Advice for the CAD Professional Beginner

March 10th, 2014

So you have decided to get into the interesting world of AutoCAD® design and drafting? Perhaps you are a young person, just out of the traditional education path and want to begin your first career. Perhaps you are a more mature person graduating from a non-traditional education path or you are just changing careers. Whatever your situation, a career as a CAD professional can be creative and fulfilling.

While there are many different CAD packages and design disciplines out there in the world, if you are reading this article then you are most likely working with the AutoCAD product from Autodesk. Or perhaps your firm uses one of the many AutoCAD platform-based “vertical” products such as AutoCAD® MEP or AutoCAD® Civil 3D®. Whatever the case, we are going to look at some great pointers that every user new to the world of AutoCAD and life as a CAD professional should know.

The Basics

Each year brings a new version of AutoCAD that is a bit better, a bit more capable, and features a bit of new technology. These days the list of features in “vanilla” AutoCAD is about two and a half miles long. From the very basics of drawing tools to advanced rendering/lighting systems, AutoCAD is one of the most capable and versatile design applications in the world.

Approaching a program that has more than 1,700 different commands is enough to intimidate even the most hardcore geek. So how do “beginners” get their heads around the task at hand? Fortunately, there is no need to begin your CAD career working with 1,000 commands in order to tackle thousands of tasks. Instead you just get a working set of 18 tools under your belt!

If you are asking yourself how it is that fewer than 20 tools can set you on your path to a productive and satisfying career, just take a look at the list.

Align
Insert
Plot
Arc
Line
Polyline
Circle
Linetype
Spell
DimLinear
LTScale
Style
Erase
MLeader
Trim
Extend
Mtext
XRef

This simple collection of commands can be brought together to accomplish nearly all of the tasks that your new career may require. While you may find one or two more commands to be essential to your new life, this collection makes for a fine starting point.

The importance of the matter is that you realize AutoCAD presents an environment in which there is a multitude of tools, and methods in which these tools can be used. Is the RECTANGLE command a faster method in which to create a rectangle than using the LINE or POLYLINE command? Yes, but good foundation knowledge of the most basic commands ensure that you are never caught at a loss to create the necessary linework to complete a drawing.

Be That Type of CAD Professional

In my experience there is one facet of training that is sorely lacking in the skill set of most new CAD professionals. That is not to say there are not many great and talented people joining the industry every year. Still, the one skill that is often missing from the toolboxes of those new to the ranks is typing commands into the Command Line.

Autodesk has made great efforts to standardize the layout and iconography of their user interfaces across the product catalog, but there is still no more efficient way to navigate the AutoCAD corridors than to know your commands in their written form. If you doubt this logic, then simply take a moment and compare the methods of entering any given command. On the one hand you could go to the ribbon, locate the correct panel in the correct tab, and then first search the correct icon and then possibly open a flyout menu to find your desired command. By comparison, you could just type out a written command for something common such as MTEXT, for example.

Of course, like any worthwhile skill, this “dark art” takes a bit of practice to master. First you must commit several of your favorite AutoCAD commands to memory. Never fear—AutoCAD helps with this by providing the command line text at the bottom of every ribbon tooltip. Just hover over the icon for your chosen tool and a tooltip will appear, giving you all manner of useful information, including the command’s written form!

Second, you should learn the most effective manner in which to type these commands. Since I am a right-handed individual, I have learned to type my commands exclusively using my left hand while almost never taking my right hand off of the mouse. This arrangement provides me with the maximum efficiency to enter my commands while continuing to work my mouse. Try some different arrangements and see what works best for you.

The 4-Color Markup System

Now that you have collected your personal set of essential tools to help you produce your work and you are practicing to become more efficient at creating your drawings, it is time to discuss another key skill. In the life of every CAD professional a few markups will come. One day I am going to put that into a fortune cookie because it is every bit as true as “You will meet a tall stranger,” except that mine is useful.

As a CAD professional, working with architects, engineers, and designers will be a large part of your daily life. A common part of the discussion between design professionals and CAD professionals are designs that evolve through iterations of markups passed back and forth. Having a well-defined system of notation that is used in a uniform manner can make this process far more efficient and pleasant than it could be otherwise.

One common method of marking up drawings for exchange between designers and CAD professionals is the 4-Color Markup System. In this system, notations are categorized into four distinct colors, each one representing a specific type of notation, as follows.

Red – Linework or text items that should be added to the drawing file.

Green - Linework or text items that should be removed to the drawing file.

Blue – Questions or comments to the drafter.

Yellow – Items that have been completed/checked.

While this color layout is fairly common, any combination of colors can work in your office. Red is an almost universal color for revisions, but separating items that should be added or revised from those that should be removed from the drawing will make the iterative process of design more efficient and less maddening. Another interesting tip would be for each CAD professional in your office to have a signature color for use on completed/checked items. For instance, I have used purple highlighters as a signature color to make identifying sheets that I had worked on as simple as noticing there was purple ink on the page.

What matters most is that you apply whatever standard is used in your office in a uniform way that respects the system that is already established. Or, if a system is not in place, that you show initiative and lead by example in bringing order to the chaos of the iterative design process.

Learn to Keep Learning

Whether you are fresh from college, an occupational training program, or on-the-job training, you are probably relieved to be done with the learning and eager to start your new career. It is an exciting time filled with an exciting new job and exciting new projects. Still, to think that the part of your career where you learn new skills has come and gone would be a mistake. Just like most careers that fall into the category of “knowledge work,” your career as a CAD professional will involve a continuous process of training and evolving your skill set.

Autodesk, and other CAD product developers, are in a continuous cycle of development that brings new releases. In the case of Autodesk, new versions of AutoCAD and related products are released each year. Each one bringing improved processes, new features, and more powerful CAD engines. It may appear obvious that keeping up with this constant change is important. You would think so, wouldn’t you?

The reality of the matter is that the world economy is always becoming more competitive and this is no less true in the CAD industry than in any other. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep your skills up to par in order to use the latest technology to its fullest.

The simplest strategy to accomplish this is also, quite fortunately, the easiest. All you have to do is keep up with the releases. Don’t let years go by without improving your skills. With each new release take the time to learn the new features, adjust to the improved features, and always be on the lookout for improved workflows and how they can apply to your chosen discipline. News on new releases, features, training, and tips are as close as the nearest computer with an Internet connection. Developer websites, blogs, and video sites such as YouTube are all treasure troves of training information just waiting for you attention.

Developers spend millions of dollars a year creating in-product documentation such as tutorials, help systems, and, in many cases, new “on-demand” peer assistance methods that allow you to get help from developer supported communities. Additionally many developers, including Autodesk, offer official certification programs to provide industry-wide standards of achievement to not only give merit to CAD professionals who achieve a certain level of skill, but also to give newcomers to the industry a target to aim for in terms of developing a well-rounded skill set.

From day one, your #1 job is not your job—it is to be in a continuous training mode so you can do your job better!

Taming the Wild Career

Thinking about your “job” brings me to the last point that I believe every CAD professional who is new to the industry should take to heart—thinking about your career.

I have met too many CAD professionals who have gone to great lengths to get the job they have. They have either gone to school and incurred large debt to graduate with a 2 or 4-year degree or they have put in hard work to learn these skills in addition to their normal workloads. Whatever course they have taken, it is usually a dedicated and chosen one. And yet so many of them view their position as a “job” and not a “career.”

They come to work and do their job just fine. The problem is that this mentality sets them up to do just that—their job—for years and years. On the surface that may seem like a good thing, but stability is not much comfort without advancement, and advancement requires career-focused thinking. By all means, you should do your “job” and do it well. But you should also be looking to the future and thinking about where you would like to be in 5 or 10 years. You should have a mind towards the skills and certifications that will help you reach these new plateaus and the path, however vague it may be, that will take you there.

Too many times I have heard one of two excuses on why people do not put their all into the “job” they have now.

A. ”This is just the job I have now and when I find the perfect job/company then I will give it my all,” or

B. “This is good enough. I just want to do my job.”

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skill Trumps Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport says that a career that is untamed “can bring you into dangerous territory” and both of the above excuses are prime examples.

Do not allow your career to be untamed. Treat your new career as a CAD professional with the respect you would give a large, complex piece of machinery or a wild animal. Because, much like your new career, both of these things can be marvelous and beautiful, but if they are not treated with the proper caution and an educated approach, they can be very dangerous. Not treating your career with caution and an educated approach can, at best, have you in exactly the same spot doing the exact same work for 20 years. At worst, you could lose your job.

Conclusion

You have entered an exciting time of your life where your hard work is beginning to pay off. You are starting a new career where you can put your hard-earned skills to work and begin to contribute to the industries that help craft the world we live in!

As a new CAD professional working with AutoCAD or one of its vertical products, you are following in the steps of literally millions of men and women who have helped design some of the most important advances in history. Reflect on that as you sit down and double click on the little red icon with the “A” shaped graphic. Your mouse links you to the pens, pencils, and quills that designed the first airplanes, cathedrals, and pyramids! Be excited when you start your work and you will almost always be certain to work on more of the exciting things that your new life as an AutoCAD CAD professional can offer.

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About the Authors

Curt Moreno

Curt Moreno

Based in Houston, Texas, Curt Moreno is a CAD Coordinator for a civil engineering firm and the owner and editor of the Kung Fu Drafter blog. He began using AutoCAD with Release 10 and has spent the past 20+ years working with various Autodesk products including AutoCAD, Civil 3D, Map 3D and SketchBook Designer. Curt is also a freelance content creator, featured Autodesk University speaker, and training content developer. In his spare time Curt writes, games and spends time with his dog and horses.

 

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