The Technology Dividing a Profession: How Computer Aided Drafting Has Altered the Artistic Culture of Theatre Design in the USA

Note to the reader: This is a small-scale project that I undertook in July 2011 in order to investigate how technology impacts the group dynamics of cultures—in this case, theatre designers. I am not presenting this article as generalizable research, but rather as a minor synthesis of specific elements of theatre, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy drawn from interviews, various literary sources, and personal experience. The population for the survey involved in this analysis was not randomly selected, as I sent out the surveys to people I knew who would fit the population I was interested in analyzing, and therefore this could not technically be deemed statistically significant, and therefore generalizable.

Is computer aided drafting destroying the artistic culture of theatre design, or is it being fundamentally altered? Is this for better or for worse? Is this causing a division within the theatre design community? I believe that to accurately consider these demanding questions, one must understand the nuances between lighting and scenic design, the implications the introduction of a new technology brings to a ‘fine art,’ and the social and psychological definitions of artistic beauty. As I elaborate on this point of contention of the theatre world, I’d like to note that the abbreviation ‘CAD’ stands for ‘computer aided drafting’ in this context.

In both lighting and scenic hand drafting, a seemingly multitudinous array of separate supplies is required to make a clean, accurate portrayal of one’s concept. The price adds up quickly and one often needs to replace these items after extensive use. The price for an average set of necessary drafting tools (including but not limited to a drafting table, lamp, paper, pencils, pens, triangles, stencils, a compass, a pantograph, an architect’s ruler, a T-Square, erasers, etc.) can add up to be around $2,036 to sustain. In CAD programs, all of the tools are on the computer. One does not have to ‘keep track’ of separate physical objects in order to successfully draft a plot. Overall, the prices range in the low to mid thousands (depending on the release date and plug-ins included). VectorWorks Designer can be found on the market for around $2,988, while several different AutoCAD programs range from $1,180 to $3,995.

With a similar price range in both hand drafting and CAD, it’s difficult to pin one’s preference toward either medium based solely on economics. This shows that there are less concrete concepts present that drive an individual to prefer one to the other. To start exploring other potential concepts that might contribute to a theatre designer’s preference, I sent out forty surveys via Facebook to theatre design professionals, professors, and students. I received 22 responses. Each survey asked the following questions:

  • How old are you?
  • In what part of the US have you done most of your design work? (i.e. East Coast, Midwest, West Coast, etc)
  • How long have you been designing for theatre?
  • Have you used a computer aided drafting program in theatrical design?
  • Do you believe that computer aided drafting is becoming more prominent in your field?
  • Do you prefer hand drafting or computer aided drafting?
  • Do you believe that hand drafting will ever become obsolete?

Notably, it was unanimous that CAD is becoming more prominent in the field of theatre design. Every participant had also used a CAD program before, regardless of age, location, or experience. The most controversy came with the proposition of hand-drafting becoming obsolete. Surprisingly, the only consistent division on this had to do with whether a designer concentrated in lights or scenic design.

According to a distinguished professional lighting designer who replied to my survey, computer aided drafting first infiltrated the (American) theatre design world around 1995. At this point, several corporate organizations and theatre companies were requiring their lighting designers to learn AutoCAD. In order to ensure a prosperous career in lighting design, many designers began to learn CAD on their own terms. By the year 2000, most lighting designers were using some version of a CAD program. American lighting designers emulated one another by adapting to the emergence and introduction of computer aided drafting into their community, allowing the technology to progress and evolve with the community. Although it isn’t quite clear when scenic designers began learning CAD, it is evident that CAD infiltrated the scenic design world much later. In my surveying, I found that lighting designers were generally more receptive to the idea of computer aided drafting. There was less of a conflict with the artistic values of drafting in lighting design. I speculate that this is because one can argue that the creativity of lighting design does not lie within the drafting process but rather in the actual lighting of the stage. The drafting part of lighting design is purely technical and oftentimes mathematical. In scenic design, while drafting is still technical and mathematical, it is arguably the most ‘creative’ part of the process and is therefore subconsciously perceived as more valuable. Lighting designers are physically present while their designs are being brought to life while scenic designers normally aren’t. The main artistry of the scenic designer occurs before the realization of their plotted ideas. This phenomenon may have something to do with more lighting designers claiming that hand-drafting is on its way to being obsolete while more scenic designers vouched for the lasting value of hand-drafting.

Several interviewees have expressed a sense of ‘intimacy’ they feel with their hand drafting. When one is drafting by hand, there is nothing dividing the artist from his ‘artwork’ while in CAD programs there is a screen between the designer and the design. Therefore, hand drafting is arguably more personal: a key component in a classical definition of ‘art.’ There is also a sense of individuality in one’s hand drafting. A designer can add his or her own flares to one’s drafting. CAD-produced drafts can be perceived as a very conformist and monotone because there isn’t as much personal freedom. For some, this can be an advantage. As M. Barrett Cleveland states in his analysis of the impact CAD programs have made in the field of theatrical lighting design, “If the lighting designer does not have strong graphic skills, then communicating with hand drawn materials is neither evocative nor effective” (Cleveland 2007). Computer aided drafting virtually eliminates the need of pencil and paper skills, which for some designers is a blessing. An undergraduate theatre design and technology major at the University of Montana whom I spoke with blatantly states that he prefers using computer aided drafting because he’s “not a very pencil savvy person.”

On the other hand, the increasing prominence of computer-aided drafting can be quite a disadvantage to a designer who thrives on the intimacy and personality hand-drawn work brings. A professional scenic designer who replied to the survey stated:

“I do the bulk of my work on the computer, but for the ease of the process only. I am never happy with the resulting look of the plate. I also think the hand-pencil-paper combination is essential for putting the first thoughts on paper. The computer seems to place a slight barrier between the brain and the page…I just don’t interact directly enough with the page to notice every detail. When I proof, the page doesn’t look like something unique that I created, so it is easy to disassociate myself from my own work.”

This qualitatively excellent hand draftswoman predominantly uses CAD programs in a fight for efficiency in her ever-busy schedule. Even though she has the talent and artistic sensibility to draft by hand, she simply does not always have the time to commit to hand drafting. As a professional lighting designer who responded to the survey stated, “The pace and scale of theatre in today’s world will…dictate that the speed and accuracy of CAD drafting will ultimately win out.” The ultimate division, both personal and community-wide, comes between the artistic beauty of hand drafting and the efficiency of computer aided drafting: a difficult double standard imposed on designers by the theatre world these days.

Multiple responses I received from the survey expressed the theatre design community’s gravitation towards CAD but a sad nostalgia toward the lost art of hand drafting. I believe the keyword here is ‘art.’ The craft of hand drafting involves manual rather than technical skills, free expression without ‘fighting against a machine,’ and the manipulation and care of a gentle entity in which mistakes implicate retrogression and carelessness implies sloppiness.

While some designers are mourning the loss of hand drafting, others are insistent that the art is not dead and even continue to hand-draft regularly themselves. A particularly interesting contradiction I found in the responses to my questionnaire involved two seemingly similar subjects. These subjects, whom for reasons of privacy will be referred to as “A” and “M,” are 22 and 21 year old young women, respectively, both having attended the same college as Theatre Design/Technology majors with a concentration in scenic design. M, a recent Emerson graduate, strongly suggests that hand drafting is not a lost art. She uses it regularly to not only express her initial ideas but to finalize and present her designs to commissioners. Her peers, professors, and employers have noted that she is exceptionally gifted at hand drafting. She knows how to use CAD programs such as AutoCAD and Google SketchUp, but she openly and strongly prefers hand drafting. A, on the other hand, sees value in learning hand drafting when a student starts learning the fundamentals of theatrical design, but believes that CAD is dominating the design field right now. She believes that only extremely experienced and established designers can truly get away with only drafting by hand in the professional theatre world. She states

Screenshot on a student PC version of AutoCAD of the preliminary ground plan for Shakespearean Jazz Show at Emerson College—Design by Orrin Whalin, drafting by Melissa McSweeney

Example of two-dimensional drawing in VectorWorks (the problem with this program is that the files are not easily convertible nor transferable)

Example of three-dimensional scenic rendering in AutoCAD. The 2D VectorWorks and 3D AutoCAD images are for the same theoretical set that I designed for a staged rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with a Japanese Edo Period design scheme. This was a project finished in August 2010 for a summer stage design program at Emerson College.

A sample of hand-drafted sectioning I made for a class project.

1/2” scale model representation of my theoretical “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set. This was made with some computer assistance in the background and floor, but most was created and enhanced by hand.

A miniature theatrical rendition I made of a bakery. No computers were involved in making this model.

“Because those designers that still hand draft have been doing it for so long, their ability to hand draft far surpasses those of anyone entering the industry. It is unlikely that anyone my age would ever be hired as a hand drafter. People who have been designing for fifty years would be able to draft their own shows quicker and better than anyone my age ever could. If someone my age were to be hired to draft it would be [with] CAD, which furthers the likelihood that hand drafting will continue to become less and less used outside of academic settings.”

Interestingly enough, M got a job doing 3D renderings for a corporate company. While these 3D renderings will have to be done using a CAD program, her employers were very impressed by her hand drafting and encouraged her to hand-draft her ideas to present her concepts to clients.

It seems to be a common misconception in the theatre design community that older, more experienced designers prefer drafting by hand while younger designers prefer using computer aided drafting programs. This was, admittedly, a misconception of mine going into this study. According to my survey, some older designers do prefer hand drafting, but on the other hand a significant number of older designers prefer CAD. The same mixed data appeared among younger designers. Therefore, the emergence and prominence of CAD in theatre design (especially scenic design) has not formed a generational gap, but rather an ideological gap, mostly centered on the artistic value of drafting, as demonstrated with the subjects of M and A.

Chris Largent, an Interlochen Academy of the Arts graduate and current Emerson student studying technical direction, says that one can tell that there is a style to each individual’s hand-drawn draft. He posits that this means that hand drafting is a purer form of art than CAD because a spectator can tell the difference from one person’s style to another’s. Hand drafting is an easier way to have a “style”, and it takes a bit for one to have a “style” in CAD. This remark is significant because it alludes to an artistic hierarchy in the purity of an individual’s drafting, which can be considered a form of art: a topic that has been addressed in both Kantian and contemporary academia.

Now we must consider why hand-drafted plates are commonly perceived as more beautiful (and even “purer”) than computer drafted plates from an ideological standpoint. In approaching this conflict between the technoscape and the ideoscape of the theatre design community, I’ve mainly drawn references from the aesthetic ideologies of Immanuel Kant and Paul Bloom. I am not implying that all members of the theatre design community are necessarily familiar with these figures, nor that either of these figures are necessarily familiar with the theatre design community, but the over-arching concept of art and its origins perhaps plays a key component in finding the root of the artistic division within the theatre design community.

Immanuel Kant defines “art” as production through freedom, because creating something is an act of one’s own freewill [3]. The beauty of man-made art comes second only to the beauty of nature. However, there is a hierarchy of art in and of itself. Two significant classifications of art include mechanical art and aesthetic art. In creating mechanical art, the artist only seeks to actualize a possible object to the cognition of which is adequate and does whatever acts are required for that purpose. Aesthetic art, on the other hand, implies that the feeling of pleasure is experienced while both creating and viewing an artistic object. The aesthetic arts are considered to be fine arts while the mechanical arts are considered to be industrial arts. As Kant says, “Fine art is an art, so far as it has at the same time the appearance of being nature” [3]. Perhaps, since computer aided drafting normally doesn’t allow much individuality and artistic expression, and in seeking to save time serves mostly as a tool to actualize a possible object (which in this case would be a theatrical set), there is not much of a “natural” appeal or even appearance, but a digital one instead. The ‘nature’ in this situation would be the actualized, functional, staged set. Hand drafting is usually closer in appearance to the final ‘natural’ product than a computer drafted plot is. Therefore, these two forms of drafting could, in the Kantian scope, be classified as different art forms.

Now one may ask: Where does the distinction root? How do we determine what is naturally beautiful and what is not? These questions allude to Paul Bloom’s theory of essentialism in which “things have an underlying reality or true nature . . . and it is this hidden nature that really matters” [4]. The philosopher Denis Dutton argues that:

“As performances, works of art represent the ways in which artists solve problems, overcome obstacles, make do with available materials. The ultimate product is designed for our contemplation, as an object of particular interest in its own right, perhaps in isolation from other art objects or from the activity of the artist. But this isolation which frequently characterizes our mode of attention to aesthetic objects ought not to blind us to a fact we may take for granted: that the work of art has a human origin, and must be understood as such” [4].

The origin of hand drafting is unarguably human. A human had direct contact—an intimate connection—with the plotted design. A person tenaciously revised and corrected any outlying mistakes hindering the perfection of the design. Perhaps the tenacity and lack of efficiency contributes to the perceived superior beauty of the hand-draftsman’s work. However, since the computer program itself seems to fill in so many blanks in computer-aided drafting, its human originality is quite arguable. This is a plausible root for Largent’s expression of hand-drafting being a ‘purer art form’ than CAD; its underlying essence is more purely human than a work of art that is processed by the computer, rooting its essence in the computer itself. The humanity of an essence is virtually equivalent to the pleasure it brings to both the creator and the spectator. The division within the theatre design community ultimately occurs when one either chooses efficiency over aesthetic pleasure or aesthetic pleasure over efficiency.

As the phenomenon of computer-aided drafting continues to advance, professors at multiple renowned universities are stressing the importance of hand-drafting now more than ever to keep the essentially ‘human’ art of hand-drafting alive. (Note: Kellogg and Yeargan were not participants in my survey—their comments were already published in Richard Isackes’s article “The Design Dilemma” [2]). Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, a respected theatre design professor at Colgate University, recalls:

“I had a student just recently whose [hand-drafted] ground plan was destroyed when somebody else got glue all over it. What he did was teach himself the computer program SketchUp, literally overnight, and produce a three-dimensional view of his project, much to the admiration of the other kids in his class. If they need to learn a [computer-aided design] program, they’ll learn it. But the process of thinking out text and translating it into images–interpretation, all of that–is not something they get anywhere else. It’s not part of the culture in the way technology is. I think we want to teach them how to think and how to look” [2].

Kellogg, who has also designed sets for Broadway shows and taught theatre design at Princeton University and Columbia University, acknowledges young designers’ special affinity for technologically based design. In fact, it seems that she believes that students are completely capable of teaching themselves CAD programs without knowing the essential knowledge and theory of theatre design. She posits that hand drafting needs to be taught in schools to instill the essential knowledge and artistry of theatre design into a young designer. Technology cannot directly create artistic sensibility. Michael Yeargan, Yale University’s professor of stage design and resident designer for Yale Repertory Theatre, is also trying to stress the importance of hand drafting with little success. He states, “We’ve found that as our students get out into the world, all of them are deeply involved on the computer. We still stress hand drafting, but most of them are finding their way into AutoCAD or VectorWorks, even though we don’t teach it. They can take an elective in the technical department” [2]. The lure toward computer aided drafting mainly lies in its efficiency, a socially stressed necessity in the 21st century. Many students (and designers in general) are starting to pursue efficiency over aesthetic quality, as noted by multiple statements in response to my survey and statements by other theatre design experts. The tension between professors and students exemplifies the tension that the technology of computer aided drafting has brought to the imagined community of theatre designers overall.

It seems unanimous that CAD has provided a more efficient alternative to hand drafting, on the other hand, there were too many comments about the ‘beauty’ of hand drafting and the ‘ugliness’ of computer aided drafting to ignore. While I do not have the resources at the moment to ultimately determine whether computer aided drafting is changing the artistic culture of the theatre design world for better or for worse, I feel that my theory of the origin of this cultural contention will assist in future research in determining whether or not the theatre design community has truly been fundamentally altered by the introduction and prominence of computer aided drafting.

All in all, I perceive the apparent gap that CAD is creating between designers as valid but trivial in the scheme of things. Taking the words of John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer of Disney and Pixar Animation studios, “The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.” Just like in animation, theatrical designs must start with a designer’s original idea. After that, it’s up to the designer as to what tools she uses.


[1]: Cleveland, M. Barrett.
2007: 109-122 Seeing the Light. Journal of Visual Literacy 27.1. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 July 2011.
[2]: Isackes, Richard.
2009: 34 The Design Dilemma. American Theatre 26.1. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 23 July 2011.
[3]: Kant, Immanuel
1990[1790] The Critique of Judgment. The Great Books, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
[4]: Bloom, P. (2010). How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

  • Eric Harsh

    Interesting survey, as an industrial design student I’m observing the same issue. 3D modeling is a recent but ever prevalent addition to product design, and many old-school designers aren’t fond of it. I don’t think it will ever be able to replace sketching in my field. I feel more like it’s a necessary evil. It lacks the intuition and natural touch of hand rendering, but as a part of the product design process it can be incredibly useful for creating functional scale models or sending final designs to distributors or 3D printers. I never thought about how this technology affected other design groups so it was very cool to hear your perspective. 

    • mmcsweeney

       @Eric Harsh Thanks for your insight, Eric! It’s fascinating that a division between sketching and CAD is prevalent in your field, too. One wonders if the two ever peacefully coexist within any given field of design. 

    • Colleen M Shea

      As a young stage designer I find that 3D work often falls into two different categories. Either quick and dirty way to show someone what we are thinking or something that require a great deal of time and effort to make something I feel even vaguely resembles a model built by hand or drafting. My thinking is that some of this will change as the technology for using digitizer tablets improves on both recreation of the quality of the pen and pencil and its integration into 3D systems.

  • Shuping Shuping

    Would anybody in the States happen to know of Prof. Cathy Perkins ( University of Illinois).Lost touch with her in South Africa(Mzanzii)
    - Shuping Shuping, Scenic & Costume Designer – posing as a fashion designer.Many thanks