titles and responsibilities have been blurred into near oblivion as the face of advertising, marketing and media have radically morphed over the last 15 years. Still, I am of the opinion that the roles of the two positions, Creative Director and User Experience Designer, are quite different and both are necessary parts of larger teams that comprise modern agency structures.

    A Creative Director, historically, is a manager. S/he is responsible not only for the creative “vision” referenced by Mr. Platt, but also for such things as departmental development, profitability/budget forecasting, agency structure and new business development. The responsibilities of designing, copy writing and art directing are most often delegated to talented individuals with refined skills in the relevant competencies. A User Experience Designer, on the other hand, is a technician with very specific skills that are applied with a vengeance to matters related to interactive and web media. The differences are even more apparent when “integrated” and “interactive” agencies are considered separately. An “Interactive” Creative Director certainly has her/his focus on matters appropriate for the web. An “Integrated” Creative Director juggles strategy across both traditional and online media. Likewise, User Experience Designers are seldom faced with having to think strategically about traditional media, nor do they generally participate directly in the overall vision of the agency, its management and overall structure.

    That being said, I hearken back to my comment about blurring of responsibilities. I am aware that there are very small agencies and client-side marketing departments that apply the title of Creative Director to “one wo/man shows”, as it were. That is no slight to the capabilities of individuals in those roles, just an acknowledgment that those persons do not usually share the same set of responsibilities I ascribed earlier to Creative Directors in the historical definition. Also, very large agencies pass much of the agency management functions to executive level staff, allowing Creative Directors to spend more time on client strategy and team development.

    Even more perplexing as I consider this discussion, User Experience Designers in my own experience have either been part of a development team (that is programming and not creative, per se), or have been hybrid creative team staff with some design background mixed with advanced knowledge of programming and/or usability and information architecture.

    For me, this discussion brings up questions about the industry that circumvent the juxtaposition of CD and UXD. The questions that surface just beyond this horizon create puzzling, sometimes maddening crossroads for agency employers and employees alike when attempting to recruit personnel and develop careers.

    Thank you for your insights. I am hopeful that my addition may provide impetus for further discussion.

    • @Jeremy Pope

      That was very well stated and summed up. I ditto your sentiments as well as David Platt’s.

      For me the industry has become a blur of roles. I find the integrity of design to be a wash with pumping out “UXD” who are not “traditionally” trained.

      In my recruiting efforts as a CD I have experienced students, associate and designer levels as well as AD’s with very poor design skills with a focus on Interactive Design.

      My definition of “traditionally” trained is to have a true foundation and understanding about design.

      It is important to be responsible on what we as “designers” are putting out there.

      I am curious how the schools are crafting their curriculums to truly train students to be “designers”; whether you are an interactive designer, print designer, product designer and so on…

      Has the pace and demand for our Industry and all encompassing roles happening to fast for our Schools to keep up?

      — laura

  33. Firstly I wanted to say “great article”. The comparison is something that I have been considering in recent times.

    As businesses begin to shift models to incorporate and accomodate customer interaction, it’s inevitable that traditional roles are questioned. However for me the key line in this article is “if modern brands are built entirely online”. It’s very difficult to find any major brands that exist purely online. Social networks and other web services are probably the only brands that don’t need to consider how they touch consumers offline – even Google uses TV and press ads now.

    I don’t know how the roles will co-exist in the future, but I imagine the Creative Director of the future will be expected to have a deep UX knowledge base. CDs of the past had to learn TV when that came along. And so I’m sure the beast will adapt and survive.

    Perhaps another question to consider is: how will ux designers and product designers combine?

    As more and more products have technology embedded the roles will surely collide

    @martynreding

  34. Great Article. It seems to me that this is like trying to make an architectural designer and a structural engineer be the same person. Often, the SE will have a sense of design, or the architect a sense of structure for a complex shape. But it is in knowing the boundaries and collaborating to get the best of both worlds where great architecture happens. I imagine, the digital world will keep on adding components and techniques in UX, quick. That being said, we will probably see the two CD and UX working closer together, but not becoming a one man show, except in smaller organizations.

  35. Hi Guys!
    Nice Article… I am Digital Designer and already designed Interfaces for online and offline applications out of my Web Designing skills and expereince… but i like to know if there are any Short Courses available on UX? and how that can add value to my expertise? thanks

    • You could perhaps try courses at human factors international and alike. Also get knowledge by reading usability.gov or by subscribing newletters at use.com and other tones of websites related to usability, interactoin design etc,.

  36. Nice Article! I was just wondering and brought this question- I have Advertising background (education) and work experience in UX. How do I make use of my this unique combination as I sort of want to make a slight shift in my carrier. What could be job title, keywords?

  37. Interesting to read this thread two years after it began. Here’s how things have evolved where I work (a large interactive agency, doing both product design and marketing). I began as a UXD and have worked my way up to a Lead position. What I do now is really a hybrid between what would have been thought of as a UX Lead in 2009, and an iCD. I lead creative concepting, liaise with the client, lead business development, and direct both UX and Creative work for various projects. I work directly with an iCD in a partnership. We concept together, strategize together, develop messaging, approach, etc. all together. We debate sometimes, sure, but eventually reach an agreement and then filter that down to production staff, whom we are both responsible for providing feedback and direction to. It’s very organic. Sometimes the big idea comes from a UX approach, sometimes from a visual one. We’re equals, and equally responsible. It does require having personalities that mesh, but it works really well. Together, we’re more creative in our solutions than either of us would be individually.

  38. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any approach you’ll be able to remove me from that service? Thanks!

  39. vasudev menon January 18, 2012

    It is indeed an interesting article to read after 2 years of writing the initial string! Hats off to Andrew for bringing this topic to the fore. I subscribe the ideas of Jerome to a larger extent. We need a healthy, harmonious and cohesive approach when it comes to having a CD and a UXD in a large format organization. Each one needs to know their limitations and skills and should comprehend each other to come out with winning projects. Needless to say that a CD helps the user to reach to the product and recall the same at a later point and the UXD helps the user to stay there.

Related Posts