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A Day in the Life of a Set Designer

Okay, so it’s not the award everyone stays up until midnight to see who won, but the importance of a set designer to a play, musical, or movie is paramount. From minimal productions, like grade school plays, to multimillion-dollar movies, the set is a silent supporting actor. Moods, meaning, and media are all affected by the set design. Any flaw – a misplaced building, an uncomplimentary color scheme – can ruin the authenticity of any production. Set designers are involved in all aspects of “creating the scene,” from stage construction to costume creation to the use of props. They research, design, and supervise construction of the visual aids required in stage, film, and television productions. Set designers have above-average artistic ability. They are drawers, painters, sculptors, sewers, and carpenters of the set. Set designers usually start with freehand sketches of what the scene should be. They then move to scale models, working in tandem with the director of the production, the production manager, and writers. Once their plans are finalized, the set designer supervises construction workers who build the sets. They also work with people in charge of lighting and sound. They have to have a strong understanding of theatrical rigging and safety. Lately, as the trend of movies using computer generated worlds, specially trained set designers are called upon to create fantastic worlds using a mouse and a keyboard. The set designer has to take into consideration a production’s budget when building sets. The smaller the budget, the more creative the set designer may have to be to build a world that entrances the audience without costing a fortune. Set designers mostly work in large production theaters and movie studios, and they work long hours, particularly up to the night of the first performance.

Paying Your Dues

Set designers usually attend specialized design institutes, or artistic academies. However, the ability to build a set can also be gained through on the job training. It’s not hard to imagine a set designer starting out their career with small church productions, working their way up to school plays, college productions, and then Broadway. Okay, it’s a long shot, but with a ton of talent and determination, it’s not impossible. Most set designers study specific courses, gaining degrees in theater. Set designers are required to attend interviews or auditions, and to bring with them a portfolio of past design or artwork. Some work under the tutelage of more experienced set designers.

Present and Future

Theater has been around for thousands of years. Greek tragedies were admittedly minimalist in set design – masks. But through the ages, plays have found more and more need for set designers. Now, set designers are employed by theater, film, and television production companies, usually under contract for the duration of a particular production. Some set designers work on a freelance basis. But it’s not just traditional media that set designers are working in. with more movies like the Matrix and Star Wars Episode I, set designers may find themselves in font of a computer screen, developing other worldly sets that exist only in cyberspace. One study showed that competition for jobs in this field is intense. Getting the high profile, high paying jobs requires an outstanding ability and artistic flair. Demand for set designers is linked to the number of films, television programs and stage shows under production at a given time, the level of funding available and popular trends in entertainment.

Quality of Life


Without much training or education, young set designers may find themselves stuck in the role of building Noah’s ark or straw houses for the Three Little Pigs. With at least two years of college, set designers can take on university productions and community theater. Some set designers may create sets for low budget movies at this point. During this time, set designers gain knowledge and understanding of building materials and techniques. No matter the level of production, set designers learn how to handle high stress and adapt well to last minute changes in a performance environment.


The stress of putting on a show never goes away; but after five years, being able to anticipate problems before they occur is a likely, and much appreciated skill. Most set designers with five years experience in community theater may decide it’s time to move on to bigger projects. Others may feel that bringing joy to their hometown audiences is reward unto itself.


The value of a set designer with ten years or more to a producer and director is extraordinary. At this stage in asset designer’s career, they should be able to see the world the director wants to create – sometimes before the director see it. As a set designer’s reputation grows, they may be called on to do bigger and bigger productions, until someday they are up on stage themselves, thanking their parents and the producers and everyone else they can remember for the award they have just received.