Set Designer

What Is Set Design?

Anyone who has ever watched a movie or play has most likely noticed the backgrounds and settings at some point during the performance. Oftentimes, the settings in a performance lend a certain air or feel to it. They are usually necessary to either make the performance believable or add to the story.

Set design, which is sometimes referred to as scenic design, refers to the design and creation of the sets used in works of performance art, including movies and plays. At times, designing these sets may be as simple as arranging a few simple pieces of furniture on a stage. Other times, however, it may be as complicated as recreating a complex location, such as the inside of a spaceship, with limited materials.

Work Environment

A set designer is responsible for designing and creating the sets for movies and plays. Sets for each of these types of performance art are often somewhat similar, but they also have a few glaring differences.

For instance, set designers that work in traditional theaters may be a little more limited in their designs; they are often limited to the size of the stage, for example. Also, these set designers must keep in mind that the show will be performed in front of a live audience, so they must include every possible detail. Sets for plays may need to be very portable as well.

Set designers for movies and films, on the other hand, are not usually limited by much; they are often able to build much larger sets, and any small details that are left out can often be added later with a little creative editing.

Whether he is creating sets for plays or movies, however, a designer will usually follow a basic procedure.

A set designer will usually start his design process by reading the script first. While reading a script, a designer will typically pay careful attention to the settings and background descriptions. This will help him get an idea of what types of sets he will need to design.

Collaborating with other members of the crew is also an important aspect of a set designer’s job. A set designer will usually discuss the sets with the director of a movie or play, in order to create settings that help create or enhance the look and feel of a production. Set designers will also usually collaborate with lighting technicians, prop masters, and carpenters, among others.

Research is another extremely important part of a set designer’s job. These professionals will often need to be excellent researchers to create realistic sets. Creating realistic sets for shows that take place in different time periods, for example, will often require extensive research, including looking at old photographs, if available. Designing sets for productions that take place during the present day may be a little easier, but research is still usually necessary. For example, in order to create a realistic set for a movie that takes place in a police station, a set designer will usually visit one or study photographs.

After a set designer has collaborated with other crew members and done his research, he will then usually make a few sketches of how he envisions each set. While doing this, most set designers will usually need to adhere to a budget. This means that the materials and labor necessary for creating each set must not cost over a certain amount. Once a director or producer approve a set designer’s sketches, he can usually begin creating and building the sets.

A simple set can often be created by arranging some props in a room or on a stage. In some instance, however, entire rooms or even houses might need to be built. For example, since it would be quite difficult – if not impossible – for a film crew to do their job inside a real airplane, an airplane set would have to be created. Sets for fantasy worlds, such as other planets, will also usually need to be created.

Education Requirements

Although it is possible for an individual to work his way up to a set design career from within a theater or production studio, individuals who are seriously interested in set design as a career should consider formal schooling.

A degree in fine art, interior decorating, or performance art could all be the beginning of a successful career in set design. Many art and performing art schools, however, also offer studies in set design.

While studying set design, most students will also usually have the chance to get hands on training, either by working in the school theater or participating in an internship.

Creativity and ingenuity are two of the most important attributes that a set designer can have. Many times, these professionals must be able to create or build seemingly impossible sets or props with limited resources.

Individuals interested in set design careers should also perform well under pressure. They will usually need to design and build sets in a short period of time. Attention to detail is also important, since many times the little details add to the authenticity of a show.

Drawing and communication skills are also helpful skills to have for those interested in set design as a career.

Salary and Job Outlook


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, set and exhibit designers made an average annual salary of $51,600 in 2010. Salaries for set designers can vary, however, depending on a number of things. First of all, more experienced and talented designers will obviously be able to command a higher wage. Also, since the budgets for theater productions are often smaller, set designers working on live plays will usually make a little less than those working in the film industry. The location of a set designer will also usually have an impact on his salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, set designers in California and New York typically made more than those in the rest of the country.


Simply put, a set designer can find work wherever sets need to be designed. Theaters, for example, typically hire full-time set designers, but they may work with freelancers as well. Set designers can also usually find employment in the film industry, usually with large production studios.

National data

Average Hourly Wage


Average Annual Wage


Source: National estimates for this occupation

Set and Exhibit Designers Salaries by Industry

Top Paying Industries for Set and Exhibit Designers

Amusement Parks and Arcades


Other Miscellaneous Manufacturing


Business, Professional, Labor, Political, and Similar Organizations


Federal Executive Branch (OES Designation)


Motion Picture and Video Industries

Source: BLS OES - Industry Profile
Mean Hourly Wage Mean Annual Wage

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Set and Exhibit Designers

  1. San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA
  2. New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ
  3. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA
  4. Nassau County-Suffolk County, NY
  5. Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin, TN
  6. Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley, CA Metropolitan Division
  7. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
  8. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA
  9. Silver Spring-Frederick-Rockville, MD
  10. Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics OES

Helpful Resources

Set Designer Jobs