A set design from start to finish

As I said in another post, we never had the opportunity to watch our professors go through the entire design process (although we did participate in production meetings and other areas), so here I’m going to discuss how the process works. It’s very similar to how an architect works when he designs a building: discussions with the client about the intent, preliminary concepts, final design, and construction documents. Plus, of course, the budget and schedule.

I will be doing play-by-play postings on a couple of future set designs, but, in the meantime, I’m going to use a show I did in 2008, titled An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley. The play is set in England in 1911, during the Edwardian period, and concerns a suicide by a young female factory worker and the subsequent investigation. However, the story is really about how the upper classes of the period tended to isolate themselves from any social responsibility.

Step 1: Pre-design

My first step in the process was reading the play and doing some preliminary research on the Edwardian period: the history, the general mentality, the class structure, and the architecture. I also watched the movie – made in 1954 and starring Alastair Sim – knowing full well that it went beyond the story in the play itself.

Then I met with the director to discuss the story, the characters, the themes, and the period, and what she wanted to say with the play. It took about an hour, and I don’t recall either one of us mentioning doors or entrances or platforms or any technical stuff. Instead, the term “isolation” kept coming up. I walked out of there with a much better understanding of who these characters were than I had before, and a good sense of what kind of house they would have.

Here I went over the script again, this time to get a sense of what was going on physically: who came in, who left, what they were doing, and so forth. The entire story takes place in the dining room, after a formal dinner to celebrate the daughter’s engagement to a (rich, of course) young man. Now I was getting a sense of the traffic patterns, but that theme of isolation from the world kept coming up over and over.

Step 2: Conceptual Design

Now I grabbed my sketchbook and a pencil and spent some time trying to visualize this sense of isolation. We had a nice big stage to work with, so my first impulse was to create a smallish dining room in the center of the stage, not connected to anything, floating in a sea of black. And very close to the audience.

Below are a few of my initial sketches, from an 8-1/2” x 11” sketchbook. At this point I’m thinking about the shapes that will help develop the themes in the story – the architecture, the traffic, the characters, and the fact that theater doesn’t have to be literal. There’s no way I could have been this loose at this point with anything other than a pencil. Besides, I was sitting comfortably in my living room with a mug of coffee.


After a fair number of these sketches, I put down the notebook and went off to do something else, leaving those shapes to rattle around inside my head. Later, I came back and looked at them again, realized they worked, and decided to go in that direction.

At this point I wanted to see how this concept would fit on the physical stage. I already had a CAD drawing of the stage, so I decided to just go for it instead of doing it on paper. Notice how loose the drawing is: I’m just focusing on the size and placement and angle of the set, and not on the details. Even so, it took a good couple of hours of tweaking and adjusting the proportions and the angles, and the placement, before I was happy with it. It was at this point that I decided to “float” the set off the stage floor, but that’s another story.


Now I sat back, looked at it again, made a few more adjustments, and imported it into SketchUp to develop it in 3D. A few more hours and more tweaking later, and the result (below) was a computerized version of what we call a “white model.” This was what I showed the director at our next meeting, right on the computer, so I could “walk her” around the set. I find directors and choreographers love being able to see the set from different directions while it’s still a work in progress.

Inspector 1

Step 3: Final Design

Once she and I agreed to go in this direction, it was time to develop the white model into a finished model. At this point I did more research, this time into architectural details, interior décor, and furniture. The sketchbook came out again (below) as I worked out some of these details.


Eventually, the SketchUp model was done and ready for another meeting. This time there was enough detail to show the floor, walls, colors, furniture, and artwork, but not to excruciating, photo-realistic detail. SketchUp was intended for use as a conceptual design tool, not as a rendering tool, and I find this is fantastic for my work, since the rendering (or the model) is just a means to an end, and not the end in itself. It’s very easy to get so carried away with the model or the rendering that the time and the money are gone before construction begins. The final rendering is shown below.

Inspector 2

Incidentally, I showed this to the cast at their first rehearsal, again on the computer, and they loved being able to “feel” the space and walk around it. On subsequent shows, I’ve used a video projector, plugged into the laptop, to project the model onto the wall so it’s larger and easier to see, especially for a large cast. It’s the same effect as the old days, when I used to make a physical scale model and show it to the cast, but now I just need to carry the laptop and the projector.

Step 4: Shop Drawings

Finally, it was time to prepare the design drawings in CAD, including finalized floor plans, elevations, sections, and details. One of these, the drawing for the fireplace, is shown below; I did all these in 11×17 format, just for convenience, instead of the more common 24×36 size.


I also blew up some of the architectural details (below) and printed them for the shop crew so they would be able to visualize them better. The fireplace ended up being painted to look like stone, but there was no need to show it on this drawing.

Inspector 3

So there it is: a set design from start to finish. There’s nothing sacred about the steps and the sequence, but most of us follow this general format. It’s also the format used by architects and lots of other designers, and it works well. For me, it’s a mantra: start with the forest and then get into the trees and the branches and the leaves. Do the research. Understand what I’m trying to do, and have fun with it.