Status of design

I need to get this written to get back to the day job of trying to design some shows, but there has been a lot out there on twitter over the new year with many ‘best of’ lists and it has raised the issue of Designers and their visibility or rather lack of it! We have had reviews of the year from the RSC , for which I used to be the Associate Designer , so feel slightly culpable that after 10 years there I could not make an impact on this issue, in which 22 photos were posted that covered the year’s productions. In none of the accompanying text was a designer/movement director/lighting designer mentioned . Whats On Stage issued a video talking about the set for Curious Incident in which neither Bunny Christie (who has just received an OBE) nor Paule Constable, one of the three designers to feature in the Stage 100 list, were credited. In that list designers make up under 2% of the people of influence within theatre. Why is it so difficult for us to get the recognition our work deserves? A few theories open to challenge of course;


It is telling that the brilliant architect Steve Tompkins is at no 1 in the stage list, he has created some beautiful and accessible theatre spaces working in close collaboration with the artistic directors of each building. I have been very lucky in roles at the RSC and Kiln to be able to contribute to the design of many theatre spaces, not just how the stage works but developing front of house and circulation spaces (always in collaboration with the architects !), but that is a relative rarity and exposes how difficult it has been for designers to get their voices heard at the right point in many building projects.

Most of the top figures within the Stage list run buildings or have the producing money to rent them, they have the power to commission and determine the type of work that goes on. Back in the day most regional theatres had resident designers able to contribute their design expertise to all aspects of running or redeveloping a theatre building and some e.g at the Citizens in Glasgow were part of the artist leadership team (Designer Philip Prowse with director Giles Havergill and David MacDonald writer) which created a bold European style of theatre in which design, direction and text were in a  thrilling competitive collaboration born out of having strong advocates for all aspects of the work in the room at once.The same actors worked there regularly too and I imagine had a strong say in the development of the Citizens’ house style.

However, as financial pressures on funding in the arts and a fashion for freelancing have developed, both actors and designers have increasingly found themselves in the position of hired hands providing a service, but not having a voice in how things are run in a building(I wonder if Bristol had still maintained a Design Associate, would they have allowed the redevelopment to axe the costume department ? I guess this was a given in the brief to Steve Tompkins, but it saddens me that such vital aspect of the theatre’s ecology was lost).

For a while, when at the RSC, I was the only Design Associate in the country. This accolade has thankfully been removed and several theatres are now realising the value of a close association with Designers. I am pleased Tom Scutt was recognised by the Stage for his work at the Donmar, but there are others; Steven Brimson Lewis at RSC, Chloe Lamford at the Royal Court, Katrina Lindsay at the RNT. This trend needs to continue if design is to get its voice back .


On a more day to day level a resident designer would have had a view on what the poster might look like for example. It sounds a bit trite, but as a student I always designed the posters for my shows so they reflected the themes of the play. Too often now as creative teams our input into the marketing is called on either too late with a looming next day deadline or too early before we have had a chance to develop the work. The process of design and marketing imagery gets out of sync and a gulf opens up between marketing and the visiting design teams who are not in the same building. It is certainly not automatic that a designer will get a choice of who photographs the production, nor which production shots are chosen for display and on line. The default in my experience is the marketing team show their favourites to the director who makes the choice. This is normally at a point in the process when the designer is too busy to think about the images and how they will be used. How these images are shared and credited  often reflects a casual ignorance of the role of the designers’ and does not respect the fact that without their work there would be no images ! A simple remedy here is to encourage designers and marketing teams to connect at a really early stage to discuss how the images around the show are going to be used, how the designs might work on social media and importantly how those images are going to be credited. The excuse is often there is no space so they would rather credit none than miss out some. But i would argue that  rather than an all or nothing approach, theatres and press choose a broader range of names to mention in the headline, not always picking out the actor/writer/director, but enlarging the narrative to other creatives. It also makes commercial sense as I know there are many audience members out there who do value design and book specifically to see somebody’s work.It is very easy to turn this around to create very positive design led stories in the media.


Without going into the usual rant we do suffer as a profession from not having our own design critics. Call yourself an Artist and there is a whole critical and commercial machine out there to establish your name and celebrate your value , in all senses of the word. As theatre designers our work only has value within a production, which is by its very nature collaborative, and critics find it very difficult to pick out the strands. To be fair to them they are not trained in this and tend to be more interested in the words or find it easier to use the director as the catch all for the auteur of the world of the play. This was brought home to me a few years ago when I hosted a designer’s discussion on Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC. We had Sally Jacobs talking about how she designed Peter Brook’s famous 1970 production, which is referred to by most critics and theatre historians as Brook’s Dream. She described the creative process in a meeting in hotel room in New York, which will be familiar to all designers, (not the New York bit necessarily!). They discussed the play and started playing with the raw materials that Sally had brought along, white card, a big red feather, pieces of wire etc. Sally folded the card creating a white wall and stage that thrust out into the RST and Peter plopped in the feather. They made the work together. Yet Sally’s role has all but been erased (even the RSC web page doesn’t credit her !) It is easier to see the famous Man as the author of all, and that feeds neatly into the far too long prevailing narrative in theatre of the Alpha director. The dreaded word count cut off for most press means that it is too easy for critics to credit the director, rather than acknowledge the rich mix of roles involved. I am hopeful as we move to a more collaborative 21st century theatre, more diverse and with way more women involved that critics will have to start recognising the real way we work together.

Household names

Why don’t we have superstars known to the general public in our world ? is it that we are all taught to be collaborative to not push ourselves forward? is is because we are mostly poorly paid? Es Devlin designed the Olympic closing ceremony and numerous massive pop gigs, John Bausor designed the Paralympics , John Napier  created Les mis and numerous other mega musicals,Bunny Christie Curious incident, Rob Howell Matilda,Rae Smith Warhorse. All huge long running shows or iconic events, yet outside our world they are little known. A solo exhibition rare or unheard of, most employing fewer assistants than a small scale architect, definitely not eligible for the Turner prize! Until we start raising the visibility of these artists of the theatre we seem destined to remain the Cinderellas of the arts world, so i will keep on pushing . 

Meanwhile back to the model box in the garret !


  1. A couple of points, if I may.
    When theatres open bookings for future seasons, sometimes a whole year in advance, the actors are very often not yet cast. So with only the writer, director and designer on board, there should be plenty of room in the brochure to namecheck the designer.
    I’m just a bum on a seat, seeing far fewer productions than a professional critic. I haven’t been trained to ‘pick out the threads’ either, nor would I ever say whether a particular idea came from the director or designer because I understand that it’s collaborative. But I know which designers keep things simple, which ones don’t understand sight lines, which are playful, etc, and I confess I’ve even played Designer Bingo, ticking off the particular tropes of a particular designer. So don’t be too soft on professional critics! If regular theatre-goers notice, of course critics notice.
    Incidentally, we bums on seats also get excited about certain movement directors, fight directors, composers, etc. You’re not as invisible as you may think!

  2. Well said. A particularly strong point about the word count contributing to designers lack of acreditation! Recently worked on a production where a marketing department cut actor biogs down without consulting them, all for the word count!! Was there any particular reason you didn’t mention sound designers alongside lighting designers and designers?

Leave a Comment