An Exercise in Art Direction

I'm not an artist, nor a professional art director, but on several occasions now I've hired artists as a publisher or foolish designer to create art for my games. I say this not to boast, but to establish some credentials before providing information on how to do it better.

This includes Farmageddon, working with Brett Bean and Erin Fusco, Sol Rising, Hocus, and Battle for York prototypes, working with John Ariosa, and Hocus, working with Tiffany Turrill and Adam P. McIver. I also have credits as a producer on numerous games in The Sims franchise, working closely with artists.

I've written about Working with Artists before, and there are some good notes there. But, today I wanted to discuss a practical exercise to help you refine your craft as an art director. If you want to be a publisher, you owe it to the artists you hire, the designers whose games you license, and the customers you aim to serve.

Good art direction, in my opinion, is about a few things:

  • Overseeing a consistent execution. This is less difficult with a game in which you hire a single artist, but when you have a different graphic designer and illustrator, or multiple artists, this burden increases. Farmageddon has 3 artists. If you look at the art for the second suite of FrankenCrops, they clearly look like somebody else made them. That's frustrating!
  • Setting a quality bar. You get what you pay for, and unfortunately too many publishers are quick to hire folks who lack skills in perspective, anatomy, and motion. A good AD establishes a clear vision and quality bar.
  • Crafting a world that seems plausible. The world should be plausible and the imagery should support it. Just because you can put bacon with eggplant doesn't mean you should. Create a world that helps immerse the player. Make it real.

Art direction, therefore, is often about details. It's not necessarily about the broad strokes that every expects, but the subtle nuance that should almost just sneak in under the radar. Like good graphic design, some of the best art design is just there. You notice it when it's bad. So, in today's post, let's take a walk through San Francisco's Japan Town. I did a tour this weekend with my short corgi friend to take a bunch of photographs to illustrate my points. Let's go to Japan Town to identify the details and improve as art directors.

For this post, I'm going to share some photos, then discuss the details from them.


Let's start with a simple one. Something you see in an ethnic neighborhood are bilingual signs. I don't see these a few blocks away in Pacific Heights. It's a subtle detail.

FirTrees FirTrees2

I noticed throughout Japan Town there was an abundance of fir trees, which aren't incredibly common throughout the rest of the city on sidewalks. Other tree types are used. These trees also had interesting shapes, somewhat like large bonsai trees. Perhaps in order to remind folks of the homeland, they deliberately planted trees reminiscent of that location.


You can see large characters from the language adorning the walls.


Signs shaped like traditional Japanese items, like the fan.


Street signs reminding people that you're in Japan Town and it has events.


This wasn't even a Japanese book store, but the sign was wooden, which isn't typical, and had an ornate tree in the center. This stood out to me as something unique and distinct.



Let's discuss signage further. Aside from the obvious distinction that many of the signs have Japanese characters, I also noticed that many had a large icon or symbol to go with name. And before you roll your eyes at Benihana, the focus was on good examples. These aren't the only ones, just good clear pictures.

Lamp Lanterns

Distinct lighting and lanterns were present throughout the neighborhood. The hardware store feature numerous lamps of shapes you won't find at Ace Hardware.

Fountain Inscription

I looked to the art and the symbols. Here, you have a fountain/park resting place, as well as an ornate inscription on a bench. I can look further into these symbols to see if seahorses and turtles mean something and are important.


Instead of or in addition to menus, Japanese restaurants prominently display plastic versions of their food outside for passersby to observe. This is very different! The Greek restaurant in my neighborhood doesn't have their dishes in plastic out front.

Building Building2 Building3 Pagoda

The architecture of a local Japan Town hotel, community center, and home, were very different. They also had the Pagoda, which is a traditional architectural icon. You can see differences in the openness of the windows, the shingles and tiles, wall textures and materials, and paints.


Finally, cartoons and animated characters are very prominent in Japanese society. The consumption of comics in their country dwarfs that of American society. And, let's be frank, their characters and cartoons are very distinct. They are weird and imaginative.

As you look at these, hopefully you can see examples of the details that are important. We both live in buildings, eat food, and listen to music, but there are subtle details that distinguish Japanese society from non-Japanese society. You may be wondering how this is useful for your super hero game, or war game with mechs, and the exercise is still relevant.

  • What is a typical day like for the people in your world?
  • What does normal look like?
  • What are the desires, motives, and concerns of the people in your world?
  • What is the history of the people in your world? Where do they come from? A coastal place? A rural countryside?

Answer the broad questions, then begin thinking about the details. For your world to feel real and consistent, your details need to match with the visuals you provide. This is why art direction is so important, and why you should seek every opportunity to hone that skill set.

What do you think? Was this walk through Japan Town useful? Tell me in the comments below.