Live Design

Take A Year Off Before Grad School

by Susan Hilferty on October 1, 2000

Last Year in ED, NYU Design Chair Susan Hilferty Wrote That Many Prospective Students Weren’t Prepared for Grad School. This Year, She Proposes a Provocative Idea for Correcting That Problem.

It’s summer. You have just finished your undergraduate degree in theatre, art, literature, architecture, or liberal arts. Your family is proud of you. You wore your cap and gown with pride. Your friends keep asking, “What are you going to do?” You feel sure that you want to design for film or the performing arts. You have had a great time working on or designing shows at school. Now the logical thing seems to be to go directly to graduate school. You look around for the right school and go for an interview. You are bright and talented, you’ve designed a few shows, and you are raring to go.

So why am I suggesting that you take a year off before you step right into a three-year program?

I am the chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I ask you to think carefully about what someone like myself is saying when I suggest you take time off between undergraduate and graduate school. It’s a very complicated business being a designer. We deal with many complex ideas and people. We must be artists, historians, technicians, politicians, psychiatrists, and performers, as well as experts on all aspects of design. Every time we open a script it demands that we make ourselves available to a whole new world of ideas. We have to be familiar with what has happened in the past as well as what is happening on the stage right now – not just in the arts, but in politics, science, and history. Three years is an incredibly short time in which to truly develop yourself as a designer.


  1. (1) You understand the role of a designer in the performing arts and feel you are destined to play that role.
  2. (2) You have the basic drawing and visual skills to explore an idea. Designers are visual artists, which means more than appreciating design. You have to be able to explore the ideas.
  3. (3) You understand the fundamentals of your area: set construction, how clothes are made, or how lighting or audio tools work. You do not need to be a skilled technician, but you should understand the basics of the medium.
  4. (4) You have laid a broad base of experience from which to draw your design ideas. You will be working on texts that touch on all aspects of art, history, music, politics, philosophy, religion, the humanities, and more. It is a rich, ever-changing landscape that we are allowed to play in. What are you bringing to the table?

If you don’t feel confident that you’ve met these criteria, you’re probably asking, “What do I do now?” The first thing you have to understand is that no one is suggesting that you take time off and enjoy a holiday for a year. What we have in mind is actually hard work; it should be filled with experiences that will affect the rest of your life. The real goal is twofold: The first part is to experience enough of the world to know that being a designer is absolutely what you want to be doing with your life. The second part is to establish a broad foundation from which to draw as you go into three years of classes.

See the World

One of your first big decisions will be where to go. There is something to be said about learning through travel. If you are lucky enough to have funds, go to Europe, Asia, across America – anywhere that’s new and different, or that you find inspiring. If you can travel, choose a city that has theatre, lots of performing arts, museums, and galleries. You may choose to do an internship at a resident theatre or school. The Theatre Development Fund (TDF) puts out a monthly called ArtSearch that lists many internship possibilities. For example, Washington DC’s Arena Theatre has the Allen Lee Hughes fellowship for lighting designers. Many provide a small stipend as well as housing. Make sure you are knowledgeable about the theatre where you will be working before you go. There are a lot of summer internships and assistantships available as well. There are also many opportunities to work at the various professional and resident theatre shops to gain valuable experience while being compensated. If you have serious drafting and model-building skills, studios in most of the major cities are looking for help. You may find assistant work, though without previous experience it can be a frustrating search.

Many of you will have to make choices about how many shows you should design and may try to squeeze in as many as possible. There are always low-budget shows and films looking for designers. Use caution. If you find that you keep saying you didn’t have time to sketch, build a model, or take the time to explore your design ideas because you were so busy building the sets or clothes or hanging the lights, then you are robbing yourself. Find a balance. Design some shows, but make time to nurture yourself. Getting a show up can be enormously rewarding, but it can also deplete your resources.

For you to truly grow as a designer, you must provide sustenance for your ideas. Some of you may have to stay at home for financial or family reasons, but there is still plenty to do. Read on.

Keep Drawing

Once you have settled on where you are going, focus on continuing to develop yourself as a designer. As a visual artist, you must communicate an idea on paper in proportion. It sounds simple enough, but the more skill and ease you have sketching an idea, the more comfortable you will be exploring many ideas. Think of it this way: You should be able to draw your room in proportion, with furniture sitting on the floor and yourself in proportion in the middle of the room. Figure drawing and architectural drawing classes are fantastic ways to develop this skill. Your figure drawing will help you understand all proportion. If you cannot get to a drawing class, draw furniture, draw a car, a paper bag, even yourself. A class that makes you comfortable with various media is helpful. Pencil, pen, charcoal and watercolor are the primary tools. You should be comfortable mixing color, so be brave. Jump right into watercolor. Colored pencils, though they may feel comfortable, are a limiting media. Choose a media where you can mix any color. Don’t limit yourself.

You have probably had some drawing classes unless you went to a school which only allowed you to take art classes if you were a declared major. But even if you went to art school, you will find that all designers continue to take classes for the rest of their lives. Don’t think for a second, “I had a figure drawing class; I don’t need to take another.” Most cities have schools with continuing education classes that cover an incredible range. Many museums have classes as well. In New York, there is an independent drawing studio called Spring Street Studios, where students can take figure drawing sessions very inexpensively seven days a week, on their own schedules. Many cities have similar programs.

You’ve heard it a hundred times already, but here it is again: Keep a sketchbook. Learn by doing. The only way that you will understand the proportion of an object or a period is by drawing it. One drawing that you make of an object allows you to understand the proportion of that object better than looking at a thousand photos of it.

For costume designers, I suggest you choose a period and begin to research. Let’s say the 1930s. Go to the museum and draw from real clothes. Draw from catalogues and paintings. You will be shocked at how much you learn about clothes and how your drawing will improve. Set designers should draw from buildings. The library. Your porch. A chair. Draw so you understand the difference between this chair and that one.

Don’t be fooled by the design books that only show fabulous drawings. I get very cross when I see these, because I think they can be discouraging for young designers. Your sketch is not the end of the journey but a road map for your design. Many great designers cannot draw like Michelangelo, but they can draw their ideas in proportion on a piece of paper so that they can decide if they have made the right choices.

Designers are constantly using photography. We take pictures of our research and of our finished work and use photos graphically with many computer programs like Photoshop. As long as you are drawing and sketching, taking pictures also develops your visual sense. Photography is second to drawing, however. It is also an expensive habit, so if you have to choose, opt for drawing.

I get asked all the time about computers and how much a designer needs to know. Should you invest in a computer? Should you be taking computer classes? You will get radically different answers from whomever you ask, but I will give you my opinion: Computers are a tool. Using a computer is a skill. They can support a design, but having computer skills with undernourished design skills will deprive you of a life as a designer. You will have a great life, but without developing your design skills, you will be supporting designers – not being one. If you can’t draw, the computer will not draw for you. If you don’t understand the basics of drafting, the computer will not draft for you. Computers are fantastic tools, but don’t be fooled. I have invested a lot of money in computers for my program, but I absolutely believe that like all skills, they are just one small portion of your design repertoire.

Experience the Arts

Once you have settled and are nurturing your drawing and painting skills, it is time for you to go to the theatre. It is critical that you understand the language of the performing arts. In addition, you should get to know who the working directors and designers are. How embarrassing if your director talks about Brecht, but you have never seen a performance. There are no excuses for saying that you want to be a designer but have barely been to the theatre.

Theatre, too, can be expensive, but there are many ways to go to any of the performing arts that will cost you very little. Many theatres have student rates, so if you still have an ID, use it. Many smaller theatres allow you to see a show for free if you volunteer to usher. Many theatres from Broadway to the opera have standing room for very little money. Often theatres have invited dress rehearsals. If you have a friend working at the theatre, see if they can get yourself invited. Many theatres have rush tickets that go on sale a few hours before the show. It’s a gamble, and you may have to stand in line for a while, but hey, you can see a show for half-price. New York has the TDF ticket booth, where they sell half-price tickets to Broadway and Off Broadway shows, even music and dance. Many cities have variations of the same thing; check local newspapers.

Once you get into the theatre, you need to develop your critical senses. Keep a diary! Develop an opinion about what you are seeing; “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” is not good enough. Write about what you saw. What was the director’s intention? What were the designers thinking about? Did they achieve their goals? As a designer, you must have a point of view about a text and be able to communicate that idea to the audience as well as to your collaborators. Examining the work of other artists and learning to understand and appreciate what you are looking at goes a long way to developing your critical facilities. Writing your thoughts down allows you to organize and clarify your ideas.
What we do is dependent on understanding the literature. It does not matter in which area of design you end up – theatre, theme parks, movies – you will be responding to a text. So you should be reading all the time. Read plays, screenplays, fiction, history, literature – and don’t forget the newspaper. Theatre is a living, breathing thing connected to the pulse of our times. Your mind must be agile and your knowledge deep.

Designers are influenced by much more than visuals. I believe that one of the major creative forces in theatre is silence. As artists we must understand silence and how to use it; sound designers, of course, already know this. We are all constantly responding to sounds and their absence. Many directors speak more easily about sound than they do about the visuals.

Listen to all sorts of music. Right now is the time to introduce yourself to opera and dance. You don’t need a class. Just borrow a tape and start to listen. Listen with a friend so you have someone to talk to about it. Go to a jazz club. A rock concert. A dance club. If you are a lighting designer, it is critical that you have a developed musical sense, for cueing is really all about establishing the rhythm of a piece of work. Lighting designers work closely with sound designers, but all designers find that sound affects their work.

Designing for the performing arts is closely related to all other art forms. You should not only be familiar with art history, but what is happening in the contemporary art scene. Galleries are a goldmine of ideas. And they are free! Don’t be afraid to go into any gallery, even if you are not prepared to buy something. No one will stop you from looking. What materials are used? How do the artists use color? These artists are redefining how to use space, and you can learn from them.
Popular culture is great, and many of you will work for TV, but be reasonable. Keep track of how many hours you watch. If it is more than you spend on any other activity, it’s too much. I remember the time I woke up craving reruns of Starsky and Hutch. I knew it was time to get rid of the TV.

Designing is a grueling profession. Find a physical activity that you can embrace for the rest of your life. Yoga. Running. Dance. Swimming. Something that you can do out of a suitcase. (Speaking of which, even sporting events influence our work. Have you ever been to a ball game?)
I would be lying to you if I said that I had never accepted a student right out of an undergraduate program and that those students were not successful. It’s just that my experience has shown that students who do not go directly to graduate school from undergraduate are most successful in using their time. They know that they want to be designers. They know what they need is to develop a process for their design; they have the basic tools. They can draw, they have seen a lot of theatre, they know what kind of theatre they respond to, and they can carry on a discourse about the text they are working on. They are ready to invest three years in developing their process and into focusing on themselves as designers.

Several years ago I was part of a panel made up of a distinguished group of theatre designers. We were asked how we got started as designers and I was astonished to hear how varied our stories were. Some were from architecture, some art, textile conservation, literature, acting – the works. Some never had a class in theatre. The only thing we had in common was the passion for a text, the hunger to design for the stage, and a commitment to working with a group of collaborators.

There is no secret way into this group. Be true to yourself as an artist. Be prepared to expose many layers of yourself. Legendary lighting designer Tharon Musser was on that panel, and I will never forget her closing words about our profession. “It’s a hell of a life,” she said.