What does a stage or set designer do?
Stage or set designers (sometimes called production designers, particularly in the film and television industry) create the overall visual style of a theatre, television or film production. Working closely with the director and production team, they plan the design style for sets, locations, costumes, props and lighting, taking into account the available budget and any logistical problems that outdoor locations or complex scenery changes might bring.
Designers study the script, discuss ideas and production requirements with the director and producer, and calculate the costs for the work. They often carry out considerable research to create the right historical, contemporary or futuristic look for the production. Once the initial proposals are accepted, designers draw sketches and build three-dimensional models to produce a ‘storyboard’ showing what the sets will look like scene by scene. They prepare a production schedule for the technicians who will carry out the work, and oversee the construction and decoration of the sets.
Computer aided design (CAD) is increasingly being used in theatre, film and television work, and designers are also often skilled model makers.
In theatre, the designer is likely to work alone or with a small team. In television or film, the production designer hires and oversees a large art department team to carry out particular aspects of the design process. Other art department roles and duties vary according to the size and budget of the production, but normally include:
Assistant Art Director – translates the designer’s sketches and ideas into scale drawings and 3-D models, and monitors set construction
Art Director – project managers for the art department, they find practical solutions to realising the designer’s vision, while tightly controlling the budget.
Skillset’s website has more detailed information on specific art department roles in film and TV – see Further Information.
What's the working environment like for stage or set designers?
Designers work long and variable hours which may involve evening and weekend work, attending meetings and rehearsals.
They will usually have a design office base (sometimes at home), but spend much of their time on site in theatre workshops, or film and television studios or locations. Depending on the production, work may also involve travel, sometimes overseas.
What does it take to become a stage or set designer?
To become a stage or set designer you should:
have artistic flair and creativity, with practical skills in drawing and model making
have good presentation skills to communicate your ideas to others
be interested in film, theatre and the performing arts
be able to work in a collaborative way and have the ability to lead a team
have research skills
be able to show a high degree of attention to detail
have creative problem-solving skills and be able to work on your own initiative
be able to work within a budget and to deadlines
have IT skills for using computer-aided design software.
Stage or set designer career opportunities
Competition for jobs in stage and set design is extremely strong. It is a job where talent, flair and reputation are the main factors that determine promotion.
In film and TV, career progression is usually from art department assistant/runner to draughtsperson to assistant art director, then art director and finally production designer after several years’ experience. Designers may also progress through the props department (see Prop Maker).
About 85% of film and TV production is based in London or the south of England. There are also opportunities with television commercials and music videos. Some designers move into film/TV after starting in the theatre. Designers may also become involved in exhibition and corporate events design in between working in film, TV or theatre.
Most designers are self-employed, working on a freelance basis. Established designers often use an agent to gain work and negotiate their fees. Permanent work is rare, but is possible in larger theatres that present their own productions, or design consultancies/agencies that employ staff on a full-time basis.
If you would like to know anything about working as a stage or set desinger that does not appear on Hotcourses, further information can be found below.
The Society of British Theatre Designers
55 Farringdon Road
Tel: 020 7242 9200
Tel: 08080 300 900 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Tel: 0808 100 8094 for Scotland
80-110 New Oxford Street
FT2 Film and Television Freelance Training
National Theatre Education Department
Tel: 020 7452 3388
Creative and Cultural Skills
Tel: 0800 093 0444
Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU)
373-377 Clapham Road