When you watch a play, movie or TV show, your eyes might be focused on the actors as they deliver their lines. Yet, every performing arts production has a non-human “character” that is essential to the success of the production: the set.
If designed well, the set can also embody the important themes of the production; it might even reflect a character’s inner journey. If you have a passion for the entertainment industry and a creative spirit, you might consider pursuing a career as a set designer. Explore this career guide to get the answers to common questions students have, like: what does a designer do? We'll also dive into a set designer job description and learn how a theatre degree can help you on your path to becoming a set designer.
Set Designer Responsibilities and Roles
A set designer is responsible for creating the fictional world of a play, movie or TV show. Consider, for example, the long-running sitcom Seinfeld. Set designers were responsible for designing everything in the main setting — Jerry’s apartment — from the furniture to the fridge magnets. They also created the show’s secondary settings, such as the coffee shop and comedy club.
Set designers work on scenery and details. In this field, “scenery” is defined as anything that is used as a fixed backdrop (e.g., furniture and wallpaper). They may also work with set dressing, such as decorations and furniture.
Note that set designers don’t just create indoor spaces for actors. They also work on outdoor scenes. Set designers are responsible for both the smallest details of a scene, as well as the “big-picture” items.
A Look at a Typical Set Designer Job Description
There is no typical day in the life of a set designer, as every day brings new challenges. A set designer’s daily tasks depend largely on the production they are currently working on. Set designers may do any of the following:
- Read the script or screenplay and stage notes thoroughly
- Meet with the director, producers and other professionals to discuss the overall vision for the production and the vision for each scene
- Develop a visual story map for each scene, beginning by drawing sketches and progressing to scale models, often with the use of sophisticated design software
Do You Need a Master’s Degree in Theatre?
A bachelor’s degree, such as a drama or theatre degree, is often required for set design positions. You can get started looking for entry-level work with your bachelor’s credential. At some point later on in your career, you may decide to head back to school to earn an advanced degree, but this isn’t strictly necessary.
Practical Tips for Finding Success as a Set Designer
Here are some tips for up-and-coming set designers:
- Keep an open mind: Until you gain some practical experience in the field and a strong professional reputation, you may need to accept some positions as an assistant at various productions. You may also pursue work as a set designer at smaller productions, such as community theatres and low-budget, independent film sets.
- Treats every gig like an audition: Everyone you work with could add to your professional network. If you do your job well, you may find yourself being recommended for more prestigious gigs.
- Keep learning: Spend plenty of time engaging in purposeful viewing when you watch movies, TV shows, musicals and plays. Keep a notepad close at hand and jot down notes about the props, scenery and other critical elements.
- Stay up to date: Like many professions, set design evolves over time. Trends come and go, and new technologies emerge. Keep up with the latest developments by reading industry blogs and practicing with a wide range of design software programs to improve your digital skills.
- Join a professional network: Joining a network for set designers and other entertainment industry professionals can nurture your career and expand your professional connections.
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Effective Set Designers
Throughout your academic years and professional career, you’ll learn to fine-tune the essential skills and traits that will fuel your career success. Set designers can benefit from having the following:
- A creative spirit
- A collaborative mindset
- Interpersonal skills
- A willingness to take calculated artistic risks
- Computer design skills
- Sketching and model building skills
Combine your passion for entertainment with purpose when you enroll in the theatre degree program at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and Drama degree program will instill crucial competencies in stage management, set design, theatre production and other core areas. You’ll also have the opportunity to audition for GCU’s yearly theatrical productions and our Cantalopes Improvisation Club. Click on “Request Info” at the top of your screen and begin planning your future at our Christian learning community.
Approved by the Assistant Dean of Theatre on Oct. 3, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.