What Does a Set Designer Do?

Set designers, or scenic designers, are responsible for the worlds that characters on the stage and screen inhabit: from the rooms, buildings, and outdoor spaces they move through to the pieces of furniture that fill them, and even aspects of presentation like the set's angle. All of it tells a story to the audience, and it's the job of the set designer to ensure that the director's vision comes across in the visual language of scenic design. The set designer is a member of a show's core design team, a group which might include the director, lighting designer, costume designer, sound designer, stage manager, music director, choreographer, and playwright or librettist.

Scenic designers must possess a keen eye for visual design and style, impressive technical acuity and attention to detail, and—vitally—a wellspring of creative vision.

The set designer's work starts with a careful reading of the script, followed by a series of meetings with the core design team. After the group has firmed up the director's vision, the set designer's real work can begin. It's a complex process to create the set for a theatrical show, requiring outward-facing design choices—creating a space that evokes key aspects of setting, mood, character, or subtext—as well as inward-facing ones—creating a backstage area that facilitates easy movement for the actors and stagehands. In addition, set designers must consider elements like blocking, pyrotechnics, trap doors, large ensemble scenes, and dance numbers (if the show has musical elements). Once a set designer's basic ideas have been approved, it's time to build maquette, or small model of the set. If the maquette seems sound, the set designer works with the technical director, carpenters, painters, and props artists to bring it to life.

Set Designer at a Glance

Career Path

While a formal education is not a requirement to make it in this field, most set designers have bachelor's degrees and an increasing number pursue master's degrees in theater arts. Whether or not aspiring scenic designers enroll in a degree program, most start out as carpenters, painters, lighting technicians—members of technical crews. Experienced carpenters with excellent portfolios and basic set design skills can work as assistant set designers or apprentice under more experienced set designers, before working as a full-fledged set designer on a community or regional theater production.

Experienced, successful, and innovative set designers might be gradually recruited for larger and more prestigious productions, while those with broad knowledge of technical theater disciplines could become technical directors. Some set designers even go on to become successful directors.

Finding Work

Most set designers are freelancers who work on plays, musicals, operas, dance shows, advertisements, television shows, and/or films on a per-project basis, although there are a small number of full-time positions at large theater companies and opera houses. Due to the freelance nature of the job, networking and self-promotion are essential.

Professional Skills
  • Carpentry
  • Architecture
  • Drafting and sketching
  • Model building
  • Stage design
  • Budgeting
  • Textual analysis
  • Innovation
  • Creative vision
  • Collaboration
Interpersonal Skills

Set design requires creativity, innovation, persistence, and dedication. It means being able to zero in on the smallest details of the set, while also seeing how broad aspects of the design will fit into the production more generally. Scenic designers must possess a keen eye for visual design and style, impressive technical acuity and attention to detail, and—vitally—a wellspring of creative vision.

Work Life

Set designers aim to be finished working by the time a production begins, which means the final weeks leading up to the opening performance can be hectic and demanding. Once the show opens, set designers are mostly off the hook and can enjoy the fruits of their labors. In between productions, scenic designers may take on small projects outside of their primary field, develop new skills, network with other theater artists, and enjoy some well-earned rest.