Designing Survivor Part 2 – Art Department Logistics

Colin Thomas looks at the various elements that go into designing a season of Survivor.

In this two-part series, we will dive into the creative process behind Survivor, and investigate why the U.S. version has attained some of the best reality TV production value around. The first article covered the graphic and cultural design of the program. In this second part, we look at the physical logistics of the Survivor art department.

The Next Step

After the design of the logo and graphics, the next step is the implementation of the graphics onto season props. Over the years Survivor has established a collection of props that are just as recognizable to the format of the show as voting people out is. Tiki torches, immunity necklaces, hidden idols. The aesthetic of Survivor is just as important as anything else.

Survivor: Kaoh Rong buffs.

One of the universal props is the Buff – a bandana worn by each contestant to signify their tribe. As mentioned in the previous article, the designs on the Buffs are vector-based – meaning that the effect of the printing will not mar them. To maintain the exact colors, the Buff® company uses a white and stretchy polyester fabric (this is why the inside of the Survivor Buffs have a near white complexion, with the design partially bleeding through). Because the cloth is white, designers don’t have to worry about color variances between the Buffs, for it is all streamlined by the computer.

SEG (Survivor Entertainment Group) usually orders a large number of the Buffs to ensure that they have enough for tribe swaps, crew member souvenirs, etc. The Buffs that are purchased by the public are produced much closer to airing and are by far the most popular Survivor prop among fans, becoming a must-have collectible each season for many ardent supporters.

Masaya tribe flag. Source: CBS.
Masaya tribe flag. Source: CBS.

In addition to the Buffs, tribe flags and challenge banners are printed in advance. The beach flags tend to be printed on a thick tarp-like cloth – and they typically measure forty-five inches wide by thirty inches tall. The competition flags are much longer, but it varies from season to season.

Survivor: Cagayan challenge banner. Source: CBS.
Survivor: Cagayan challenge banner. Source: CBS.

The creation process for the beach flags differs from the nylon challenge banners, though. The challenge flags are printed off a single computer file. By contrast, the tribe camp flags are composed of multiple separate parts. Lately, the tribe name and logo have been printed on an entirely different piece of fabric, only to be cut out and sewn onto the large flag. Sometimes, the beach flags feature the same designs that appear on the Buffs. If this is the case, the art department typically ends up painting them on manually. This process is evident on the Survivor: Kaôh Rōng camp flags.

Totang tribe flag. Source: CBS.
Totang tribe flag. Source: CBS.

However, these are not the only graphics that are squared away before arrival on location. The on-location art department is supplied with a catalog of graphic stencils – including fonts, logos, and patterns. With these on hand, they can adorn wooden props and challenge pieces with the necessary designs.


To add the drawings, the template is placed on top of the prop, and the appropriate paints are applied. The crew is dedicated to creating a similar aesthetic throughout the season in props, challenges, tribal council and graphics.

Other Props

These simple accessories are not the only designs, though. When creating the immunity necklaces and idols, the art department will also utilize computer synthesized illustrations to aid in the build of each piece.

29 Stuff
Survivor: San Juan Del Sur drawings. Source:

For translating the sketches into physical form, SEG has a variety of tools at their disposal. The expert designers that work from season to season are usually tasked with the immunity idols, snuffers, and flag holders – some of the most recognizable props. Some methods that they employ include molding, casting, carving, and wielding.

A battering ram from Survivor: Cagayan that has been wielded by the art department and a crew member showing off a half-completed Cagayan immunity necklace. Source:
A battering ram from Survivor: Cagayan that has been wielded by the art department and a crew member showing off a half-completed Cagayan immunity necklace. Source:

The most frequent mediums are molding and casting (they go hand and hand), for they provide the easiest way to add the maximum amount of detail. An example of the molding technique is the Survivor: Blood vs. Water hidden immunity idol. This idol was created using a standard resin-fiberglass mold.

Making a hidden immunity idol. Source: Screengrabs from Blood vs. Water TVGuide special.
Making a hidden immunity idol. Source: Screengrabs from Blood vs. Water TVGuide special.

On the casting side of things, examples include the Survivor: Blood vs. Water, Survivor: Cagayan, and Survivor: Cambodia immunity necklaces. These all utilized casted metal. The outlier is sculpting, which has only been seen in seasons such as Survivor: All-Stars, Survivor: Guatemala, Survivor Tocantins, Survivor: Redemption Island and Survivor: San Juan del Sur (all on the tribal immunity idols).

Left: the casted Cagayan necklace, which features the same design as in the season logo. Right: the freshly sculpted San Juan del Sur tribal immunity idol. Source: CBS.

Moreover, the showrunners also possess top of the line laser and manual cutters, perfect for advanced flat-wood carvings.

Above: The wood-carved Survivor: Philippines Kalabaw hidden immunity idol. Below: Example of Survivor: Philippines Tandang hidden immunity idol blueprint.

That’s not all…they often use the advanced cutters to carve the contours of the puzzles.

Examples of precision cut puzzles. Source: CBS.

And what happens next? A separate team of local artisans continues to work on the more sophisticated props, such as vases, jars, cultural carvings, and sculptures. These are used to adorn the tribal council and redemption island locations (if applicable) to create a consistent cultural aesthetic.

Some challenge sketches by John Kirhoffer - the Survivor challenge producer. Source:
Some challenge sketches by John Kirhoffer – the Survivor challenge producer. Source:

Furthermore, locals and veteran builders work on building challenge sets – which, depending on the challenge, can take two to three weeks to assemble.

While the show has repeated many similar looking “beach” locations over the past few years, the Survivor team continue to put great effort into designing the aesthetic of each season to set it apart from the others. So next time you’re watching Survivor, take a second to appreciate the artwork and design elements that feature in almost every facet of the show.

That’s all, for now, folks! I hope these articles were interesting and informative, and I’m curious to see what Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X will bring artwise! Thanks for reading these installments, and I encourage you to leave a comment below.

Header Photo Credit: jeffgunn via Compfight cc

Written by

Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a college student from St. Paul, Minnesota, majoring in biochemistry and minoring in communications. Prior to Inside Survivor, he had a personal Survivor blog and podcast at He now focuses on his graphic design hobby, creating banners for Jonny Fairplay's Survival of the Fairest podcast. Colin has been a mega fan of Survivor since season 19 and dreams of one day setting foot on the beach himself.

One response to “Designing Survivor Part 2 – Art Department Logistics”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.