The Five Essential Elements of Show Set Design
By Joshua Steadman
I’ve always been fascinated by cool environments. The idea of extracting a person and placing them in a unique space or environment intrigues me. Far away worlds and fantasy spaces that were tangible and “real,” became my interest and more or less obsession. I sought out books, articles, and art that supported this interest. After visiting Disneyland as a child, I discovered that there were people employed to create these environments. So I set out learning, drawing, practicing to be a part of this unique discipline.
Show set design or what Wikipedia describes as “exhibit design,” is the process of developing a space from a concept through to a physical, three-dimensional exhibition. It is a continually evolving field, drawing on innovative, creative, and practical solutions to the challenge of developing communicative environments that “tell a story” in a three-dimensional space.
I might add, all of the above must be completed quickly, on an insane deadline, and sometimes with a very slim budget (a constant theme).
This definition, more or less has become a life mission. I have pursued it with a tenacity to understand why it is so fascinating to me, but also what makes great show design that pushes creative boundaries and does it innovatively.
For me, show set design encompasses so many design disciplines that I find exciting and allows me to be creative and an artist in the most exciting ways possible.
To meet these creative challenges, I have come to rely on some important personal guidelines and rules that allow me to deliver a final product that in the end communicates the intent and achieves the environments that became my childhood (and adulthood) obsession. I have summarized these guidelines into my own 5 Essential Elements of Show set Design. They are by no means an industry standard, but they are personal design guidelines I hope to achieve on each project I get to be a part of.
Show Set Design Element #1: Scenic symbolism reinforces the thesis statement:
Symbols have been used in architecture and environments, in every culture and structure since the dawn of time. They communicate a history and backstory that invites problem solving and sparks imagination. They can be structural or inscribed but almost always reflect back on an origin story or in the case of a script, represent a character and its mission.
To reference Author Joseph Campbell, symbols give credence to the archetypal hero and a journey. Cultures build, out of purpose but to tell a history and a story. Audiences and guests should be getting a great story by what they see, even if they only see what is obvious.
Show Set Design Element #2. Imperfection is awesome and true:
Symmetry is not organic. It is not found in nature and breaks every design principle. This rule has been taught in every art school, scenic design classroom, and by every mentor I have had in my career. Things age, fall apart, rust, and get trashed, it all adds to a visual story and make it so much more interesting and make for great visual history.
Show Set Design Element #3: Structures evoke great characters:
Every script has a protagonist, and antagonist. Most of the time the script does not always elaborate on a setting and the details of a space, but they always elaborate on the characters. The spaces in which these characters dwell should portray the personalities described. Simple archetypes should always be reflected in a great setting.
Show Set Design Element #4: Big, medium, and small are design principles that always work:
Hierarchy of scale and size, allows visual balance and interest. And design compositions that rely on this important principle have intrinsic visual interest. It’s a simple way to tell a story, visually.
Show Set Design Element #5: Colors like complements:
Color, in general, makes a set sing. Basic color complements are such a simple way to make an image stand out and apart. And great scenic painters and lighting designers are crucial to telling a story, dramatically through light and color. They are so essential to show design and finalizing a set or space.
These are my personal 5 Essential Elements to Show Set Design, there are many more. But these elements always make scenery and show designs more interesting and always help push the envelope. In the end, the goal is to be innovative, out of the box, but practical, and exist in the budget provided as best as possible.
Employing these principles I have learned through projects and over time, allows me to create the fantasy and tangible worlds that invite others to learn the same essential elements that inspired me so long ago.