How To Become a Production Designer
Updated 3 May 2023
If you have artistic abilities and appreciate the arts and entertainment industry, you may enjoy a career as a production designer. These professionals are responsible for the visual elements of film, theatre and television productions, such as their sets, lighting and costumes. Learning more about this career can help you understand the qualifications and skills you may need to meet to pursue it. In this article, we discuss this profession and its typical responsibilities and requirements, along with a list of steps that provide guidance on how to become a production designer.
What is a production designer?
A production designer is responsible for developing the visual design for theatre, television or film productions. These professionals may work on a variety of sets or specialise in a particular area. They collaborate with directors and cinematographers to determine their productions' aesthetic style. For example, production designers help establish the visual design of sets, locations and costumes. Depending on the production, they may need to perform research to ensure their design concepts are historically accurate. When presenting their concepts, these professionals may create sketches and models or gather images, colour palettes and textile samples to show their inspiration.
What does a production designer do?
Production designers manage many responsibilities before, during and after productions. Their responsibilities may vary depending on the type of production. However, some of their typical job duties include:
Reading scripts to understand the tone of productions
Discussing design concepts and requirements with producers and directors
Determining the visual concept for projects
Performing relevant historical or background research to develop design ideas
Creating sketches or scale models to present design concepts
Assisting with set design and building, designing graphics and sourcing props
Scouting and assessing filming locations
Hiring and managing design team members, including set designers, technicians and artists
Collaborating with cinematographers, lighting and sound directors, costume designers and other professionals on set
Developing and overseeing production design budgets
How to become a production designer
If you want to become a production designer, you can use the following steps as guidance for pursuing this career:
1. Pursue an education
You can gain a Higher National Diploma (HND) or bachelor's degree in an art- or designer-related discipline to prepare for a career as a production designer. Your coursework in these programmes can help hone your creative skills and introduce you to various artistic styles, techniques and opportunities. After working in the field, you may consider getting a master's degree in production design to develop more specialised skills and expertise. Examples of relevant fields of study include:
Drama or theatre studies
2. Learn relevant skills
As you develop your production design career, you can research job openings to understand the skills that employers in this industry seek from candidates. Beyond a degree programme, you can register for courses and workshops at community centres or institutes to develop these skills. For example, you may hone your drawing, painting or woodworking skills. Production designers often use design software to create and present their concepts on set, so you can also pursue training to learn about these tools. If there are lectures on art or gallery openings in your area, attend them to gain a broader perspective.
3. Gain industry experience
You can seek internship or apprenticeship opportunities to prepare for a career as a production designer. Look for positions at local theatres and television stations or research potential options at well-known production studios. You can also work as a volunteer in the production team to experience the role of a production designer. Depending on your location or university, you can try helping local students make a film or other production. Gaining relevant experience in the industry can help you build your portfolio and skills as a production designer.
Related: What Is An Internship?
4. Create your portfolio
Throughout your academic and professional career, you need to develop a portfolio of your work and update it regularly. Within this portfolio, you can include sketches, photographs and videos of your recent or most impressive work. When applying for jobs, you often need to share your portfolio to showcase your skills and accomplishments to employers. A portfolio provides a clear representation of your design aesthetic and the type of work you produce, enabling employers to assess whether you are the right person for the job.
4. Apply for entry-level jobs
Once you have gained your degree or relevant experience in the industry, you can begin seeking entry-level production designer positions. You can find potential opportunities on film job boards, social media platforms or regional broadcasting studios' websites. You may also use the connections you've built from prior experiences to learn about jobs and potentially gain employment recommendations. Production designers often begin as production assistants, moving up the department's ranks to art director and production designers positions. While on the job, prove your interest by being willing to take on tasks and asking questions often.
5. Develop your network
Through courses, workshops, internships and apprenticeships, you may meet many people in the industry. You can also use social media platforms to find individuals in your area who are making television or films or work in the industry. Use these opportunities to make connections and build your professional network. Developing and maintaining this network may help connect you to job opportunities, especially when working freelance. You can also contact art directors or production designers whose work you admire and try to arrange informal meetings with them. These professionals can provide valuable insights and advice about the industry.
Related: Networking Tips for Job Seekers
What is the average salary for production designers?
The average salary for a production designer in the United Kingdom is £28,581 per year. These professionals often work as freelancers and get paid per day or on a project-by-project basis. Their salary can vary depending on several other factors, such as their level of experience and the type of production or its location.
Essential skills for production designers
As mentioned, production designers benefit from having numerous technical and soft skills. Examples of necessary skills for production designers include:
Production designers are responsible for developing the aesthetic design of a production and communicating their ideas to their colleagues. They need effective communication skills to express these ideas both visually and verbally. For example, they may create models or technical drawings to help describe more abstract concepts and enable others to visualise them. Communication is also necessary for many of their other responsibilities, such as providing instructions to crew members or delivering updates about the production and design progress.
Time management skills
Productions often have strict deadlines, and production designers must use their time management skills to keep their tasks and crew on schedule. Adhering to schedules is vital in the entertainment industry, as it can help the production stay on budget. When working on multiple design activities or projects at once, these skills also help them prioritise their time and use it effectively. As needed, production designers may delegate specific tasks to their crew members to give themselves time to focus on more pressing tasks or issues on set.
As mentioned, production designers work with a wide range of individuals while on the job. Interpersonal skills represent these professionals' ability to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues effectively. Skills like teamwork, empathy and patience help them develop trusting relationships and enable more positive interactions on set. A film, television or theatre production is often a collaborative environment, so production designers need to rely on their colleagues and crew to implement their design ideas as they envisioned it. These professionals may also work long hours on set, so skills like motivation and leadership help encourage their team through challenges.
Members of the art department may encounter challenges while making productions, such as time and budget constraints or weather concerns. A sense of flexibility or adaptability enables production designers to address such challenges quickly and change their strategies and plans as needed while minimising disruptions to the production. For example, if a designer's budget gets cut, they need to research and assess their available resources to identify viable, cost-effective options for their design plans.
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