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What does a Set Designer do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A set designer is an entertainment professional who designs scenery. These designers work in film, television, theater, dance, concert, and pageant production, as well as in other areas. Any event which requires the presentation of people on a stage will involve a set designer, whether it's a speech from a head of state or a daytime soap opera.

Historically, many set designers learned their craft by working from the ground up. They would start in the scenery department with tasks like painting and carpentry, and gradually develop more advanced skills and aesthetics until they could work designing sets. Most designers today are trained artists, with many having MFA degrees in arts, theater production, or set design specifically. During their training in art school, university, or college, future designers have an opportunity to work as interns in theater productions and on productions in their own educational institutions.

The work of the set designer involves a great deal of cooperation. The designer often meets first with the director and other members of the artistic staff such as lighting designers and costume designers to discuss the aesthetic vision and image of the production. Someone doing a post-apocalyptic Hamlet, for example, would probably have very specific ideas about the look and feel of the show which would be brought out in the art design. The artistic staff make sketches and meet on multiple occasions to develop a unified look and feel with elements which will complement each other.

Set design is very much influenced by costuming and lighting, and when art designers work together, the results can be stunning. While coordinating efforts, the set designer also starts work on building scenery, including engineering moving scenery and special effects with scenery. It is also common for the set designer to work with the props department, developing props which will mesh well with the look and feel of the show's design.

The set designer supervises crews of electricians and carpenters during construction, keeps other members of the creative team advised about progress, and works to make adjustments as the sets, costumes, lights, props, and actors all start to come together. The goal is to deliver a finished and functional set on time, with the set designer remaining on call in case problems develop.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By David09 — On May 18, 2011

A lot of set designers get their start working in theater. Set design jobs involve a lot of disciplines, like art, carpentry and engineering, and local theaters offer the most practical route to learning this trade. Some art schools also offer degree programs in set design, and recently, software packages have been developed that help in set design.

These programs resemble Computer Aided Drafting packages. Instead of being used to design buildings, however, they allow the designer to create virtual sets that can then be designed and modeled.

By everetra — On May 17, 2011

@anon166433 - A film set designer has to become familiar with color palettes and schemes. If you look at movies, the sets are designed in a way that all the props in the set suggest a mood that matches the scene.

This includes the color of the props and their arrangement on the set. In effect, a set designer uses the set to “paint” each scene in a way that matches the mood, taking into account the ambient lighting and any other available lights.

By anon166433 — On Apr 08, 2011

what do you do to make sets look so effective?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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