Lighting Design Software

AutoCAD To VectorWorks To AutoCAD – A Guide

While tools in lighting planning continue to develop, there are still key professional CAD tools in professional stage lighting.  On Stage Lighting seeks to help Vectorworks users to transfer their learning to AutoCAD.  Meanwhile, AutoCAD users can quickly pick up skills in Vectorworks using their own prior knowledge.

*A note about choices of CAD for stage lighting communication:

As regular as the ‘which is the best lighting desk’ topic, the question of which CAD package is ‘best’ for lighting.  In this article, we’ll be looking at two of the many CAD packages: Vectorworks and AutoCAD.  We’ll not be seeking to identify which of these two is ‘best’. The purpose here is to help users of one make a transfer to the other.

All key concepts that are worth mentioning are below.  If it isn’t mentioned, the functionality is similar and you can work it out for yourself.
VW Full Screen

Vectorworks for AutoCAD users.

For AutoCAD users, Vectorworks has a rather alien workflow but this is the result of working with an unfamiliar tool.  Vectorworks Spotlight has more tools specifically designed for the planning and communication of stage lighting information.

Units and Scale

VW deals in units of measurement and these should be set for best results, a bit like starting with the correct .dwt file in AutoCAD. There are similar ‘templates’ to help with your VW settings and defaults.

Units are often displayed with a suffix (such as mm) and different unit types can be used while drawing, unlike in AutoCAD which only refers to a single unit and is unitLESS.

VW abstracts the drawing area from the layout elements, similar to ModelSpace and PaperSpace.  PaperSpace is called Sheet Layers and can be accessed via the Navigation palette.  Vectorworks can also include a references the limits of a paper/page size.  This can be used in the same way as some AutoCAD users use LIMITS and the grid.  This means you can ‘model’ in a particular paper size. which leads us to….

Difference:  Vectorworks allows you to draw in the ‘modelspace-like’ place to scale.  The difference doesn’t stop there. EACH layer in the modelspace-y place can have its own scale.  You can be drawing at any old size on each layer with potentially disastrous results.  You can draw at 1:1 and hide the page border making the whole experience more like a conventional ModelSpace.

Layers in Vectorworks

This takes us on to Layers.  AutoCAD uses Layers as the key organisational tool for drawing and displaying geometry.  Vectorworks uses two such tools: Classes and Layers.

Classes can be used in the same way as AutoCAD layers: to set line weights, colours, etc.  and to turn off, lock and all that.  Classes do not have an inherent draw order.

Layers have similar possibilities for drawing organisation but do have a draw order. Layers also have a Z-height, useful for different levels in a venue and working in 3D

This means that every drawn object has a Class AND and Layer.  Wrangling these is twice as powerful as Layers in AutoCAD but also twice as complex.

Drawing Stuff In Vectorworks

Vectorworks doesn’t really do Command Line in the same was as AutoCAD.  Instead, you use tools in the tool palette many of which have a keyboard shortcut.  You can enter dimension data during a drawing operation, using the TAB key in a similar way to the Dynamic Input in AutoCAD.  The TAB replaces things like comma.

One nice touch is that you can perform arithmetic during a numerical input or in any numeric data box.  This means you can add two dimensions using a + sign or perform similar basic operations.

To organise the drawing the current active Class and Layer is selected using the Navigation palette.  Another key palette in Vectorworks is the Object Info Palette. This is similar to Properties in AutoCAD and where you can change data, Layers etc. of an object.

Where are my tools?

Vectorworks has options for different ‘workspaces’ relating to the specialist applications available, including Spotlight.  If you can’t see anything you recognise, it may be because you need to toggle to the correct Workspace.

Blocks in Vectorworks

VW calls blocks “Symbols” and they are created, retrieved, nested and edited in similar ways to blocks in AutoCAD.  There are also Attributes called attached Records. These are customisable but more commonly used ones are predefined for the stage lighting design workflow.  Data like Colour, Dimmer, Channel etc.  Unlike AutoCAD, Vectorworks ‘knows’ what these attributes are used for and the tools are more focused on stage lighting workflow.

Vectorworks has both 2D and 3D views that can be used to design and display different geometry.  A stage lighting fixture could look like a traditional stencil in the 2D only Top/Plan view or appear as the top view of a 3D object in another view.  Because of this, VW Symbols can have a 2D or 3D geometry component or both (Hybrid).  This can cause things to appear and disappear with the simple change for Top/Plan view, to Top.

Like AutoCAD, the ‘block’ object in Vectorworks can have an assigned Layer (and Class) BUT the underlying objects within the Symbol can also have their own Layer and Class.  This can be powerful, but also cause confusion and cause things to disappear.  As an AutoCAD user, you’ll probably be used to tracking down the reason for this.

Symbols are found in the Resource Browser which is similar to the AutoCAD Content Library.

Stage Lighting Tools in Vectorworks

Because VW Spotlight is designed to provide specific tools for stage lighting CAD, there are tools that speak the language of the trade.  The tools are pretty extensive and outside of our scope today, but suffice to say that lighting plans are drawn using Symbols (blocks). VW also knows the difference between a Lighting Instrument and a Lighting Position in a way that AutoCAD does not.  Things like the arrangement and display of ‘attributes’ are taken care of via the Label Legend Manager and there are tools for creating Fixture Keys and other communication elements.

Attribute data can not only be exported to create stage lighting paperwork but VW also has for generating basic paperwork.  Vectorworks allows the user to attributes through a spreadsheet interface and not just within in the drawing.  Even without a plug-in such as Lightwright, Vectorworks has many more options specifically for the Lighting Designer.

Printing in Vectorworks

VW Sheet Layers are similar to PaperSpace (or Layouts, as AutoCAD refers to them as).  Viewports behave in similar ways and you can also get into similar muddles with Viewport scale, drawing directly inside ‘modelspace’ and dimensioning directly at the Sheet Scale at 1:1.

You can print directly from the model, but many users choose the benefits of creating a layout to print.

AutoCAD for Vectorworks users.

The thing to understand about AutoCAD is that ACAD  knows nothing about stage lighting planning and workflow.  It’s a feature rich and capable CAD package but you won’t find any tools labeled to help you do the specific job of drawing a lighting plan.  However, plenty of lighting professionals use AutoCAD as part of their workflow. If you plan to use AutoCAD long term, spend time sorting the assets, templates and settings.

Units and Scale in AutoCAD

AutoCAD drawing happens in the ‘model’ or MODELSPACE.  This is like the default drawing area of Vectorworks but Modelspace drawing is at 1:1. Layers do not have a scale.  Once drawn or modelled, the result is laid out in a similar way to Sheet Layers in Vectorworks.

AutoCAD doesn’t refer to units of measurement and can be said to be unitLESS.  Life gets bit more complicated when importing other drawings and geometry. This can lead to stuff arriving in the drawing the wrong size.

Unit defaults and settings are handled by template files that has the .dwt file extension.  A decent new drawing starting point for metric users is ACADISO.dwt, The ACAD.dwt starts you off in an Imperial environment.

Text size in AutoCAD

Unlike Vectorworks, text in AutoCAD is sized in the same units as everything else instead of font point sizes.  This means that a ‘normal’ text height of 4mm is absolutely tiny in a normal sized ModelSpace.  150mm text is enormous on a Sheet Layer. Everything is 1:1.  AutoCAD has a function called Annotative text which deals with scaling text for display and but can be initially confusing.

Drawing in AutoCAD

AutoCAD users regularly interact with it via Command Line input, although you can also select tools directly via menus and toolbars/palettes.  There are many ‘commands’ with similar names to those in Vectorworks and AutoCAD has a helpful auto-suggest feature.  Using this, you can experiment with commands by starting to type what you think may be the right word. Examples include Off or O for OFFSET, REC for rectangle, C for circle and so on.

The big difference with AutoCAD is that you start a command, do some stuff and then finish it.  Type your REC, enter, start your rectangle, hit enter, type the dimensions (using comma between x and y) …..   Enter finishes the entire command.  Escape cancels a command.  If you are struggling, look at the command line to see if AutoCAD thinks you are in the middle of something else. If so, ESC will get you back to the start ready for a new command.

Everything in AutoCAD is a command, with a specific order of inputs right up until the endpoint.  This includes moving, copying etc.  The order that you select, enter, do, enter can be flexible but takes a little getting used to. This is particularly noticeable in what seems a simple task of moving something. This just feels weird to start with.

Tips: You can often use SPACE instead of Enter and using this with single key entry (L for LINE etc) is a common method.  Once you have finished a command, Enter starts the same command again.  This allows you to do another of the same command without having to retype it all over again.

Using single key strokes, you can quickly get stuff done once you get the hang of using the command line.  V Enter T Enter (View, Top) or Z Enter A Enter (Zoom all).

Layers and Classes in AutoCAD

AutoCAD only uses Layers for drawing organisation with a palette similar to Navigation in Vectorworks.  Draw order is handled slightly differently Layers do not have a Z-height.  There is no ready equivalent of Classes.

Symbols in AutoCAD

Reuse of drawn objects similar to Symbols in VW is what AutoCAD calls Blocks. Blocks have their own layer, along with different layers for the underlying object. They can be nested within other Blocks.  You define a Block using B(LOCK) and edit the block in the Block Editor using BE(DIT).

Block definitions live in the drawing and can be pulled in via the Content Library, similar to the Vectorworks Resource Browser.

Stage Lighting in AutoCAD

Remember that AutoCAD knows pretty much squat about stage lighting.  This means the user has to do most of the thinking for it.  Instead of inserting stage lighting Symbols as special items such as Lighting Instruments, you add an AutoCAD block of your fixture.  These are often created by users based on .dwg files from the manufacturer.  Be warned, a lot of the .dwg files available come from other CAD and product development packages. These can be pretty messy in terms of  the drawn objects.  You can also easily end up in a mess when bringing in Blocks in the wrong units and at the wrong size. Having made or borrowed a library of blocks, adding lighting positions and instruments is pretty simple.

In order to display stage lighting data in AutoCAD, there are no fancy tools of the kind found in Vectorworks Spotlight.  Instead, AutoCAD has an Attributes feature that works along with blocks and this is where the data such as channel, dimmer, colour etc. resides.  It is also how the data is displayed around each block.  You can also attach Invisible attributes, handy to build stage lighting schedules.

This brings us on to how you can use the AutoCAD data to create your lighting paperwork.  You get none of the dedicated toolsets relating to things we understand in stage lighting.  Extracting data is also a one-way process that you perform AFTER you have finished all your drawing and editing. There isn’t the same kind of data back-and-forth that you get with VW Spotlight tools.

To generate stage lighting paperworks in AutoCAD, you need to Extract the Attribute data from all the blocks in your drawing.  This is an slighty obscure process, particularly in AutoCAD for Mac. Once extracted, the data comes out as a comma-separated file (CSV) and this needs bringing into a spreadsheet program to be tidied up.  Once set into a series of columns, you can use this data to generate your various lists and schedules.  Success does rather depend your spreadsheet chops, but anyone with a bit of knowledge of things like Pivot Tables can pretty easily turn the raw sheets into useable documents with updated counts, calculations etc.

Sheet Layers and Printing in AutoCAD

To print your final drawings from AutoCAD, use a series of print documents similar to Sheet Layers.  This is called Paperspace and more commonly labeled as Layouts.  As with Vectorworks, Layouts are 1:1 and then the Viewports are scaled as you wish. Title blocks and other final drawing stuff are scattered around.  Title blocks etc. can be created as Blocks for use on multiple sheets with a single point of editing. There are also tools for displaying Attributes or Fields for thing such as Show Name, Designer etc.  As with stage lighting details, this isn’t completely obvious to the user as it relies on an understanding of the generic AutoCAD tools and functionality.  It is all there if you can work out how the generic function relates to the stage lighting plan need.

It is also possible to print quickly and easily from Modelspace (i.e not a Sheet Layer) at Fit To Page or at a specific scale.  This is a good solution if you are just looking to get a quick and dirty drawing out without creating Layouts.


Conventional wisdom is often held to be that AutoCAD is great for general drawing whereas Vectorworks Spotlight is best for Stage Lighting Design.  Looking at the above, it is easy to see that perhaps the speed of the command line in AutoCAD is weighed against the specific stage lighting tools in Spotlight.  The reality is that at the level of drawing stage lighting plans in 2D or basic 3D scenic models, either software can produce the same output.  Both have a pretty steep learning curve, particularly if you have little prior CAD experience.

This guide was aimed at users of one software who wish to explore the other.  Luckily, once you have one piece of professional CAD software under your belt, the transition to other CAD packages is much easier . Many of the concepts are shared and therefore completely omitted in the above guide.  These include CAD concepts such as Snaps, Cartesian Coordinates Systems, Origins, and others which you’ll already be familiar with.

If you are a Vectorworks user looking to flirt with AutoCAD or a command line nut for ACAD struggling to get Vectorworks to behave, we hope that the guide has proved useful.

If you are a dual VW and ACAD user and think we’ve missed anything out, feel free to stop by and comment below.  Or just tell us exactly why you totally hate one and love the other!  If you must.  🙂


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