Set designer

Set designer article illustration


Set designers develop a set concept for performance and supervise its execution of it. Their work is based on research and artistic vision. Their design is influenced by and influences other designs and must conform with these designs and the overall artistic vision. Therefore, the designers work closely with artistic directors, operators, and the artistic team. During rehearsals and performances, they coach the operators to obtain optimal timing and manipulation. Set designers develop sketches, design drawings, models, plans, or other documentation to support the workshop and performance crew. They may also design exhibition stands for fairs and other events.

Set designers typically do the following:

  • Concept, create, and craft sets to be used on TV, film, movies, and theatrical productions.
  • Sketch out set plans, using hand-rendering or computer software.
  • Assign staff to complete design ideas and prepare sketches, illustrations, and detailed drawings of sets, or graphics and animation.
  • Read scripts to get an idea of what set will entail.
  • Order materials for production of set.
  • Oversee building of set, working alongside construction workers and assistants.
  • Research architectural styles and previous sets for inspiration.
  • Select the furniture, wall coverings, floor coverings, and large props to be used in set.
  • Capture time period and mood with adequate props and lighting.
  • Produce scale models for director to approve.
  • Make changes to set as necessary.
  • Provide estimations on how much set will cost to build.
  • Help builders adhere to budget.
  • Analyze stage entrances and exits to ensure set is situated properly.
  • Demonstrate set abilities to crewmembers, including actors.
  • Ensure stage is properly broken down and disposed of after use.

Other titles

The following job titles also refer to set designer:

exhibition designer
scenic designer and artist
scenic artist
theatre designer
scene designer
theater designer
scenery artist
scenic artist & designer
scenic designer
set designer, builder and dresser
scenic artist and designer
set designer, builder & dresser
scenic designer & artist

Working conditions

Set designers work in a theatre, in an office, on a film set, in a creative studio, from home, or at a film studio. Their working environment may be physically demanding and outdoors some of the time.

Minimum qualifications

An art-based degree or similar is generally the minimum required to work as a set designer. However, some employers may accept a completed apprenticeship. Extensive experience working in television, theatre, or film is considered an asset.

ISCO skill level

ISCO skill level is defined as a function of the complexity and range of tasks and duties to be performed in an occupation. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 the lowest level and 4 the highest, by considering:

  • the nature of the work performed in an occupation in relation to the characteristic tasks and duties
  • the level of formal education required for competent performance of the tasks and duties involved and
  • the amount of informal on-the-job training and/or previous experience in a related occupation required for competent performance of these tasks and duties.

Set designer is a Skill level 3 occupation.

Set designer career path

Similar occupations

These occupations, although different, require a lot of knowledge and skills similar to set designer.

pyrotechnic designer
lighting designer
sound designer
stage machinist
flying director

Long term prospects

These occupations require some skills and knowledge of set designer. They also require other skills and knowledge, but at a higher ISCO skill level, meaning these occupations are accessible from a position of set designer with a significant experience and/or extensive training.

puppet designer
video designer
mask maker
furniture designer
glass artist

Essential skills and competences

These skills are necessary for the role of set designer.

  • Analyse the artistic concept based on stage actions: Analyse the artistic concept, form and structure of a live performance based on observation during rehearsals or improvisation. Create a structured base for the design process of a specific production.
  • Draw prop sketches: Make sketches of envisioned props to help develop the concept and to share with others.
  • Monitor developments in technology used for design: Identify and explore recent developments in technology and materials used in the live performance industry, in order to create an up-to-date technical background for one’s personal design work.
  • Work ergonomically: Apply ergonomy principles in the organisation of the workplace while manually handling equipment and materials.
  • Understand artistic concepts: Interpret an artist’s explanation or demonstration of their artistic concepts, inceptions and processes and strive to share their vision.
  • Draw stage layouts: Manual drawing or sketching of stage layouts.
  • Safeguard artistic quality of performance: Observe the show, anticipate and react to possible technical problems, ensuring optimal artistic quality.
  • Analyse score: Analysing the score, form, themes and structure of a piece of music.
  • Monitor sociological trends: Identify and investigate sociological trends and movements in society.
  • Analyse the scenography: Analyse the selection and distribution of material elements on a stage.
  • Perform quality control of design during a run: Control and ensure the quality of design results during a run.
  • Communicate during show: Efficient communication during live performance, anticipate any possible malfunctioning.
  • Update design results during rehearsals: Updating the design results based on observation of the stage image during the rehearsals, especially where the different designs and the action are integrated.
  • Research new ideas: Thorough research for information to develop new ideas and concepts for the design of a specific production based.
  • Define set materials: Make set construction drawings, define a proper set building and select painting materials and methods.
  • Adapt to artists’ creative demands: Work with artists, striving to understand the creative vision and adapting to it. Make full use of your talents and skills to reach the best possible result.
  • Verify feasibility: Interpret an artistic plan and verify whether the described design can be executed.
  • Prevent fire in a performance environment: Take steps to prevent fire in a performance environment. Make sure the space complies with fire safety rules, with sprinklers and fire extinguishers installed where necessary. Make sure staff are aware of fire prevention measures.
  • Use communication equipment: Set up, test and operate different types of communication equipment such as transmission equipment, digital network equipment, or telecommunications equipment.
  • Coach staff for running the performance: Give instructions to all team members about how they should run the performance.
  • Meet deadlines: Ensure operative processes are finished at a previously agreed-upon time.
  • Analyse a script: Break down a script by analysing the dramaturgy, form, themes and structure of a script. Conduct relevant research if necessary.
  • Propose improvements to artistic production: Assess past artistic activities with a view to improving future projects.
  • Present detailed design proposals: Prepare and present detailed design suggestions for a specific production to a mixed group of people, including technical, artistic and management staff.
  • Adapt existing designs to changed circumstances: Adapt an existing design to changed circumstances and ensure that the artistic quality of the original design is reflected in the final result.
  • Create set models: Create three-dimensional models of the envisioned set layout.
  • Use technical documentation: Understand and use technical documentation in the overall technical process.
  • Sketch set images: Quickly sketch ideas for set layouts and details.
  • Develop design concept: Research information to develop new ideas and concepts for the design of a specific production. Read scripts and consult directors and other production staff members, in order to develop design concepts and plan productions.
  • Model sets: Produce plans, drawings and models of sets.
  • Develop design ideas cooperatively: Share and develop design ideas with the artistic team. Conceptualise new ideas independently and with others. Present your idea, gain feedback and take it into account. Make sure the design fits with the work of other designers.
  • Define prop materials: Decide what materials the props will be made from, and document the conclusions.

Optional knowledge and skills

Optional knowledge

This knowledge is sometimes, but not always, required for the role of set designer. However, mastering this knowledge allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Labour legislation: Legislation, on a national or international level, that governs labour conditions in various fields between labour parties such as the government, employees, employers, and trade unions.
  • Copyright legislation: Legislation describing the protection of the rights of original authors over their work, and how others can use it.

Optional skills and competences

These skills and competences are sometimes, but not always, required for the role of set designer. However, mastering these skills and competences allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Draw up artistic production: File and document a production in all its phases right after the performance period so that it can be reproduced and all relevant information remains accessible.
  • Lead a team: Lead, supervise and motivate a group of people, in order to meet the expected results within a given timeline and with the foreseen resources in mind.
  • Provide documentation: Prepare and distribute documentation to ensure all people involved in the production receive relevant and up-to-date information.
  • Adapt props: Adapt existing props for use in a specific production.
  • Define set building methods: Decide how the set will be built and document the conclusions.
  • Purchase props: Buy the required props for a performance.
  • Make set construction drawings: Visually describe the various pieces of the set in order to develop the plan and to share with others.
  • Adapt artistic plan to location: Adjust plans to other locations with regards to the artistic concept.
  • Work safely with machines: Check and safely operate machines and equipment required for your work according to manuals and instructions.
  • Update budget: Make sure that a given budget remains up to date using most recent and most accurate information. Anticipate possible variations and ensure that the set budgetary goals can be reached within the given context.
  • Prevent technical problems with stage equipment: Anticipate possible problems with mechanical and electromechanical stage equipment.
  • Use personal protection equipment: Make use of protection equipment according to training, instruction and manuals. Inspect the equipment and use it consistently.
  • Paint sets: Paint set constructions and stage props.
  • Translate artistic concepts to technical designs: Cooperate with the artistic team in order to facilitate the transition from the creative vision and its artistic concepts to a technical design.
  • Analyse the need for technical resources: Define and make a list of the required resources and equipment based on the technical needs of the production.
  • Organise resources for artistic production: Coordinate human, material and capital resources within artistic productions, based on the given documentation e.g. scripts.
  • Keep personal administration: File and organise personal administration documents comprehensively.
  • Define prop building methods: Decide on how to build the necessary props and document the process.
  • Prevent technical problems with scenic elements: Anticipate possible technical problems with scenic elements.
  • Work with respect for own safety: Apply the safety rules according to training and instruction and based on a solid understanding of the prevention measures and risks to your own personal health and safety.
  • Build props: Build props from a variety of materials, working with the design staff to create the appropriate prop for the production.
  • Mark the information from the ground plans on the stage area: Interpret the designs and other scenic drawings to clearly mark the information from the ground plans to the stage area.
  • Document your own practice: Documenting your own work practice for different purposes like assessment, time management, job application etc.
  • Ensure visual quality of the set: Inspect and amend the scenery and set-dressing to make sure the visual quality is optimal with in constraints of time, budget and manpower.
  • Follow safety procedures when working at heights: Take necessary precautions and follow a set of measures that assess, prevent and tackle risks when working at a high distance from the ground. Prevent endangering people working under these structures and avoid falls from ladders, mobile scaffolding, fixed working bridges, single person lifts etc. since they may cause fatalities or major injuries.

ISCO group and title

3432 – Interior designers and decorators

  1. Set designer – ESCO
  2. Set designer – Explore careers – National Careers Service
  3. Set Designer Job Description – Betterteam
  4. Set Designer Job Description – DiversityJobs
  5. Featured image: Photo by Skylar Kang from Pexels
Last updated on March 31, 2023

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