Unscripted TV

Production designer

Also known as: Set designer

Production designer

What does a production designer do?

Production designers have one of the most visually creative jobs in television. They design and create the sets inside which programmes are made. Most sets are built in studios, but are often created in other locations, such as on theatre stages or within a hired space (referred to as 'on location'). Production designers create sets for a variety of programming, from talent shows and quizzes to lifestyle series like cookery or painting, awards ceremonies and music programmes.

As the head of the art department, they work with the director, producer, lighting director, floor manager, camera supervisor and sound supervisor to ensure the set they design and oversee the building of incorporates the needs of the whole production. They work closely with the construction company and liaise with them on details, constantly problem solving during the build process. They have to consider what content needs to be made within their set and how to style and dress it, whilst also ensuring it meets the technical requirements of the other departments, is accessible, meets health and safety guidelines and is within budget.

They attend progress meetings and are present during rehearsals and at filming to advise on visual presentation, answer questions and solve problems relating to design.

Production designers are almost always freelancers.

Watch and read:

What’s a production designer good at?

  • Creativity: create a unique visual home for a programme, visualise the look of a set, be able to imagine how it will accommodate the production brief and department requirements
  • Art: draw quickly and confidently by hand, do technical drawings to scale and computer-aided design, create 3D models of studio sets
  • Knowledge of construction: source appropriate materials, know how a set will be built, be aware of the latest developments in production design, including technology and materials
  • Knowledge of production: understand production techniques, studio environments, studio capabilities and the challenges of working on location
  • Leadership: share the vision with a wider number of people such as lighting designers and camera operators, manage budgets, draw up schedules, prioritise and meet deadlines

Who does a production designer work with?

Production designers appoint and manage design and construction teams and often recommend an art director and a production buyer. They work closely with the director, the senior producers and heads of lighting, camera, sound, floor, costume and make-up. They and their team often form a strong working relationship with a particular director or producer with whom they may work on many productions.

How do I become a production designer?

Build up your skills as an artist, particularly in freehand drawing and sketching out ideas, 3D art, technical drawing and architecture. You can then try to find work in an entry level role in unscripted TV, such as an art department runner, and work your way up through the roles of art department; assistant and art director.

At school or college:
If you want to go to university, A-levels or Highers in art, architecture, photography, graphic design or graphic communication are useful. Or you might want to take the following Level 3 vocational qualifications:

  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma Art and Design
  • UAL Applied General Diploma in 3D Design and Crafts
  • NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:

  • BTEC National Diploma in 3D Design and Crafts
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. Some of the major broadcasters offer apprenticeships. Check out the schemes with the BBCChannel 4Channel 5Sky and ITV to see if they offer apprenticeships in the art department. If you can’t get an apprenticeship with a broadcaster, it might be worth looking for a job as an apprentice in an industry that uses similar skills, such as one in design, furniture design or architecture. This could help you develop your craft and create a body of work for a portfolio that you can use to find your way into unscripted TV at a later point.

These are the apprenticeships that might relate to this role throughout the UK:

  • Props Technician (Level 3, England)
  • Design (Level 3, Northern Ireland)
  • Design (SCQF, Level 5, Scotland)
  • Furniture, Furnishings and Interiors (SCQF, Level 5, 6, Scotland)
  • Design (Level 2, 3, Wales)
  • Design Practice (Level 5, Wales)
  • Furniture and Furnishings (Level 2, 3, Wales)

In Scotland, you might be able to find degree-level apprenticeships through the following frameworks:

  • Creative (SCQF Level 6/7, Scotland)
  • Creative and Digital Media (SCQF Level 6/7, Scotland)
  • Design (SCQF Level 5, 6/7, Scotland)

Some production designers come from architecture backgrounds. If you’re interested in architecture as well as production design, you might be interested in jobs with architecture firms that would give you a degree-level apprenticeship.

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will give you the skills you want. Go to where can I find an apprenticeship? to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region, or approach companies directly.

Develop a wide range of art skills:
Learn how to sketch and draw, paint, do 3D modelling and graphic art. This is essential. The more you can do at this stage, the more chance you have of being useful in the art department later on.

Learn to drive: 
If possible, get access to a car. This makes you more versatile and means you can help more.

Get a degree:
Most production designers have degrees in art, architecture, theatre, theatre design, interior design or 3D design. A design degree is a solid basis for this career. Or you might want to have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in unscripted TV. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the TV industry. 

Build a portfolio:
This is essential for impressing admissions tutors and people in the TV industry. Go to build your art portfolio to learn how.

Get work experience: 
Try to get work experience by writing to local production companies and asking if they offer any. Keep an eye out for work experience opportunities at the BBCChannel 4ITVSky and the PACT Indie Diversity Training Scheme.

Network: 
Get to know people in the unscripted TV industry by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest in and knowledge of the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this. 

Network online:

Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there are Facebook pages or other social media groups for people making unscripted TV in your area. There might even be groups for runners and trainees. Join them. Create a ScreenSkills profile. There are a lot of crewing agencies that will charge you to be on their books. Sign up to the free ones initially. Wales Screen, Northern Ireland Screen and other areas offer free crew databases. Find a film office near you and get connected. If you do sign up to paid sites, make sure they specialise in the areas in which you’re interested. 

Search for jobs: 
Research unscripted TV production companies that you’d like to work for and watch the programmes that they make. Regularly check their websites and job listings websites to see if they are advertising for roles. You can also send in a short speculative letter with your CV to the production manager. Register your CV on websites like The Talent Manager, which is used by most broadcasters and independent production companies when looking for staff. StartinTV offers tips on creating your CV and attending interviews, as well as some advice on your first day working in TV.

You might also be interested in…

Being a production designer in film and TV drama. Alternatively, you could consider being an environment artist in games.

Further resources