Set designers are responsible for the backdrops and sceneries in plays, shows, films and festivals. Scenic design provides the mood and of a production piece. The backdrop and props provided, are created, chosen and staged by the set designer.
While some set designers are hired full-time for a specific company, the majority work free-lance in the industry. Areas that hire set designers include: opera houses, dance companies, theatre companies, film production companies, television shows, and festival organizations.
Requirements and Education
The career path for becoming a set designer does not require an education. Some companies may require it, but not all look for an education when choosing a candidate to hire. However, an education helps with expertise, experience, and provides other career options, so getting a post-secondary degree is always a good step toward becoming a professional. Some of the things a set designer needs to be well-versed in include: Computer Aided Design (CAD), color theory, model making, art history, drafting, drawing freehand and other art and design-related subjects.
As with most design-based careers, a portfolio and experience in the field is important to employers. Volunteering backstage or creating school sets is one way to start gaining experience. In large productions, a professional will start out as a runner or trainee before moving on to become an assistant set director.
Salary and Outlook
Average salary for a set director was reported at $54,310 by the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2012. This number was for 8,680 employees and did not those reporting free-lance salaries. Both the highest paying and largest field for set directors was found in Motion Picture and Video Industries where 2,010 set directors were employed with an average salary of $68,740.
Employment in this field from 2010-2020 is projected to grow at 10 percent—average speed for most industries. Scripted television is expected to grow with additional cable channels becoming available, which will increase the number of set directors needed in the TV industry.
Tips for Becoming a Set Director
- Become familiar with plots and staging history. Watch movies, shows and look at museum paintings to see what types of backdrops were used and what was successful in the past.
- Read scripts and pick up the subtle hints that will impact your design and make the scene more believable. Even the dialogue may point to props that will need to be considered (lights, windows, furniture, etc.) and added to the scene.
- Learn about the utilization of space, color theory, and design principles. Throwing items on a stage is not going to cut it. You need to learn what the professionals already know, and then add your own style. Skipping the science of design and just putting out your own style will be an arrogant mistake that will be seen as amateur and unprofessional.
- Build your skills at networking and socializing. You are going to have to meet directors, producers and managers that will give you a chance to prove yourself in this industry. Make sure you find venues where you can do this—a lot. Sell yourself and your talents without being boastful. Shy and self-conscious won’t get you anywhere, but neither will cocky and arrogant. People want to work with those who are both talented and willing to learn.
- Be flexible. Your hours, your ideas, your feelings—these all have to be able to be shifted to what those around you are looking for. If you get held up on something small, then you will be passed without a second glance. It’s a competitive industry, full of other creative minds that may have different opinions than you, so don’t hold on to your own opinions too tightly.
Sources: www.bls.gov/oes/current/naics4_512100.htm, http://www.ted.com/pages/tedx_stage_design, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/set-and-exhibit-designers.htm, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes271027.htm, http://www.creativeskillset.org/film/jobs/productiondesign/article_4675_1.asp