You'll need to be a creative powerhouse to succeed as a production designer, with a flair for visual arts that sets you apart from the rest
Production designers are responsible for the visual concept of a film, television or theatre production. They identify a design style for sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, camera angles and costumes, while working closely with the director and producer.
Once the concept is decided, designers usually appoint and manage an art department, which includes a design and construction team. They often form a strong partnership with a particular director, who they'll then work with on many productions.
Designers tend to specialise in film, television, or theatre, although there is some overlap. In the theatre, production designers are also called stage or set designers.
Most production designers work as freelancers and so an important part of their work is marketing their skills and experience, making contacts and briefing agents.
First tasks usually include clarifying the brief and agreeing a suitable fee and timescale, which is sometimes done by an agent.
After this, tasks might include:
- reading scripts to identify factors indicating a particular visual style
- considering the production brief, which may be written or given orally
- meeting the producer and director to discuss concepts and production requirements
- researching art history, background politics, historical information and producing design ideas
- planning and monitoring the design budget
- providing scale drawings or models for studio or theatre sets
- producing design ideas for costumes, wigs, props, special effects, make-up and graphics
- identifying and assessing potential studios and locations
- sourcing appropriate materials and researching effects
- presenting ideas to others involved in the production, such as actors and camera operators
- researching, estimating and preparing a property list
- hiring and managing an art department team or teams (depending on the size of the production)
- instructing the set construction company, scenic artists and special effects specialists and monitoring their work
- liaising with the costume designer and the director of photography, as well as the props, lighting and sound directors
- attending progress meetings, rehearsals and filming to advise on visual presentation
- checking sets and locations during filming to make sure requirements are met and to deal with any queries.
Production designer is not typically an entry-level position. Those breaking into the field usually start as art department runners, assistants, junior draughtspeople or set designers.
Pay varies hugely between the different roles in design production, across theatre, television and film. There are further variations depending on the budget of each production. Most roles are freelance, so it is best to check the current agreed rates with Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU). You can check theatre rates with UK Theatre.
Rates increase as roles become more senior and at the higher levels can reach over £3,000. This can only be achieved with extensive experience. At production designer level, rates tend to be negotiated on an individual basis.
Salaries may vary a great deal from one production to the next and your income will depend on the nature and number of contracts you take on. If you're on a low income, you might consider supplementing your earnings with other activities, such as teaching, model-making and exhibition design.
Only a few designers command high salaries. Those fortunate enough to work on West End productions may receive a percentage of box office takings or royalties.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours can be long and typically include regular unsocial hours and weekends.
The nature of contract work often results in intensely busy periods interspersed with inactivity if no work comes in.
Part-time work is unlikely, although freelancers can control their workload by deciding which contracts to accept. The length of contracts varies according to the nature of the production and its budget. Career breaks are possible.
What to expect
- The working environment varies. You may work in theatre workshops, television and film studios, in a design office, at home or away on location.
- Work is mostly available in cities where studios and theatres are located, although location work means that you must be prepared to be away from home, for long periods of time, at short notice.
- Employment may be insecure and flexibility is required.
- Time and budget constraints and working with demanding personalities can be stressful, but the work can also be very stimulating and exciting.
- Travel within a working day, absence from home overnight and overseas work or travel may be frequently required, depending on the productions you work on.
Relevant degree and HND subjects include those related to art and design. The following subjects in particular are most likely to provide relevant skills and knowledge:
- creative, performing or technical arts
- drama or theatre studies
- fine art or visual art
- graphic design or illustration
- interior design
- landscape architecture and design
- theatre or performance design
- 3D design.
A design qualification is good preparation for work in production design as it will allow you to build up a portfolio, which you can use to demonstrate your imagination, technical ability and strong sense of spatial understanding.
Some courses have been approved by ScreenSkills, the skills body for the screen industries. Relevant courses include degrees in TV and film set design and a Masters in production design.
Specialist postgraduate qualifications may be useful and could help you to make valuable contacts in the industry.
Entry without a degree or HND is sometimes possible, but you would usually need an excellent design portfolio and to have worked your way up from a craft-level job in the industry.
- a flair for generating original creative ideas
- the ability to communicate ideas through technical drawing and model making
- a good working knowledge of the visual arts and production processes
- a critical view of film, television or theatre, and familiarity with the work of specific designers
- persistence to follow up leads and gain work
- the ability to work with others, at all levels, as part of a team
- the capacity to manage a design project from start to finish, to tight deadlines
- the ability to be resourceful and adaptable and be able to solve practical and conceptual problems
- the capability to work independently
- the confidence and ability to appoint and supervise a design team or art department.
As with most jobs in the creative industries, competition is fierce. Getting involved with student theatre, film or music societies will enable you to make contacts, gain experience of working on a production and build up your portfolio with examples of spatial design.
Finding and entering competitions is another good way to put yourself ahead, as successful entrants have the chance to work with leading British companies on opera, theatre or dance productions. Competitions sometimes give short-listed designers the opportunity to exhibit their models and designs.
ScreenSkills runs a one year trainee scheme, Trainee Finder, which places successful candidates in film or high-end TV projects. Trainees will also be required to attend training events including health and safety, finance for freelancers, carbon literacy, branding and networking as well as industry masterclasses to improve their employability in the industry. Trainees also can gain access to an industry mentor.
You could start by working as an assistant to an established freelancer, who might take on an extra pair of hands for a particular project if timescales are short.
In film, an accepted route to gaining practical experience of the production process is to start as a runner in the art department, progressing through design assistant to art director.
In theatre, some new entrants assist experienced designers with model-making. Working on fringe productions is also a good way into the theatre scene, enabling you to showcase your work to potential employers.
Most designers start with irregular contracts and low wages and this can be difficult to manage if you have financial commitments. However, a move across from a related area, such as interior design or architecture, may be possible mid-career.
In the UK television industry, production designers are employed (usually on a freelance basis) by independent production companies and the BBC.
There are also openings in cable and satellite companies, though these have limited in-house production design opportunities of their own.
The principal organisations responsible for developing the UK film industry are the British Film Institute (BFI) and the various screen agencies operating across specific regions as well as nationally.
Theatre designers work for national theatre and opera companies, in regional repertory companies based mainly in large towns and cities in the UK, and for smaller theatre or dance companies based all over the country.
There may be occasional opportunities to work as a resident designer in national or repertory companies. Rare but prestigious opportunities arise for designers to work on West End productions and musicals.
Look for job vacancies at:
- BECTU - members can publish a profile in the freelance directory
- Screen Daily
- The Stage
Specialist directories are available that provide contacts useful for making speculative applications. They include:
Theatre designers who work regularly as assistants and are members of The Society of British Theatre Designers can add their details to the Society's assistant designer register.
After completing a degree or postgraduate course, you'll likely start in an entry-level position. You'll be expected to learn on the job, picking up the necessary skills and experience to eventually progress after many years to production manager level.
Because you'll be working to tight deadlines and on more than one project at once, opportunities for further training may be limited due to conflicts of time. Also, if you're working freelance, any professional development will be self-funded, which may present an obstacle.
You may decide that you want to learn or update specific technical skills, e.g. in computer-aided design (CAD), and could enrol on local part-time or evening courses.
Supply companies offering specialist lighting, materials or effects may run product demonstration days, which can help you to expand your repertoire.
If you work in theatre, details of courses and information about degree exhibitions and relevant shows are available from The Society of British Theatre Designers.
Useful careers information on production design, details of training courses and relevant publications are available from ScreenSkills.
To reach the position of production designer, you must have extensive experience built up over many years.
It's common, in the early stages of your career, to work across more than one genre to maximise your chances of finding work and to develop skills. It's also quite common to work in exhibition design, museum design or design for corporate events to begin with.
Once you start to get paid work as a production designer, you build up your portfolio, contacts and expertise on an ongoing basis. This may take a substantial period of time but as your career develops you may be able to command higher rates and work on higher-profile productions. At this point, many designers choose to employ an agent to negotiate on their behalf.
As your career progresses, daily work activities may become more conceptual. Bigger productions with larger budgets often have art department staff who do much of the practical realisation work, while the production designer focuses on the design ideas and concepts.
You may decide to shift your career direction slightly by moving into teaching on foundation, degree or postgraduate courses in art and design. Alternatively, you could begin directing your own productions.
A similar but alternative career option is that of costume designer. Also working in television, film and theatre productions, costume designers liaise with the director, lighting and set designers to establish the right look and feel for the costumes for a production.