Become a Set Designer: Training and Career Roadmap

Learn the steps to becoming a set designer. Research the various job duties and the education requirements and find out how to start a career in set design.

Should I Become a Set Designer?

Set designers select backgrounds, lighting, props and other items to create the scenery for stage productions, films and TV shows. They work with directors and production crews to design or recreate the appearance and atmosphere of a specific time, place or location according to the script. Some set designers, typically those with more experience, specialize in specific types of sets, such as for television, movies, live theater, trade shows or exhibits. Communication with other types of artists, like directors, who may have their own vision of the required results may require tact and patience when disagreements occasionally arise.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree, though some actors become set designers with industry experience
Degree Field Set design, scenic design, theater
Experience A portfolio of prior work may be necessary
Key Skills Creativity, ability to work with a team, problem-solving and analytical-thinking skills, knowledge of design software and computer-aided design (CAD) programs, ability to use construction tools, read blueprints, draw set sketches and construct set models
Salary $49,810 (2014 median salary for set and exhibit designers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, iSeek.org.

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

While some positions do not require an undergraduate degree, a bachelor's program in the set design field can equip students with the skills and hands-on training essential for this career. Common majors for these professionals include set design, theater or scenic design. Such programs tend to cover topics like rendering, drafting, stage lighting, sound and costume design. Throughout the curriculum, students participate in practicums and may serve as crew members on the school's theater production team.

Success Tip:

  • Complete an Internship. Employers look for set designers with professional experience as part of a production team. During college, students gain such experience by enrolling in internship programs with theater or production companies. In fact, some degree programs incorporate internships into their curricula. As interns, students may gain hands-on experience assisting in the design and production team with drafting, set construction and set painting.

Step 2: Acquire Postgraduate Training

Set designers can gain additional training and increase their desirability in the job market by gaining unpaid experience after undergraduate school. Set design graduates can apply for volunteer, apprenticeship or internship programs with museums, motion picture companies or theaters. Such opportunities may eventually lead to promotion to a paid, permanent position or qualify designers for entry-level employment elsewhere.

Success Tip:

  • Build a portfolio. Set designers should keep records of any projects they contribute to when serving as an intern, apprentice or volunteer. They can then add these projects to their portfolios. Even exceptional set design projects completed during college can be added to a portfolio. A set designer should update his or her portfolio continually through his or her profession, since it is often the deciding factor for employment.

Step 3: Obtain an Entry-level Position

Set designers who are new to the field generally start out as trainees, learning basic skills and completing simple tasks. Some of these entry-level workers jump around between various set and exhibit jobs in order to build up their portfolios and gain a reputation in the industry. As they become more experienced, they may be assigned more complex tasks and eventually go on to specialize in their chosen types of set design.

Step 4: Join a Professional Organization and Network

Many set designers are members of industry organizations. For example, those who work in movie, theater and TV production typically join the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), the largest entertainment industry union. The IATSE allows members access to events, publications and educational programs. Another option is the Set Decorators Society of America, which provides members with networking, fellowship and educational opportunities.

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