Stage/Set Designer

The Job and What's Involved

Stage designers are responsible for the visual aspects of a theatre production. It is their job to help bring the drama to life by creating a convincing environment for the actors to work in. They may be involved in costumes and props as well as sets and locations. Set designers do the same for TV or film productions.

The main tasks are likely to include:

  • Initial research, to ensure that the set captures the period and style of the production.
  • Agreeing the look and feel of the production with the director.
  • Producing sketches and scale models to create a 'story board' of the proposed set.
  • Using computer-aided design (CAD) packages to make detailed technical drawings known as 'ground plans' of the final designs.
  • Keeping the costs of the set within budget.
  • Supervising, unless there is a separate construction manager, the construction and rigging of scenery.
  • Checking the safety of all stage apparatus.
  • Choosing outdoor locations.

Stage and set designers work closely with the director of the production. The extent of the designer's input depends on the relationship with the director. Some directors may be very involved in the design process; others will leave it up to the designer.

Designers working in theatre are responsible to the production manager for producing all the detail required to realise the designs. Set designers working in TV and film report to a production designer, who runs the art department.

In larger productions, the set designer and costume designer may be separate roles. Usually, one person is in charge of both of these design areas.

Designers need to work closely with other creative and technical staff, including the construction staff, stagehands, wardrobe staff, prop makers, scenic artists, and lighting and sound teams.

Stage designers work for theatre companies on a resident (permanent) or freelance (per production) basis. Working hours vary. Some periods of long, unsocial hours are likely to ensure production deadlines are met.

Freelance designers may experience very busy periods of employment followed by quiet spells. During quieter periods, they may work in an additional, related area such as model making or teaching.

Stage designers spend most of their time in the theatre behind the scenes or working on the stage. Set designers work in studios or on location. This may involve some work outdoors.

The work may involve a lot of travel and periods away from home.

Starting salaries for a resident assistant designer in a theatre are around £15,600 a year, although most designers are freelance and negotiate their own rates.

Freelancers can base their negotiations on the minimum guidelines provided by the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) and other unions and trade associations such as Equity, the Theatrical Management Association (TMA) and the Independent Theatre Council (ITC).

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are about 500 stage/set designers working in the UK.

Employers of stage designers include regional and national theatre companies, and opera houses. Although theatres tend to be concentrated in the larger cities, there are opportunities to work in touring, repertory, community, theatre-in-education or fringe theatre companies all over the UK. Entry is very competitive.

Set designers may work for the BBC or for around 1,500 independent broadcasting companies. There are fewer opportunities in the UK film industry, which is relatively small. Set design is seen as a separate discipline to theatre or stage design, and anyone with experience in one would have to retrain to work in the other.

Set designers can advertise their services on The Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) website. Specific job vacancies are advertised in The Stage magazine.

Education and Training

Most entrants to this field start at the bottom as assistants in a design studio or workshop, possibly on a voluntary or low-paid basis, and carry out craftwork such as model making. Work experience from an early stage, e.g. in local or student productions, may be useful.

Most stage/set designers are graduates. Full-time courses are available in theatre design at HND, degree and postgraduate level. Other relevant degree subjects include technical theatre, or design specialising in theatre or set design. The SBTD website has a full list of courses.

A degree course provides opportunities to build up a strong portfolio of creative work, which is essential when seeking work in the industry. However, a portfolio is also important at the stage of applying for a degree.

Entry requirements for degree courses are usually at least two A levels/three H grades, a BTEC national diploma/certificate in a relevant subject or equivalent, as well as five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3). For an HNC/HND, candidates normally require one A level/two or three H grades.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Designers train on the job, often as assistants or model makers, or by making or sourcing props and costumes. Some may start out designing for small companies, where they are expected to make everything they design.

As with many performing arts and media roles, it is important for stage/set designers to network and build up contacts in order to progress.

Since most designers are freelance, they fund any further formal training themselves. Some may go on to learn specific technical skills, e.g. in computer-aided design (CAD); others may choose to take a post-graduate course in a specialist area.

For TV and film, Skillset supports several short, on-the-job courses run by providers in different parts of the country. These are designed for entry at junior level, e.g. for an art or props assistant. They do not always require formal qualifications, but competition is keen.

A few formal training schemes allow entry at professional level. For example, the BBC runs a design trainee scheme, offering work experience through an attachment to a production. Competition for places is severe.

The SBTD advise stage designers to join both Equity and the SBTD.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Stage or set designers should have:

  • Imagination and creativity.
  • Good aesthetic judgement.
  • Well-developed drawing and design skills.
  • Good communication and networking skills.
  • Assertiveness.
  • Knowledge of health and safety regulations.
  • Commitment to teamwork.
  • Energy, enthusiasm and stamina.
  • Perseverance and patience.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Knowledge of lighting processes and camera angles.
  • Computer-aided design (CAD) skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

Resident assistant stage/set designers can move on to work as head designers, production designers or art directors.

For freelancers employed on a job-by-job basis there is no formal career structure. Career development is dependent on working for bigger and more prestigious productions.

Get Further Information

Broadcasting Entertainment
Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU),
373-377 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT

Equity, Guild House,
Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2H 9EG
Tel: 020 7379 6000

Independent Theatre Council (ITC),
12 The Leathermarket, Weston Street,
London SE1 3ER
Tel: 020 7403 1727

Council for Dance, Drama and Musical Theatre (CDMT),
Old Brewer's Yard, 17-19 Neal Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9UY
Tel: 020 7240 5703

Skillset, Prospect House,
80-110 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1HB
Tel: 020 7520 5757

The Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD),
4th Floor, 55 Farringdon Road,
London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9200

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