Inspiration, or how do we get there from here?

Set designers are frequently asked how we come up with our designs, as in  where did the ideas come from? It’s actually a very straight-forward process, although it does take some work. I covered the design process itself in A set design from start to finish, so here I’ll go over some of the techniques and resources we use to get inspiration.

The script

The first resource is the script. As I mentioned elsewhere, a lot of scripts come with stage directions and even floor plans of the original design, but we mostly tend to ignore those. However, the story itself: who does what, who wants what, the time period, the social and economic environment,  the genre (is it a drama, a comedy, a mystery, a farce, a tragedy, and so forth), and the overall feeling we get as we read it, are all a great resource. That’s where it all starts.

Generally, I like to read a script the first time mostly for enjoyment, like a novel or something similar: I’m just focusing on the story itself and not paying much attention (if any) to the set or the mechanics. It’s only when I go back for a second or third reading that I start to focus on the actual physical requirements: the window that Maria climbs through during a rainstorm, the gondola that the Prince arrives in, or the space where Hamlet and Laertes will have their sword fight.

The script can also show you how the show “feels.” Is it dark and oppressive, is it light and whimsical, is it magical, is it uplifting or depressing, and so forth. This, in itself, is often enough to get some creative juices flowing.

The director

The director is another great resource, in that he or she generally has a good clear vision for the story by the time we first meet. Some directors want to start out by telling us what they want for a set (probably because they think that’s what we expect), but I’ve found that the vast majority really enjoy discussing the story, the characters, the themes, the conflicts, and similar subjects, since that’s what they’re familiar with and can talk about.

I’ve even had a couple of directors tell me they were relieved that I didn’t ask them what they wanted for a set, since that wasn’t their strong point. To which I replied that I was relieved I didn’t have to direct the show, since that wasn’t my strong point. Suddenly we became specialists on friendly terms: they did their jobs and I did mine.

For me, a director is a gold mine of information, but, whenever possible, I avoid discussing the set during the first meeting.

The rest of the production team

The lighting designer, costume designer, prop master, choreographer, musical director, and others can be a great resource too. For instance, the lighting designer might say he would love to see a “god light” on Hamlet as he stands behind Polonius with a sword in the prayer scene, since that would really emphasize Hamlet’s conflict as to killing the king or not killing him. This might get me thinking about a cool place for Polonius to kneel during that scene. A lot of creative ideas can come from the team, without the project becoming a “design by committee.”

The venue itself

The stage itself, or the proscenium arch, or some detail about the space, can generate some ideas. Some years ago I copied part of the theatre’s architecture for the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, which really helped bring the audience into the trial, and, the following year, I mirrored the shape of the stage apron in some of the platforms for A Tale of Cinderella. Both of these ideas came after doing extensive research into the stories and the periods, and they worked very well.


Research is extremely important to most of us, but it’s not limited to historical styles. When researching for a set, I will look at the architecture of the location in the period of the show (i.e., Vienna in the 1600s), but I will also look at two or three centuries prior to the period. I will also look at period furniture,  costumes, technology, art, music, and sometimes even the culture and politics of the era. The idea isn’t so much to come up with something historically accurate, but to develop a feeling for that particular time and place, and for the people who lived there.

My recent set for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a good example. We decided up front that we didn’t want to create just another generic day room in a “stereotypical” mental hospital, but that we wanted the space to reflect the authoritative control and the dehumanizing effect that the institution (and Nurse Ratched) had over the residents. So, in addition to researching mental hospitals all the way back to the 1800s, I also looked at a number of “cold” institutional spaces including some WPA buildings and Russian architecture from the 50s and 60s. And, because we wanted the audience to really “see” Chief Bromden’s fear of “the combine” (the institutional system that has total control over people), I also took some ideas from his lines and looked at industrial spaces including generator rooms in dams. The end result was a cold institutional space that transformed into an even colder mental picture of the Chief’s fears.

How did I do all this research? Back in my school days, and for years afterwards, I used the library. I would go over and spend hours paging through books and magazines (“National Geographic” was a favorite) and bringing home stacks of anything that looked promising. And I do mean stacks. I would also go to bookstores, museums, galleries, and anything else that could possibly generate some ideas. And, like many designers, I collected a sizable library of my own.

Nowadays, although I still use the library, bookstores, museums, and my own books, I also use the internet. Googling “Vienna architecture 1600s” for instance, will yield hundreds of photos, and then I can branch out to interiors, palaces, furniture, art, and lots of other subjects. When I designed The Odd Couple I looked at online material on New York City apartments and found lots of photos and floor plans going back to the 20s.

Incidentally, Dover Publications is a fantastic source for reprints of many classic books on art, architecture, design, furniture, costume, and other subjects. The collection is huge and the prices are very reasonable. I found several books on New York City apartments here while working on The Odd Couple, and some of them are now in my library.

Google Earth is fantastic if I want to see places, or parts of a building, or an aerial view, that I couldn’t find otherwise (I used it for Cuckoo’s Nest). I also like to look at set designs for the same show, to see what’s been done and how it works. Wikipedia is great for summaries of many subjects, and the references and further readings listed at the bottom of the articles can lead to many other sources.

I also use online shopping sites when appropriate. eBay has yielded lots of ideas for props and furniture, and I’ve used IKEA several times for very specific items. Furniture company web sites, like Ethan Allen, can provide inspiration for upscale interiors and color combinations, and there are a number of sites where you can create your own color combinations based on specific themes. There are also sites maintained by collectors of things like telephones, microphones and radio equipment, cameras, medical equipment, trunks and luggage, and many other items.

Photography and art sites are also great when I’m looking for a mood or an inspirational image. For The Woman in Black I looked at lots of photos of cemeteries and haunted places, as well as historical photos of old houses and theatres. For A Tale of Cinderella, I spent hours going through photos and paintings of Venice, and for Les Miz I must have looked at hundreds of paintings and drawings of the French Revolution (for historical architectural details and moods) and then at some more for the actual period of the story, which was 1832.

Inspiration, for most of us, comes from everything we can latch onto about a show, starting with the script and moving on through the director, production team, venue, and research. But it’s only when all that material starts rolling around in our heads, and we allow it to roll around and mix without getting it its way, that the really creative ideas develop. For me, personally, this process takes a few days, during which I go back to the script as often as I need to make sure I’m still with the story.