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Career Advice from Agents: how to develop a successful career in production design

Photo of set for Mike Nichols' "Working Girl". Production Design: Patrizia von Brandenstein


1. Know Thyself

Mira Yong, WME

This is a simple thought yet incredibly difficult for some to articulate. It’s important that those you meet with truly understand your passion and why you do this!

Who are you? What moment(s) in your life brought you to production design? What makes you a leader?

Ask yourself these questions every day and you will see the areas you want to grow and improve on to make you world-class at what you do. The level of confidence you need to get to that career you dream of takes more work on yourself than you realize and is singlehandedly the difference.


2. Design for the Career You Want, Not the Career You Have

Dan Burnside, DDA

It’s difficult to narrow down to one piece the advice I’d give a creative professional about how to expand their careers, simply because there is rarely a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. But there is one piece of advice so simple and universal that I find myself going to it with the most regularity: Take creative risks.

It sounds like an easy choice, but often the most creatively inspiring jobs aren’t compelling on paper. You’re taking a chance no one sees it. You’re taking a chance the resources may not be there to pull off the director’s vision. But you’re also betting on yourself. It’s human nature, especially mid-career, to look at the work you are doing and ask, “Is this why I got in to designing… to do this?” I’ve rarely had a client take a risk on something that, even if it fails critically, doesn’t end up being the credit that gets them in the room on a job they want or makes available projects that had been previously out of reach.

A while back I had a producer say of a client – a client with tons of amazing work, awards, talent, etc. – that their resume was “exactly what they (production) weren’t looking for.” I was stunned – but what the producer was saying was something I am hearing more and more of: We’re living in era where, while experience, and work history matters, what producers and directors are looking for is vision, artistry and a distinct creative voice. This is what is really in demand. In a world where there are theaters, networks, streaming platforms and online content, producers are looking for something special to make their project really stand out.

This begs the question: What sets you apart from your peers? Wherever you are in your career, investing in adding these types of projects to your resume matters. Whether you are just beginning a career or deep into a career that you hope to alter course on, taking creative risks can be the spark that ignites reinvention. For example, let’s say there’s a choice between two jobs, one safe (maybe lucrative) but uninspired and one with a less defined path to success but with a higher creative ceiling. I often find myself advising designers to take the more creative job. It’s easy to get caught up in comfort, pay and resources that come with certain jobs when really, long term, it’s better to bet on something with a stronger creative upside than to stack a resume with a bunch of credits that don’t inspire a director. In life, rarely do we regret the times we took chances… in fact, we often regret the chances we didn’t take. Your career should be no different.


3. Diversify

Rebecca Fayyad Palud, LUX

As an agent, I feel the best word of advice I can pass on to designers who are starting out in their careers, is to always have your foot in both the narrative and commercial market. They are two very different industries with completely different personnel, operating at very different time scales. It’s important to keep your eye on progressing your career in both fields simultaneously. I have always found that by working on commercials it allows the designer to be choosier about waiting for the next narrative project which is right for them, instead of having to accept a narrative project purely for financial reasons or just to keep themselves busy. Working on commercials allows the designer to meet new directors, to make new relationships, to test out new ideas and to hopefully keep their creative process inspired.


4. Own Your Own Brand

Matthew Coastworth, UTA

Ours is a complicated business of big personalities tasked with entertaining unlimited, often misguided audiences who are challenged to connect with content by a vast spectrum of stories. For this reason, no single artist will please everyone - if you try to do that you’ll please no one.

At the same time, boundless access creates the potential for everyone to find their own crowd. A model like this means you’re at your best when you focus on who you are rather trying to adapt or reinvent at the whim of a confused creative. Channel your life experience, education and training into something consistent that you can bring to every meeting. That’s your brand and identity and is what you’re leaving on the table at the end of an interview. And you must own your brand. It won’t be for everyone, but when you do connect, it will be deep and last much longer than the job being discussed.

Always have a point of view before you go in; a method and approach before you’re given instruction and try to remain gentle and respectful. The artists I see getting hired constantly are the kind ones. I also firmly believe in having a strong mentor. Someone you’re passionate to support, follow, and annoy the hell out of with all your questions until you fly. Most people I meet have them, myself included.


5. Be Passionate

Julia Kole, Artistry

"Passion: a feeling of intense enthusiasm towards or compelling desire for someone or something. Passion can range from eager interest in or admiration for an idea, proposal, or cause; to enthusiastic enjoyment of an interest or activity."

The one thing we all can agree on is we love movies, we love visual storytelling, from dark human emotional dramas to Marvel blockbusters there is something for everyone in our business. Passion and creativity is what brings us all into the business. Passion makes us work harder, longer and it’s what you want everyone to see and hear when you walk into an interview.

Own it, show it; use it to your advantage. If it’s a director you’ve always wanted to work for and you’re nervous pour your passion into your presentation. If you sense your visual take is not going well engage your director / showrunners to share their passion with you about the story, the characters, and their world to find common ground. Feed off of their excitement, it’s a collaborative effort and your ability to pivot quickly will be noted and appreciated.

If you read something and there’s no passion then it’s a pass.

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