How to Become a Set Designer

How to Become a Set Designer: Career Path Guide

To become a set designer, you typically need to attend a specialized design institute, or artistic academy. However, you can also get started and become successful in this career by getting on-the-job training by working in entry-level jobs such as a designer’s assistant or prop maker in theatre, or as an art department trainee or runner in film or television.


If you want to become a set designer, you first need to determine if this career path is a good fit for your skills, interests and personality traits. If the following description sounds like you, then you’re probably well suited for a career as a set designer:


• You love working with others to create things that have a visual impact

• You have natural artistic ability

• You have drawing, painting, sculpting, and computer aided design (CAD) skills

• You are able to work within strict budgets and timelines

• You have the artistic flexibility necessary to adhere to the overall vision of a director

• You are willing to travel, or temporarily or permanently relocate for work

• You enjoy the satisfaction of having others enjoy your creations

• You are willing to endure periods of limited income while finding stable employment


Below we've outlined what you'll need to begin a career as a set designer. We've also included helpful information for this career, such as salary expectations, an outline of the skills you’ll need, educational requirements, a list of possible employer types, and much more!



Education Needed to Become a Set Designer

Although formal education may not be a requirement to be hired by some production companies as a set designer, it is highly recommended. Education or training at a specialized conservatory such as the National Theatre School of Canada can assist aspiring set designers gain knowledge and training in areas that are crucial to their future success.


Below is a list of relevant coursework and training that is highly relevant to becoming a set designer:


• Computer Aided Design (CAD)

• Drafting

• Freehand drawing

• Scenic painting

• Model making


Fortunately, there are many post-secondary institutions in North America that offer programs and coursework related to becoming a set designer.




Set Designer Job Description

Set designers are responsible for the plan and creation of settings, scenic environments and props for various productions including dance, opera, theatre, video and film. The set designer is also responsible for creating a look that communicates the director’s concept of the production.



Set Designer Job Duties

• Review and analyze script and consult with director to conceptualize designs

• Research styles of architecture and building interiors appropriate to the time period being depicted in the production

• Research stylistic details such as art, paintings and accessories

• Share research and developing concepts with other designers

• Develop drawings and sketches of three-dimensional models to communicate design ideas and requirements

• Work within budget and resource restrictions, such as available labour

• Select materials and supervise the construction and production of sets and props

• Attend rehearsals and oversee the integration of set design with performance



Who Employs Set Designers?

Although some set designers may be hired as permanent employees, many work as freelancers that are contracted for specific projects. In either case, set designers are typically hired by any of the following types of organizations or groups:


• Theatre companies

• Film and television production companies

• Opera and dance companies

• Festival organizers



Gaining Set Designer Career Experience

While there may not be a set path to take when becoming a set designer, participating in a wide range of set design related activities is a great way to break into the field.


You can start volunteering for community and school productions at a very young age, and the sooner you start the more relevant experience you will acquire. Working at summer theatre festivals is a great way to gain experience and make valuable contacts.


The more set design related activities you have a chance to participate in, the better. Working in such areas as costumes and lighting will give you great background knowledge when it comes to set design.


Finding work as a set designer may be easier if you live where there are lots of sets! You may want to consider moving to a location where a lot of theatre and film productions are based. Living in New York, Toronto, Vancouver or Los Angeles will give you a chance to be close to the action.


While some set designers are able to start designing sets relatively early in their career, many set designers have to accumulate a lot of relevant experience before they are trusted to design sets for theatre, film or television productions. 




Skills Needed to Become a Set Designer

In order to become effective in a career as a set designer, and perform your job duties with competence, you need to posses a certain set of skills. These skills are usually acquired through a combination of schoolwork, practice, career experience and natural ability.


• Above average artistic ability

• Drawing, painting, sculpting, sewing, and carpentry skills

• Able to use computer-aided design (CAD) programs

• Able to perform research, such as researching period clothing and costumes

• Able to supervise construction and ensure the set is being constructed as designed

• Able to delegate work to others

• Strong understanding of theatrical rigging and safety

• Able to work within strict budgets and timelines

• Able to remain organized when working under pressure



Is a Career as a Set Designer Right for You?

A career as a set designer is perfect for individuals who love to work with others in order to create things with a visual impact. Anyone who is serious about pursuing a career as a set designer should first review the positive and negative attributes of this career.


As many set designers work as freelancers, portfolio development and marketing skills may be necessary in order to secure jobs. Working as a freelancer may imply that in the beginning of one’s career as a set designer, job stability may be very low.


If planning to work on feature films, an aspiring set design should strongly consider moving to a city where film production is highly active when they have gained sufficient experience.


Set designers must work very closely with other design professionals such as lighting, sound and costume designers. This may result in conflict of opinion, or it may be highly synergetic. Having your creations enjoyed by multiple audiences however, can be extremely satisfying.


Necessary personality traits of a set designer:


• Creativity and artistic vision

• Artistic flexibility

• Ability to supervise tasks

• Must be able to work in a team setting

• Must be able to handle pressure

• Attitude flexibility



Set Designer Career: Work Environment

Personnel: Set designers must collaborate closely with the director of the production, as well as costume, lighting and sound designers. They may utilize the services of an agent, and may have to meet with producers when being considered for a contract.


Working Hours: Set designers often work long hours to meet deadlines. During the course of a production they may be very busy every day of the week. Conversely, if they are in between productions, they may have periods of inactivity, or activity solely related to marketing their services and meeting producers.


Work Setting: Most set designers work out of their homes or studios during the creation phase of a production. As the production progresses they may work indoors or outdoors to supervise set construction.



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Set Designer Salary

Set designers mainly work on a contractual freelance basis, and because of this their personal incomes can vary significantly. The earnings of a set designer can also vary depending on their level of experience, education and reputation.


The type of production a set designer works for can also have a large impact on earnings. For example a set designer who works for a community theatre production will typically earn much less than a set designer who works on a major motion picture.


Set Designer Salary Alberta: According to the 2013 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, Albertans working in the Theatre, Fashion, Exhibit and Other Creative Designers occupational group earn an average salary of $24,101 per year.


Set Designer Salary Canada: According to Service Canada, the average salary level of Canadian workers in the Theatre, Fashion, Exhibit and Other Creative Designers occupational group is $35,014 per year.


Set Designer Salary United States: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage of American workers in the Set and Exhibit Designers occupational group is $53,990.



Careers Similar to Set Designer

Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to Set Designer, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.


Costume Designer

Exhibit Designer

Furniture Designer

Prop Maker

Sound Designer



Set Designer Career: References

Please consult the following resources to find out more about what set designers do, how much they make and other occupational details:


Occupations in Alberta:Set Designer.” (June 1, 2009). ALIS website - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved January 13, 2020.

Occupational Employment and Wages:Set and Exhibit Designers.” (March 29, 2019). Bureau of Labor Statistics - United States Government website. Retrieved January 13, 2020.

Work & Careers:How do I become… a set designer.” Georgie Bradley (March 6, 2014). Institute of Food Science Technology website. Retrieved January 13, 2020.

Theatre People:The Set Designer's Job.” (n.d..) American Association of Community Theatre website. Retrieved January 13, 2020.



Scholarships for Becoming a Set Designer

Scholarships listed for majors that apply to becoming a Set Designer can be found on our All Scholarships by Major page.


Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!



Becoming a Set Designer: Applicable Majors

Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point to becoming a set designer. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!


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