Begin a Career in Set Design: Information and Requirements

Sep 27, 2019

Set design is often a subfield of theater or stagecraft, and it covers how to design and build sets for theater, television shows, and movies. Continue reading for an overview of the training, as well as career and salary info for some career options for graduates.

The specific educational requirements to become a set designer vary. It's possible to pursue an undergraduate degree in theater or fine arts, or to complete an apprenticeship as a carpenter, as carpenters and artists have skills that relate to being a set designer. While pursuing a degree in theater it's possible to focus on set design, which will help develop the practical skills needed for this career field.

Essential Information

Most specialized degree programs in set design are at the graduate level, or they are offered through entertainment-focused education institutions. There are other ways to get training and education in this field, though. For instance, degree or certificate programs in general theater often require students to complete several classes in stagecraft and set design. Coursework usually includes set design, stage management, lighting and rigging techniques. Since set design involves multiple trades, including fine art, fabrication, and woodworking, courses in these other areas may also provide sufficient training. Many workers involved in set design often gain initial experience through volunteer or internship opportunities at local theaters.

Career Titles Art Director Carpenter Artist
Education Requirements Bachelor's degree Completion of apprenticeship program or associate degree Varies by employer
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 1% 8% Craft and fine artist: 1%
Median Annual Salary (2018)* $92,780 $46,590 Fine artist: $49,380

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Options

In general, set designers create plans for the sets used in film, television and theatrical productions. They work closely with directors and other designers to create a particular look and style. Many professionals draw design plans and create small-scale models for crew members to work from and replicate.

There are many different professionals involved in set design, including art directors, carpenters, and artists. These positions all have different salaries. For comparison, those with the actual job title of set designer (along with exhibit designers) earned an average of $61,020 as of May 2018, pet the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Art Director

In a management role, art directors communicate with directors and other supervisors to determine and draw out a set design concept. Some use simple sketches, while others create three-dimensional models out of wood or cardboard. Initial design concepts come from the script, but these ideas may change based on what the director envisions. After the final decisions are made, the art director creates intricate scaled plans of the set and large props for crew members to build. Other duties may include overseeing production budgets, creating pre-production schedules, hiring crafters and artisans, and maintaining communications with all parties involved.

Most employers require a bachelor's degree for this position. Majoring in theater design and technology should provide sufficient training, but degree programs in drama or interior design may also prove useful. Previous experience in the theater or set design industry is also essential for this position, and it is fairly common for professionals to have at least five years of recent experience.

The job outlook for art directors in general, including those who specialize in set design, is only expected minimal growth during the 2018-2028 decade, according to the BLS. With so few new positions becoming available, competition will be fierce. Professionals who have ample experience and impressive portfolios of work may have more of an edge in the job market. In May 2018, the BLS reported that art directors in all areas of specialty earned an average annual salary of $104,590.


Many sets are built out of wood, so carpenters are often hired as set builders. In general, carpenters follow instructions or make their own plans to construct buildings, frames, doorways, stairs, furniture, and additional structures. They possess an extensive knowledge of woodworking tools and they know the strength of different building materials. Carpenters who specialize in set design will require good communication skills to follow directions and to offer recommendations about designing sets that are both structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing.

The typical pathway to becoming a carpenter involves completing a 3-4 year apprenticeship program. During the apprenticeship, individuals may learn related skills, such as welding or rigging. Most carpentry apprenticeship programs are in the field of construction, so finding a set design apprenticeship program may prove difficult. There are also carpentry degree programs at the associate degree level. Individuals dedicated to working in set design may consider such program options as an associate degree in carpentry and a minor in theater.

The BLS predicts an average rate of growth for carpenters during the 2018-2028 decade, as new positions are expected to increase faster than average. The majority of these positions are within the construction and manufacturing industries, however, so this data may not reflect the amount of available positions for carpenters who want to go into set design. As of 2018, the average annual salary earned by all carpenters was $51,120, as reported by the BLS.


Once a set design has been drawn up and after builders have created different structures, artists are required to paint and embellish all the elements of the set. For example, some artists may be hired to paint large-scale murals for backdrops. Other artists might be needed for fabricating props. There are many different job opportunities for an artist within the set design industry, and most professionals specialize within their preferred artistic area of choice.

Education requirements vary significantly by employer. Artists are usually hired because of their advanced level of skill, which is portrayed in their portfolios. Therefore, possession of a formal degree may not be required. Many artists do pursue bachelor's or master's degree programs, though, but it is not a hard-set requirement within the profession. Experience in stagecraft may prove necessary for set design artists. Likewise, professionals in this industry are often hired based on their professional connections with industry leaders, so gaining related work experience in the industry may help boost a person's career.

Open positions for craft and fine artists are only expected minimal or no change in employment growth during the 2018-2028 decade, according to the BLS. The market is flooded with artist candidates seeking employment, and there simply are not enough positions available, so professionals will need to prepare for heavy competition. The average annual salary reported by the BLS in 2018 for fine artists was $58,370.

Every scene in a play, movie or television show has a setting, which is created by a set designer. Set designers work with the director to develop a look and style that's effective for the film or show they're working on. They may be involved in constructing rooms or buildings, determining set pieces that should be placed in specific locations within the set, or decorating an existing set.

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