Production designers play a crucial role in the filmmaking process. They are responsible for the overall visual look of a movie, television show, or other media production.
The production designer oversees all the visual elements like sets, locations, props, graphics, lighting, and color schemes to bring the director’s vision to life on screen. It’s a complex job that requires creativity, technical skills, and the ability to manage teams and budgets.
If you’re fascinated by the art of visual storytelling and drawn to the excitement of movie magic, a career as a production designer may be perfect for you. But before diving in, it’s important to understand the salary potential and job outlook for this competitive profession.
This article will explore production designer salaries at all levels, factors that impact earnings, job growth projections, and essential education and skills. Read on to learn what income you can expect on your journey from an aspiring production designer to an established one.
Average Production Designer Salary
The average salary for a production designer in the United States is $54,468 per year according to August 27, 2023 data from Salary.com. But that national average only tells part of the story, as incomes can vary widely based on location, experience, reputation, and other factors.
Production hubs like Los Angeles and New York typically offer higher salaries. In Los Angeles, the average is around $58,832 according to recent Glassdoor salary data.
In New York City specifically, production designers earn approximately $56,360 in base pay plus an additional $2,472 in bonus income for a total pay of $58,832 per year.
Salary Ranges Throughout Your Career
As in any career, production designers see their incomes rise as they gain experience and establish their reputations. Here’s a look at typical salary ranges during different career stages:
- Entry Level: $30,000 to $50,000 per year
- Early Career: $50,000 to $65,000 per year
- Mid-Career: $65,000 to $85,000 per year
- Experienced: $85,000 to $150,000 per year
- Top/Established Designers: $150,000 to $200,000+ per year
At the entry-level, starting salaries for assistant or junior roles often fall in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. After getting a few productions under your belt, you can expect to see your income rise to the $50,000 to $65,000 mark.
Mid-career designers with a solid resume can make between $65,000 and $85,000. Experienced production designers at the top of their game typically earn between $85,000 all the way up to $150,000 annually, with top designers making $200,000 or more per year once they are established.
Factors That Influence Production Designer Salaries
What determines where in those salary ranges production designers land? Here are some of the key factors:
- Location – Higher salaries are paid in major entertainment hubs like Los Angeles and New York City where most film and television production takes place. Secondary markets pay moderately less.
- Budget Size – Designers working on big-budget Hollywood films or primetime TV can command the top salaries. Lower-budget indie films and commercial work pay less.
- Experience Level – As mentioned, more seasoned designers earn significantly higher incomes. Proven experience translates to higher pay.
- Reputation & Relationships – Well-known designers with lots of industry connections, credits, and awards generally earn more.
- Cost of Living – Salaries are adjusted based on the cost of living in different cities. L.A. salaries are higher due to high costs.
- Union vs. Non-Union – Designers working union jobs typically earn more than non-union productions.
In addition to base salary, production designers may earn bonuses and backend compensation if a film does well. For example, they may get box office bonuses after a film hits certain revenue milestones.
Hourly and Daily Salary Rates
For freelance production designers, income is usually calculated on a project basis. Day rates typically range from:
- Entry Level: $250 – $400 per day
- Mid-Level: $400 – $650 per day
- Experienced: $650 – $1,000 per day
- Top Designers: $1,000 – $1,500+ per day
Experienced freelance designers can earn $1,000 or more per day on large projects. They may also negotiate backend compensation and credits on major films.
The Impact of Unions on Salaries
One important factor influencing salaries is whether production designers work union or non-union jobs. Many designers belong to the Art Directors Guild Local 800 IATSE, a labor union representing visual artists in film, TV, and theater.
The Art Directors Guild negotiates “master agreements” with major production studios that establish pay rates, benefits, and working condition standards. Designers working under these union agreements tend to earn more compared to non-union shows with lower budgets.
So being part of a union like the ADG can be beneficial for both income and having your rights protected. Dues have to be paid to join, but the potential for higher earnings usually outweighs the costs.
Job Outlook for Production Designers
In addition to the salary potential, another key consideration is what job growth and career advancement possibilities look like in this profession.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes production designers under “Producers and Directors.” This occupation is projected to grow by 24% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the national average. Strong growth is expected as streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu create demand for new content.
However, the BLS notes that despite robust growth, competition for jobs will remain very strong. Production designer roles are highly coveted, and the industry is built on relationships and reputation. Breaking in as an unknown designer is very difficult.
Gaining formal education in production design, taking assistant roles, and building up your portfolio will be essential to eventually land a staff or lead designer position. Expect the career ladder to take many years climbing up through the ranks. Passion for the craft is a must to endure the slow ascension.
Essential Skills and Education for Aspiring Production Designers
To develop the skills needed to succeed and maximize your salary potential, formal education in production design is almost a necessity in today’s competitive job market.
While there are no strict educational requirements, top programs provide training in technical skills, exposure to industry veterans, and vital networking opportunities. Employers strongly prefer candidates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in production design or a related field.
Here are some key things to look for in production design programs:
- Hands-on training in computer programs like Photoshop, AutoCAD, and InDesign
- Classes on composition, color theory, lighting, and camerawork
- Drafting, sketching, and model-making practice
- Art and Design History coursework
- Mentorships and internship opportunities
The top schools for production design include:
- University of Southern California (USC)
- California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)
- American Film Institute (AFI)
- New York University (NYU)
Aspiring designers should hone skills in computer-aided drafting, 3D modeling, graphic design, and fine art. Know that you’ll need a killer portfolio to get accepted into the most prestigious programs.
Conclusion: Salaries Reflect the Scope of the Production Designer Role
A production designer’s salary reflects the immense importance of their role in bringing stories to life visually. It indicates the specialized skills and artistic mastery required to excel in this career.
Salaries rise over years spent honing those skills and developing an aesthetic sensibility. But the financial rewards come to those willing to put in the hard work and dedication. Passion pays off in both money and the satisfaction of being part of cinematic magic.
Whether you are just starting out or ready to sign a contract on a major studio film, keep this full salary overview in mind as you navigate your production design career path. Know your worth, but also recognize the value of doing what you love. That combination can take you from modest beginnings to box office billions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do production designers make good money?
Production designers can make good salaries, especially once they have many years of experience and a strong reputation. The average salary is around $54,000, but experienced designers can make $150,000 to $200,000+ per year. The top production designers earn over $1 million for their work on major films.
What does a production designer do?
The production designer is in charge of the overall visual look of a film, TV show, or other media project. They oversee all the visual elements like sets, locations, color schemes, props, lighting, and costumes to bring the director’s vision to life. It’s a demanding creative role.
Who is the highest paid production designer?
Some of the top paid production designers in the movie industry include Rick Carter (Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump), Ida Random (works with Wes Anderson), Mark Friedberg (HBO’s The Deuce), and Judy Becker (American Hustle, Carol). Their pay can exceed $200,000 per project plus backend compensation.
Is production designer a good career?
It can be an excellent career for visual, creative people who love the excitement of filmmaking. The work is challenging but very rewarding for those passionate about worldbuilding and cinematic arts. The salary potential is good for experienced designers, but breaking in is competitive.
Do production designers need a degree?
Most employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in production design or a related field. Programs teach key technical skills and provide networking opportunities. Top schools include USC, CalArts, UCLA, AFI, and NYU.
How hard is it to become a production designer?
It’s very competitive. Many start as assistants or in entry-level roles to gain experience. Building an impressive portfolio and industry connections takes years. Passion for visual storytelling is important when first earnings are low. But hard work pays off in unique creative opportunities.
Are production designers in demand?
Demand is strong due to growth in streaming and entertainment media. But landing a staff designer role still requires proven skills and connections. Working on low budget, independent, or commercial projects can help build experience until you’re ready for major studios.
Do production designers stay on set?
Yes, production designers need to be on set frequently during the filming process. They oversee set construction, prop placement, lighting adjustments, and any other visual elements needed for each scene. Troubleshooting issues quickly so shooting stays on schedule is a key part of the production designer’s on-set role.
What is the life of a production designer?
It’s demanding but fast-paced and creative. Production designers spend a lot of time location scouting, developing concepts with the director, and managing teams during prep and filming. Workdays are long with tight deadlines. But bring stories to life visually is very rewarding for those who love movies and filmmaking.