Customize Your CAD User Interface

28 Feb, 2007 By: Scott MacKenzie

You have the power to set up your system in a way that best suits your work environment.

CAD MANAGER GENERAL’S WARNING: Customizing your GUI (graphical user interface) and command behavior to suit your personality will result in a unique user interface. Prolonged use will increase productivity and may produce a sense of euphoria.

To get the most out of your CAD/BIM (building information modeling) package, you should tailor it to your specific needs. If you told me I could no longer customize the layout of my toolbars and palettes or make keyboard shortcuts or macros, I would be upset. I would be forced to conform to a generic menu interface designed for general purpose use. That would mean my production speed would be less than it should be.

Those of you who are making your own menus understand that we are in the minority. Our passion is a good thing because we like doing it and we can get paid for doing it. But, getting co-workers and management to embrace our works of art can be tricky. Not everyone cares about being as fast as they can be. Not everyone seeks to become a master with their tools, either, which is a very good reason for you to customize your interface: to help those who are software-challenged. Some people are unable to think beyond the next step, explore the menus for what they need or even read help files. If you can give them a special button to push that does a bunch of things at once, it will make everyone’s life easier. But the downside is you have now made them dependent on your custom tool. If it disappears, they will be lost.

CAD MANAGER GENERAL’S WARNING: Use of custom macros, e.g., LISP routines, GDL scripts and keyboard shortcuts, can result in dependency on these customizations. Loss of these customizations after prolonged use may cause depression.

The most effective way to implement and control your company’s CAD standards is through automation, and the only way to have effective automation is through customization of your CAD/BIM software. Firms that don’t invest time in customizing their environments are fooling themselves. Would you invest thousands of dollars into a high-performance sports car, and then drive it no faster than 55 miles per hour? I don’t think so. Well, that is what you are doing if you don’t tweak your CAD/BIM application according to your needs.

AutoCAD and ArchiCAD
I would like to talk about AutoCAD a bit and then go into more detail with ArchiCAD. I’m not going to talk about VBA, AutoLISP or GDL programming. These tools can be extremely useful, but that is a discussion for another time.


Old timers like me learned how to customize AutoCAD menus with a text editor. Now AutoCAD provides a fancy GUI to facilitate customization in the CUI (customization user interface) editor. I appreciate the effort by the AutoCAD people to produce a high-tech approach to the process, but it is a little squirrelly. I recommend two great comprehensive articles on this subject on Cadalyst’s Web site in Bug Watch and Circles and Lines.

I’m just a hack compared with some other CAD experts out there, but here are a few things I think you should know.

Menus, Profiles and Workspaces
You need to understand how menus, profiles and workspaces work in order to control your custom environment.

Menus are made up of the commands you use and buttons you click on.

Profiles control your settings such as where AutoCAD should look for support files. They control your background colors, autosave settings and many other system settings.

Workspaces (introduced in AutoCAD 2006) allow the user to control what menus are loaded and the arrangement of the screen tools. Workspaces work within profiles.  Profiles alone used to control what menus got loaded in earlier versions of AutoCAD. If you are using AutoCAD 2006 or 2007 you need to know this because many people who don't know it end up repeatedly using the Menuload command to bring all their menus back. For help with workspaces, check out these articles in Heidi Hewett’s blog and Cadalyst’s CAD Manager newsletter.

CAD MANAGER GENERAL’S WARNING: Custom toolbars will produce an increase in productivity and may be habit forming.


Customize your workspace. In ArchiCAD 10 you can create your own toolbars and keyboard shortcuts, recreate the pull-down menu structure and save your workspace layout. This is done through the Work Environment settings (click on the Options menu and select Work Environment).

You can build your toolbars by dragging and dropping as shown here. You should experiment with creating new toolbars and palette layouts. It is a pretty intuitive interface and very stable too.

Missing Toolbars. I have created a few toolbars that really help me with my workflow in ArchiCAD. One toolbar is for toggling frequently used palettes on and off, one is for managing the system environment and the other is for layer control.

The toolbar I created for layers is similar to the Express Tools layer toolbar found in AutoCAD. There are buttons to lock, unlock, show and hide the layers of selected entities. Sure, this looks a lot like the Quick Layers palette already in Archicad, but I prefer using a toolbar.

The Management toolbar is used for quickly accessing the main Manager commands, Project information and the Work Environment command.

The Palette Toggle toolbar adds better control to your screen real estate. Quickly toggle your Favorites palette or the Navigator palette on and off so you have more room to draw in when you need it. I like to put this toolbar at the bottom of my screen along with the On-Screen View Options toolbar.

You can download these toolbars that I created for your own use. They are saved in a command scheme file.

Palette and Toolbar Arrangement. The examples shown below compare the standard ArchiCAD screen arrangement in the first image and my custom palette layout in the second. I prefer to have my Info Box docked on the left side because I’m left-handed. When it is docked to one side and you hover over it and roll your scroll wheel, it will scroll up and down as opposed to left to right. It’s a much better interface for me.

My intent here has been to promote the value of customization and empower anyone who needs help. Don’t give in to the resistance from the big bad manager monsters in your office.  Customization is good, not customizing is bad.  If you heed the CAD Manager General's warnings, you will improve your mental health and streamline your work processes at the same time. Have fun.

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