Set Designer Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a set designer career? Get real job duties, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a set designer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Set Designer Career

A great set design helps to bring out the best in any television, movie or stage production. Here are a few of the pros and cons of a set designer's career:

Pros of a Set Designer Career
Salary is above the average in the U.S ($53,000 mean annual salary)*
Opportunity to contribute to the arts in theater, television or motion pictures*
May have flexible working hours*
Skill set can be used in a number of industries**

Cons of a Set Designer Career
Requires rigorous educational preparation***
May need to work in a series of short-term jobs instead of one steady job*
Possible long hours or hectic schedule just before a production opens*
May need to work under time and budget constraints*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Princeton Review, ***iSeek.org.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Set designers use the information in scripts, historical information as well as instructions from art directors to create the sets used in theater, television and motion picture scenes. Sets must support the story that is being told and express the ideas that writers and directors are trying to convey to the audience. Some set designers work in theaters creating sets for live performances, such as opera or plays. Others work in television studios making sets for talk shows, news programs or television shows. Movie set designers may work on a sound stage or on location.

Duties for set designers may include meeting with the directors and other members of the design team to discuss how scenes should look. They must also study scripts to identify what sets are needed. Set designers may do research to learn how to capture a particular historical period. They may draw - by hand or computer - pictures of the set and create a miniature model to show what the set should look like. Set designers also oversee the carpenters who build the sets and work with those who set up the lighting. They also work with the set decorators and prop handlers.

Job Prospects and Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), set designers may work in one place year round (for example, at a particular theater), but are more likely to work a series of short-term jobs for which they are paid per project. When a designer works on a long-term project, such as a season of a television series, he or she may be paid a steady salary for that period of time.

Job growth in this field is expected at between 5% and 8% from 2014 and 2024. Mean annual salary for set designers was $53,150 in 2014.

Education Requirements

Most people in set design have a Bachelor's of Fine Arts degree in theater, interior design, set design or a related field. A number of schools require that bachelor's degree candidates spend a year working on their basic art and design skills before they are fully admitted to the program. Some students go on to obtain a master's degree in order to focus on their own original project. According to the BLS, there are about 150 accredited programs in theater arts and about 300 accredited programs in art and design.

Useful Skills

Set design is a highly collaborative career that involves being able to both give and take instruction. Other skills that you'll need, in addition to creativity and artistic talent, are:

  • Being able to solve problems
  • Knowing how to work as part of a team
  • Having good computer skills, particularly with design software
  • Being adept at making independent decisions

What Employers Are Looking for

Many of the jobs posted require candidates to have strong technical skills and some experience. Additionally, a number of jobs are for short-run plays or movies that are shooting for only a few days. Being constantly on the lookout for work and having your portfolio and credentials ready to go will likely help you land a position. Here are a few of the listings available in April 2012:

  • The art director of a theater in Missouri is looking to hire a scenic designer who will also function as a technical director. The successful candidate will be designing and building sets for two musicals and a play. You'll need to mail or e-mail a cover letter and your resume, preferably with links to your online portfolio.
  • An animation studio in Oregon is hiring a set designer to use pre-approved production illustrations to make designs for the sets. The job includes making scale models to use for animation environments. Qualified applicants will have a bachelor's degree in film, art or a related field (or equivalent education and experience). He or she will also have three years experience in drafting construction blueprints, as well as skills in several applicable software programs and a knowledge of puppet scale and forced perspective.
  • A professional staffing firm is advertising for a freelance set designer to work in Pennsylvania. Qualified candidates with have worked in broadcasting (preferably set design for television) and have at least five years set design experience. This job would include the creation of construction drawings, paint elevations, scale models and architectural adaptions.

How Can I Stand out?

Develop Your Skills

Any activity that increases your technical skill and your artistic ability is likely to help you stand out in the field. One way to start is by volunteering to work with the art staff in local productions, such as those at your high school, community theater or local house of worship.

The National Association of Schools of Art and Design, the accrediting body for art and design programs, recommends getting the admission requirements for the schools you are interested in and start developing the skills to meet their requirements as soon as possible. Drawing as much as you can, learning art history and getting a well-rounded high school education will help you in your education and in your career.

Once in college, build your portfolio with your class projects and any other design work that you do. Become familiar with as many design software programs as possible; different employers may want you to use a specific program and you'll have a head start if you're already familiar with that brand of software.

Alternate Career Paths

Exhibit Designer

If you like the idea of creating sets and background scenes, but are not interested in the entertainment industry, you might want to become an exhibit designer. According to the BLS, exhibit designers have the same educational requirements and skills as set designers, but create displays for trade shows, exhibits and museums. Like set designers, the mean annual salary for exhibit designers was about $55,000 in 2011, but job growth may be better. The BLS states that people who design museum exhibits will see job opportunities increase by 17% between 2010 and 2020.

Art Director

If you like design but want a wider variety of venues to choose from, consider becoming an art director. Art directors create the visual style for product packages, newspapers, books and magazines as well as video, television and motion picture productions. While their tasks may vary depending on the industry, art directors are responsible for the overall image of a product or production and oversee the work of others on the art or design team. According to the BLS, art directors have at least a bachelor's degree in art or design and work experience. Many began their careers as photographers, graphic artists or designers. Some go on to get master's degrees in fine art or business. The average pay for art directors was about $96,000 per year in 2011. Expected job growth in this field is slower than average at 9% between 2010 and 2020.

Popular Schools

  • Campus and Online Programs
    1. The Art Institutes

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Film (MFA)
      • Film (MFA)
    Bachelor's
      • Set & Exhibit Design (BS)
      • Digital Cinema & Video Production (BS)
      • Digital Film & Video (BFA)
      • Digital Filmmaking & Video Production (BFA)
      • Digital Filmmaking & Video Production (BS)
      • Digital Filmmaking & Video Production (BA)
    Associate's
      • Digital Filmmaking & Video Production (AAS)
      • Digital Filmmaking & Video Production (AS)
      • Digital Filmmaking & Video Production (AA)
      • Audio Production (AS)
  • Campus and Online Programs
    2. Full Sail University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science - Film Production
      • M.S. - Entertainment Business
    Bachelor's
      • BS - Film (Campus)
      • B.S. - Show Production
      • BS - Audio Production
      • B.S. - Digital Cinematography
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • B.S. General Studies - Fine Arts
    Associate's
      • A.S. General Studies - Fine Arts
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    High School Diploma
      • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
      • HS Diploma
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    DePaul University

Featured Schools

The Art Institutes

  • Film (MFA)
  • Set & Exhibit Design (BS)
  • Digital Filmmaking & Video Production (AAS)

What is your highest level of education?

Full Sail University

  • Master of Science - Film Production
  • M.S. - Entertainment Business
  • BS - Film (Campus)
  • B.S. - Show Production

What is your highest level of education?

Indiana Wesleyan University

  • B.S. General Studies - Fine Arts
  • A.S. General Studies - Fine Arts

What is your highest level of education?

Penn Foster High School

  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
  • HS Diploma

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