What makes a good tech art director

Here is a question I’d like to throw out to the community:

What makes a great tech art director?

This could cover a lot of potential areas: is it technical knowledge? Is it people skills? Is it is planning and organization? Production savvy? Refusal to panic?

This is obviously an open ended question but as the role itself if fairly new (I think the first time I actually saw it as an official title was only 2009 or thereabouts) it would be very useful to see what people want, need or expect from tech art direction – the ways its similar to traditional art direction, the ways it differs, and what are the critical skills.

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Wide Technical Knowledge and Abstraction

A good TD should be able to have a wide technical knowledge, even if it’s not very deep. The best TD’s IMHO are the ones who can span multiple departments and skills together, which requires the ability to keep a lot of disparate ideas in your head at once. I think this contrasts with more specialized artist roles where they’re required to be good and focus on one thing.

More importantly, a wide technical knowledge should allow for being able to abstract concepts to bridge software and workflow design to benefit the most number of people, rather than just for a specific use case. This is a trap I see many TD’s fall into where they get tunnel vision on their designs.

Component Design

A lot of TD’s also fall into the trap of designing things as one monolithic piece and getting inundated by implementing it as such.

The best TD’s IMHO are those who can split their tasks into smaller components and develop accordingly. Progressive development and releasing is much more valuable in production than dropping a giant tool all at once.

Similarly the best TD’s know how to release those components into production piece by piece, so that they can get tested without requiring a mass migration at once.

People Skills, especially under stress

A TD needs to be collaborative, and by definition, our role is often to help others work to the best of their abilities. A great TD should be charming and calm, able to handle crazy situations without breaking down their relationships during stressful times.

They should also be able to diffuse situations since they’ll often find themselves drawing the short straw when it comes to people’s general anger at issues on the show, even if it’s not their fault.

The people skills also come in to play when a TD wants to move into an architectural role. They need to be able to sell their ideas to the people around them, and part of that is forming great relationships with them.

Being social also helps in forward career momentum because you’re more known in the studio and people will request for you more on new projects and roles.

Confidence

The best TD’s are the ones who are confident enough to push forward with their ideas. Many TD’s don’t push for their ideas and let it die. A good TD should feel comfortable presenting ideas BUT also feel comfortable getting push back. The other trap many TD’s fall into is taking feedback too personally and getting upset by it. You must have the confidence and the thickness of skin to make great things.

Curious but Reliable

The best TD’s are the ones who are curious. Who are always trying to learn new things and do new things. The worst TD’s aren’t the ones who don’t do that, they’re the ones who do this but don’t finish their previous projects.

Be curious, be bold but also finish things.

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More from the slack…

Many folks will have seen this before, but It’s a (long-winded) summary of how I think about the discipline which also tends to sum up what I think the key services a TAD provides and the problem domains they need to be thinking about. Just as “art director” does does not mean “best artist”, “tech art director” is really about balancing the conflicting demands on the discipline for the good of the project and the team – not just being the best coder or the most whizz-bang shader programmer or whatever:

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