To accompany our current Forum question - "What Items are in your Design Tool Kit?" - we collected ideas and tips from fellow production designers who shared their favorite items.
Bellow are some suggestions to take on your next design adventure!
The first item a production designer needs is a container for one's thoughts. It can be a plain notebook, a sketchbook or a digital surface, but the common point is that thoughts tend to evaporate unless noted.
Size and material varies, and nowadays many production designers opt for a cloud-based app for the ease of sharing their notes with others.
However, the notebook's best feature is its ability to develop a dialogue with the note-taker. As production designers, we go through a layered creative process, and documenting its many stages helps us progress in the right direction. It's a safe space to record passing thoughts, failed experiments and unrealized designs. All are part of the discovery process that will eventually lead to a finished set.
A notebook is also essential for capturing the myriad directives, comments and observations made by the director and other collaborators, which the designer is expect to remember and in turn incorporate into the design.
The notebook can contain long lists, taped business cards, clipped samples and the ubiquitous doodles only decipherable to the designer. At its best, it is a beautiful collage of creativity and exploration, a memento of our design process that will last long after the project is over.
Nowadays, humanity doesn't leave the house without its phone. It follows that production designers should utilize the device in their design process. The possibilities are endless, so we will only mention a few on-the-go benefits: communicating with crew, reading emails, taking notes, photographing and photo-editing, measuring, mapping, accessing online files and watching set monitors.
It's always recommended to search for and try out new apps on the job, so you can evaluate their real-time efficiency and prioritize the essential ones.
Using one's smartphone for work also means hours of screen-time, which has negative effects on health and well-being. The more we multi-task on the device, the worse the side-effects. It is important to monitor screen-time usage and implement time away from the device, which increases creativity and a balanced lifestyle. Remember that films were made many decades before smartphones, so there are always alternatives to using it.
The tablet can be seen as a mixture between a laptop and a smartphone. While mostly sharing the same apps with the phone, the tablet's large screen is often more effective when it comes to visual communication, which is so important in our profession. lighter and smaller than a laptop, its compact nature makes it a convenient companion on the road.
The tablet's ability to function as a digital sketchbook has made it a favorite among designers. Using a stylus, designing with interactive design apps and sharing immediately with your team can help make the design process faster, clearer and more precise, especially on-the-go.
To discover the tablet's creative potential, find time to use it outside of work. Many apps allow for drawing, painting, tracing and illustrating, but their virtual tools need to be practiced just like real brushes, pencils and rulers. Don't expect skills to develop faster just because you're working digitally - learning any new method requires time and focus.
Production Designers are first and foremost visual people. We look at the world around us and see infinite possibilities, from the smallest details to the most epic landscapes. However, we also move at neck-breaking speed from one location to another, juggling tasks and projects, so we need to register our visual encounters before they fade completely from our retina.
Whether you use a smartphone camera, a digital camera, an SLR or an instant camera, the goal is always to document and store everything you encounter that can be helpful to you in your design process.
Using a camera-phone is beneficial since its storage capacity is enormous and the images can be quickly shared with others. It also features lensing apps that emulate film cameras, measure light and edit photos.
However, the ease of digital photography means the amount of photos taken daily can be overwhelming and require a lot of sorting time, which we often lack. It's easy to lose track of the many photos of possible locations, material samples, construction details, furniture pieces and props. Moreover, the smartphone's weakness in properly categorizing photos means that one's work photos are mixed with personal ones, which leads to a confusing, context-less stream of images.
It's recommended to create a routine of downloading (or syncing) photos from one's phone and categorizing them per subject every few days. Doing so helps organize one's design process, create easier access for others and free storage on your smartphone for the coming days.
It's amazing that with all the new technology around us, often what designers need most are the basic tools of the trade.
Carrying a simple tape-measure around can save you in many situations, from discussing a set build with a director to flea-market shopping trips. For large spaces that require quick calculations use a laser measuring tool, and if you're presenting floorplans don't forget your architect's scale.
We sometimes underestimate the importance of properly measuring spaces, especially when in a rush and late for the rest of our day. Since we expect other team members to prepare detailed surveys we often forego our own.
However, it's an ancient Murphy's Law that the one measurement you need is the one you didn't get. On the same note, no matter how hard we try, there's always a couch that doesn't fit through a door... So keep all that in mind whenever you're pressed for time on a scout or in a store - take a deep breath and grab that missing measurement.
COLOR MATCHING TOOL
Making decisions on color is an intrinsic part of a production designer's job. However, so many color decisions are required daily on a project that it's easy to lose sight of the complex nature of the decision-making process.
Picking a color can be seen as either a trivial or a monumental decision. One one hand, one can agonize over the color of a poster that ends up in the deep background as a hazy blob.
On the other, Misjudging a paint sample by a shade can lead to repainting a whole set. A color decided on under duress or without consulting a fan-deck will likely result in replacement, hopefully before all the walls have been painted.
Choosing color on-the-go can also be a challenge because it's a difficult medium to communicate about. To be most efficient, discussions about color require standardization: communicating about print color is often done through color systems such as PMS, CMYK or RGB; deciding on a color guide, such as a color palette for a project or a set, can be helpful as a general set of rules for the team; picking a few paint companies and working with their color fans is a practical and efficient way to minimize confusion with the scenic team and maximize speed of delivery.
Besides traveling with a few favorite fan-decks, nowadays it's possible to also use digital color-matching tools. These devices and apps make it simple and fast to match paint, a helpful thing if you're in a rush but want to record existing paint colors in a location, or an inspiring paint combination you stumbled upon.
"SURVIVAL" WORK TOOLS
Regardless of the size of your project, a minimal kit of basic work tools can always come in handy.
If your project is very hands-on you may require a serious toolkit, power tool and work gloves. If your role is that of a supervisor, it's still advisable to carry a leatherman or knife, especially when working or scouting in remote areas (just remember to remove before getting through airport security...).
A "survival" kit doesn't need to only consist of knives, nails and gloves. Phone charger, bug spray, sunscreen and hand sanitizer are often just as, if not more, important. A flashlight or headlamp for night work is often essential, as well as hand and toe warmers for winter shoots.
It's good practice to think like a camper. If you have a rental car it's easy to create a kit and always keep it in the trunk. With the daily unexpected twists and turns of productions, it's often hard to anticipate where you'll end up. "Survival" tools ensure that you're always prepared for whatever adventure may come your way.
Crew members who spend their days on set are known to obsess over work gear. For production designers, who split their days shuttling between sets, locations and the art office, the issue may seem less pressing. However, production designers are often sent on impromptu scouts, summoned to a set for an emergency or pay visits to set construction sites.
Never underestimate the importance of work gear - it can make a huge difference in a designer's day. Being unprepared for cold weather, a rainy day or a scout in a field can affect not just your mood, but your ability to work effectively and make the most of your design opportunities.
Being attuned to the weather forecast, reading the call sheet for location terrain warnings and always keeping an extra pair of socks in your bag can keep you healthy and comfortable while maximizing your design capabilities.
FOOD AND DRINK
Despite concentrating on design tools, this post would not be complete without the few things we can't live without as human beings.
Most designers who contributed to this article mentioned some sort of snack or drink that keeps them going through the day - from healthy snacks kept in the car for long drives, to a daily ritual of coffee or tea, to sharing a meal with crew members.
These items represent more than just nourishment. At times they can be an answer to a stressful situation, but they can also represent a healthy routine devised to sustain energy and fight off exhaustion.
Finding the time to eat and drink equals taking a minute to sit down and clear your head during a hectic day. Sharing a meal with co-workers can be a welcomed opportunity to connect and interact, while grabbing a solitary cup of coffee or snack can be a quiet relief from the hustle and bustle of set.
As the final item in a production designer's toolkit we decided to pay tribute to one's wits. Despite being a concept rather than an actual tool, maintaining a calm, collected and positive outlook on the world is more valuable than the most advanced piece of technology.
Every production designer knows a dangers of losing oneself in the madness of a production's work day.
Often, the challenges seem insurmountable, the resources inadequate and the requests ludicrous. Such an environment can be a hotbed of anxiety and tension, which time and again results in conflict and argument.
Unlike a tape measure or an iPad, your common sense doesn't always materialize when needed. However, with practice and through adopting certain methods one can greatly decrease stress and promote a focused and constructive work environment.
It's not enough to get a job done, or even done well. The biggest challenge is to reach your design goals without compromising your sanity and the well-being of your crew.
Back to the top