Production design is a crucial creative role in the entertainment industry, responsible for the overall visual appearance of a film, TV show, or theatrical set.
Production designers shape the visual world characters inhabit – everything from the color of walls to the style of furniture, to the look of futuristic technology is under the purview of the production designer.
Given the impact production designers have on bringing stories to life visually, it’s no surprise many creative people are intrigued by the profession. But is production design actually a good, viable career?
In this in-depth guide, we’ll examine what’s involved in production design, evaluate the pros and cons, look at career prospects, and ultimately determine if production design lives up to its glamorous reputation.
What is Production Design?
While titles and roles vary by project, the production designer typically oversees all visual aspects of the production design department. Their primary responsibilities include:
- Collaborating closely with the director and producers to determine the overall visual style, color palettes, and “look” of the production.
- Conducting extensive research on locations, architectural styles, historical periods, furniture, and props to ensure sets are realistic.
- Creating concept drawings, illustrations, models, and blueprints to communicate the visual design.
- Working with construction coordinators and art directors to decorate sets and transform locations.
- Coordinating prop rentals, purchases, and manufacturing.
- Developing budgets and schedules to effectively manage the art department team and workflow.
- Scouting and recommending potential shooting locations.
- Overseeing set construction, decor, lighting, and graphic design.
Skilled production designers have a strong grasp of art history, architecture, color theory, and graphic design. They excel at taking the director’s vision from ideas and storyboards to tangible, immersive worlds on screen. The production designer must turn the abstractions of the script into a concrete visual palette.
Day-to-Day Work Life
A production designer’s schedule is hectic, fast-paced, and constantly shifting. While every project is different, a typical day may include:
- Meeting with the director and department heads to discuss the look and feel of sets.
- Sketching design concepts to communicate initial ideas.
- Sourcing furniture, props, and decor that fit the identified style.
- Overseeing set construction and coordinating painters, carpenters, etc.
- Modifying plans based on budget or production limitations.
- Research design options and references with the art department.
- Participating in location scouts to assess options.
- Approving paint, construction materials, signage, and graphics.
- Dressing sets with appropriate decor and props before shooting.
- Troubleshooting emergent issues like delayed materials or unauthorized changes.
The work is hands-on, active, and often requires being on one’s feet for long hours. With shooting schedules requiring up to 14-hour days, production designers must operate well under pressure. Most production design work happens in short sprints – racing to prepare sets and locations before the cameras roll.
Skills and Qualities Needed
To become a production designer, it requires a diverse blend of hard and soft skills. Some of them include:
- Strong visual storytelling ability
- Excellent drawing and sketching skills
- Familiarity with digital tools like Photoshop and CAD
- Knowledge of architectural styles, art periods, color theory
- Budging, scheduling, and management expertise
- Communication and team leadership
- Creativity and problem-solving
- Organizational skills with strong attention to detail
- Ability to accept feedback and direction
- Expert negotiator to balance vision and limitations
Successful production designers have a passion for filmmaking and collaboration. They must be creative visionaries who enjoy the process of worldbuilding and storytelling through environments.
Strong leadership, communication, and project management skills are essential to oversee complex productions on time and on budget. An architectural and art history background provides crucial context for period styles.
Ultimately, the best production designers have a flexible, solution-oriented style and enjoy seeing their vision come to life on screen.
|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|
Career Prospects and Growth
The job growth for production designers aligns with expansion in the broader entertainment industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 4% growth in the coming decade for related roles like set designers and exhibition designers. Competition is fierce, so those with the right blend of technical skills and on-set experience will have the best job prospects.
In film, the highest-paying design jobs are on major studio productions. The median salary for film production designers is approximately $92,500. At the top level, salaries can reach $150,000 or more. Television provides more ongoing work opportunities. A production designer for a TV drama can make $5,000-$10,000 per episode, with long-running shows providing steady income. Like many behind-the-scenes roles, theater pays significantly less – often under $3,000 per production.
|Experience Level||Average Salary Range|
|Entry-level||$34,500 – $63,500|
|Mid-level||$48,500 – $98,000|
|Experienced||$62,500 – $156,500|
|Top-tier in major markets||$133,000 – $185,500+|
Early career production designers can expect lower wages around $50,000, increasing with more credits and responsibilities. The most lucrative and stable design jobs are in major production hubs like Los Angeles and New York.
However, projects shoot all over the world, allowing for travel opportunities. Overall, the earning potential reflects the level of achievement, connections, and demand for a designer’s sought-after style.
Challenges and Downsides
Before pursuing production design, one must also weigh the clear downsides:
- The work is project-based and irregular. Designers face gaps between productions and dry spells.
- The hours are long and the environment is highly stressful. Expect to work evenings, weekends, and holidays, especially in the weeks before shooting.
- Sets can be physical places with real risks. Designers have to implement safety precautions for dangerous equipment and special effects.
- There is more competition than available jobs at the higher budget levels. Breaking in is difficult without inside connections.
- Income and job stability are low. Many designers work for years on low-budget indie films and commercials before their big break.
Production design is not a 9-5 creative job. The work is demanding, high stakes, and requires personal sacrifices. However, the ability to collaborate with iconic directors and bring screen stories to life visually makes the challenges worthwhile for those with real passion.
Education and Training Required
While technical skills are crucial, production design is learned through hands-on work experience. Many aspiring designers pursue related college degrees like:
- Interior design or architecture – Gain spatial design skills
- Fine arts, especially painting, and drawing – Develop a creative style
- Art history – Learn artistic movements and periods
- Theater tech and set design – Get exposure to physical set creation
- Graphic design – Practice visual communication and composition
However, the real training happens on the job. Production designer assistants learn by observing and supporting designers directly on sets and locations.
Many assist for free at first just to get the experience. After a few years of assisting, junior designers can graduate to design commercials, short films, and low-budget films with smaller crews.
Eventually, a standout style and strong portfolio are needed to get hired for larger productions. Ongoing learning about architecture, furniture, and decor is crucial. There is always more to master in production design.
Is Production Design a Good Career?
So should you pursue production design as a career path? Here’s an honest pro/con evaluation:
- Creative fulfillment brings visual worlds to life
- Prestige working with famous directors and talent
- Travel opportunities to exciting global filming locations
- Collaborative work environment for visual storytellers
- Satisfaction seeing your work on screen or stage
- Opportunity to build large, diverse production teams
- Unstable income and irregular job bookings
- High-stress working on tight deadlines
- Long, physically exhausting hours
- Need thick skin to handle negative feedback
- Very difficult to break into without connections
- Low pay and grunt work at early career stages
Overall, the production design is an ideal path for visually oriented creatives who thrive under pressure and adversity. The hands-on work, dynamic challenges, and constant learning opportunities outweigh the instability for those passionate about filmmaking.
Potential designers should evaluate if their strengths align with the practical realities and erratic schedules. With persistence and the right skills, production design can be an immensely fulfilling lifelong career.
Production designers are the creative architects of cinematic worlds. They lead entire teams in bringing the director’s vision to life visually through sets, props, locations, and decor.
The work is fast-paced, detail-oriented, and technically demanding, requiring strong artistic, managerial, and collaborative abilities. While rewarding for visual storytellers, the irregular hours, instability, and high pressure are substantial downsides to weigh.
The path is extremely competitive, yet offers incredible experiences for those able to build a reputation and portfolio over time. For the right individual, the challenges of production design are outweighed by the joy of contributing to memorable stories told through environments and imagery.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do production designers make good money?
Salaries vary widely. Early career designers may make ~$50k, while top designers at major studios can make over $150k per production.
Are production designers in demand?
There is steady demand and projected 4% job growth over the next decade. But landing jobs is very competitive without proven skills.
Is it hard to be a production designer?
Yes, breaking in is very difficult. It can take years of low-pay assistant work and indie projects to build an impressive portfolio and connections.
What is the career path of a production designer?
Most start as assistants, and then graduate to designing commercials, shorts, and indie films. With enough experience, designers can land major studio films.
Do production designers stay on set?
Yes, long shooting days of 14 hours or more are common as designers oversee set execution and troubleshoot issues.
Which designer has the highest salary?
Production designers at top studios like Disney, Warner Bros., etc. tend to have the highest-paying design roles, some over $200k.
Is production design a stable career?
No, it is an irregular, project-to-project-based career. Gaps between productions are common. Stability grows with reputation.
What should I major in for production design?
Useful majors include interior, graphic or set design, architecture, art, and art history. But real training happens when assisting designers on sets.
What does a production designer do every day?
Typical tasks involve design meetings, research, budgeting, scouting locations, overseeing construction, dressing sets, and on-set adjustments.