Optimizing Use of the CAD Keyboard

CAD Tip 1036

If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands? — Milton Berle

We looked at the history and origins of the QWERTY-style computer keyboard in Tip 1009 — Looking at the Keyboard, Part 1.  We saw that the QWERTY arrangement of keys evolved partly to slow down the typists and avoid jamming the levers on early mechanical typewriters.

Today we will discuss how to best use the standard computer keyboard with CAD.

One of my favorite speed tips for CAD users who want to be more efficient is (drum roll, please):

 Notice which actions you repeat most frequently, and then streamline those tasks.

If you do something only once in a while, it doesn’t matter that much in the big picture how long it takes.  It’s what you do repeatedly, day in and day out, that counts.

That’s why good form and good habits are so important.

How do you streamline a task in AutoCAD?  Possible ways are:

  1. Set it up to be done automatically.
  2. Make it require little or no thought each time.
  3. Make a hotkey for it, well-placed on the keyboard (more on that later).
  4. Make a block or dynamic block (or family in Revit) that saves you time.
  5. Make a custom taskbar button or ribbon button for it.
  6. Make a template with all of the options logically laid out so that they are easy to grab quickly.
  7. Reduce the number of possible variations in the task to as few as possible.  Find out exactly how many possible variations there are.  “Chunk” them down into logical groups, if there are a large number.

Many of these techniques are useful for Revit users as well.  The hotkeys are different in Revit, but the strategy still applies.

For example, let’s say you do a lot of CAD work involving chairs.  Do you have a well-stocked and well-organized library of your favorite chair blocks?  Do they have key data embedded in the block, such as manufacturer, cost, and dimensions?  Do you have a handy record of which chairs were used in which projects, and the phone number of the sales rep?

Let’s get back to the keyboard.  Ideally the hotkeys you use most often will be placed in the left half of the keyboard.  Why?  So that your right hand can stay on your mouse and not be constantly jumping from the mouse to the keyboard and back.  Each time you make such a jump with your right hand, you lose valuable time getting your hand in the optimal position on the mouse or keyboard.

Similarly, you want your left hand to stay in one position for best typing speed.

Here is a drawing showing the “sweet spot” for quickest left hand access to keys on the keyboard:

The "sweet spot" for hotkeys is on the left half of the keyboard

The “sweet spot” for hotkeys is on the left half of the keyboard

The keys in this “sweet spot” are Q,W,E,R,T,Y,A,S,D,F,G,H,Z,X,C,V,and B.

Notice that the SPACEBAR key is in the sweet spot, whereas the ENTER key is not.  Since the SPACEBAR often serves the same purpose as the ENTER key, it makes sense to use the SPACEBAR as a proxy-ENTER key whenever possible.  Generally, this means any time you are not working in a text-editor box.

MOVE is one of my most frequently used commands. With the above strategy in mind, I created a custom hotkey for MOVE which is V.  The M key, which is the standard AutoCAD hotkey for MOVE, is outside of the sweet spot, so I find that V is easy for me to remember as an improved hotkey.

COPY is another of my most frequently used commands.  The standard AutoCAD hotkey C initiates the CIRCLE command, which I rarely use.  Using the Command Alias Editor I changed C to be my COPY hotkey, and added CI as my custom CIRCLE hotkey.

These changes to the hotkeys are easily made using the Command Alias Editor (go Express Tools tab > Tools panel > Command Aliases).

Is this trivial?  Taken individually, with just one strategy or command considered in isolation, it might seem to be.  But when you consider how many times in your CAD career you will use common commands like MOVE or COPY, the seconds that you save really add up.

These optimized hotkeys are even bigger time savers when compared to clicking on buttons in the Ribbon (or a taskbar) using the mouse.  Each time you move the mouse’s pointer out of the work area, you lose precious seconds.  First you have to find the correct button (the Ribbon made this harder, in my opinion), click on it, then get your pointer back to the “active zone” of the work area to select objects or place points.

Ideally, the mouse pointer will remain in the “active zone” of the work area most of the time.  The mouse pointer is the optimal tool for selecting objects and placing points.  If you use the pointer both to initiate the desired command and select the objects, you’re only using part of your natural resources—one hand.

As shown in the photo at the top of this article, the ideal AutoCAD user would be able to keep one hand on the mouse, one hand on the left half of the letter keys, one hand on the right half of the letter keys, and one hand on the numeric keypad to enter numbers and distances.  Any genetic engineers out there?

Most of us have only two hands if we’re lucky, so it’s worth learning and practicing the most efficient way to use them.

Someday a better human-computer interface will come along, and we’ll forget all about the keyboard, just like we’ve mostly forgotten about the typewriter.

Until then, the ideas above can give you a competitive edge.  Knowledge is power.

Good form + Lots of Practice = Mastery!

Please leave a comment in the box below and let me know your thoughts and suggestions.

Keep on CADDing!  🙂