Theatre set design careers

A set designer at work
What does a set designer do, and how do you become one? Find out how to launch your career in theatre design.

If you’re a creative person and enjoy art and drama, a career as a set designer might suit you. As with many theatre careers, it’s not very secure, but you’ll certainly make your mark on the productions you work on.

What is a set designer?

Set designers create the visual side of a play, musical or opera. As well as designing the set itself, they will often also set the overall tone and direction for the other visual elements such as lighting design, costume and props, and brief other team members such as lighting designers and costume designers to work within these guidelines. Alternative terms you might hear used include production design, theatre design, scenography and stage design.

Set designers work very closely with directors in the early stages of putting on a play or musical to discuss and agree ideas for the set. The director and designer will discuss the overall concept for the production – for example where and when it will be set, and if there are any particular themes they would like to draw out – after which the designer can start to produce some rough ideas.

Normally the set designer will produce a model of the set before rehearsals start so that the backstage team know what they need to create and the cast understand the space they will be acting in. The designer may or may not be involved in the actual process of producing the set, but will need to ensure that this proceeds as planned and be available to answer questions or rethink aspects of the design that don’t work in practice. Likewise, they’ll typically need to work closely with the lighting designer, costume designer and props buyers/makers to ensure that these elements stick to brief and work as they need to.

Set design courses at university

A typical route to becoming a set designer is to study theatre design at university. There are courses available at both undergraduate level (for students going to university for the first time) and postgraduate level (for students who already have an undergraduate degree). Typically you’ll learn a range of design and construction skills, covering both set and costume and sometimes lighting.

Undergraduate theatre design courses don’t usually specify what subjects you need at A level, for Scottish Highers or equivalent. However, you will usually need to submit a portfolio of your work, so in practice studying subjects such as art, drama or textiles will help, and you might also want to take a foundation diploma in art and design between school and university to help you build up additional, good quality examples of your work. See our guide to design degrees for more detail.

If you don’t want to study set design at undergraduate level (for example, if you want to keep your career options open) you could choose a subject such as art, architecture, or something else that will develop your visual skills and allow you to produce lots of original work. To get onto a postgraduate course the most important thing is to have a strong portfolio of your work to showcase your skills; universities will probably also want your undergraduate degree to have some connection to art.

Your theatre design career after university

Most set designers work freelance – that is, they take work with different theatre companies on a play-by-play basis, rather than having a permanent job. It can be hard to establish yourself after university – you may need to do your first jobs for free or little money (for example designing a small set for a fringe festival production) and do something else to pay the bills. Or you might create your own theatre company with friends who want to be actors or directors (again, probably best to get a day-job too).

If you’re able to progress to work on bigger shows then the money should improve, but you’ll need to keep networking throughout your career to make sure you are known by the right people and are top of their wish list to hire. You’ll also need to live with the fact that you won’t have a secure income, which could be a problem if you want to buy a house.

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