Lighting Design

The following timeline offers information for anyone designing lights for a production. There may be specific requirements for your space; for example, you may be required to submit design plans to Kat Nakaji if you are working in the Loeb. Consult with your producers if you have questions. 

Technical Details

Make sure that you have the technical knowledge necessary to light design.

  • Know how to hang, focus, and cable a light. If you do not know this, set up a meeting with someone to show you how right away.
  • Download Vectorworks. You will need to register with Nemetschek, the company that makes Vectorworks, as a student and send them a scan of your Harvard ID in order to obtain a free license to use the software. If you do not know how to use the program, Nemestschek offers free tutorials here.
  • Obtain a blank plot from the HRDC Production Associate or OFA Technical Advisor and build your plot. Current drawings of OFA and Loeb spaces available in Vectorworks and AutoCAD. You can download a blank lighting plot for the Loeb Ex here.
  • Learn how to use the light board. If you find out what mode you will be using, you should be able to find the manual online. Read it.
  • Find out about lighting inventory in the space you will be using.
  • Look at the space you will be using. Try to foresee any problems, such as a lack of good front light positions.
  • If you are using any special instruments (strobe, color mergers, etc.) make sure that you know how to use them. If you do not, find out how.
  • If you ever have any questions, ask! If you are not sure who to ask, contact the HRDC Tech Liaison at [email protected]

Getting Started

First, read the play and take notes on possible lighting cues. If lighting a musical, listen to the music. Try to capture all initial lighting ideas as they occur to you. Then talk to the director about what they are envisioning and have a discussion about initial design ideas for the show. To this meeting, bring as much visual research (usually pictures off google images) as possible to better communicate what you are picturing. The director should do the same. This will leave you in a good place to make decisions about the general aesthetic of the show you will be lighting.

As the show takes shape, the director will continue to send you information about any special lighting requests. Be sure to ask any questions these requests may raise. Continue to discuss design ideas throughout the rehearsal process at both production meetings and one-on-one discussions with the director. If possible, sit in on rehearsals to give yourself ideas.

Towards the end of the rehearsal process, there will be a designer run. It is very important to attend as this run will be a first chance to see the staging of the play in its entirety. Use this run to get an idea of how the show should feel and gather ideas for lighting looks or even specific cues. Try to think about color (gel) or pattern (templates/gobos) and how they might be used in the show.

After designer run but before load-in, meet with the director, stage manager, and sound designer at paper tech to go through the show and discuss what specific cues need to happen when. Have an idea of what cues you want in the show and what they will look like. You should also have a preliminary selection of color swatches to show the director with a flashlight.

If ordering or renting anything, be sure to have the order placed as early as possible to avoid problems.


Obtain a groundplan of the set.

Come up with a list of lighting areas necessary to the show, such as Downstage Center or Upstage Right Center Platform. Then list any special areas that may need to be lit more specifically. Lastly, list any other special effects you may need to create, such as lightning or sunlight.

Make a list of lighting systems you will need to hang, such as front light, top light, side light, back light, foot lights, or any specials. Descriptions of common systems are below.

  • Front Light: Typically a warm and a cool ellipsoidal hung for each general lighting area. Each light is hung to light the performer at a forty-five degree angle from the side and a forty-five degree angle from above. For a flat front light, simply hang a single color from a forty-five degree angle above the performer.
  • Top Light: A light, usually a fresnel or parnell hung directly above the performer to add a wash of color.
  • Side Light: A light focused to hit the performer’s side as an effect.
  • Back Light: A light focused at the actor’s back to help them stand out from the background.
  • Foot Light: A light focused up at the actor from the floor. Gives an effect similar to a flashlight held under the chin.

Plot your lighting systems and create a cut list of what color gels you want in what lights. Come up with a plan of action for load-in.


Hang all of the lights.

Cable all of the lights. Depending on the location of the lights, it may be necessary to drop cable down to them from the grid. Be sure to note which light goes with which dimmer.

Patch lights to channels on the lightboard. It is most useful to organize the channels as much as possible by grouping the lights that make up a system on adjacent channels. This will make making adjustments in cues much easier later.

Focus all of the lights and drop color.

Experiment with different looks on the lightboard to get ideas before cue to cue. Create submasters of general looks you expect to build off of frequently in the show. If there is time, do a dry tech (cue-to-cue without actors) with the director. Essentially, try to do as much as you can before cue-to-cue to make the process go by faster.


Walk through the show from pre-show to end to set every cue for the show. This has been known to be long and stressful, but doesn’t need to be!

Tech Week

Watch runs and take notes of things to fix. The director will do the same. Continue to make changes (but let the director know!) until you are satisfied. Once the show is open, take a deep breath and enjoy your accomplishment as a lighting designer!