A set designer’s job is to create the overarching look of any given set on television, in film or in the theatre. This means that the role is a slightly unique combination of creativity and practicality, as you have to conceptualise an idea, design it and then do your best to make it a reality with the team of people around you.
The role is given a variety of different names depending on where you’re based. In film and TV the role is often known as a production designer, whereas in theatre, it can also be known as a stage designer. However, the same skill set is intrinsic to all three types of designer.
The role is one which fits inside the planning stages of a production, starting right at the conceptual planning meeting and running through right until opening night or until filming starts. You’ll have to understand the concepts of the production you’re involved in, work with your director to make sure you’re singing from the same hymn sheet, and have a good understanding of the creative sphere.
You’ll also need good delegation skills and to be a good orator, as you’ll need to convey exactly your needs to a variety of people including make-up artists, lighting and sound teams, carpenters and electricians and props technicians.
Salary & benefits
There are literally no set guidelines as to how much you can earn in the industry, because set designers work on a nearly constant freelance basis, unless they belong to a big theatre or a corporation such as the BBC.
Freelance rates can vary widely, based on your experience and your proven track record, but the best set designers are highly in demand from Hollywood and can earn tens of thousands from working on one blockbuster production that does well at the box office.
Like most roles in the industry, working hours are about as flexible as can be depending on the projects you are undertaking and the stage that your productions are at.
Working hours can be extremely long, however, and will almost certainly involve weekend and evening work when deadlines for production dates are looming.
Most set designers begin with an arts related degree or qualification. Drama schools and several Universities have begun to offer courses in set design and more specialised branches of it, although architecture, fine art and graphic design remain stalwart pillars of the set design profession.
Training & progression
The majority of a set designer’s training would come on the job, learning from those who have lots of experience and doing their best to emulate the leading figures whilst adding an innovative twist.
As your career progresses, you would build up your portfolio with your past experiences and build your reputation through the industry and your contacts within it. You could join the Society of British Theatre Designers in order to further boost your reputation, and look at doing a postgraduate qualification in a relevant discipline.