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Set and Exhibit Designer Job Description, Career as a Set and Exhibit Designer, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Bachelor of fine arts degree or associate's degree in design

Salary: Median—$35,890 per year

Employment Outlook: Fair or poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Set and exhibit designers design the physical sets for television, movie, and theatrical productions and for special exhibits of all kinds. They collaborate with directors and study scripts and plans to determine the appropriate style for the set, conduct the necessary research on architectural styles and other important factors, and then translate that information into a final set design. The work of a set designer also includes selecting the furniture, wall coverings, floor coverings, and large props that will be used to give the set the desired look, including the proper time period and mood called for by the script and the director's instructions.

Set designers typically research the historical period and architectural styles that seem right for a production, then produce sketches and scale models based on their design ideas. Increasingly, set and exhibit designers are using computer-aided design (CAD) software to make this process more efficient. These sketches and models are then used as a guide when the actual sets or exhibits are constructed. After receiving feedback from the director or client, the designer makes the necessary changes to the design. This may take place several times before a final design is agreed upon. Once the design is near completion, the designer provides an estimate of how much it will cost to build the set, including the cost of buying or renting the materials needed. The set designer is often responsible for overseeing the set construction process

While set designers perform this kind of work in a show business setting, exhibit designers fill a similar role in many other industries. In the apparel industry, exhibit designers are responsible for the look of exhibits and booths at fashion shows and clothing industry trade shows all over the world. In addition to the clothing industry, exhibit designers also commonly work with art museum directors and curators, where they play an important role in figuring out the best use of museum space for displaying the museum's art or artifacts. In a museum setting, an exhibit designer must work with experts to determine how sensitive materials must be handled. They may require special treatment in terms of lighting, temperature, and humidity. Libraries, malls, and fairgrounds are other establishments that sometimes use the services of an exhibit designer. Like set designers, exhibit designers produce preliminary sketches, either by hand or, increasingly, on a computer, and then make adjustments based on feedback from the client. They then oversee the construction of the exhibit to ensure that the specifications of the design are met.

Many set and exhibit designers are self-employed, often doing this work as a sideline to a salaried job in another design field, or another field entirely.

Education and Training Requirements

A college degree in design is required for most set and exhibit designer jobs. Top-level jobs may require a master of fine arts degree from an accredited university, while for entry-level jobs a two-year certification may suffice.

Getting the Job

Placement offices in colleges offering degrees in design can often provide information about how to find a job in this field. Internships with television, film, or theatrical production firms are available for aspiring set designers. Museums may offer internships for those interested in a career designing exhibits.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Entry-level set and exhibit designers can advance to managerial positions, such as art director, in large design firms, or department head positions in large museums, theme parks, or other organizations that have many sets or exhibits to design. This field is quite competitive. Because there is little job turnover, the employment outlook for set and exhibit designers is fair or poor.

Working Conditions

Set designers who work for large corporations or design firms usually work regular hours in a comfortable environment. Those who work for smaller firms or are self-employed must often work long hours and evening hours to meet client deadlines, and the work environment can sometimes be uncomfortable. A substantial amount of travel may be required for exhibit designers. An increasing amount of design work is done on computers, and therefore in an office setting.

Where to Go for More Information

United Scenic Artists
29 W. 38th St.
New York, NY 10018
(212) 581-0300

Art Directors Guild & Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists
11969 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 200
Studio City, California 91604
(818) 762-9995

Earnings and Benefits

The income of set and exhibit designers can vary substantially depending on experience and skill level. The median hourly wage was $17.25 in 2004, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Full-time designers working in larger firms or at established organizations often receive health and vacation benefits, while self-employed designers, or those who work for small firms on a project-by-project basis, must often pay for their own benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts