Lighting designer reviewing on a computer screen in a studio

How to Become a
Lighting Designer

Gabriela Bercenas
By Gabriela Bercenas - CPRW, Content Writer II
|
Last Updated: April 20, 2023
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Are you a creative person fascinated by the medium of light? Consider a career as a lighting designer. We’ll cover all you need to know about becoming a lighting designer, including insights from a lighting designer with 10 years of experience in the industry.

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What Does a Lighting Designer Do?

A lighting designer uses the principles of light to enhance the overall aesthetic of a room, building or live performance. Lighting designers can work in a variety of settings. One avenue is working with an architectural firm, where lighting designers focus on lighting in regard to energy efficiency.

The theater industry is another path, where one works with set designers to enhance the emotional effect of production through the strategic use of lighting. Other options include the music, television and film industries.

While the specific skills a lighting designer needs vary depending on the industry, all lighting designers must be creative thinkers. The primary functions of their job involve:

  • Finding and bidding on new lighting projects.

  • Preparing cost analyses and projects for clients during the bidding process.

  • Creating and meeting lighting design timelines for projects.

  • Sketching and presenting preliminary design plans around lighting fixtures.

  • Installing and aiming lights based on the four properties of light, including intensity, color, distribution and movement.

  • Studying, selecting and positioning light cells, furniture, wall finishes and flooring based on project needs.

  • Using light creatively to impart a certain ambiance for a room or production.

  • Good computer skills to master the specialized CAD software used to bring their visions to life.

How Do You Become a Lighting Designer?

Although the U.S. Department of Labor has no specific data for lighting designers, they predict a steady availability of jobs in the near future. Most of the job growth in this field relates to areas with thriving theater and museum districts.

1

Pursue a bachelor’s degree in lighting or career adjacent majors:

Since there are several industries a lighting designer can pursue, the education requirements will vary. Those who aspire to work in architectural lighting design can earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial design. Those interested in the production side of lighting design earn their BFA in lighting design.

2

Choose between a postgraduate degree, certification or apprenticeship:

Your next steps to becoming a lighting designer depend on the different career paths you could take. Industrial lighting designers in corporate, health care, sustainability or interior design industries would benefit from post-graduate degrees in architectural design, civil engineering or construction. Entertainment lighting designers benefit more from apprenticeship or certification programs.

3

Earn your postgraduate degree:

Although a post-graduate degree isn’t required to be a qualified lighting designer, these degrees demonstrate an increased knowledge of technical skills and federal, state or local lighting installation and maintenance regulations.

4

Complete a certification program:

Although there are no standard certification requirements for lighting designers, several professional organizations have certification programs. CLD.global offers a certification for those in architectural lighting design.

The American Lighting Association (ALA) offers several certifications for lighting industry employees. The Certified Lighting Consultant is the one most applicable to Lighting Designers. You can read more about the qualifications on the ALA website.

5

Skip school and find an apprenticeship:

Lighting designers for music, film or television production can skip the academic route and get an apprenticeship on the lighting crew. From there, they can seek a mentor, work their way up to lighting designer and register for union-only jobs.

6

Register for state-required exams, if needed:

States like California require state certification to identify as lighting interior designers. You’ll need to study and prepare for these exams based on your chosen state of employment.

7

Find your first job:

The first step to getting a job as a lighting designer is ensuring your resume highlights your most-relevant skills. Review these lighting designer resume samples or cover letters to get an idea of how you can highlight your education and training.

If you’d like a little guidance, use our helpful Resume Builder to get lighting design-specific skill and experience suggestions, professionally designed resume templates and built-in spell-check.

Lighting Designer Skills

A successful lighting designer is an expert in the four properties of light. That said, technical knowledge can only carry you so far in this field. A successful lighting designer can be a big-picture thinker, allowing them to see how each lighting component fits into the overall aesthetic of their project.

Technical skills:

1Industry-specific knowledge. For example, residential or commercial lighting designers work closely with architects and engineers. Entertainment lighting designers develop and implement a lighting plot that enhances the emotional impact of the production in collaboration with set designers and lighting crews.
2Specialize in select homes, industrial buildings, hospitals or hotels.
3Industrial knowledge of construction, building permits, and regional requirements related to light installation or setup.
4Provide in-store lighting design services for customers.

Soft skills:

1Analytical tasks include looking at a room or script and conceptualizing which type of lighting would work.
2Creative tasks, such as brainstorming lighting concepts based on analysis.
3Collaborative tasks, such as working with set designers or architects to convey the role light will play in the project's overall scope.

Insights From a Lighting Designer

We wanted to give you a first-hand account of the Lighting Designer career path, so we had a conversation with Brandon Eckstorm, Spotlight Product Planner at Vectorworks, Inc. Before joining Vectorworks in 2015, Brandon amassed 10 years of experience as a Lighting Designer. Here’s what he had to say.

What is the common career path for a Lighting Designer?

There are two ways to become a Lighting Designer. The first is the more traditional pathway. You go to college to get a degree in theatrical lighting design or general lighting design. Throughout your school years, you volunteer for stagehand calls, load ins, load outs, and work your school’s shows and outside shows even to build your experience. Once you graduate, you go to more stagehand calls or intern at a design house and pay your dues. Eventually, you’ll work your way up from Assistant Lighting Designer (ALD) to Master’s Electrician to being a Lighting Designer. The alternative career path is foregoing college. It can definitely be a harder choice, but just as rewarding.

You would start right out of high school by volunteering to do stagehand calls. To succeed with this choice, you have to be willing to be the person who is always staying late and willing to do the grunt work. You’d follow a similar succession path from Stagehand to Master Electrician and eventually to Lighting Designer. While it might take you a few more years to advance compared to the college-route, you will get there if you’re willing to put in the work. If you know you want to be a lighting designer, there’s nothing wrong with going straight into the industry out of high school to avoid the expensive price tag surrounding college education.

One thing to note, is that no matter what path you choose, there is one hard fact: you have to be willing to work hard. Volunteer for every opportunity possible and soak up every last piece of knowledge from your peers, professors, and supervisors. If you aren’t willing to hustle, you won’t make it in the lighting design industry.

What should someone consider before becoming a Lighting Designer?

Before becoming a Lighting Designer, you should know that it’s not all glamour. Not only is the path to becoming a Lighting Designer full of hard work, but also once you become one, the grind isn’t over. You have to be willing to work long-nights and weekends. It’s not uncommon to work 18 hours. While I can’t guarantee you’re going to get a lot sleep, it’s worth it, as there is no greater joy in life than watching tens of thousands of people go crazy anytime you hit a lighting cue. Especially if you cue with the band during a live performance, you’re the surprise element that really takes things to the next level. You feel a part of the band. When you produce those “oohs” and “ahhs,” it truly is an indescribable feeling.

Additionally, you need to know that technology is your best friend. There’s always a new networking protocol, operating system, or software that you’ll have to learn. You have to be constantly eager to continue your learning, as it will make your job so much easier in the long run. For example, if you think you can get away without using drafting software, you’re wrong. You might be able to swing simple shows with hand drawn paperwork, but once you do a professional show, you’ll quickly realize the importance of your organization onsite. Design software like Vectorworks Spotlight 2017, makes paperwork a breeze and will save you hours of time. So, I suggest you learn to adopt a technology-driven workflow early on, even if you aren’t working big-time shows. My best piece of advice is to treat every show the same. A six or eight light production is the same as an 800 or 6,000 light show. The only thing that’s different is the number of instruments.

What type of person excels in this job?

People who have a strong work ethic will excel as a Lighting Designer. And, not only do you have to be willing to always put 110 percent into everything you do, but it’s also important that you’re a decent human being. As I mentioned earlier, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your coworkers, so you need to be able to get along with others.

What are some of the most important skills for a Lighting Designer to have?

Lighting Designers have to be technologically savvy, as they have to operate various tools such as Vision previsualization software, along with lighting consoles, drafting software and more. It also helps to have a decent free hand for when you do sketch out your ideas. As for soft skills, you have to have vision as you’ll need to be able to see how your drawings will translate to the stage. On top of the skills previously mentioned, you need to be very flexible. You’ll have to adapt to shows on the fly, and stop-drop-and-travel to tour with your shows.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of being a Lighting Designer?

The second-best feeling is seeing the show you planned come to life, but the absolute best part about being a Lighting Designer? Hearing, witnessing, and experiencing the crowd’s reactions to the effects you’re producing.

How Much Does a Lighting Designer Get Paid?

The national median salary for Set and Exhibit Designers, which includes Lighting Designers, is $49,500 a year. The top 10 percent on the pay scale make above $92,500, while the bottom 10 percent make below $24,600.

Top Ten States for Lighting Designer Salary

The following are the states with the highest median annual salary for Lighting Designers in the U.S.

    District of Columbia

    $70,100

    Connecticut

    $65,800

    New York

    $61,900

    New Jersey

    $59,100

    Maryland

    $58,400

    Oregon

    $57,000

    Minnesota

    $55,400

    Georgia

    $55,200

    Tennessee

    $52,800

    Missouri

    $52,300

    Lighting Designer Resources

    If you want to know more about being a Lighting Designer, then use this list of resources as a starting point.

    On the Web

    Archlighting.com
    Archlighting is a blog that covers all things architectural lighting. It features industry news, strategies and interviews with industry experts.

    Light-ca.com
    This is another blog that features spotlight interviews of those in the Lighting Design industry. This is a great site for those looking to go into Architectural or Landscape Lighting Design.

    LightDirectory.com
    Lighting Directory is an online hub of resources for those who work in the Lighting Industry. It contains a great variety of resources helpful for all types of Lighting Designers.

    Professional Organizations

    International Association of Lighting Designers
    Founded in 1969, this Chicago-based global organization is dedicated to fostering excellence in the Lighting Design industry.

    Cld.global
    This is the organization that administers the Certified Lighting Designer examination. They have information about the exam on their website.

    American Association of Community Theatre
    This is a great organization for those looking to build a career in Theatrical Lighting Design.

    American Lighting Association
    The American Lighting Association is a trade organization designed for Lighting Designers. Their website has information on lighting fundamentals, a free magazine and a regularly updated blog.