What to Look for In a New Set Design

Two Key Questions You Should Ask

What to Look for in a New Stage Design

In the modern North American church, creating a engaging set design for your stage has become almost a foregone conclusion.  “What’s your set look like?” is a common question you’ll hear at conferences and see on message boards online.

Personally, I think that a great stage set is an easy way to help create an engaging environment for people to worship as the gathered church.  It can help draw people in even before a service starts and help stir people’s imagination as they turn their hearts and mind to God.

There are two main ways to think about set design:

Thematic design & Scenic design.

Thematic designs are typically based on a series or specific theme.  I know churches who have built an entire winter-scene as a background for a Christmas series, or even used a living room as the design concept for a Legacy series.  The goal of these designs is to help tie in as many elements as possible to the main theme for the morning/series.

Scenic designs are based on using good aesthetics to create appealing sets.  Sets like this might use creative set pieces to make a stage look beautiful.  I’ve seen people create cool light boxes for their stage, use interesting materials to create cool textures on stage, like bubble wrap or string, or use any combination of elements and lights to create a unique look.

Personally, I tend to prefer scenic designs over thematic designs for two main reasons.

First, scenic designs typically have a longer shelf life.  Thematic designs might only be able to last a few weeks for the series they apply to before you’re having to built another set, costing more time and money.

Second, thematic designs can get too cute for their own good.  I think the goal with a set design is to enhance the environment and message, and thematic designs can get a little cliche or too “on-the-nose.”  With a scenic design, you’re simply trying to make it look cool without trying to tie in too closely to a theme or series, giving you the freedom to make more/better design choices.

If you don’t know about it, there is an INCREDIBLE site where church leaders from all over the world have shared their set designs, including material lists and instructions on how they built it, called ChurchStageDesignIdeas.com.  Go ahead and bookmark that site, I’ll wait.

I browse this site regularly looking at various set ideas.  Whenever I find an idea or set piece I like, I’ll clip it over to Evernote to save for later.  This way, even if we’re not building a set at the time, I’m keeping a fresh list of ideas that we could use in the future.

I also tend to keep my eyes open when I go into stores.  I know this sounds weird, but store installations and designs tend to be a great place for inspiration.  I just saw an idea that I liked while I was following my wife around in Anthropologie that might make a great piece for our lobby.  In those cases, I just take a picture of the design, make notes on it, and put it in my Evernote file.

While I believe that originality and your own ideas are great places to start for set design, sites like ChurchStageDesignIdeas.com are great places to get your brain spinning on new ideas and concepts.  Personally, I use it to get us started and to have a visual reference to work from to create our own unique take on the idea.

Whenever we’re looking to create a new set at Journey, I like to use these two questions to help us decide if a new set idea is right for us:

1. Can We Adapt It?

Especially when you’re working off of an existing idea, adaptation is an important consideration.  What works great in a room of 300 people may not scale well to a room of 2,000, and vice versa.

The best way to identify if an idea is adaptable is to break it down to it’s basic elements.  For instance, this set is basically created with palates, paint, & these light filled letters.  This kind of design is scalable because the main component, (i.e. palates) are easily added or subtracted, and the letters could be enlarged or shrunk to fit the stage as needed.

Also, you’re allowed to pick and choose pieces from several ideas that you like to fit your ideal design.  The key of adaptation is knowing what works best for your stage and shifting, molding, changing ideas until they are the best possible expression for your stage.  Don’t be afraid to cannibalize ideas until you’re happy with the final product for your stage.

All of this is to say that if an idea can’t be adapted, then it likely isn’t a great option for your new design.  Every tried to fit a square peg in a round hole?  Yea, that.  Don’t force yourself into a corner when you should have the ability to custom fit the peg.

2. Can We Afford It?

We also consider the costs associated with each potential design.  This is when having someone good with spacial reasoning on your team.  Fortunately for us, one of my drummers is an architect and had a CAD drawing of our stage/room done so that we can see how things work in scale before we buy anything.

You don’t need a CAD drawing of your space (as nice as it is) to be able to accurately price out a project.  You do, however, need to be able to identify how much of the materials you’re going to use you’ll need.  If you’re building wood frames, how big will they be?  What kind of wood are you going to use?  How many do you need to make?

These basic facts will help you to create a materials list.  This materials list can the be used to price out each element for your stage.  Lowes & Home Depot are great places to look for these prices, and you can even do it online.

Simply list out each of the materials you need (be sure to include fasteners, like nails, screws, staples, etc) and how much of each you think you’ll need.  Use this information to get the cost of each element, then add them together for a materials cost.  In my experience, I advise adding 10-15% to this number for waste and loss, so that you’ll have a more realistic number.

This monetary bottom line is helpful for you or whatever decision makers you need to run costs by.  You’ll also need to note the labor costs of this build.  How many of your hours will this take?  Do you need to get volunteers to help with the build?  What’s the lead time on a project like this?

All of these various costs should be considered when making your decision.  This may seem overwhelming, but use this recap to make it as simple as you can.

  • Make a list of the materials you’ll need.

  • Estimate how much of each material you need.

  • Multiply each of these numbers by their cost.

  • Multiply that number by 1.1.  This is your estimated Materials Cost.

  • Consider how many hours you think this will take you to construct.

  • Consider how many volunteers you think you might need. This is your Labor Cost.

Can you adapt it?  Can you afford it?  These two questions will help you to determine the best set design for your church, and will help you to be more organized in the process.


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