Developing CAD Standards: A Complete Guide

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CAD standards matter. We are aware of this. Yet so few of us have taken the time to develop, document, and deploy the CAD standards we desperately need. We have the best intentions — we say we will “get to it when things slow down.” But it just doesn’t happen. The reason is simple — developing CAD standards is hard work.

Never fear. This article gives you the skills to confidently create a full set of CAD standards and help your team of CAD professionals be their best. It outlines the process of installing CAD standards in your company, including knowing when it’s right for you to create standards and identifying which standards are needed. CAD managers, coordinators, and office leaders: learn tried-and-true steps that everyone can put to use, regardless of how busy you are. Looking for an overview of the process? Check out the related article, "The Stages of Developing CAD Standards."

Start at the Beginning

It may seem like an obvious thing to say, “We begin at the beginning,” but exactly where is “the beginning”? Some firms feel that CAD standards rest entirely on the integrity of the DWG and therefore “the beginning” is a point in the drawing. Other believe that a valid standard revolves around the proper application of company processes and therefore work should start with a collection of Best Practice documents.

While both of these approaches are valid, I feel there are only one logical way to begin at “the beginning” and it is not in the drawing or in best practice documents. I believe that the beginning is a point that can only be identified by communicating with a firm’s CAD leaders.

Related: Building Your BIM Standards: Essential Elements for Revit Workflows with John Fortune

Ask the Tough Questions

Taking time in the beginning to meet with as many available leaders of a firm’s CAD staff is a fantastic starting point for your CAD standard creation efforts. However, while it may be instinctive to meet and discuss the new standard, I recommend these initial meetings revolve around current efforts. Specifically, I think that only by having open communications with CAD leaders can you properly identify the pain points of the current CAD production process. You must meet with the people doing the work to find out what does not work.

Once you have met with the full range of available CAD leaders in your firm and identified a wide collection of pain points you have the beginnings of a road map to your new CAD standard. These are the high points that require immediate, or added, attention in the creation process.

Distilling this information will allow you to identify the single greatest pain point that is hindering production for your CAD staff. This is an ideal point to refer to as “the beginning.” But, just a bit more reflection is required before you can begin work.

What's Beneath “the Beginning”?

For the sake of this example let’s set a hypothetical situation in which you have determined that a common difficulty in your firm is time wasted due to plots with incorrect lineweights. You may have decided that the starting point for your CAD standard is the following:

“Standardize plot styles and practices to produce identical plan set plots.”

While this is a very valid thought, you must take a moment to think whether or not plot styles are in fact the cause of lost time. In researching DWG files, you may learn that the actual cause has nothing to do with plot styles, but rather with the colors associated with entities. This could lead to the secondary assumption that “layering standards” are an ideal starting point. However, further examination of several representative projects could determine that while layer configurations are consistent with an existing drawing template, your CAD staff has been modifying individual entities to change the color “by object” rather than “by layer.” This revelation points to an entirely different starting point for your standard, that being a “best practice” issue.

This single example is just one way in which research, reflection, and further examination is absolutely necessary in order to best determine the actual cause of an inefficiency.

Considering the myriad of aspects that could comprise your new CAD standard, it quickly becomes obvious that this communication and examination is essential to the return on investment in the development process. Without this initial hashing and analysis, it is incredibly easy to become derailed and focus effort, and costs, on areas of a CAD standard that will yield reduced, or ineffective, results.

Take the time to properly identify the areas of your new standard that will yield the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time!

The First Milestone

If you have properly identified your first pain point of production, then you are at a very enviable stage where you can confidently report to your management, or supporters, the following:

  • A full listing of management stakeholders who will oversee what aspects of the new standard
  • A wide list of areas that require focus in the development of your standard
  • A general breakdown, or roadmap, of how your standard will be developed so initial efforts have the greatest impact
  • The area identified as the cause of the greatest hindrance to CAD production

This report to your stakeholders marks your first milestone and cements the effort to properly begin the process of creating a new CAD standard for your organization. It is also a major step in building confidence in your stakeholders that the efforts to develop a new standard are not aimless or misguided. Once apprised of your progress, your stakeholders may have input to add. Once everyone aware of the direction the work is going, it is time to move on.

Beyond the Beginning

Due to the nearly endless aspects of CAD work, and therefore CAD standards, it would be impossible to identify ALL the possible directions that a new CAD standard can go. The possibilities are almost infinite. In addition, I feel that any person selected as the coordinator of an organization’s standard should have extensive CAD experience from which they can draw on to know the minutia making changes such as layer color in order to set up an ideal drawing.

That being said, there is no reason that a helpful (but by no means “complete”) list of possible items to include might not be helpful! The following is a list of the most common items included in general CAD standards and therefore will probably show up on your roadmap to a new standard:

  • File Structure — Too many organizations do not take the structure and integrity of their data seriously enough. A standard file structure for CAD drawings that categorizes existing, proposed, survey, and record drawing files is essential. This reduces the time it takes to find needed files. This is especially true after long periods of time pass between project phases.
  • File Naming Standard — A standard convention for CAD naming is essentially to easily and confidently identify drawings in large drawing sets. Mistakenly opened drawings files require rendering time to initially “open,” and that time does add up! Remember, time is money!
  • Layering Standard — Layering is essential to drawing files, both large and small. Establishing conventions for nomenclature, color, and visibility are just a few ways to create a standard that can be relied on throughout your organization. And do not forget the layer descriptions!
  • Annotation Standard — Codifying the specifics of text in drawings is essential to the continuity of a plan set. Plan sheets with varied font styles, orientations, colors, dimension styles, and leader callouts rob your organization of the professional impression it deserves!
  • External Reference Standard — While external references and data shortcuts can be huge timesavers, improperly applying them could cause issues. The most common issue being “circular references” in which external references have multiple, nested, entries in a single drawing file. Establishing a best practice of inserting external references as “overlay” objects is a quick and reliable fix.
  • Plot Standard — No matter how detailed and thorough a drawing file may be, until it is shared with building or manufacturing professionals it is just so many lines on a screen. Since most plan sets are still shared in print, it is very important that any organization have a single or standardized set of plot files that can be relied on to accurately produce reliable and prints with accurate lineweights and colors.

Again, this is by no means a complete list. Nor is it a detailed direction of “how to change layer colors” or other minutia. The wealth and depth of information on the Internet and in resources available for purchase more than covers those deep, detail needs.

The Shape of Standards

Since a CAD standard has a variety of aspects that require attention and different approaches, it only makes sense that the standard itself would be comprised of various forms of documentation. These can take several forms that include:

  • Drawing Templates — “Seed” files that are used to set initial, standardized configurations, of CAD drawings that speed production
  • Best Practice Documents — Written documents that catalog and detail an organization’s approved method for CAD production
  • Detail Libraries — Standardized, reusable CAD drawings that represent water, paving, structural, and other design details that are used across multiple projects for greater design information

Drawing Templates

Drawing templates are CAD drawing files that end in the file extension “DWT” and are used to store preferred settings for DWG files. When beginning a new DWG file, a template can be selected as a “seed” that AutoCAD and other CAD products will use to create a new file with all of the DWTs pre-defined aspects. These can include layer standards, plot configurations, annotation styles, and many other details.

Obviously this can be a great time saver, but more importantly it creates a method of standardizing these drawing features with little to no effort. Therefore, DWT files are essential for inclusion in any CAD standard.

As fantastically helpful as the DWT file can be, it does not have to be difficult to create. The process is as simple as taking a drawing based on the existing DWT in use, making the desired changes, and saving the file as a “Drawing Template” for future use.

Once created, drawing templates should be stored in a designated location accessible to all production CAD staff. This highlights the importance of document file locations and file structures so all involved parties can be confident that they can find the needed template. A template that can’t be found won’t be used!

Best Practice Documents

Along with drawing templates, best practice documents are essential to the successful creation of any CAD standard. It is not enough to “set things up” if you do not properly document the steps involved in the approved production process for an organization.

Essentially, a “best practice” is a well-thought-out “how to” document. It should take a single process and distill it into the individual steps required to take the selected task from beginning to end.

Best practice documentation can take the form of something as simple as a bullet list of steps, consisting of just a few words each. However, truly effective documents will present a single task in a way that explains not only the steps involved in the process, but also its concepts. In addition, the process information should be presented in a manner that is equally useful for both novice and experienced production staff.

The best practice example presents a sample document that has sections that explain the concept, the step-by-step process, a checklist, and a workflow diagram. While more effort is required for this type of approach, such a document is universally applicable for both new and experienced users. The result is that, when correctly, a best practice document should only have to be created once, then maintained routinely. The cost savings should be obvious to anyone questioning time spent creating these assets.

Detail Libraries

Standardized detail libraries, in addition to drawing templates and best practice documents, are key to the success of any nascent CAD standard. This single, simple innovation in your production practice can yield a massive return on investment in terms of wasted billable hours, resulting in increased effectiveness for your team.

The reason it is necessary to create a standardized detail library which is, in turn, made available to all production staff is a matter of multiplication, rather than simplification. If a company has even the simplest detail, for example a fire hydrant, and has 10 offices then there is a strong likelihood of duplicated effort. Why would anyone reinvent the wheel, let alone do it 10 times? Even if the duplicated effort were assumed to be half, that is still 4x the additional billable hours to recreate a single detail.

Now multiply that wasted time by the number of details in any given design firm. The scope of wasted time quickly becomes staggering. Still, the waste does not end there. The practice of maintaining multiple instances of detail drawings creates an ecosystem that all but guarantees errors in maintenance. Multiple instances of details that differ from one another are not very standard. Standardizing the full set of details across all office locations is the only sure way to put an end to all of this waste.

As with most aspects of any CAD standard, the exact details of how you choose to organize the detail library for your organization will vary. However, there are some basic steps involved with standardizing any existing collection of CAD details:

  1. Collect all multiple instances of existing details
    • Review the full collection and select the best, most suitable file
  2. Check the linework
    • Eliminate duplicate linework
    • Convert connected lines into single polylines
    • Check hatches
  3. Check the text
    • Check font styles and sizes
    • Convert all existing text to Mtext and spell check
    • Check all callouts and dimensions for accuracy
    • Verify layering
    • Verify justification
  4. Check the layers
    • Reduce existing layers to bare minimum
    • Normalize layer settings and nomenclature
    • Enter layer descriptions
  5. Check the detail’s insertion point

By following the above checklist, you can quickly reduce the intimidation factor of such a daunting task. Soon you will have a collection of similarly formatted detail drawings that will work in your projects.

As a final tip, examine the physical size of the detail in relation to the intended sheet size and adjust the size accordingly to insure it will fit with the standard border in use. Also, I deeply recommend a separate title block with a detail grid to avoid cluttered detail sheets. This grid should have standardized spacing for details and all details should be set to fit into one or more grid spaces, but never more than one detail per space.

Deploying the CAD Standard

Whatever route and specifics you choose to follow in the quest to develop a CAD standard for your organization, eventually there comes a time to release the standard into the wild. And to do that, you need to have a plan.

The Deployment “Meta-Standard”

But first, you should be prepared to document the process that you follow to release your standard. Think of this as either a best practice, or a “meta-standard” for releasing standards.

Your release process, or best practice, does not have to be elaborate. In fact, a single page, or electronic document could satisfy your entire need here. Naturally, the more detail that is included, the better. Still, since this best practice is intended only for your own use, being sparse is acceptable.

Things to document in your deployment notes include:

  • Server directory location(s) to be deployed to or updated
  • Necessary support paths to be added to workstation installations
  • List of deployed standards and / or detail libraries
  • Last update date
  • Contact information for CAD leaders to be notified on updates
  • Any special log-in credential required
  • Date of next schedule update

See, that isn’t so bad. Now, store that sheet of information in a safe place where it can be easily found.

Releasing the Standard

Now that you have all your notes collected to one sheet, it is time to deploy the CAD standard files. This can happen in one of two ways based on the material that you are releasing.

If the material being released is a document, such as an actual best practice PDF, then it would be best to post that information to an intranet page. SharePoint or a password-protected site operated by your organization will serve well for this. If you do not have access to such a resource, then post your PDF files to a server location available to everyone who needs access to the documents. Follow that placement with an email message to your team of CAD leaders and all CAD production staff.

If the material being release is a library of detail drawings, then these must be saved to a server location that is accessible to everyone who will use them for production. This process should include you deleting the previous detail library directory and replacing it with a fresh instance copied from a safe, reliable seed source. This will ensure that any files that may have been altered, or “improved,” by well-meaning staff are reset to their approved release versions.

Following the copying of the detail files to the server locations, an announcement should be posted. This can either be made on an intranet site, like SharePoint, or via email. The announcement should include a full list of details identifying any new or altered detail drawings. In the case of alterations to files, it should be noted what changes were made.

After the Deployment

Once the CAD standard has been developed, documented, authorized, and deployed the hardest work is behind you. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the work is done. Fortunately, it does mean that there is a significant reduction in effort.

Best practices that have been deployed are largely done. Maintenance and updates should only be required if any of the following three events take place:

  • A software upgrade changes the documented workflow
  • An organizational IT reconfiguration requires edits
  • Errors must be corrected

In the case of detail libraries, the deployment phase cues the beginning of a maintenance routine. This will involve a regular, annual review of details to update release versions and integrity as well as any needed corrections. Of course, detail drawings created subsequent to the initial deployment must be added to the library directory.

Following revisions or additions in either of the above listed cases an update must be sent out to alert others. This notice should document any changes, deletions, or additions and be sent to all CAD leaders and production staff.

The Great Big Picture

At this point any reasonable person may assume that they are done. A complete CAD standard, or some portion of one, has been completed. However, the truth is that no CAD standard is every truly complete. Following the development of any portion of the standard leads to the beginning of another portion. This process goes on and on, from topic to topic. It is very possible that it will take years to cover the full breadth of all the processes and assets needed to facilitate production in any organization.

Even if, by some quirk, it was possible to fully develop an all-encompassing CAD standard, ongoing maintenance is an absolute must. Ignoring this last facet of development can only lead to a standard that is sure to become stale, and eventually out date. Allowing that to happen is tantamount to wasting the full sum of all the combined billable hours used to develop the CAD standard. Given the number of stakeholders and contributors involved in development, it is obvious that is the sort of loss no one wants to be accountable for.


There about as many different sports-related analogies for business as there are people who have conducted business throughout the history of business. So, it is understandable if you assume that the MVP is the most valuable player on your CAD standards development team. But that isn’t the case, even though that person is awesome also!

The MVP is your only key to sanity and actually getting anything out the door. It is the Minimal Viable Product, and it is your friend. Embrace it.

The concept of the “Minimal Viable Product” was introduced by Frank Robinson, but everyone today discusses in relation to a book called “The Lean Startup” written by Steven Bank and Eric Ries. And while it is a concept largely associate with “product development” it is absolutely key to the process of shipping a CAD standard.

Without the MVP 99% of all CAD standard creation efforts fail. The reason for this is simple, the standard is never finished. Ever. So what happens is that your very well-intended coordinator is working hard to include every bit of nuance to make the standard “100%” and as great as possible. But the boss wants to know why there is nothing to use yet? Meanwhile the meter is just running and the mountain of overhead costs is rising. Eventually the boss pulls the plug, announces the failure, fires one or two people, and everyone goes back to “business as usual” but can say “Well we tried to have a standard.” Oh, and some people will say, “I told you so!”

The MVP is the Key to Shipping

In the seminal book The War of Art, (not to be confused with The Art of War) Steven Pressfield says that creators must ship. By that he means that you must, at some point, not only do the work but also finish the work. Half of the Mona Lisa is just paint on canvas. The completed Mona Lisa is a masterpiece.

In much the same way, an unfinished CAD standard, regardless of how thorough and brilliant it is, is useless until it is out in the world. It is just words and charts and images. Just bits of 1s and 0s on a hard drive somewhere in the world. But a “almost perfect” or “functional” CAD standard that is sent out to the CAD production staff? That changes the world for those people.

“Perfect” is pointless unless it goes into production. But “good” can be amazing if we just put it out there. Your goal is to create a “good” standard, not a “perfect” standard.

When Good is Better Than Great

A “good” CAD standard has all the bare elements to guide a person through a process or concept. It has the layer names, the colors, the descriptions. It has the location of title blocks for insertion or fire hydrant details. It works because it has the minimum information to make the product (the standard) viable. It is your Minimal Viable Product and that means it is “good” enough to ship to your production staff and your boss will think that is great!

Iteration Station

One day you will even reach the MVP of your collection of standards (all of which should be MVPs in their own right). This means you have covered the bases of standards for layers, file naming, file structure, and even created a minimal set of blocks. Congratulations, you have just pulled into the Iteration Station!

You’ve worked hard, won people over, dug for information, and shipped information that is changing the way people work and saving your firm money! Now go do it again. Not with new information, but with the MVP standards you have already shipped.

Revisit each one and bring in the same contributors for feedback. Makes notes and determine what the new pain points are. Repeat the same essential process used to create the MVP standard, but this time with the goal of revising the standard! And when you have a revised MVP standard ship the V2 out the door!

Your users and stakeholders will think you are a magic-maker because not only have you done the impossible, now you are improving on it.

Obviously, you will also find areas to expand your MVP collection of standards to create new MVP standards. And at some point, you will have shipped the V2 of the complete collection. You know what that means, it’s time for Round 3 and an even better MVP! Think of it as job security …


Creating your CAD standard isn’t mysterious or dangerous. It isn’t even hard. It is a process. And like any process it just has to be dissected to be understood properly. While the actual compilation and refinement of standards takes the lion’s share of time, recognizing the importance and practicality of your Minimal Viable Product is key to maintaining stakeholder buy-in and your sanity.

Curt Moreno is the CAD coordinator for a Texas-based engineering firm and owner and editor of Kung Fu Drafter, a blog that is CAD-centric and geek peripheral.

Check out Curt's related article, "The Stages of Developing CAD Standards."