Production Design, like any component of film or television, is a vast blend of art and science, and cannot be easily comprehended in something so brief as a blog entry. That said, Production Design is one of those few things, like Direction, that is present in every frame of the movie.
The lead actor or actress isn’t in every frame of the film, nor is the score—sometimes times silence is the right musical choice. Not every scene has dialog, fight choreography, or a big emotional moment. But every frame has Production Design.
With such an expectation and burden, Production Design is first the jurisdiction of the artist, then the technician.
Since film is a visual medium, Production Design should be entrusted to visual men and women—visualists, if I can use that word.
Like any artist working on any canvass, everything must be considered: colors, saturation, complimentary colors, warm vs. cool tones, distribution, composition, texture, lines, geometries, patterns, and even the grain of the canvas.
Production Design more than anything other than a title card, sets the time, space and mood of a film, and should never be relegated to the less-artistically inspired.
Make every frame beautiful. Make every frame count.
A blank white wall can be the perfect Production Design element in some cases.
For novice Production Designers, my three best suggestions would be: 1) create layers in the set; 2) create density not with the big things, but with the small; and 3) let shadows fall where they will, and try to have an open dialog with your Director of Photography about keeping those stylish shadows and not letting him give in to the impulse to light everything evenly.
My three cents worth, as it were.
Most importantly, even the most amazing Production Design will not deliver you a great film, it will only deliver a stylish one. The greatness of any film remains in the hands of the writer (script), the actors (performance) and the director (direction).
Virtually everything else can be forgiven.