How Can I Begin a Career in Set Design?

Are you interested in helping to create movies, television programs and plays, but don't want to work as an actor or director? Set designers create the backdrop, scenery and props for film, television and theater productions. Read on to discover the education and experience that you'll need to begin a career in set design. Schools offering Acting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Set Design Career Overview

If you want to work as a set designer, you'll be responsible for designing and creating sets, props and effects for film, television or theater productions. You'll choose the scenery, furniture and props for movies, television shows or plays. Your design choices will help create the atmosphere of a production, so you'll collaborate with your director and other design staff members to discuss the production's overall style. You may also oversee a crew of set designers who'll help bring your vision to life by constructing and painting sets, buying props and wiring the necessary electrical equipment. Set designers are also sometimes referred to as art directors.

Your duties will include drawing preliminary sketches, determining spatial restrictions, assembling miniature set models and building the set. To perform these duties, you should have a strong background in drawing, mathematics and architecture. Depending on the production, you may also be responsible for making sure the costs of your set design come in under the production's budget. You'll operate on a production schedule, which means you'll work long hours under a tight deadline.

Important Facts About This Occupation

Job Outlook (2016-2026) 10% growth (for all set and exhibit designers)*
Similar Occupations Craft/Fine Artist, Photographer, Industrial Designer, Graphic Designer
Key Skills Creativity, resourcefulness, and time-management skills
Mean Salary (2018) $61,020 (for all set and exhibit designers)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most set designers and set design companies are hired on a contract basis ( The BLS also reports that there is strong competition for these types of jobs. To get hired as a set designer or as part of a production company, you'll generally need a degree and some work experience.

Earn a Set Design Degree

If you want to pursue a career in set design, you may consider enrolling in a set design degree or certificate program. After completing a bachelor's degree, you may choose to enroll in a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in stage design; however, these MFA programs are often geared toward set design for the theater. Some programs may require that you submit a portfolio of your work as part of your application.

You might take classes in:

  • Drawing
  • Costume design
  • Film collaboration
  • Make-up
  • Production and performance
  • Lighting design
  • Computer application

Your program may also require you to complete a culminating project in order to graduate.

Bachelor's degree programs typically take about four years to complete, while MFA programs last 1-2 years. If you already have set design experience and belong to a union, your union may offer to pay for some of your tuition.

Work as an Intern

Your school may offer you opportunities to intern with professional set designers and gain hands-on experience in production work before you graduate. You may also consider applying to outside internships through other organizations. As an intern, you'll generally work as an assistant to the set designer. Your duties might include:

  • Conducting research
  • Attending meetings and rehearsals
  • Painting set design pieces
  • Cleaning up

Your internship might also offer theoretical courses to supplement your hands-on learning opportunities. In the case of theater, you may also use your internship to build your resume and later apply for full-time work at the theater company.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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