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How to Become a Set Designer

Growth Trends for Related Jobs

Set designers must be hands-on, can-do people with a broad education in the arts and theater techniques. Their wide-ranging duties include studying scripts, creating plans on the computer, researching decor for exotic times and places, overseeing prop builders and painting backdrops. Their employers may include live theater, television, movies or even art and history museums. Becoming a set designer requires developing your innate abilities through education and hands-on experience.

Laying the Foundation

High school classes in art, art history and design help prepare you for a career as a set designer. The College Board recommends Advanced Placement Art History and classes in technical drawing and computer-aided drafting. Learn how to use construction tools through high school shop classes. Working on stage crews for high school and community productions can provide practical experience.

Earning a Degree

A bachelor's degree or higher in set design, theater, interior design, architecture or a related subject is desirable. For example, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in scene design typically requires classes in drawing plus coursework on historic styles in art, fashion, furniture and architecture. Other classes may include scenographic drafting, survey of theater arts, scene painting, theatrical collaboration, costume design, lighting design, model building and computer-aided design. In preparation for the job market, students prepare a portfolio of their work. Set design programs typically include practical experience through internships or work for the school theater.

Developing Essential Skills

Develop the personal and technical skills necessary for set design through class work and internships or part-time jobs. Designers must be able to produce creative work under stress and time pressure. They need critical thinking and problem-solving abilities to coordinate the tasks of constructing scenes. Technology is constantly evolving, but computer skills are necessary for most jobs. Useful programs include AutoCAD, VectorWorks, Photoshop, CorelDraw, SketchUp and Rhinoceros. Set designers often use special equipment such as air compressors, art airbrushes, hammers, electric arc welding equipment and power staple guns.

Marketing Your Abilities

Produce a professional portfolio with samples of your work from class projects, internships and jobs. Using contacts from internships and teachers, take your portfolio to prospective employers. To gain experience and build your portfolio, accept any related work -- not just for stage, television or movies -- such as designing sets for department store windows or museum displays. If you're willing to travel to develop your career, that's a plus. For example, movie jobs are also available outside the greater Hollywood area, including in many other states, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Europe, according to Hollywood-based designer Kenneth A. Larson.

Understanding the Outlook

The job market for set design is quite competitive. From 2012 to 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a slower-than-average job growth of between 3 and 7 percent. According to the BLS, 39 percent of set designers have a bachelor's degree, and 39 percent have a master's or professional degree. A degree in a related field and a strong portfolio give you the best chances of employment success.