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CAD for Theatre Designers

27 January 2021

CAD for Theatre Designers

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Following on from our recent launch of the Vectorworks group training sessions we thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about all of the options for digital design packages available to our designers! There is so much choice with the industry becoming ever more digital… but what is right for you can depend on many factors! One of the most commonly asked questions is “what can I afford?” Well, great news! Our very own David Farley has been researching and asking some of these questions so YOU don’t have to! Read on…

Katie Scott

A long time ago…

I’m a Vectorworks user and always have been. Back in the day, it was the only decent option for an Apple Mac user. AutoCAD and Vectorworks are now available for both Windows and Mac as are many of the other programs discussed here.

The market is very different now, as is how you can pay for them.

Before we start

I’m not here to talk about the pros and cons of different forms of communicating a 3-dimensional design in a 2-dimensional way which you may or may not print or need to share another way. That’s a whole different blog! I just want to talk about Computer Aided Design/Drafting and how we can afford to use it by investigating the options.

“Trying to navigate a route through the choice of CAD packages is almost impossible and it goes without saying that there is no one answer. No, “Everyone should do this”. No, “I highly recommend this”. And certainly no, “This is the correct one!”. ”
Niall Black

What are other Designers using?

I did a little poll on the SBTD Facebook page recently to see who was using what.

It would be fair to say that a large proportion of responders use AutoCAD (mostly for 2d drawing), and in my experience a large number of producing theatres and commercial workshops use this software too. That’s not to say it is the best option, but it appears it is the most common. Vectorworks closely followed and is used by a lot of lighting designers.

It is possible to share CAD drawings between the different software packages, exporting or importing DWGs being the most common, though it can be tricky getting the settings right for the specific receiver of the file, especially when you start working in 3D…

Niall Black has written a brilliant article on CAD which you can find on the Envelope Room’s website (here) and he highlights some very good points when considering what package to choose;

“…when making your choices, you need to balance: - What is the best method of making your ideas clear? - What allows for others to understand your ideas and allows them to interact. - Which type of design presentation allows for others to collaborate and add their layers (and how important is that to you, genuinely) - How important is it to you or the team that you are working with that you can provide, clear, precise information? ”
Niall Black

I can’t afford that!

This is such a common concern and certainly there is no smoke without fire. CAD software IS expensive… but let’s take a look at some of the options:

SketchUp is certainly pretty popular and is used by quite a few responders from the survey. Being FREE that’s not surprising and it includes access to the 3dWarehouse where you can share and benefit from other peoples files; it can be a very useful tool. Watch out though, in its terms of use it does state it is only to be used for non-commercial use. It is sadly tricky to get a decent DWG export from SketchUp though and to create professional looking drawing sheets with dimensions you need ‘Layout’ which only comes with the professional version (not free). There are work-arounds to this.

One thing to bear in mind with SketchUp is there are a number of different versions of it. I would recommend searching the downloadable 2017 version rather than using the new online one.

What if I’m a Student?

Both AutoCAD and Vectorworks offer a Student version for FREE to any eligible Students (and Educators). With both offers the output drawings will have watermarks on them… However, Vectorworks have started offering a Graduate scheme, so for the first year out of education you can get a 40% discount on a VWs licence and they can remove the watermarks from your Student files for you, making your portfolio look very professional, it’s called ‘Student2Pro’ (see what they did there?). For AutoCAD the Educational version is a 3 year licence, so if you were to only activate it in your final year, you’ve got 2 years as a fresh graduate designer with AutoCAD for FREE! (But your output would still be watermarked…)

Rhino offers an educational discount with the key difference being you can use it commercially! So for around £200 you can have a really powerful software, you do need an in date student or staff ID and or a contract from the institution to prove it.

Spreading the load

A big improvement is the Monthly Subscription model. AutoCAD have offered this for a little while and Vectorworks recently started offering this too! So, you can have the software and only pay for it in those months you actually need to use it if you’re not doing lots of drawing all the time. (Is this a nice straight-forward way to make a producer pay for it too?)

There is also a ‘LT’ (light) version of AutoCAD if you just want to just do 2D work, which might be worth looking at. Sadly, there isn’t a LT version of VWs currently.

The other options

You could go for one of the smaller players in the DWG CAD Program market like QCAD-Pro, Draftsight or BricsCAD, who offer very competitive prices (often much cheaper than the 2 big players) for licenses for good programs.

Fusion360, (part of the AutoCAD family) from what I’m told is also a very intuitive program to learn and use.

There are even tools you can use to turn your copy of Adobe Illustrator into a 2d CAD package.

You can find a round-up of the CAD packages I have found here

And alternatives

There are other slightly more specialised programs which can be great design tools, like Rhino, Cinema 4D, 3D Studio Max, Solidworks and Zbrush. These are more like 3D modelling programs, most of which you can still create layouts from to print or export, though not cheap (apart from the educational discount on Rhino if this applies to you!). All worth looking at. I understand Rhino is particularly user friendly and creates some lovely looking white card renders. Many of these companies offer a 4 or 6 week free trial.

It’s tax-deductible!

There’s no doubt about it CAD software is a long term investment worth considering. So, take a look at your options, especially you graduate designers, and also remember software is a tax-deductible item!

In a couple of weeks time we will have a blog from 2 designers with their own personal take on digital design. We’d love to hear more stories and sharing of knowledge.

If you’re a CAD using digital loving Theatre Designer, I’d love to hear about your experience on what-ever software you use. Get in touch via e-mail; blog@theatredesign.org.uk.

Members offer

We are very pleased to say that you can ALL now access the recordings of the Vectorworks training sessions via the Members Resources page of the website. You can also still access the special 90 day free trial (as opposed to the regular 30 day version).

Not a member yet? Join up and get the benefits.


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