CAD Designers

What Do They Actually Do?

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti

What is the difference between a CAD Drafter and a CAD Designer? Primarily, it’s a question of experience and understanding. A drafter is an integral part of any design team but they require a great deal of direction and input from management in order to complete tasks. CAD Designers, on the other hand, are individuals that are very familiar with the standards and requirements of their particular design field and can be trusted to put together a large portion of any project on their own, with minimal oversight and review needed.

That’s a fair description, as far as it goes, but what does it really mean? It means that if you are a licensed architect and you need to revise the gymnasium on the school you’re currently designing, the amount of work you’ll need to put into that change varies, depending on if the person making the changes is a designer or drafter. If they’re a drafter, the Architect will need to carefully mark up the plans, with notes, dimensions, and explanations of design intent that you have already calculated. The benefit of working with a CAD designer is that the architect is freed from hours of working out the details of this re-design. It can be handed to the designer with a simple statement such as: “The gym occupancy needs to go up by 50 people.” The designer is familiar with the local ordinance and governing codes that dictate the necessary size, egress, seating and other control criteria for such a change and can do the initial design and turn it back to the architect for a quick review and approval.

You can see why management prefers to have CAD designers on staff whenever possible.

How to Get There

Everyone begins their career as a CAD drafter. We draw basic linework, add notes and print files as we’re told. If you want to move up the ladder (and pay scale!) to become a designer, it’s going to require effort on your part.

Some industries do have designer level training programs available but more often than not, designers are self-taught. Questions are your best friend in this instance: every time you are asked to make changes to a plan, you should ask the design professional why those specific changes are being made and how they calculated the values for the changes. (Fair word of warning here: do the changes first, and then ask the questions!) In my experience, almost all professionals are willing to explain their process and reasons to you if you express and interest. Remember that they really want you to become a designer because it will make their job easier in the long run. Listen carefully to their answers, and then go find any appropriate literature they used and see if you can re-create their results (on your own time!) for the same project. If you come up with something different, go back to the professional and ask if they can point out where you went wrong. Not only will that improve your understanding, it shows them that you are serious about learning and they will be more willing to help you do so. It also doesn’t hurt to have a reputation as a “self-motivated go-getter” come review and raise time!

The next time that you have a similar project, ask the professional if you can take a crack at doing the design on your own, or at least shadowing him while he goes through it to help you learn. Taking completed projects and trying to determine how they reached the design criteria for those is another great tool at your disposal. Early on in my career, I took a roadway plan and tried to re-create the design for it by looking at the alignments and slopes and using the little bit of knowledge I’d picked up to figure out why those had been used. I spent a lot of time going back to the engineer who’d done the site and asking which AASHTO codes and values he’d used and why.

Not only did that help me understand the process, but that engineer became a mentor to me and he was the one who gave me my first CAD designer position.

CAD Designers make more money than drafters do because of their understanding of the particular industry they work in but that’s not the best reason for striving to become one. Designers get a level of independence and professional respect that drafters do not. Even licensed professionals will consult as equals with a skilled designer because the scope of concerns that need to be addressed in a modern design are so large that even the best professional is going to overlook something. Having a CAD Designer to look at the broader strokes of the design frees the professional to spend more time focused on the high-end details that tend to get missed when they have to work alone. Every drafter should endeavor to a designer’s position for the simple level of satisfaction you’ll get knowing that you had genuine, vital, input into every project you work on instead of just being the person who drew the ideas of others.

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