Lighting Designer

  • Lighting Designer

The lighting designer’s title is self-explanatory, but the job is more complex than it seems. Before the audience is treated to pretty colors and big sweeping ballyhoos, this person meticulously documents each fixture, position, color, and movement.


Whether working from a script, a band’s vision or the vague concept of a client, the designer first sizes up the capabilities of the venue and starts to imagine the visual possibilities. Next, he or she must take precise measurements of the space and determine the available power capacity. With this information, the designer selects specific lighting  instruments and drafts a lighting plot. Using software like Vectorworks or AutoCAD, this person creates a scale plot of the lighting rig that includes information on fixtures, dimmers, and (if known) channel numbers. Detailed drawings of the truss, catwalk, stage, and other infrastructure are provided on the plot. This person may be responsible for renting the gear, or may give the specs to a technical director to requisition.

The lighting designer programs the show, or collaborates with another technician to input fixture profiles, colors, effects, and movement for the cues. The designer (or the chief electrician) supervises a crew of technicians who hang fixtures according to the plot, assign channels and dimmers, drop in gels for conventional lighting, and insert custom gobos. This person will then direct the focus of instruments through each scene. When possible, he or she is present during dress rehearsals to make any necessary changes. In the case of live concerts and touring productions, the lighting designer must repeat the focus process at each new venue and update the programming, otherwise this task will fall to the technician running the console. For a resident play or musical, the lighting designer’s job is done once the curtain goes up on opening night.

Skills & Education

A college degree is not required, but it is encouraged; majors in show production or theatrical design are preferred. Specialized training in automated lighting instruments, consoles, wireless dimming, projection systems, and other equipment is necessary. A lighting designer is expected to have a thorough understanding of color theory, electricity, and geometry. Manufacturer’s certification or workshops in instrument repair, programming, and media servers is also recommended. You should familiarize yourself with the software applications like Vectorworks, AutoCAD, and ShowDesigner.

What to Expect

This job is one of the few with a standard career path. An individual most commonly works his or her way up from stagehand to lighting technician, then spotlight operator, chief electrician, console operator, programmer, eventually landing in the role of lighting designer. Opportunities to skip one or more positions on the totem pole may present themselves during your career; it depends on your level of experience and skill. Remember that the quality of your experience counts; just because you designed the lighting for Brigadoon in high school does not mean that you should expect an offer to design for Cirque du Soleil. Focus your career: If you want to work on rock shows, take touring gigs or a job at a rental facility like PRG or PSAV; if your aspirations lie in traditional theater, stick to those jobs. Opportunities for lighting designers are also available in theme parks, as a freelancer for corporate events, and on cruise ships. This is typically a freelance career and offers you the ability to be your own boss.


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