Setting the Stage

How stage design helps you get your message across.  

Planning a speech or event? You’ve plotted out what will be said, for sure, but have you give any thought to the atmosphere you will create on the stage behind you? If the recent political conventions taught us anything, it was that the appearance of your event can be hugely influential.

Setting the mood
Sharing your ideas with your audience is about so much more than the words that come out of your mouth. The design of the stage is a purely visual way to communicate your message without ever uttering a syllable. Let’s look at the RNC and the DNC’s stagecraft as an example: 

2016 Republican National Convention

1. Subliminal feel — arena or rock concert
2. Party official booth — darkened
3. Graphics — oversize and patriotic, very thematic
4. Typography — tight spacing, 3D effects, thick, bold and large fonts
5. Colors — Trump’s Mar-a-Lago gold (not shown in this photo)
6. Screens — two screens, one curved toward the audience and one bending away
7. Overall — minimal and modern

2016 Democratic National Convention


1. Subliminal feel — newsroom
2. Party official booth — on both sides, flanking the center section
3. Graphics — subtle, shifting backgrounds, reinforced messages of speakers
4. Typography — spacing between letters, softer looking fonts, minimal use of 3D effects
5. Colors — blue to convey masculinity
6. Screens — triptych style, using rule of three
7. Overall — focused on teamwork

What it all means
According to Eugene Lee, a set designer for Saturday Night Live since the show began, “Sets really shouldn’t be that important. By definition, they should stay in the background. If they’re in the foreground, then you’ve done something wrong.” While the political conventions may have bent this rule here and there, the ultimate test of whether a set design is successful is if reinforces the message of the speaker without actually being something you remember; a set has to be functional and practical. Finally, the true test of whether a set was a good one or not is do all the elements—lights, sound, set—work together.