But What Do They Do?
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Art Directors

But What Do They Do?
Art Directors
by Michael G. Ryan

Art Directors do not paint book covers. They don't pencil sketches all day long. They may well be artists -- such talent certainly helps them in their chosen profession -- but their title literally defines what they do.

They direct art.

Dawn Murin directs the art for D&D at Wizards of the Coast; she's worked on the world's largest roleplaying game since 1992. Once she discovered that she didn't have the dedication to continue pursuing pre-med studies in college, she realized that she actually loved art. So, after a few years of producing screen-printing for a small company ("we hand-painted T-shirts," Dawn recalls. "People would bring us stuff -- we'd paint album covers, photos, whatever they wanted"), Dawn set her sights higher.

"I got a job working in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, at TSR," she says. "My parents were convinced I was never going to make a living as an artist, but TSR had an opening for an entry-level graphic designer. And honestly, the art director position sort of landed on me by default when all the other art directors were fired."

The organization of TSR at the time consisted of a graphic coordinator -- someone who served as a team leader for the graphic designers -- and a second person who commissioned the art, which was someone who didn't necessarily have to have a background in art, Dawn notes. In time, those two positions blended into one, creating the art director position as it exists at Wizards today.

"Most people don't get what I do," Dawn admits. "I've tried to explain this to my mom, but she still doesn't quite understand my job."

Dawn likens it to the role of a movie producer -- a key player who oversees the big picture. As a new product is being concepted and discussed, Dawn guides the visual direction of the product. What are the product's goals? What is it supposed to be? What will the content be?

"With Oriental Adventures," Dawn explains, "the product was similar to the core books, but it was also going to be all Asian inspired and themed. So, my goal then was to keep enough of the core elements that it was recognizable as of the style of the new D&D yet to make it look different at the same time, more Asian inspired. I started doing research; I went to the Asian Art Museum, I went to Asian stores, I even looked at kimono fabrics. I was originally thinking of a kimono design for the binding, but that didn't work out. Instead, I looked at Japanese bookbinding. In the new D&D, which I also art directed, we'd set a precedent that the books would look like magical tomes, and I wanted to carry that theme over into Oriental Adventures."

Once Dawn determined the direction she had in mind, she presented her concepts to her designer, who began the same sort of research: how Japanese binding is stitched and the level of complexity in Japanese artwork design (simplistic and offset) as they began to design the book's cover. With that in motion, they focused on the interior art, adding small touches -- using red, a strong color in China, for the tabs and aligning the folios vertically, top to bottom, as they appear in Japanese writing -- that provided added flavor.

As simple as it sounds, getting to this point requires an incredible amount of vision and labor. After meeting with R&D to discuss the goals of the project and what they think the art should do for the book, the movie theme kicks in again as Dawn shifts from producer to casting director. Who does she think can pull off any given piece artistically? In the case of the cover for Oriental Adventures, for example, she knew just who to ask: Raven Mimura, who produced a stunning sumi-style illustration that fit perfectly with the book's theme. But the task of assigning the rest of the art is monumental. First, she reviews the lengthy list of interior illustrations individually and determines who, from her pool of artists, is the best fit stylistically for each piece. This requires her to know each artist's work intimately.

"Wayne Reynolds loves to do dead things, for example," she says. "Zombies, liches, those go to him. He loves them, and so he'll do them well."

Next, she begins a massive tracking sheet to ensure that she doesn't lose track of a single piece of art as the initial sketches begin to pour in. Oriental Adventures alone had over 100 different pieces all happening at the same time, for instance. These pieces route through Dawn, then through R&D, and everyone examines them carefully for style and composition. If there are problems, this is the time to catch them; hopefully, everyone involved in the process -- R&D, the Art Director, and the artist -- has shared the same vision, and the sketch can move on to final art with minimal changes. "Sometimes we'll have to say, 'oops, the scene is supposed to take place in the city, not in the forest,' and the sketch will need to change slightly," Dawn says. "But for the most part, we've all been working together for so long now that I know what R&D expects, and they trust me to get them the art that they want."

And Dawn's work speaks for itself. Dark*Matter, Planescape, the new D&D, Oriental Adventures, Dragonlance… the look and feel of each of these games came from Dawn Murin, who oversaw the art for each of them.

"I'm proud of all my work," she says, "but the new D&D is the most significant work I've done to date. I had numerous conversations with R&D about changing the look for the game as we began the development for the latest edition. I recognized that we're competing with video games more and more, that things have gotten a lot edgier, and that the lines between sci-fi and fantasy seem to be blurring. I understood that if D&D was going to compete and be successful, it needed to change with the times. It had to adapt and evolve."

That evolution continues as Dawn serves as art director for Deities and Demigods, for which artist Donato is contributing four pieces. "I never really call him," Dawn admits, "because the rates for RPGs are not like they are for Magic: The Gathering. We just don't have the art budget. Our print runs are smaller, the sales aren't quite the same, and it's more expensive to print a book than cards. As a result, we just don't have as much money. So, there are artists I don't call on just because I know they'd be insulted. But for Deities and Demigods, I've been able to get some amazing people. Donato told me, 'I do the big jobs so I can do the little jobs like this one that I really want to do.'"

In addition to Deities and Demigods, Dawn is also in the process of art directing Call of Cthulhu (a d20 product) and many other products for D&D. She has just begun work on one upcoming project she is very excited about "that's going to be amazing," she says. "Henry Higgenbotham, who did the three core books, is doing the cover." At this point, she's overseeing so many projects that she can't even remember all of them without her tracking sheets.

"This position is part art direction, part psychology," she says. "You're working with R&D, who are counting on you to get them what they want. You're working with artists who need reassurance and guidance. So, you have to be a visionary and a diplomat at the same time. And that's exactly what you are when you're an art director."

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