So, you want to learn how to become a production designer? We don’t blame you—overseeing the visuals on movie and TV show sets and in theatre productions is a pretty cool gig. Plus, production design is also an attention-grabbing addition to your online art portfolio or online design portfolio!
If you’re unsure how to break into the industry, we’ve got you covered with our guide on how to become a production designer. We’ll cover the production designer job description and production designer responsibilities (and the difference between a production designer vs. an art director), production design education requirements, production designer salary, production designer unions, and how to create an amazing production designer portfolio.
Let’s get started by outlining what the production designer’s role looks like!
What is the Production Designer Job Description?
Production designers are responsible for working with the director to create the visual concept of a film, television, or theatre production. The production designer job description includes overseeing the overall look of the film and managing the art department that scouts locations, and creates the sets, graphics, and props. The production designer role also entails working with the cinematographer (to ensure the sets will look great in the shot), and the costume, hair, and make-up department (so that every actor fits in with their vision).
What is the Difference Between a Production Designer vs. an Art Director?
Production designer vs art director: what’s the deal there? Here’s the difference. The production designer is at the head of the art department and is in charge of the overall visual look of the film.
An art director works for the production designer—usually in more specialized areas.
The production designer discusses the direction of the film and its visuals with the director, and the art director delegates specific tasks to the crew so that the production designer’s vision becomes a reality.
What Skills are Required for the Production Designer Role?
Being a production designer requires managing a large team and executing a huge vision, so strong communication, multitasking, teamwork, and time management skills are a must.
Attention to detail is also paramount in production design—any little mistake on a prop or set can throw off the whole scene!
Experience in AutoCAD, Photoshop, and InDesign is a great asset, too, since you’ll most likely need to produce images and visual designs to share your vision with the team.
What Kind of Production Design Education Do I Need?
The good news: you don’t need to go to school for production design to become a successful production designer. It’s a creative field, and like most creative fields, your own hustle, creative abilities, and networking skills will be what lands you a job at the end of the day.
It is a good idea, however, to have a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, theatre, architecture, or art, as this will give you a solid background in some of the key skills you’ll need to get into the industry—and can provide you with valuable connections who may end up in the film, TV, or theatre worlds and can hook you up with gigs.
Another smart production design education option? Take some courses in woodwork and set construction at your local college.
What are Some of the Best Production Design Schools?
These are some of the most well-respected production design education institutions:
Tuition: $59,348 (first year), $61,425 (second year).
Notable Alumni: Todd Cherniawsky (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Sharon Seymour (Argo).
At the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles, students can register for a two-year MFA that focuses in production design. The curriculum is designed by industry specialists, and students enjoy small classes that encourages them to embrace deep narrative storytelling as well as computer design skills. Students also get the chance to present at the school’s annual production design showcase to well-known film and TV production designers in the industry.
Tuition: $56,924 (undergrad), $58,000 (grad).
Notable Alumni: Howard Cummings (Westworld), Dan Bishop (Mad Men).
A three-year BFA or three-year MFA is available. Being located in New York City means you have plenty of chances during your undergrad to make industry connections and even start working on your first few productions.
Tuition: $22,640 (undergrad).
Notable Alumni: Tony Fanning (Ocean’s Thirteen), Michael Ward (Passengers).
The School of the Arts at the University of North Carolina gives its production design students a wide range of skills, and a deep understanding of all things filmmaking. Classes on everything from set construction to historical architecture are available—there’s even one on furniture history (perfect for set design!).
Here are a few more of the best production design schools you can look into:
Do I Need to Join a Production Designer Union?
Joining a production designer union usually ensures higher pay and, often, more regular work. Most high-profile film and TV productions require their staff to be in a production union of some kind, so it’s smart to investigate which union you’d need to get into, depending on your location and job, and what the requirements are.
What Kind of Production Designer Salary Can I Expect?
The production designer salary is depends on a variety of factors, including where you work, what projects you’re involved with (i.e. budget), and your experience level. It’s also important to note that your salary can depend on whether you’re in a production designer union or not.
According to LinkedIn, the average base salary for production designers is around $54,000 (with a range of $34,400 and $84,000). It can also go as high as $90,000, as per Careers in Film.
How Do I Get Started in Becoming a Production Designer?
Production designers can come from all kinds of different backgrounds, whether it’s decorating, costume design, architecture, photography, or fine art. Once you’ve got whatever production design education you feel you need under your belt, it’s time to start reaching out to industry folks to offer your production design services.
Start small! Connect with student filmmakers, local YouTubers, and regional theatres to see if they need help putting together their productions. When you’re first starting out, you may also want to seek out some internships or apprenticeships with more established production designers so you can get some hands-on experience ASAP. This will also help you bolster your CV so you can eventually get into the production designer union.
The film, TV, and theatre industries are, more than most industries, all about who you know. Stay in touch with your production design classmates and everyone you ever meet or work with who is even remotely connected to the industry—you never know when they may have a gig for you!
You can also try and get your art into a movie or TV show as a way to start making connects.
Most importantly, make sure your online production design portfolio is always up-to-date, so that any productions looking into your work will be impressed!
What Should I Include in My Production Designer Portfolio?
Don’t have a production designer portfolio yet? No sweat—use a website builder to make one in a few minutes. Pick one with cool templates, to show off your work as beautifully as possible, and video embedding, so you can feature movie, TV, and theatre clips showcasing your production design.
Another important tip: keep it tight! Be very selective and only select the very best images for your portfolio.
If you’re new to the game and don’t have that much production design to fill the pages of your production designer portfolio, there are still other things you can add. You could include a production design blog where you blog about your favourite production design work in eighties movies, or do a production design recap of every episode of a hot TV show. Or you could make a YouTube video offering a production design tutorial. You could even write a case study reviewing how you put together a production design project, so prospective clients can get a sense of your aesthetic and design process.
With such an amazing production designer portfolio, you’re sure to start racking up fancy credits—and that sweet production designer salary—in no time!