How Set Designers Capture the Imagination of Their Audience

Set design is commonly overlooked by the audience unless it doesn’t fit the production, is faulty or is poorly constructed. In this regard, the live stage and silver screen share a likeness. But how do set designers get it right? How do they evoke a feeling of an era that has long since passed or is completely fictional?

Here’s a look at the logistics of set design and how a great set captures the imagination of the audience.


Set designers are responsible for the artistic direction of backdrops, props and larger set structures, all of which require concept art, brainstorm and logistic meetings, and hours of construction. Set designers work with the costume designers, director and construction teams to achieve a feeling that reflects the values, tone, mood and ambiance of the play or movie. They must be wonderful collaborators and leaders, and, above all, set designers must be good at working under pressure.

Theater stage with red curtains and spotlights on the stage wooden floor. Theatre interior with decorations of the dramatic sky wallpaper.

Theater stage with red curtains and spotlights on the stage wooden floor. Theatre interior with decorations of the dramatic sky wallpaper.

Stage vs. Screen

Stage sets and film sets vary in many ways. In many ways, set designers for the stage must be more thorough and precise because a live theater audience sees each scene, set and actor from a multitude of angles. In comparison, a movie set is only seen through the eye of a camera. Movie sets also may only be used for one or two scenes, so they have a limited time to make an impression on the audience and convey the right tone.

Designers must will the suspension of disbelief of the audience through an artistic aesthetic. Their sets must be convincing and mobile within a static space. The elaborateness and number of mobile pieces depend on the budget, style and production. Take “Chicago” as an example. To capture the essence of the 1920s, the production uses a lot of black and white colors to give it a dramatic and old feel. The set, lighting and costumes are punctuated with red to give it some Hollywood glamour. The set designer also uses shiny, metal bars for the jail cell and a neon Chicago sign to give the big numbers some pizzazz.


Set designers constantly deal with logistics. The transportation of the set is paramount, as elaborate sets must be built offsite and brought into the theater. On the other hand, movie set designers must worry about location changes and staying consistent with the aesthetic and tone of the movie. Whether it’s for a movie or play, every detail is accounted for and placed in the scene for a desired aesthetic.

From the large pieces of furniture down to the color of the food in the refrigerator, every item serves a purpose. For instance, if a character opens the fridge, the set designer has to decide what kind of foods, drinks and condiments fit that character. Sometimes props even re-appear in sequels or similar movies. While this may seem like a coincidence to some audience members, these re-appearances are deliberate and serve as an ode to the previous film.

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