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Finding your way through the labyrinth: 5 tips on how to start work in production design

Photo of set for Jim Henson's "Labyrinth". Production Design: Elliot Scott

A few years ago, I was interviewing the award-winning PD Stuart Craig on the set of the "Harry Potter" series and asked what his advice would be for students wishing to enter the field, without hesitation he directed me to two of his art department assistants. He said they would have much more helpful things to say regarding best ways in and the current landscape for an emerging graduate. He was absolutely right and I was surprised to learn of the challenges they had encountered initially on leaving film school. Having completed their training on production design courses, they had found it really difficult to find work and it wasn’t until they undertook a short industry-based course with entirely technical skills that they started gaining employment.

This story has since become all too how can the transition from education to industry be supported and made less daunting and disorientating? Here are a few tips to see you on the right path:

1. Study

Complete a production design course at a film school, university or sign up to a reputable industry-based programme. Whichever you choose, a good course should inspire your creativity and provide you with confidence in your abilities. Getting a qualification doesn't guarantee you a job, but it will show your commitment to the field and give you the basics in theory and practice.

2. Gain work experience

The more experience working on projects outside of university, the stronger position students will be in to gain work after graduation. Find opportunities online and sign up for postings of productions that are looking for crew. Stay in contact with the people you’ve worked with on projects and continue to expand your network of connections.

3. Make contact with industry professionals and get advice

Using sources such as The Knowledge, the Production Designers Collective and other listings contact PDs and see if you can arrange to meet for coffee then ask if you can assist them on their next job. Do your homework – make sure you contact PDs whose work you love. This is an important point as you should be meeting with designers whose work you admire and are familiar with – this will help you stand out as it will show you are engaged in the field and intelligent enough to have conducted research into the area. Research is a huge part of designing, so this will also indicate you possess that essential skill.

4. Show off your strengths with an online portfolio

Use your portfolio to demonstrate your inventive and fresh approach and make clear you are a visual storyteller who can translate words into images that resonate with an audience. Your skills at solving design problems will help you shine and stand out. Show examples of your technical drawing, sketching and illustration, set decoration, sourcing and budgeting, working with existing locations or building and construction. There is much that the recent graduate has to offer industry.

5. Read books about the theory and practice of production design

When I embarked on writing my first book "Production Design: Architects of the Screen" (2004) it was in response to the lack of material available on the subject at the time. I studied production design at film school and learnt from watching, discussing and making films, however in relation to scholarly work on the subject there was a distinct absence of material to draw on.

Happily there are now many more titles to inspire and guide you in the field. Here is a very short selection of some particular favourites of mine:

The Art Directors Handbook for Film & Television, Michael Rizzo - a practical guide to organising the art department, a bible for art directors.

Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions: A History of Film Design. Leon Barsacq.

Designs On Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction, Cathy Whitlock - a beautiful book with pictures and case studies of design over the past century, a good history of production design.

Designing For The Screen: Production Design and Art Direction Explained, Georgina Shorter

Designing Movies: Portrait of A Hollywood Artist, Richard Sylbert and Sylvia Townsend

Production Design & Art Direction. Peter Ettedgui – a selection of interviews with leading designers

There are some great behind the scenes books on specific films showing you the whole process of making a film, and often a large part is devoted to the design, for example:

The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, J.W.Rinzler - a visual study of the conceptual and design process leading to the making of Star Wars. From concept art to technical drawing it illustrates the whole process.

Harry Potter: Page To Screen, Bob McCabe A visual study from concept to filming

The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz - study of Wes Anderson films, from concept to filming, useful to see how locations were used.

Online resources:

Vanity Fair: From Sketch To Still, Case studies of various films

Art Director Guild,, the US production design union

Perspective Magazine, Case studies on film and TV shows

Architectural Digest, - case studies of set design in various Hollywood films

Ok, so once you've got a foot in the door it's important to bear these guiding principles in mind while you learn on the job:

Be versatile

Working in the art department requires such diverse skills that can only be learnt through doing. Only once you are in an art department can you fully grasp the complexities of what is required and even then every new project is different with new challenges to stretch, inspire and blow your mind: a new script, production team, budget, schedule, locations, characters, story, themes, technical requirements and so on. Thus adapting and having the ability to be flexible and agile are essential skills. New knowledge is tested, reflected on and taken to the next project, where there is always a new set of problems to be solved. With each project new lessons are learnt and new tools added to the tool kit.


Being able to demonstrate you can collaborate and work effectively in a team is essential. The PD is a key collaborator who helps create meaning in the image through the selection and combination of choices made during the production process. Tell the story. The fact that production design is at the service of the story and the work should not usually upstage the characters or narrative is a recurring issue for an understanding of the role. Production design provides the physical environment required for the script and also enhances this with layers of psychological and emotional nuance. PDs utilize the environment as a storytelling device through the adept use of visual language. ‘Your responsibility is to supply the background action but also the thing to hang onto, like everybody else you’re there to tell the story and you must remember that it’s a dramatic piece and it hasn’t got much to do with interior decoration which people sometimes think it has. You offer the producer a production solution and you offer the director a dramatic solution.’ (Stuart Craig, author interview, 2004)

Be creative

Although each designer embodies an individual approach to their craft they follow a similar creative process, seeking a visual concept and finding ways to visualize it on screen. Remember your unique perspective and what you can bring to a project. Your particular way of seeing the world is a gift, like a delicious dinner you have prepared to be shared. Demonstrate your creative vision of the story world, how you interpret the script visually, breathing life into characters and environment. Indicate how you extrapolate forward from the script and deal with all of the obstructions that the production process throws in your way.

In summary, when I was at film school we were told our showreel together with our industry contacts would be more useful than the qualification we were graduating with and I think this is still largely true. Bridging and making the transition from the education environment to the world of work is hugely helped if you have already begun to translate your skills into ones that can be easily understood in the workplace. As individuals, showing you understand the way productions operate in general and the art department in particular will be highly beneficial.

Be bold, inquisitive and resourceful. Dream wildly and collaborate widely. Enjoy the journey.

Photo of set for George Cukor's "Wizard of Oz". Production Design: Cedric Gibbons

Jane Barnwell is Senior Lecturer in Moving Image at the University of Westminster. Graduating from Leeds University and the Northern School of Film & Television she began her career at the BBC, before working as a freelance production designer. Her artist films have received commissions from - The Unicorn Theatre, The Women’s Library, The Place, Battersea Arts Centre, Chisenhale Gallery, TAP and the Truman Brewery. Jane has published articles for a range of publications and sole authored books – "Production Design for Screen; Visual Storytelling in Film and TV" (2017, Bloomsbury), "Production Design: Architects of the screen", (2004, Wallflower Press) and "The Fundamentals of Film Making" (2008, AVA publishing).

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