How to become a: show designer

As part of our series looking at jobs in design agencies, we speak to show designer Amber Rimell about bringing south London to Stormzy’s Glastonbury, creating tour visuals for Rita Ora and 10pm lightbulb moments.

Amber Rimell

Design Week: What exactly is a show designer?

Amber Rimell: I work closely with an artist from the very beginning, either for a TV performance or live performance. When an artist wants to get something across, and they’re not sure how they can do it – that’s where I come in. We work out what kind of message or visual element they would like to get across to an audience.

A good example of this is Stormzy’s Glastonbury performance. When we first started discussing it, he was adamant it was his moment in front of the globe, and he wanted to get that across but wasn’t sure how. We believed he represented culture and London, and we wanted to pay homage to that. We said to him: “You are culture, you are south London, and we are going to put this show together, which celebrates you and where you come from.” We decided to take south London to Glastonbury.

The design process goes all the way from the research stage through to the production. Stormzy always wants to show off the next generation of young people and he was interested in Ballet Black, a multi-cultural ballet group in London. In my research, I found out that they had a collaboration with a maker of ballet shoes, Freed, which launched a range that suited all skin tones. I thought it was crazy that this had only happened in 2018. It needed to be celebrated, so we put them on stage with him to make people aware of it. The response was amazing.

DW: What’s your educational background?

AR: I come from a dancing background; I studied professional dance at school for three years and after seven years of dancing professionally, I got an injury so I had to stop. I was approached by Rita Ora; she had a last-minute booking for a TV performance and her management decided they wanted to use more dancers and more creative thought.

They called me on the off chance and I thought “wow, this is a door”, so I opened it and from there, Rita asked me to put forward ideas for her tour a couple of months later. It was the end of 2012.

Rita Ora’s Phoenix tour, photo courtesy of Timmsy

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

AR: My business partner, Bronski, and I were really lucky with Rita because she was at a point in her career in 2013 when she was really picking up pace. We were lucky to jump on that and for her to trust in our creative vision. We worked on her TV performance and live shows. Then we branched out with Wretch 32, the rapper, and Jess Glynne. We really like to have a diverse client base — we’ve worked with Dave, who just won the Mercury prize, on his tour.

We also worked on TV performances like at the Brits, VMAs or Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton which is great because you can play with how an audience sees something at home, and it’s also fantastic exposure.

DW: What first got you interesting in show designing?

AR: My background in the creative arts. But what drives me is the constant creative challenge. When an artist wants to convey a statement, and we think of a way, sometimes people — from the venue, for example — say no. So how can we figure that out? It’s fascinating to brainstorm.

Often we work with smaller acts, so you have to figure out how to take a show through venues across the country, some of which are much smaller. Then in bigger cities like London or Manchester, it needs to be able to scale up. Working that out is exciting.

DW: How creatively challenging is the job?

AR: Very. There are a lot of sleepless nights, but in a positive way. My creative brain starts at 10pm. Between 2pm-6pm I can sit down and brainstorm a few ideas for a show but sometimes my brain won’t ignite until 9 or 10. I keep a notepad by my bed and sketch in the middle of the night.

Then Bronski and I make these renders of these sketches on the computer, so our clients can take a look. Once we’ve done the deck, we talk it through with the artists. So for example, Rita will come and look, and she’ll like certain image more than others. I like to make an artist feel involved but normally Rita loves everything, so sometimes it’s a case of picking certain ones for that collection of songs and saving others for use later.

DW: What does the creative process look like?

AR: I let my mind go and whatever artist I’m working for, I live in their album for at least two months — I have it repeat on the tube, or in the car.

For Rita’s Phoenix tour in 2019, I lived in the album for four to five months and we broke the songs up into sections: the living, the death, the rebirth. We structured the whole phoenix cycle into the show. Working from that, we decided on the design details; colours were particularly important on the tour. For the rebirth we used fire to represent the phoenix rising from the ashes. The birth section was very heavenly, lots of pastel colours and beautiful clouds to create the visual effect.

Dave at his Brixton show, photo courtesy of Timmsy

DW: What are the best parts of your job?

AR: I also love the rehearsal process when you start to see what was in your head coming to life and rehearsing it. You think, “wow, that started a year ago.” I remember sitting and watching Stormzy at Glastonbury when it happened, and it was strange and amazing way. I hope everyone feels the same way as I felt during the first run through — when you’re seeing it that time, it’s not the first time anymore, so as soon as he got off stage, and I went straight on Twitter to see how other people felt.

DW: What are the worst parts of your job?

AR: The lack of sleep can be tough — especially as I get most of my good ideas past 10pm. All of a sudden, something comes into my head and it’s like, “let’s put this idea in at the last minute, but you can’t have any sleep.” The worst part is when I’ve had an hour’s sleep, but on that day I’ve got to be on my best form. But I always think of the end result and that gets me through.

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

AR: Someone who’s open-minded and uninhibited. You need to not be afraid to suggest an idea, even if it’s not right. It’s always best to give an idea. It’s hard to find but you need a good balance of skills: I’m from a creative background but Bronski’s more technical.

Someone could be incredible from a design point of view and be able to design something fantastic, but they need someone on their team who can make that stage move. It’s’ collaborative.

Stormzy’s Glastonbury set, photo courtesy of Timmsy

DW: What advice would you offer people considering a job in show designing?

AR: Look into designing for corporate companies as well as artists — definitely do your research in whatever field you’re in. If you’re thinking of starting up like us, it’s important to connect with companies at the top of their game. You need to know how that side of the business works too.

It’s also useful to have some computer skills as well. Being able to make renders is vital — we use Cinema 4D. If you’re into lighting design, you need to be able to make CAD drawings.
Most importantly, you have to be open creatively, and not think that anything is impossible until someone say it is.

DW: How closely do you work with designers?

AR: We worked with Misty Buckley on Stormzy’s Glastonbury performance. I love her work. We went to Misty and said: “This is our guy from Croydon. We love Brutalism, architecture and sharp angles.” She took our treatment deck and came back with this design. Then we go back to her and say that we want levels not just one surface, so she came back with a stunning block of flats.

Sometimes designers have a team of people who we’ve worked with before. We’ve worked with Rita so often that for the Phoenix tour, we know everyone on her team.

DW: What is the job market like for show designer?

AR: There’s quite a lot of opportunity once you start building your connections within the business. We get approached a lot now, and we are humble, because it took us about two years to break through. We were doing a lot of smaller jobs at first. It’s a case of not giving up, continuing to knock on those doors — and sometimes, someone might be unavailable.

As Amber says, there are no set roles for a job in show design as they often require a set of skills, from graphics to lighting design. These are the salary expectations for Audiovisual (AV) designers — who work on live events — based on Indeed.

Junior AV Designer: £18,000 — £20,000 per year
Midweight AV Designer: £25,000 — £28,000 per year
Senior AV Designer: £35,000 — £50,000 per year

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