Design Inspiration

Design Tips We’ve Learned from This Year’s Academy Awards Nominees

Meg Cannistra By Meg Cannistra February 29, 2016

Aside from tuning in to see if Leonardo DiCaprio will finally win that Oscar he’s been campaigning for since Titanic, my favorite part of the Academy Awards is seeing who wins for best costume and set design. This year brings us a wide variety of contenders. From fairy tale princesses to post-apocalyptic warriors, Hollywood served up an array of beautifully designed costumes and sets.

Many of the techniques that costume and set designers use to bring their visions to life on the big screen can be applied to graphic design as well. Let’s explore why each of the 2016 Academy Award nominees in costume and set design are so compelling, and what you can take away from their work for your own digital designs.



Source: Carol / Silver Screen Modes

Nominated for Best Costume Design, Carol’s costumes were created by award-winning costumer Sandy Powell. For Carol, Powell pored over old Vogue magazines to get a sense of the clothing for the early 1950s when the film is set.

Design Takeaway: What Carol’s costume design teaches is that starting from scratch to create a unique and stunning design is always a good plan of action. Though it may take longer to create your own typography or illustrations, originality pays off in the long run. An example of Powell’s eye for innovation can be seen in the photo above. Cate Blanchett’s mink fur coat looks like a killer thrift shop find, but Powell actually pieced it together from recycled fur in order to achieve the exact shape and color she envisioned.



Source: Cinderella / Vox

One of the reasons many people saw Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella was for the costumes. Created by Sandy Powell, each outfit was custom-made to fit the character’s personality (soft hues and skirts for Cinderella, bold colors and angles for the wicked stepmother).

Design Takeaway: Cinderella’s costumes designs are go big or go home. When working on a project, really pushing your creative limits in the first draft and then refining from there can help you achieve the design you’re after. For example, rather than using a simple, sturdy fabric to create Cinderella’s iconic ball gown, Powell used 200 yards of yumissima—a very expensive and light fabric—to get the voluminous, airy skirts that make the gown so magical. Add 10,000 Swarovski crystals to the equation and you have a dress fit for a princess.

The Danish Girl

Nominated for both Best Costume and Set Design, The Danish Girl wowed critics and audiences with its gorgeous period costumes and immersive productions. Paco Delgado designed the costumes; Eve Stewart and Michael Standish headed the production design and set decoration, respectively. Delgado, Stewart, and Standish strived for authenticity in their designs in order to create a truly engaging experience for filmgoers.

Design Takeaway: There’s a reason The Danish Girl is nominated for costume and set design—Delgado, Stewart, and Standish took great care to achieve a high level of accuracy. Understanding the straight lines in 1920s dresses, Delgado resisted the urge to use extra padding in Eddie Redmayne’s costumes. Instead, he used techniques such as pleating (which were common in 1920s garb) to create the illusion of curves. Paying attention to the details of your design project can make all the difference. Ensuring you are as accurate as possible will imbue your art with that same level of authenticity seen in The Danish Girl. After all, it’s the details that make any work stand apart from the crowd.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Usually the fourth film in an action franchise doesn’t get much critical praise, let alone an Oscar nomination. Mad Max: Fury Road exceeded all our expectations last summer with its original plot, post-apocalyptic costumes, and killer set design. Up for an Oscar in both Costume Design and Set Design, Fury Road was quite the surprise. Costume designer Jenny Beavan took great care to create both functional and visually appealing costumes, while production designer Colin Gibson and set decorator Lisa Thompson designed a stunning post-apocalyptic backdrop that pulled audiences into the unsettling world these characters inhabited.

Design Takeaway: What we can all learn from Fury Road is the importance of creating something unexpected. Even if what you’re working on feels boring or limited, consider your design an opportunity to make it more inspiring. Don’t approach your project with a hackneyed angle; rather, push for innovation andstrive to create something that’ll get people talking. Beavan, Gibson, and Thompson could have taken the easy route, ripping off the old costumes and sets from the previous three Mad Max films. Instead, they chose to build on the previous movies, creating designs that feel fresh and truly iconic.

The Revenant

While most of the buzz surrounding The Revenant is about whether Leonardo DiCaprio will win an Oscar, the film’s costumes and set design are just as noteworthy. Three-time Oscar nominee Jacqueline West designed the period-appropriate costumes for the film. Jack Fisk served as production designer and Hamish Purdy provided set decoration. Both costumes and sets for The Revenant play up the earthy and utilitarian elements common in the unsettled wilderness in 1823. It is these understated designs that serve to amplify the overall atmosphere and tone of the film, letting the acting and dialogue take center stage.

Design Takeaway: The subtle costumes and sets in The Revenant augment other aspects of the film, creating a fuller picture. Depending on the project, your design may need to be more understated in order to achieve the best results. Being showy isn’t always the best approach.A design that enhances the overall user experience rather than detracts from it with flashy animations or illegible typography will provide better results in the end.

The Martian

The Martian

Source: The Martian / Architectural Digest

Production designer Arthur Max and set decorator Celia Bobak had their work cut out for them when creating compelling sets that resemble the red planet. It’s no easy task bringing a planet no one has set foot on to life. Max used high-res images from the Curiosity rover, a soundstage filled with “4,000 tons of mixed color-coordinated earth from local quarries and fiberglass rocks,” and the desert landscapes from Africa to give audiences the fully immersive experience of traveling to a distant planet.

Design Takeaway: A major challenge when creating the sets for The Martian came from the crew’s inability to actually visit Mars. Max utilized local resources that were much easier to come by and relied on images from Curiosity to act as a blueprint for his design. If you’re working on a project and can’t explore the source of your inspiration, consider incorporating local resources (such as artists or landscapes) that will help you accomplish your design goals.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

Source: Bridge of Spies / Architectural Digest      

Production designer Adam Stockhausen and set decorators Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich were careful to bring the Cold War era to the big screen in a way that’s respectful and accurate. In the image above, Stockhausen told Architectural Digest how they “wanted the Berlin half of the story to be ice-cold….Donovan literally gets sick, and there was snow flying the entire time. They wanted this cold and blue-gray color palette to go with that.”

Design Takeaway: Stockhausen, DeAngelo, and Henrich rely heavily on color to amplify the mood in Bridge of Spies. Knowing when and where to use the perfect hues to evoke emotion or tone  can be a powerful design approach. If the image above was cast in warmer shades, for example, the scene would feel much lighter and seem out of place. Choosing shades that complement and bolster your project will help your design resonate with your viewers, creating that emotional connection so many artists want to achieve.

Featured image courtesy of

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