The Art and Science of Set Design in Advertising

  • Categories:

    Creative, Photography, Brand Strategy

  • Date:

    June 12, 2024

The Art and Science of Set Design in Advertising

Creative Photography Brand Strategy

Growing up, I was fascinated by interior design — but at the time, I didn’t realize what that meant.

I did know that I was obsessed with redecorating my bedroom. From rearranging the furniture to changing where my lamp sat or a poster hung, I loved transforming my room into something new again and again. I once sponge-painted the entire thing with a light blue cloud texture by hand (it took weeks). What can I say: I had a vision!

When I got older, I convinced my high school friends’ parents to hire me to decorate their homes for holiday soirees. Their belief in me fueled my growing interest in how interior design can influence the way people feel.

Little did I know that these early experiences would pave the way for a career in design and marketing, where I now have the privilege of helping shape brand narratives through sets that resonate with the audience.

Creating an attention-grabbing set for a photo shoot requires ensuring the featured products look great and the mood is just right. However, to push audience engagement even further — to capture their interest and pique their desire to explore further — a set must present a more layered narrative.

But that’s easier said than done.

As a set designer, I’m responsible for creating a visual language that speaks to the audience, drawing them into the story we want to tell. This starts with understanding the audience’s desires and the client’s goals. From there the collaboration begins, as our Creative team’s inspirational ideas leverage our Strategy team’s in-depth audience insights and industry research to bring the story to life.

Setting the Mood: The Core Elements of Set Design

The overall mood of the set is crucial. Lighting, styling and textures can help a set evoke a wide range of feelings, from a sleek urban apartment to the tranquility of a low-country bungalow. A set design encompasses elements that work together to create a cohesive and impactful scene — and each of those elements must have a purpose.

  • Lighting: Using different temperature lighting to mimic practical light (lamps, can lights, ceiling lights) and natural light (from a window or skylight) can make the space look more realistic.

  • Style: Curating a style for the set that makes a unique statement can help pull the audience into the narrative. Such intentional design choices can transform the space, making it immersive and engaging.

  • Propping: Carefully selected props add personality to the set and contribute to the narrative. Curating items that represent how our audience lives — from travel finds to heirlooms — can help create a space with a distinct style that can’t be easily re-created.

Layout: Depth can help make a set look less like a box and more like a home or other real-life space. Using flywalls and creating the illusion of adjoining rooms or hallways within the set is crucial for balance and focus, guiding the viewer’s eye.

I’ve found that styling a space with a mix of modern and traditional elements leads to a juxtaposition that can’t be easily replicated and helps elevate the brand in the eyes of the audience.

3 Tips for Crafting the Perfect Set

Once we figure out the foundation elements, the real fun begins. Set design is a dynamic and multifaceted art form that helps build a bridge from the featured brand or product to the consumer in an engaging way.

Here are three things that are always at the top of my design planning checklist.

1. Create an Atmosphere

Finding the balance between authentic and aspirational design elements can help the audience mentally place themselves in the set. Perhaps it’s a bright bathroom set that showcases a sparkling terrazzo-inspired quartz countertop, complete with a child’s toy dinosaur, a pet goldfish and a discarded towel — items that add a playful yet lived-in feel.

Creating a set that feels both attainable and inspirational helps the audience imagine themselves in the space, making the product relatable.

2. Tap Persona Insights

Considering the mindset of the people we want to engage with is a key component of designing and styling a set. This means knowing how a product or brand would be interpreted and used by specific individuals.

Although styles, tastes and passions may vary, persona research seeks to build upon the core values that stitch together the target audience’s point of view. Brand personas help act as a foundation to guide every component of the set design process. They transport me to my audience’s headspace, helping me think through how they would use this area, what they would fill it with and how they want to show it off to their friends.

Say the audience is millennial females. In this scenario, we explore the nuances of this demographic’s values to create multiple distinct audience personas, each reflecting a unique, personal style that inspires the set design.

By imagining these personas as real women, we can create authentic, beautiful set designs that deeply resonate and communicate the brand’s message.

3. Evaluate How to Use Talent

A well-designed set should evoke emotions that help create a strong connection with the audience. Using props and imagery that resonate with their values, culture and experiences is one way to achieve this goal.

Hiring talent also delivers on this objective. Of course, paying models or actors can add cost, but inserting real people into a set can help the audience visualize how the space is used and lived in while even seeing themselves in the story being told.

Chemistry and compatibility are important when it comes to the people I choose for my sets. For example, the value of using siblings when a set design requires children to complete the narrative is one dynamic I’ve discovered. The child actors’ comfort with each other translates on camera, and when it works, it elevates the realness of the whole set.

When budgets are tight, visual cues that hint at the presence of real-life people — such as the discarded towel noted earlier or, perhaps, an open bottle of wine and two half-drunk glasses — can help achieve these same goals without the added expense of hiring talent.

Designed to Win Audiences

From setting the right mood to tapping audience profiles, great set designs blend art and science to go beyond prop arrangement. When designed well, the set tells a story about the people who inhabit it — people your brand’s target customers see as themselves.

Set design is about crafting environments that evoke emotions and create lasting impressions — and every element plays a crucial role in making a set come alive. Check out this case study to see an example of how Wray Ward brings it all together for our clients.

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