Have you always dreamed of helping bring stories to life on the screen? Do you have a keen eye for aesthetics and visual details? If so, a career as a production designer may be perfect for you.
Production designers are creative professionals who develop and oversee the overall visual look of a film, TV show, or theatrical production. They help translate scripts and directors’ visions into tangible, immersive worlds for audiences to experience.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to start your journey to becoming a professional production designer, including:
- What production designers do and how they collaborate
- Key skills and personality traits for success
- Salary ranges and job outlook
- Education and experience requirements
- Building your portfolio and networking
- Landing your first production design jobs
If you’re ready to learn how to bring your artistic talents to the big and small screens, let’s get started!
What Does a Production Designer Do?
A production designer typically begins their work early in the pre-production process, well before filming begins. Their core responsibilities include:
- Reading scripts and discussing visual concepts with directors. Production designers are often the first crew members hired for a project. They analyze scripts to get an in-depth sense of the overall visual tone, settings, time period, and other details that will inform their design approach. Multiple conversations with the director are key to establishing the look and feel of the production.
- Conducting extensive research on relevant aesthetics, architecture, history, and decor. Production designers may spend weeks immersed in research to ensure set pieces, props, color palettes, and other elements accurately fit the script’s era and locations.
- Creating concept art, storyboards, and set models to test design ideas. Initial sketches, digital mockups, miniature 3D models, and more allow directors and crew members to visualize the production designer’s vision before costly set construction begins.
- Scouting and selecting filming locations. Production designers travel to find optimal real-world filming sites that fit the director’s vision or determine if sets will need to be built from scratch in studios.
- Hiring and collaborating with other department heads like art directors, set decorators, and construction coordinators. The production designer oversees the art department team responsible for building and dressing sets.
- Overseeing set construction, decoration, and coordination of logistics like lighting with other departments. The production designer ensures all the pieces come together leading up to shoots.
- Troubleshooting any set or design issues during production. Production designers remain on call to solve any creative problems that emerge while filming is underway.
The production designer is a true collaborative role. Throughout the entire production design process, they work closely with other department heads like directors, cinematographers, and costume designers to make sure every element fits together seamlessly to bring the creative vision to life.
Production Designer vs. Art Director – What’s the Difference?
On small productions, the terms “production designer” and “art director” are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to the head of the art department. But on larger projects, these become distinct roles with an important hierarchy:
- The production designer is in charge of the entire art department and the overall visual look of the production. They work very closely with the director to conceptualize and actualize the aesthetic.
- The art director reports directly to the production designer. They help manage the execution of the production designer’s vision, directing the teams responsible for sets, construction, props, graphics, special effects, and more.
Essentially, the production designer dreams up the big creative picture while the art director figures out how to bring those ideas to life. They work hand-in-hand throughout the production process.
|Production Designer||Art Director|
|Oversees entire visual look||Manages execution of vision|
|Works closely with the director||Reports to the production designer|
|Comes up with big picture creative vision||Figures out how to implement the vision|
|Leads entire art department||Delegates tasks to the team|
These aren’t the only roles within the art department. Other key staff may include:
- Set designers – Create technical drawings for set construction.
- Set decorators – Furnish interiors with appropriate decorative elements.
- Prop masters – Track and source all props needed.
- Construction coordinators – Manage the building of sets and logistics.
- Scenic artists – Paint backdrops and other scenic elements.
- Graphic designers – Create signage, labels, screens, and other printed elements.
The production designer oversees this talented team, providing guidance while trusting the art director to handle day-to-day delegation and supervision.
What Skills Does a Production Designer Need?
Production design is a complex, multifaceted job. To succeed, professionals need both technical design capabilities and soft skills like:
- Artistic Ability – Production designers need to be creative visual thinkers who can translate abstract ideas into concrete set pieces, props, color schemes, and more. Backgrounds in fine arts, graphic design, architecture, or related fields are common.
- Research Skills – Thorough research is crucial to creating period-appropriate designs. Production designers must be investigative and detail-oriented.
- Design Software Mastery – Fluency with programs like Photoshop, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, and SketchUp allows production designers to create digital mockups and plans.
- Drawing and Drafting Skills – Many productions rely on the designer’s drawings and schematics to plan construction. Both freehand sketching and technical drafting abilities are useful.
|Technical Skills||Soft Skills|
|Drawing & drafting||Communication skills|
|Design software proficiency||Collaboration & teamwork|
|Research capabilities||Time management|
|Model making||Leadership abilities|
|Understanding of architecture/engineering||Problem-solving|
|Knowledge of art styles & trends||Negotiation skills|
- Team Leadership – As head of the art department, strong leadership and collaboration skills are essential for guiding the team to success.
- Communication Skills – Production designers must communicate creative visions clearly to directors, collaborators, and their reports. Active listening is also crucial.
- Time Management and Multitasking – Production designers juggle many moving parts simultaneously under tight deadlines. Impeccable organization is key.
- Problem-Solving Ability – They must think on their feet to creatively overcome obstacles and troubleshoot issues.
- Budgeting and Negotiation Skills – Production designers must finalize art department budgets with producers and manage costs effectively.
For many, the technical design capabilities can be taught through education and training. But soft skills like creative vision, leadership, and collaboration are just as critical for excelling in this fast-paced role.
What is the Average Production Designer’s Salary?
The average salary for production designers varies based on factors like location, experience level, credits, and types of productions. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salaries in the United States fall within these ranges:
- Entry-level/assistant production designers – $34,500 – $63,500
- Mid-level production designers – $48,500 – $98,000
- Experienced production designers – $62,500 – $156,500
- Top production designers in major markets – $133,000 – $185,500+
The highest-paid production designers have years of experience and work consistently on big-budget Hollywood films and television series. For instance, the production designer’s salary on a major studio movie with a $100+ million budget could run $450,000 to $650,000 or more.
However, many pros make a good living across a range of lower-budget independent short films, commercials, music videos, and corporate projects early in their careers while building up their portfolios. Even at entry level, production design provides a livable wage in creative roles.
What is the Job Outlook for Production Designers?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics groups production designers with “set and exhibit designers” – predicting 5% growth for these jobs between 2018 and 2028. That’s about as fast as average job growth across all industries.
Television, film, and theater production is expected to continue expanding due to the streaming content boom. More streaming platforms like HBO Max, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV have amplified demand for original productions. This bodes well for job prospects in production design.
That said, it’s a very competitive field. Production designer jobs typically go to candidates with experience under their belts. But there are always opportunities for emerging pros willing to take on small indie films and passion projects to build up their resumes. Passion and persistence pay off.
What Education and Training Do You Need?
While there are no universal education requirements, most production designers have backgrounds in:
- Bachelor’s degrees in film, theater, or entertainment design – Programs like NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts teach core design skills.
- Art, architecture, and design degrees – Formal training in areas like drawing, computer-aided design, sculpture, painting, and model-making provide strong foundations.
- Interior design, decorating, and visual merchandising programs – Courses translate well to set decoration.
Degrees related to production design give grads the tools to create professional-quality work Samples. But hands-on experience is equally, if not more, important.
Mentorship and networking opportunities are huge benefits of formal education. Friendships with like-minded creatives provide contacts down the road. Many rising production designers also gain exposure by helping out on classmates’ student films.
What Experience Do You Need to Be a Production Designer?
On-the-job experience is invaluable (and mandatory) for breaking into professional production design. Possible paths include:
- Starting as a production assistant – PA gigs provide insider perspectives on how productions run. PAs often move up to coordinator or designer roles.
- Art department apprenticeships and internships – Hands-on training under experienced production designers allows emerging artists to hone their skills.
- Working as a graphic designer or storyboard artist – These roles build relevant technical and visualization abilities.
- Gaining art department experience – Working as a set decorator, set dresser, props buyer, carpenter, model maker, or scenic artist develops diverse skill sets.
- Volunteering on student/indie films – Low/no-budget projects offer opportunities to gain end-to-end production design experience.
Working across different art department functions builds the well-rounded experience needed to lead. Each job provides unique insights that strengthen a production designer’s toolkit.
Even after breaking in, connections and recommendations from past colleagues often lead to new opportunities. Maintaining good relationships is key.
How Do You Put Together a Production Designer Portfolio?
A compelling portfolio is absolutely vital for getting hired. Production designer portfolios should include:
- Storyboards and concept art – Showcase your ability to translate scripts into visuals with sketches, paint renderings, digital mockups, etc.
- Set photos, plans, and models – Display final designed spaces with photos, AutoCAD drawings, SketchUp visualizations, scale models, etc.
- Styled decor vignettes – Groupings of furniture, props, fabrics, paint swatches, etc. convey your aesthetic vision.
- Graphics and signage – Title cards, labels, controls, signage, and environmental graphics.
- Videos – Show final scenes from productions you designed.
- Website or presentations – A polished online portfolio and/or PDF case studies make your work stand out.
Only showcase your very best, most impressive work that aligns with the types of productions you want to design. Quality over quantity.
Beyond finished pieces, share behind-the-scenes insights into your creative process through blog posts, commentary, work-in-progress images, inspirations, and more. These provide glimpses into how you think as an artist.
How Do You Get Your First Production Designer Job?
Ready to start your production design career? Here are tips for landing that crucial first job:
- Perfect your portfolio – A standout portfolio is a must for getting hired. Spend time refining and customizing it for opportunities.
- Search production/design job boards – Sites like Mandy.com, EntertainmentCareers.net, and Backstage.com post openings.
- Network relentlessly – Attend industry events, follow up with contacts, and connect online to find unlisted gigs. Over 50% of production jobs come from personal recommendations.
- Consider unpaid indie films or student projects – Paid jobs are ideal, but unpaid experience pays off long-term when starting out. Earn credits for your reel.
- Get specific skills training – Take workshops related to design software, model making, scenic art, etc. Expand your technical abilities.
- Join industry organizations – Membership provides visibility, connections, job boards, and continued learning.
- Look to commercial/corporate gigs – These projects often have healthy budgets for production design but fewer barriers to entry.
- Intern or assist established designers – Learn directly from pros and make valuable industry connections.
- Consider relocating – Media hubs like L.A., NYC, Vancouver, Atlanta, New Mexico offer more opportunities.
Persistence is key – with continued hustle, creativity, and growth, you’ll get your foot in the production design door. Then you can start unleashing your talents and making your mark on the visual worlds of film, TV, and theater.
Should You Join a Production Designer Union?
Membership in industry unions like IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) or its local chapters can provide major benefits for production designers including:
- Access to union job listings and referrals
- The ability to negotiate collective agreements, including pay scales, benefits, and improved working conditions
- Access to sought-after health insurance and retirement plans
- Solidarity, advocacy, and protection as part of an organized labor group
- Ongoing training and education opportunities
However, there are some downsides to consider as well:
- Union membership can be expensive, with dues, fees, and costs for benefits. The financial commitment may be prohibitive for some early career designers.
- Specific experience/credit requirements must be met before you can join union rolls. This can be challenging for those starting out.
- Some non-union productions won’t hire union members, limiting options for up-and-comers.
Weighing the pros and cons of unionizing is an important decision. Some tips:
- Research requirements for IATSE and other relevant locals in your region. Each has distinct application processes.
- Speak with industry mentors and veteran designers for advice on when to join.
- If eligible, start as a permittee to get your foot in the door before becoming a full member.
- Consider joining later once you have steady work, if dues pose a financial hardship as you’re getting started.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to unions. Make the choice that fits your individual career path and financial situation best.
Key Tips for Aspiring Production Designers
If you dream of becoming a professional production designer one day, here are some top tips to set yourself up for success:
- Immerse yourself in art, design, architecture, and pop culture. Surround yourself with influences that spark ideas.
- Seek out a formal education in entertainment design, film, art, or related fields. The knowledge, skills, and connections will give you a solid foundation.
- Start gaining tangible experience any way you can via student films, unpaid gigs, internships, etc. Real-world practice is invaluable.
- Master essential software like Photoshop, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, SketchUp, and more. These are must-have tools in production design.
- Build up your portfolio with personal and professional projects. A standout portfolio can make or break landing jobs.
- Network constantly and maintain great contacts. Much of succeeding comes down to who you know.
- Join industry organizations and follow industry leaders on social media. Stay engaged with the broader community.
- Remain humble and positive. Listen, learn, and allow others to guide you as you gain experience.
- Don’t be afraid to start small. Work on student films, small theater productions, commercials, and other “bread and butter” jobs as you hone your craft.
- Stay inspired! Keep your passion alive by surrounding yourself with art, cinema, theater, and creativity every day.
With relentless drive, patience, and great collaborators by your side, an exciting career lies ahead transforming scripts into visual masterpieces. Believe in your artistic vision and make it happen. The film world needs you!
We hope this guide provides a comprehensive overview of how to become a professional production designer. It’s an exciting career path for visual storytellers.
The job requires artistic talent, technical skills, leadership capabilities, and a passion for collaborative filmmaking. But countless rewarding opportunities exist for qualified candidates willing to put in the work – especially those with standout portfolios.
By following the advice above, remaining humble and enthusiastic to keep learning, and never losing sight of your dreams, you can develop the fulfilling production design career you’ve always imagined.
Frequently Asked Questions
What degree do you need to become a production designer?
While most production designers have a bachelor’s degree in film, theater, or design, there are no strict educational requirements. Some gain the necessary skills through experience or vocational programs. A degree provides a good foundation but hands-on experience is most critical.
Do production designers get paid well?
Yes, experienced production designers at the top of their field can make $100,000 or more per year depending on the size and budget of the productions they work on. Even entry-level designers start around $35,000 which is a livable wage in the creative industry.
Is it hard to be a production designer?
Yes, being a production designer can be difficult. The role is multifaceted, requiring artistic talent, technical skills, leadership capabilities, and the ability to manage many complex moving parts. Standing out in a competitive field poses challenges too. But it’s incredibly rewarding for those passionate about filmmaking.
Are production designers in demand?
Yes, demand for qualified production designers is growing steadily thanks to expansion of streaming television and film. More content being produced means more opportunities. Those able to work on smaller independent projects to build their portfolios tend to find the most success breaking in.
What does a production designer do?
Production designers are responsible for the overall visual look of a film, TV or theater production. They help translate scripts into tangible design elements like sets, props, color palettes, etc. to establish the aesthetic defined by directors. They lead the art department from pre-production through filming.
Is a production designer a graphic designer?
A production designer oversees all visual elements of a production, while a graphic designer focuses on creating graphics like title sequences, interfaces, signage, etc. There is some overlap, but the production designer role is much broader. Some graphic design skills are useful for production designers however.
Is production designer a good career?
It can be an excellent creative career for visual, artistic people who enjoy storytelling and collaboration. It allows you to help bring scripts and directors’ visions to life visually. The work is fast-paced with new challenges on every project to keep things exciting.
Is production design a major?
Some colleges offer bachelor’s degree programs specifically in production design or related fields like theatrical design and technical direction. But degrees in film, art, architecture, interior design, and graphic design also provide relevant skills.
Do production designers need to draw?
Having strong drawing and sketching skills is very useful for production designers when creating concept art and storyboards to communicate their visions. While not strictly required, the ability to draw by hand provides flexibility and versatility on the job.
Do production designers stay on set?
Production designers split their time between pre-production design work and being on set during filming. They ensure sets are constructed correctly and troubleshoot any issues that arise. But they aren’t required to be on set at all times once filming begins.