Set Design: Begin with Goals, Decide Between Off-The-Shelf or DIY, Then Build

Good set design is only as good as the lighting on it. Sometimes all a set needs is white light, other times a color wash is the best fit.

In the modern church, set design has grown into a great art. Over the years, churches have moved away from ornate buildings, and entrusted the visual beauty of the church to artists in their congregation.

This phenomenal art of set design can be incredibly rewarding. It can help us to engage our congregation and create an atmosphere that draws people closer together and closer to God.

When building your set, it's important to plan well.

Let's explore the basics of set design and how we can create wonderful visuals for our churches!

The best place to start with any set design is the goals. They can range from creating something that is visually interesting, to communicating an intricate place and time. As a good set designer, it is imperative to figure out your goals. The best set is the one that fits your congregation best. For many, that will be a nice design that lasts years or months, for others that will be a series-based set change that keeps with the momentum of the church.

Here are a few common goals for stage design:
Provide a more welcoming atmosphere
Communicate energy from stage
Hide the imperfections of the worship space
Create an aesthetic that supports worship
Formulate opportunities for creatives in the church to serve.

Chasing after these goals in a set change can be a great catalyst!

Stage designs are best split into two categories: abstract and literal. A literal set communicates a time or place, with this being typically a very detailed and realistic set. An abstract set, however, communicates an idea or even just an unrelated visual to improve the aesthetic. Literal sets typically are much harder to pull off well. Many times the feel or ideas within a literal set can be communicated with a more abstract set. Looking to create an old style living room feel? Instead of creating walls and detailed props, you can hang some older looking lamps, which will communicate a similar feel with more flexibility during your worship set.

Once you've set your goals and your style of set, move on to the how. There are two good options: off-the-shelf products and DIY solutions.

Companies like ModScenes.com and Stretch Shapes make products that can be a huge time saver and take the guesswork out of your design. The patterns by Mod Scenes can be reused in different orientations and setups (kind of like Legos for scenic) to stretch your set build dollars over multiple sets. Many of the products by both companies are also fire retardant, which is a huge plus when accounting for safety.

DIY options work great as well, and they can help you to do a lot when you are contending with a small budget. A phenomenal source for ideas for DIY options for set designs is ChurchStageDesignIdeas.com. The ideas and techniques showcased on CSDI are priceless!

Whichever direction you opt to go, you will want to find a concept and seek a way to make it work best for your church. Here are a few things you should consider in designing your set.

Pull inspiration from everywhere: Churchstagedesignideas.com, other churches, secular entertainment, Google, Pinterest, Bing (maybe not), conferences, and interior design are all great places to pull ideas and inspiration.
Always draw it out: It doesn't have to be fancy, but even a basic sketch on paper will help you identify issues before you start. It will also give you a sense of direction that you and your team can be motivated to work towards.
Create something unique: It is very rare that great art can be copied and look better than the original. The same is true for stage design. Put your unique flare on a design to create something that you take pride in, and can serve your church well. Look for a combination of similar ideas that can make something new that fits your goals.
Embrace symmetry: As your friend, symmetry will cut your thinking in half. Also consider that the human mind is wired to like symmetry which creates an easy win.
Don't be afraid of some blank space: When making a set, blank space helps to make what you do look even more intentional.
Take the time to do it well: Inspiration doesn't come in just a few moments. Come to your design a few times over a few days. This will give you the best possible view of what it could and should be.
Ask others: There is a great community comprised of stage designers across the country. Don't be afraid to reach out to others for help. They want to see the kingdom benefited and would be happy to help.
Declutter: A great set will look bad on a stage that is overwhelmed with too much unused stuff. Extra mic stands, keyboards, plants from 1982, and stacks of hymnals would probably be best stored in a room offstage.
Be detailed: If you are using spacing; make sure it is the same everywhere. If something looks out of place to you, make changes until it looks appealing. Make sure your material colors match (or are intentionally different in a pattern that makes sense)

Ensure your set is safe: Is the material you are planning to use flammable, are the exits blocked, or could the set fall or be unstable? If any of those are even a slight concern, look for a solution before moving any further forward.
Make a plan for disassembly as well: Think about when you will take the set apart. Is there a way you can build it so that the materials can be reused? These types of considerations early on make it much easier to work within a small budget.

When building your set, it's important to plan well. Here are a few things that can help the process go smoothly, to where the end product can end up being amazing.

Prepare well: Always have all your materials gathered and a clear plan in place, before starting your set build. This will help everyone to stay focused and minimize issues.
Include others: It is always a great idea to include others in your set builds. The sense of community it creates is one of the best things about serving in a church. The help can expedite the process as well, making it easier on everyone.
Plan in extra time: Without fail, there will never be enough time to build a set. The key is to plan twice as much time as needed. Sometimes that is still not enough. With extra time, you can easily navigate issues and come up with a plan that will not be a huge burden on your team.
Be flexible: Is the plan not working as desired? Don't be afraid to step back and look at what you have created. You might just see a different way to accomplish the same thing easier. Many of my greatest sets have come out of initial mistakes, which we embraced and modified on the fly.

Good set design is only as good as the lighting on it. Sometimes all a set needs is white light, other times a color wash is the best fit. It all depends on the set, but a set without light will not look good.

Angles are your friends: Try lighting your set from multiple angles. The shadows it creates will show depth and bring out the detail in your set.

Choose the right color: The right color or lack of color can make even a basic set look incredible. If you have a neutral colored set (white, grey, etc.) lighting it with colored light works great. If you have a set with rich colors or dark colors (burgundy, dark brown, blue, etc.), it will likely look best lit without colored lights.
Limit yourself: Try to limit your lighting colors to a max of two per look. This will help to create a good visual with contrast, but not overwhelm the visual landscape.
Keep your focus: Remember the set is the backdrop. As such, it should be lit at a slightly lower lever than your worship team. If your congregation can't see to engage in worship, then the goal is being missed.

With these few steps you are on your way to a great set! As always you can reach me on social media @stevenhallav or via email at [email protected]

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