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Carole, a loyal reader, wrote me an e-mail about an issue that many of us have experience in.

“As a young interior designer, I appreciate any advice I can get. In this particular case, I have been given a black market copy of CAD by my cousin an architect out of San Francisco…. My question is how hard is it really to teach yourself to use this program? And what advice do you have, as in should I buy a manual or should I just tinker with the program?

Here are a few things you need to know in regards to teaching yourself how to use AutoCAD:

1. We Have All Used Black Market Copies of AutoCAD at One Point or Another.

It’s true. Nobody in their right mind would ever pay the full price of the standard AutoCAD software. It’s absolutely ridiculous! Firms do pay out for the software but they live and die by AutoCAD. Young Architects in school do usually buy their own version of AutoCAD however. But they can do so by joining the AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) automatically getting huge discounts on a student version of AutoCAD. I feel that the AIA does this as a way of luring in unsuspecting students into a lifetime of membership servitude, kind of like a drug pusher giving kids a free taste. Still, the students that don’t join up just pirate a version as well.

2. You Can’t Get Any Good at Using AutoCAD Without Using it in a Firm.

When we are students in school, we use AutoCAD a lot, depending on the university of course. AutoCAD has become such a force in architectural education that today’s architects cannot “letter” like our previous generations. That means that all the pretty script that we used to be known for has now turned into the equivalent of an illegible doctor’s prescription. Sad Fact About Me #1: My handwriting today is worse than when I was five.

But simply because we become dependent upon AutoCAD software early on, it doesn’t mean that we use best practices in school. While we may have 5+ years of CAD experience on our resumes, recent graduates enter the profession with a toddler’s skill-set when it comes actual AutoCAD drafting. I personally was lost when it came to my knowledge of CAD and I continue to see recent grads come into my office and be clueless on the tricks that we all have come to use everyday. In fact, I have begun to give newbies a quick refresher course during their first week in the office. Its really important to make sure that they will be on the same page as me when I end up working in their drawing files.

3. Few of Us Have Ever Been Taught How to Use AutoCAD.

I know that in many schools, the professors will throw their students in the proverbial CAD pool to teach them how to swim. There are no lessons and everyone learns how to use it in their own way. Architecture professors don’t have the time, patience, or social skills to sit down and teach their students how to draft on the computer. This breeds poor practice and the people who already have professional experience tend to have an advantage.

How did I learn? I simply used the “Help” section that comes with the AutoCAD software. Once I started my assignments in AutoCAD, I would ask how to perform certain operations in the Help section. Slowly you will build a CAD vocabulary and become proficient with time and practice. I learned quickly and soon found that other people were asking me how to do things on AutoCAD as well. Many times I wouldn’t know and I would just type their question into the Help section. Then we would work out what was needed to perform the operation. The Help tool is a great resource.

4. Learn the Basics

As you begin stumbling your way through AutoCAD, you will learn some of the most basic yet essential elements that professionals use everyday to compose their AutoCAD documents. These include:

  • lines, polylines, rectangles, arcs, circles, and splines.

But learning the basics does not end at just learning what these elements are; you must also know how to manipulate them as well. These functions include:

  • extend, trim, fence, offset, array, copy multiple, and paste to original coordinates

As you use these functions, you should also note the benefits of toggling theSnap, Tracking, and Polar tabs.

5. Organization is Key!

Professional offices are run off of complex systems of organization. This applies to everything from file structure, to billing, to transmittals and beyond. This also includes your AutoCAD documents. In order to work in a professional office, you need to know how to manage layer systems. In a professional office, there is a layer for just about anything really. Not just walls, windows, and doors have their own layers. Many times, stairs, stair railings, demolished walls, overhead elements, furniture, plumbing, lighting…you name it…have their own individual layers.

Why does everything have to be on these different layers? It is so that we can have multiple levels of information that we can turn on and off (freeze and unfreeze) while still working in the same drawing. Layers also help the user in many ways. First, each layer has its own color so that you can tell different elements apart from each other. Second, and more importantly, each color represents how dark (or thick) these elements will read once they are printed out.

Layers are a vital aspect of working in AutoCAD and knowing how to use them effectively is a must when working in a professional office. Please know how to use the “Defpoints” and the “0” (zero) layers. Also become familiar with one of the most widely used tools: match properties.

6. The X-Ref is King!

X-ref-ing is an advanced tool in AutoCAD. I can say with great certainty thatnobody knows how to use x-refs when they are coming out of school. An x-ref is simply a photocopy of another drawing that you put into a new drawing. We use x-refs so that we can have the information from one drawing in another drawing. The beautiful part about x-refs is that when you change the information in a drawing, the x-ref of that drawing changes with it.

So for a real-life example, lets say that we have an apartment building. This apartment building has the same exterior walls going all the way up with the same windows. So it can be said that the outer boundaries of the building does not change no matter what floor you are on. But what if each floor has its own unique floor-plan? Does that mean that we have to draw the exterior walls for each floor? No, we just create a drawing that has only the exterior walls on it. Then we x-ref that exterior wall drawing into the different floor-plans and setup the unique interior layouts within the exterior walls. Since the exterior wall information is being photocopied into each floor-plan drawing, anytime we need to change the exterior wall for some reason, we just have to change the “exterior wall drawing.” The changes will be reflected in each floor-plan!

X-refs can be used for a variety of reasons and can be used in very complex ways. Just be aware of how to set them up. Also, learn the “block” function to group specific elements together that you would like repeated. By copying and pasting the block elements, if you need to change the elements, you simply just update the block and the changes automatically occur in the repeated block.

7. Print from the Layout

The layout tabs are basically different page setups that you define for your drawings. They allow you to establish viewports and titleblocks to make your drawings look professional. Viewports are little windows that you can set up to zoom in or out of your drawings and organize the components of your drawings on a page. Titleblocks are borders that display the name of your project and other important information. You should set up your titleblocks asx-refs in order to change your titleblock information on multiple drawing files whenever you need to.

8. Once You Learn One Software, It Is Easy to Learn Others.

One of my previous offices required that I use Macs. AutoCAD is not supported on Mac systems currently so there is a special software called VectorWorks. The program is in many ways similar to AutoCAD but also very different. All in all, it took me about two weeks to get proficient in VecotrWorks which isn’t much time really. This learning curve was similar for just about everyone that has had to make the switch.

There are many software systems available for drafting; too many to really list. These all run off of the same logic that your basic AutoCAD uses. So don’t be afraid to apply for positions that would require you to use another software.

Easy Exercise

So get started. One fun exercise is to draft your house or apartment. Document everything inside of it. Practice some basic drawings like:

  • Site plan
  • Floor-plans
  • Roof plan
  • Reflected Ceiling Plans
  • Elevations
  • Sections

If this is all way too much to learn on your own, there are many resources available to get you at least started on your way to drafting professionally. I would strongly suggest night-classes at a local community college. The cost of the class should pay for itself many times over once you get into the profession.

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