Set Design Courses: The Ultimate Guide (2022)

Written By: Yuri Melo
Credit: Onmanorama

Set design professionals are in charge of translating their formulated visual concept of the story into the physical space in which the actions of characters and performers will take place. This involves, obviously, the design of stages (Theatre) and sets (Film) that match the director’s vision and the overall atmosphere and social context of the narrative.

Set designers are usually very thorough workers. Their process starts off with basic drawing, evolving to the construction of ground plans, selection of stage or set spaces, prop creation, model making, etc., and culminates in the selection of the right scenery, furniture, props and overall appearance of the set or stage.

Over the past few years, it became extremely common for people in the Theatre and Film industry to look for set designers that are professionally specialized in the area, preferably holding BFA or MFA degrees. Fortunately, there are many options that offer these desirable degrees (and many options of more informal online courses as well).

In the end, it is up to you to analyze your circumstances and decide for yourself what the best learning option could be for your current position.

But we’re going to help you with that! We’ve selected the best options for in-person (and more in-depth) set design courses, as well as the best alternatives for online courses (options that are usually more short termed and not so in-depth).

Without further ado, let’s get right into it.

In-person

● Wimbledon College of Arts (University of the Arts London)

Credit: Wimbledon College of Arts

The BA (Hons) Theatre Design course offered by one of the most traditional art colleges of the U.K. is one of the most complete set design courses out there.

However, by the title of the course, you could be thinking: “Wait? Just theatre? I wouldn't be able to make set designs for films as well?” And that’s a totally valid question. But the answer is: you would be able to make proper design for both formats.

The course has a 3-year duration and offers more than enough educational material, practical classes, and theoretical knowledge for students to specialize in both of the main accounts of set design: for Film/TV and Theatre.

For example, this was the course that formed professional set designer Sonja Klaus, interviewed in an episode of the Red Carpet Rookies Podcast, and responsible for the set design of movies like Gladiator and Prometheus.

The course, as we’ve mentioned, is rather resourceful. You’ll actually learn all the essentials of the design of sound, lighting and other aspects. This delving into other areas enables students to get a broader sense of the production as a whole, better understanding other positions besides their own.

This kind of extension of learning facilitates communication and helps you to easily clarify your ideas and methods to fellow members of the production crew (including, of course, the director)

Among other essential topics and resources that will be available to you, are included:

● Interpretation of text with perception of character

● Contextual studies of Film, TV and Arts

● Introduction to Computer Aided Design (CAD)

● Examination of the relation of drawing to costume and performance

● Building of a strong network of potential collaborators and other institutions

● Development of a personal portfolio

The reported tuition for the BA (Hons) course is U$12,487 (U.K. residents) and U$31,873 (nonresidents).

Some notable alumni include:

● Sonja Klaus (Gladiator)

● Sarah Greenwood (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement)

● Richard Hudson (The Lion King)

● Carnegie Mellon University

Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama is one of the most resourceful and well-known art schools of the U.S.

Located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon offers several options for students in their arts department. And, more specifically, the Scenic Design program is an option that will surely prepare you not only for production/set design, but also engage you in the art direction department.

You’ll learn everything from text and character analysis, as well as how to strengthen your communication skills through multiple theoretical and practical classes, and obviously by eventually making designs for real productions.

Students get to know the essentials they must master in order to properly translate their vision into all of the steps included in the set designer working method. That includes drawing, painting, model-making, drafting, etc.

The university also provides a great number of facilities and tools that are extremely important to an in-depth and practical learning of set design, such as production shops and computer facilities, as well as laser cutters, automation packages and video equipment.

Interaction with other disciplines that are not usually related to theatre, such as robotics and architecture are also encouraged in order to expand the creative horizon of the students, stimulating originality and new solutions.

The program is offered in the undergraduate and graduate formats. The reported tuition for undergraduates is U$57,560 and U$35,640 for graduates.

Some notable alumni include:

● Jeff Crye (Law & Order: SVU)

● Doug Huszti (Boardwalk Empire)

● Savannah College of Art and Design

Credit: Savannah College of Art and Design

SCAD actually offers Production Design in 3 degree options: BFA (180 hours), MFA (90 hours) and MA (45 hours).  

During their experience in SCAD, students should expect meaningful contributions to projects involving big names of the art industry. College’s alumni are often employed around the world by major networks and studios like NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox, HBO, Nickelodeon, etc.

The program enables students to transit between costumes, lighting and art direction, getting back to production design to put to use everything they’ve learned.

SCAD’s facilities are made for industry-level productions. As a consequence of that, students are prepared to work in productions at the same level of complexity.  

Some of the important tools and facilities that could be at your disposal include: 

● Workshops for prop creation and set construction

● Prop and costume shop

● 3 Theaters (1200 seats, 1110 seats and 150 seats)

● 20-seat computer lab w/ graphic tablets

It’s also important to emphasize the college’s location. SCAD is located just 4 hours away from Atlanta by car ride. That means students are just 4 hours away from one of the biggest, most thriving Film and TV production marketplaces in the whole world. A perfect location for making important connections and getting a foot in with the top guys in the industry.

The reported tuition for the courses are U$37,575 (undergraduate) and U$38,475 (graduate).

Notable alumni includes:

● Jeffrey Dennis Simon (Spiderman: Homecoming, Edge of Tomorrow)

Online

● Set Design for Film and Television (University of the Arts London)

Credit: University of the Arts London

This introductory online course offered by UAL is great for set designers looking for work specifically in the Film and TV field.

The course has a 1 week duration and (as most online courses) is strongly recommended for beginners in set design. You’ll learn the essentials everyone interested in the subject should know before actually getting some work done professionally.

Students are introduced to the multiple dynamics that involve production design work specifically for the multi-camera TV productions and Film productions. There’s also characters breakdown through script analysis, basics of scenery construction and set dressing, etc.

The online course also includes:

● LIVE online lessons (with more space for productive interactions with teachers and other students)

● Support forums

● Access to VLE

● 2 weeks online access

● Certificate given after course completion

The intention is that, by the end of the course, students have produced ground plans, models and moodboards for their personal portfolios.

The reported price for the online course is U$783,00.

● The Art of Set Design (National Institute of Dramatic Art)

Credit: National Institute of Dramatic Art

Also strongly recommended for beginners, this NIDA online course happens in a format of 4 Zoom sessions of 2.5 hours each, with 1 hour of writing and research activity between each session.

The course recognizes the multi-layered consistency of the art of set design, as well as the communication and practical skills required for professionals in the area to properly translate their visual concepts into the sets and stages, as well as verbally elaborating and discussing their creative decisions with other members of the production crew.

Students will learn how to interpret the narrative at hand in such a way that they can really get a grasp on the characters and themes of the story, assertively producing the set design and overall ambience of the world that these people inhabit.

Insights into the basics of spatial exploration of sets will also be given, as well as a formation or artistic influences formulated by intense research processes that guide every project.

The reported price for the online course is U$960,00.

● Art Direction and Creativity in Movement (Flaminguettes)

Credit: Flaminguettes (domestika)

For those looking for a broader learning option that also comes at a very affordable price, this online course available on Domestika and ministrated by the very talented duo Daniele and Mara can surely be a great choice.

The course consists of 22 lessons (3h30min) and learning topics include Animation, Video, Design and Installation.  

The duo have worked in many types of multimedia projects, so don’t expect classes that are specifically directed to the Film and TV industry. This course is an option for people that have the intention of expanding their knowledge in the fields of Production Design and Art Direction.

Of course, that doesn’t mean design in video isn’t analyzed at all. It’s just included among other very interesting art categories like Photography and Animation. 

Daniele and Mara have worked for notable clients worldwide, including:

● Nike

● Air France

● Adidas

● Cirque du Soleil

● Sony

The course's main intention is to reformulate (or aprimorate) the way you perceive the visual importance of certain objects and show you how to use creative methods in order to create powerful images with unusual combinations of props and objects that match a certain narrative or specific theme.

You’ll learn about the duo’s main references, creation of props and backgrounds, the importance of the “breakdown” document, how to properly place your elements in the set/stage, among other things.

There’s also exploration of the digital adjustments necessary in post-production using programs like After Effects and Photoshop. And by the end of course, every student has to make their own still life of the 21st century by using moving elements, a technique that can be used as an impressive portfolio piece in the multiple art fields explored during the course.

The reported price for the online course is U$12,99.

Picking the Best for You

If your intention is to really get deep into the set design world and you also have a big budget available, then one of the "in-person" alternatives is probably the best for you.

But if you wish to explore the subject with no great pretensions (at least for now) and don't intend to spend a great amount of money right now, the alternatives of the "online" category could surely satisfy your needs.

p.s. If you enjoyed this article you may enjoy our podcast with legendary Oscar winning James Bond Set Designer, Peter Lamont.