How to become a: lighting designer

As part of our series looking at jobs in design studios, we speak to Tim Routledge, founder at his own company, about the art of “painting with light”, dealing with demanding musicians, and burning the midnight oil.

Tim Routledge, founder at Tim Routledge Lighting Design, image courtesy of Andrew Timms

Design Week: What is a lighting designer?

Tim Routledge: I work as a lighting designer across the entertainment and broadcast industries, so I look after the visual look and feel of a show once a set design has been delivered, using a brief from a creative or artistic director. This could be anything from a rock music show, to theatre, to television. A lighting designer is heavily involved in helping to create a show’s overall aesthetic, working alongside the set designer and video graphic designer.

DW: What’s your educational background?

TR: I started off by doing youth theatre as a kid and teenager, and helping backstage at amateur shows, then in 1993, I went on to do an undergraduate degree in technical theatre at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. This covered the whole gamut of working backstage – show calling (essentially being technical director), cueing actors or other team members, lighting, set design and prop-making.

I always knew I wanted to do lighting, so I specialised in this in my second and third years. But all of the skills I learnt during my degree have helped me in my job — communicating with different people, cueing, set changes, lighting and sound effects and stage management.

I was also interested in art and design from a young age — my dad would often take me to galleries. I had an eye for design as a kid, and I would create posters myself. I grew this interest into a mix of design and technical skills, which led to the work I do today.

Lighting design for the Spice Girls’ 2019 reunion tour, image courtesy of Andrew Timms

DW: What’s your career journey been so far?

TR: It’s been really varied, and it’s not quite the norm. After university, I started dabbling as a lighting operator in TV then went to work for a rental company, which provided gear and sets for stage shows. I became the company’s in-house lighting designer, where I was mostly doing corporate gigs, such as company events. After 10 years of this, by the mid-2000s, I realised I couldn’t do it anymore, and really wanted to move into music and TV. So I went solo and went about sourcing out my own clients, initially working a lot in TV, being the lighting programmer for BBC One and Channel Four shows like the BAFTAs, Big Brother and Let’s Dance.

DW: What first got you interested in lighting design?

TR: Up until the age of 14, I really wanted to be an actor. But a friend — who’s now Fatboy Slim’s lighting designer — at my youth theatre got me into lighting, and I realised that I didn’t want to be on stage. I worked as a technician on a project with him at a music festival, and then I really got the bug for it. University then encouraged me to experiment and do creative things with lighting, such as rig lights onto the roof of a building and into the theatre windows from outside.

DW: To what extent does lighting design overlap with other design disciplines?

TR: There’s an element of product design and engineering to it — a lot of the lighting design happens in the rehearsal space, but you also need to communicate the creative idea on paper leading up to that point. I design a lot of technical drawings in two dimensions (2D) and create visuals for clients — that’s how you sell them the idea. Eventually, you’re designing your concept in 3D in the air, essentially painting with light, but you need to produce that on paper as well as the real world. It also overlaps with architecture, as you have to think about interior and exterior spaces, and you’re constantly creating shapes through lighting beams and thinking about where and how to hang lights.

Lighting design for Stormzy’s 2019 Glastonbury set, image courtesy of Andrew Timms

DW: What does a typical working day look like for you?

TR: My days are split between working in my personal studio in my garden and working on-site.

I start work on a project about six months before a tour starts. I sit down with the other designers and look at a brief, set by a creative director and sometimes the musician themselves. The set designer will sketch out a rough set and talk about feasibility, then an engineer will work out how it would be built. I’ll then think about how I will integrate light.

Then, work will begin in my studio, where I tend to work normal hours, 9am-5pm. I have a lighting desk and a virtual reality (VR) simulator, and use a program called WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) to design and test out my concepts, using the headset to work in 3D and add on other special effects like smoke and video content.

Half of the day is spent designing in this way, importing the set design, placing the lights and working out the angles, then the other half is spent analysing the music for the show. I’ll put my headphones on and break down the music bit-by-bit into individual cues, thinking about how the lighting will react to the beats per minute (BPM) of a song, the solos, verses, chorus, breaks and emphatic moments like drum snares. As I’m away a lot on tour, I try to finish on time to see my family and help with the kids’ school runs. I have many US clients, so I try to push conference calls back until 8pm or 9pm, so I can have family time first.

On-site days take place once rehearsals begin. This is where I finesse the show that I initially programmed in my studio. I start later in the day, and finish in the early hours of the morning. I often go to the gym in the mornings, then we’ll start on site around lunchtime, assessing the space and doing technical work. We’ll leave the stage early afternoon for the performers and watch rehearsals. My work really kicks off at around 9pm — once all the performers have left, we sit down and program the show in detail, working until 2am or 3am. If it’s an outdoor show, like the Spice Girls’ stadium tour, we need to wait until it gets dark before we’re able to work.

Spice Girls on tour, image courtesy of Andrew Timms

DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks?

TR: I follow the same workflow for all my designs. I’m terrible at sketching, so I don’t do it by hand — I use WYSIWYG for digital sketching, programming and visualising. Aside from this, analysing and breaking down music, collaborating with set designers and helping with installation on-site.

DW: How creatively challenging is the job?

TR: Back in the day, it used to be that a band would play an arena tour, and there would be a few pretty lights around them on stage. Now there’s competition to create shows that are new and different. This isn’t only about new technology, but how stages are set up — no show is the same. For Sam Smith’s recent tour, I was asked to hide all the equipment, so I had to make the rig as discrete as was humanly possible. It’s not just about hanging lights and making them flash. It’s about being challenged to do things that no one has thought of before.

Dave’s 2019 tour, image courtesy of Andrew Timms

DW: How closely do you work with other designers?

You’re often working with a whole team of creative people. It depends on the size of the concert, but if it’s a Beyoncé or Spice Girls gig, generally a producer will employ a set designer, video graphic designer and lighting designer at least.

I’ve worked quite closely with big set designers, such as Brit Awards designer Misty Buckley, who I just collaborated with on Stormzy’s Glastonbury set, as well as creative directors. They have the concepts, and I’m there to facilitate their ideas, and make them work both visually and technically.

I recently also worked with graphic designer Kate Moross on the Spice Girls reunion tour, who created the graphics for the videos that appeared on screens. We tried to match things like colourways with lighting, and changes in the music, such as snares and bass lines, with changes in lighting and screen graphics.

Sam Smith’s 2018 tour, image courtesy of Luke Dyson

DW: What strengths do you need to be a lighting designer?

TR: You need to be patient and a politician — lighting design is 95% politics and 5% design. You have to manage a lot of people’s requests, from the musicians themselves through to producers and directors. You also need good people skills and a massive sense of humour — I often teach lighting design students that the latest tech or kit isn’t what’s important, it’s about compromise and finding new ways to do things without railroading an idea through. It’s important to be humble and remember that a show is a sum of all its parts, not just the lighting — there are points where the lighting shines, but these are far and few between. It has to be there to take a backseat and light up its artist on stage.

DW: What are the best parts of your job?

TR: The reward of being able to stand there and watch a show is great. If I never do another show, Stormzy’s Glastonbury set was the one. Being able to hear people in the crowd say they loved the lighting makes it worth it.

DW: What are the worst parts of your job?

TR: The long hours, scraping around for food at 4am when I’ve been working on-site and being away from home.

Beyoncé’s 2018 tour, image courtesy of Tim Routledge

DW: If you were interviewing for a junior lighting designer, what would you look for?

TR: I’m always looking for enthusiasm, a willingness to learn and humility — students often think they know it all once they leave college but really, they need to go back and learn it all again. I’d like someone with a willingness to learn, who’s keen and wants to help.

DW: What advice would you offer people considering a job in lighting design?

TR: Take every opportunity in every part of the industry and try not to worry too much about the money (I know that’s hard). Don’t be disheartened that you won’t be working with Beyoncé on day one. Be ready to learn from the smallest shows — I learn something new every day, and I’ve been doing this for 22 years.

In terms of routes in, I’d recommend technical theatre university courses, like those at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, but if you’ve got other design qualifications or want a different avenue in, I’d suggest going to work for a lighting rental company — they’re the companies that provide equipment for shows, and they provide great work experience in technical skills like rigging. You 100% do not need a specialist degree — but if not, you do need relevant experience working backstage or on-the-job training.

We’re desperate for people in the industry, and we’re particularly in need of good programmers and technicians, not just people who want to do the creative work – this role is crucial and helps the lighting designer make things work by pushing all the buttons.

Being a technician is a good place to start, which then leads into more creative lighting design. If you’re a graphic designer by trade rather than a product designer, engineer or developer, you might want to consider going into video production for stage shows instead — but there are definitely careers out there.

Lighting design for Stormzy’s 2019 Glastonbury set, image courtesy of Andrew Timms

Salary expectations based on Reed:

Junior Lighting Designer: £19,000 – £25,000 per year

Lighting Designer: £25,000 – £30,000 per year

Senior Lighting Designer: £35,000 – £50,000 per year

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Gerardo Gonzalez July 16, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    Here an experienced technician from Mexico willing for new creative challenge , thanks for share your process!

  • Mateo An April 30, 2021 at 9:43 pm

    Nice post.

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