Production design is a crucial cinematic art that creates the visual world in which stories unfold. The look and feel of sets, locations, props, color palettes, and every visual detail on screen shapes the audience’s experience and brings the narrative to life.
Whether you’re producing short films, commercials, branded content, or other videos, thoughtful production design can elevate your visual storytelling to the next level.
The right design choices establish eras, convey personalities, set tones, and draw viewers deeper into the story. With creativity and strategic planning, you can craft immersive production designs without necessarily needing a big budget.
In this article, we’ll explore 15 innovative and cost-effective production design ideas to consider for your next video project. With the right approach, you can create stylish, nuanced worlds before the camera that will wow any audience.
Leverage Color Psychology for Mood and Tone
The strategic use of color is one of the most powerful production design techniques. Different hues inherently evoke different emotions and feelings for viewers. By choosing a color palette that reinforces the desired mood of your video, you can shape the audience’s experience in subtle yet profound ways.
Select cool tones like blues, greens, and purples to create a more soothing tranquil setting. Earthy tones like browns, oranges, and yellows establish a grounded, warm mood. Red and black hues can convey intensity, darkness, passion, or danger based on context. Highly saturated neon colors create an energetic mood, while desaturated, muted palettes feel understated.
Look to color psychology when selecting set colors, props, wall paint, furniture, wardrobe pieces, and any visual details. Cohesive color schemes make productions feel polished and purposeful.
Use Props and Set Décor to Bring Spaces to Life
Dressing sets with practical props and décor is a key production design technique for making spaces feel real and lived-in. The objects that fill up a character’s bedroom, office, car, or home offer storytelling clues about who they are and enhance the visual richness of the environment.
Some ideas for injecting personality and detail into sets through décor include:
- Shelves filled with books, photos, and collectibles related to the character’s interests
- Wall hangings like art, posters, and calendars that reflect the character’s taste
- Desk accessories that indicate hobbies or habits
- Items like bills and magazines that imply daily activities
- Pet bowls, toys, beds that indicate pets
- Houseplants, flowers, and garden décor that add natural elements
Purposeful prop placement turns an empty set into a convincing lived-in space with depth and personality. Use set decoration strategically to enrich your visual storytelling.
Incorporate Textured Backdrops and Surfaces
Layers of textures add visual interest and dimension to production designs in subtle ways. Consider incorporating backgrounds or surface treatments with natural or distressed textures. For example:
- Wood paneling, barn board, and shiplap provide warm, rustic textures
- Exposed brick walls give urban, industrial charm
- Cement, stucco, and stone create organic roughness -Weathered surfaces like peeling paint or faded signs add visual history
- Marsala curtains, woven rugs, and velvet furniture provide touchable-looking textures
Textures make bland flat spaces and backdrops more nuanced and fun to look at. Rough, worn, or touchable-looking textures also help make fictional spaces seem more convincing and lived-in.
Use Lighting Strategically to Set Moods
Just as color choices set tones, strategic lighting setups can instantly create different moods. Use hard light from a single source to create dramatic contrast and harsh shadows. Soft diffuse lighting smooths textures and creates gentle aesthetics.
Some lighting ideas for setting the mood include:
- Candlelight or string lights for intimacy
- Warm table or floor lamps for coziness
- Cool daylight from windows for openness
- Dark shadows for intensity or unease
- Bright clinical lighting for modern or official settings
- Soft-box lighting for flattering portraits
- Lens flares and backlighting imply hope
Purposefully shape the lighting to reinforce the desired look and feel of your production designs. Lighting offers infinite possibilities for creative expression.
Build Miniature Models for Expansive Scenes
Elaborate film-quality miniature models open up creative options for ambitious scenes that would be impossible to capture in real life. Architectural models of cities, neighborhoods, castles, mansions, or natural environments allow you to simulate expansive vistas without leaving the studio.
With meticulous detailing, lighting, and camera angles, miniatures can provide sweeping establishing shots or intriguing focal points that transport viewers into your story’s world. Blending close-ups of real environments with wide miniature establishing shots is an affordable technique used extensively in movies and television.
Craft Custom Graphic Elements
One cost-effective production design strategy involves creating custom graphic props to make fictional environments feel authentic. For example, branding imaginary spaces with:
- Business signage, door/window lettering for stores and offices
- Product packaging, labels that include logos and graphic styles
- Posters, flyers, and brochures that adorn walls or desks
- Branded mugs, bags, shirts, pens, and other swag
- Books, magazines, and albums with designed covers
- Unique posters and art pieces
Graphic design is an impactful yet often overlooked aspect of production design. Clever custom graphics lend a sense of history and reality to imaginary spaces on the screen.
Dress Characters in Era-Appropriate Wardrobe
For period pieces, the wardrobe plays a huge role in establishing the production design aesthetic. Dressing actors in era-appropriate clothing helps transport viewers to specific time periods and locations. Pay attention to details like:
- Materials, textures, and patterns popular in the period
- Styles of footwear, accessories, hats, jewelry
- Makeup, hairstyles, and grooming relevant to the era
- Condition of garments, imperfections like fading, holes, and patching to imply age
Thoughtful wardrobe selections help actors inhabit and humanize period costumes. Do your historical research to create authentic looks that immerse audiences in bygone eras.
Design Versatile Modular Set Pieces
Building modular set pieces that can be reconfigured into different layouts saves production time and budgets. Multifunctional sections can expand your scenic options. Some ideas for adaptable sets include:
- Wall sections that lock together into new room layouts
- Interchangeable door/window panels to alter room shapes
- Rolling walls or dividers to reveal new areas
- Multisided furniture that rotates to show different looks
- Removable facade dressings like brick or stone
- Interlocking floor sections or raised platforms for customizable dimensions
Modular designs allow endless reconfigurations for maximum flexibility. Think multifunctional when planning sets and backdrops.
Construct Immersive Nature Environments
Don’t have access to actual oceans, forests, mountains, or deserts? You can simulate convincing natural environments on sound stages using artificial grass, rocks, trees, water features, and more. With creative landscaping and scenic techniques, you can immerse actors into elaborate nature sets.
Some tips for building realistic nature environments include:
- Sculpted foam rocks look amazingly real on camera with textured paint
- Fake turf, shrubs, and floral arrangements resemble lush landscapes
- Trees built around flexible poles bend naturally in the wind
- Suspended wooden platforms create instant cliff faces
- Spray rigs produce realistic rain or snowfall
- Fog machines generate a mysterious atmosphere
- Dyed water, food thickener, and wave machines mimic oceans
With strategic construction and scenic treatments, you can create seemingly anywhere in nature indoors.
Use Practical Special Effects
Incorporating practical physical effects into scenes heightens the realism of production designs. Cleverly hidden machines can generate effects like:
- Wind machines – add drama with blowing leaves, curtains, loose papers
- Rain/snow machines – simulate inclement weather conditions
- Smoke/fog machines – create hazy atmosphere and shafts of light
- Fire/explosion effects – firecracker flashes, controlled flames, smoldering debris
- Sparking wires – mimic electrical shorts and blown fuses
- Breakaway furniture – easily reset destructible furnishings
- Mechanized set pieces – automated doors, moving cars, self-pouring drinks
Practical special effects add authenticity while also reducing the post-production work needed. Get creative with practical effects to enhance your productions.
Develop Blueprints for Fictional Spaces
Having detailed pre-visualized architectural plans ensures your production design mental vision translates accurately into physical sets. For fictional spaces like homes, offices, or commercial sites, develop proper scale drawings or 3D models including:
- Exact room dimensions, windows, doors
- Electrical, plumbing, HVAC layouts
- Interior elevations showing furniture finishes
- Exterior designs indicating desired materials
- Landscaping, parking, sidewalks, fencing for exterior spaces
Comprehensive architectural plans let your construction department build sets that precisely match your creative vision. Blueprints solve many problems before they arise.
Create Concept Art and Illustrations
Early in pre-production, collaborate with concept artists and illustrators to establish the visual style of sets, props, characters, and other design elements through drawings and paintings. These concept pieces become the creative north star that guides all downstream production decisions.
Some things to establish in concept art include:
- Architectural styles, shapes, materials
- Interior design aesthetics, decor, textiles
- Character looks, costumes, hair, makeup
- Color palettes, lighting schemes
- Overall visual mood, texture, geography
Vivid concept art is invaluable for aligning teams and budgets around a unified production design vision from the start.
Repurpose Everyday Objects as Improvised Set Decor
With resourcefulness and imagination, you can transform everyday objects into makeshift set decorations and props to embellish your production design. Anything goes, like:
- Old books masquerading as antique collectibles
- Imported food packages as fictional brands
- Upcycled boxes and crates as retro storage items
- Vintage luggage and trunks imply extensive travel
- Mismatched plates and silverware add an eclectic personality
- Scraps of wood, metal, and fabric as abstract art pieces
See past an object’s original purpose. Scour thrift stores and garage sales to inspire creative reuse of items as inexpensive set decoration.
Use Forced Perspective for Deception
By manipulating object scales and proximity, forced perspective is an optical illusion that can make subjects appear closer or farther than they really are. With clever set construction, you can use this technique to simulate expansive spaces.
Some forced perspective tricks include:
- Placing subjects at staggered distances from the camera to imply differences in size and depth
- Building set pieces at progressively smaller scales as they recede implies depth
- Adjusting lighting brightness/focus for an illusion of depth
- Exaggerating the scale of foreground objects like giant props to enhance the illusion
Forced perspective adds scope and scale for a big cinematic impact. Use it to expand your production possibilities.
Transport Viewers with Green Screen Virtual Sets
Advanced digital compositing using chroma key green screen technology allows you to simulate elaborate or even impossible locations without leaving your studio. As long as you have some basic green screen capabilities, the possibilities are endless.
With green screen virtual sets, your actors can travel through space, stand atop skyscrapers, explore fantasy worlds, or interact with magical CG characters added in post-production. Build small practical set pieces for actors to interact with, then composite layered-in backgrounds.
Green screen unlocks unlimited creative freedom, letting imagination be your only production design limitation. This technique blends production design artistry with virtual worlds.
Build Only Visible Set Sections to Conserve the Budget
You can stretch production budgets further by only constructing portions of sets that will actually be seen on camera. If all the audience sees is one wall or a doorway, only dress and finish set pieces that will be visible.
Some strategies for selective set building include:
- Erecting only 2-3 walls of rooms since ceilings are rarely shown
- Building only small 4-foot sections for walk-and-talk scenes
- Supporting only door/window fragments as needed
- Dressing only the backside of objects visible onscreen
- Using lighting to conceal off-camera areas
Evaluate camera angles and shots to determine which parts of sets require full detailing and construction focus. Work smart by allocating resources only where needed.
Creative production design is a must for visually engaging, cinematic-quality video content. With strategic planning and resourcefulness, you can design stylish sets and locations without breaking budgets. Use these 15 techniques selectively to build immersive worlds that enhance your unique stories.
Which design ideas resonated most with your productions? Now is the time to start envisioning how you can elevate your next videos with innovative, expressive designs. Brainstorm ideas tailored to your specific narratives, brands, and aesthetics. Then build your visual foundations. With thoughtful production design, your creative vision can finally leap from imagination directly into captivating on-screen reality.
Frequently Asked Questions
What makes good production design?
Cohesive visual styles, thoughtful detail, and immersive environments that enhance storytelling make for good production design. Strategic use of color, lighting, props, sets, makeup, and wardrobe all contribute to strong design.
How do I make a production design portfolio?
Showcase your design skills in a portfolio with concept art, set photos, videos and breakdowns of productions you’ve worked on. Organize by project and include shots showing the progression from concepts to finished sets.
What production design skills are most valuable?
Strong visual storytelling ability, resourcefulness, using color/light expressively, collaborating across teams, drawing, architectural knowledge and writing for communicating visions.
What tools do production designers use?
Drafting programs for plans/blueprints, watercolor and digital art tools for concept art, 3D modeling software, set budgeting/scheduling apps, Adobe Creative Suite for graphics.
How much does a production designer make?
Salaries range widely by project size, experience and location, but average around $65,000 annually for set designers and art directors in the United States.