A production designer is responsible for the overall look and visual translation of a screen project such as film. This responsibility includes developing the general approach to what the audience sees on screen and overseeing every fine detail included on screen. The production designer is the head of the art department and the creative driver for the director of the look of the film. Working to support the story the director is trying to tell, the production designer and the director of photography work with the director to create a consistent approach to their visual storytelling.
An art director follows through the design logistically. They are the facilitator of the design work. This role varies as to the subject matter and challenges of the project and as to the skills and abilities of the individual production designer and art director. They have overlapping roles based on each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Much confusion exists as to the definition of these two terms and what roles they play. The reasons are many:
1. Many people even working within the industry, do not fully understand the responsibilities of the production designer. Many in the general public are not aware a film’s design is controlled.
2. Originally, the head of the art department was called the art director. It wasn’t until the producer of GONE WITH THE WIND, David O. Selznick [1902-1965] created the term production designer to better describe thee importance of the role William Cameron Menzies[1896-1957] played in the overall visual storytelling that the name of the head of the art department in film changed.
3. The Academy awards never changed the title on the Oscar for the head of the art department and it remains an award for the Art Director and the Set Decorator [this role being the other main creative contributor to the design.
4. In other creative fields, the head of department is termed the art director. These areas include magazines, book design, commercials, advertising.
For these reasons, the role of the production designer and the difference with the role of art director confuses many people. I’m sure there are even more reasons and biases that add to the misunderstandings.