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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. View article »

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  • 0:02 Should I Become a Set…
  • 1:44 Step 1: Earn an…
  • 2:44 Step 2: Acquire…
  • 3:32 Step 3: Obtain an…
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Video Transcript

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 result may require tact and patience when disagreements occasionally arise.

This career has a particular set of skills requirements, such as creativity, the ability to work with a team, problem-solving skills and analytical-thinking skills. They must also have technical skills, such as knowledge of design software and computer-aided design (CAD) programs, as well as the ability to use construction tools, read blueprints, draw set sketches and construct set models. Employers tend to be more concerned with job skills as well as industry experience than they are with education. However, bachelor's degrees are common among these professionals.

So, how much can you expect to earn in this line of work? The earnings can vary greatly, depending on if you work in television, movies or theater, but overall, set designers earned an average salary of $54,920 as of May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now that we're familiar with the career of a set designer, let's walk through the steps on this career path.

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

The first step is college for many set designers. While some positions do not require an undergraduate degree, a bachelor's degree program relevant to set design 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. The curriculum tends to cover topics like rendering, drafting, stage lighting, sound and costume design. Additionally, students participate in practicums and may serve as crew members on the school's theater production team.

Many aspiring set designers benefit from internships during college. After all, employers look for set designers with professional experience as part of a production team. During college, students gain this experience by completing internships with theater or production companies, which provide hands-on experience assisting the design and production team with drafting, set construction and set painting. Such experience is so important that some degree programs require internships as part of their curricula.

Step 2: Acquire Postgraduate Training

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

As you gain experience, you should build your portfolio, a record of projects you have contributed to when serving as an intern, apprentice or volunteer. Even exceptional set design projects completed during college can be added to a portfolio. It must be updated continually, since a set designer's portfolio 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 trainees jump between various set and exhibit duties 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, the largest entertainment industry union. This organization 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.

Industry experience demonstrated in a portfolio is the main factor for employment as a set designer, though a bachelor's degree is common among these professionals and can provide the training and experience necessary for a career in set design.

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