A long time ago I wrote three posts about Pen Sets in ArchiCAD. Of everything I’ve contributed to the canon of ArchiCAD knowledge, I am most proud of/adamant about my Pen Set theories. You can find them on Shoegnome or in the official ArchiCADwiki on pen sets. The wiki is worth looking at, but I also really disagree with the fundamentals of the out of the box Pen Sets. I don’t think pens should be linked to tools, function, or whether elements are 2D or 3D. Also we just don’t need that many pen numbers.

I always meant to write a fourth part to the series. But the weeks, months, and years passed with no sequel. Well that changes now (spoiler: post five is also mostly written). My thoughts have evolved and improved over the past three years, but the basics are the same. For instance, at the end of the second post I comment how it was a mistake for me to base my pen sets on an old company logic. For ArchiCAD 17 I completely overhauled my pens and fixed that mistake. Big time. So now let’s build on those posts by clarifying a few things and taking my ideas on Pen Sets to the next level. For your convenience here are the links directly to my original three posts (if you haven’t read them, you should because what I write below assumes you have):

ArchiCAD Little Secrets – Pen Sets are Magic

ArchiCAD Pen SetsIt’s inherent in my original three posts, but let me now properly align my previous Pen Set logic with my views on Graphic Data, Metadata, and Digital Approximations. Pen Sets (technically Pens and Colors in proper ArchiCAD terminology) are the ultimate Graphic Data Attribute. I see no value in connecting pen numbers and colors to specific tools or element types. Find other ways (Layers, Element ID, Find and Select Criteria, etc.) to separate out data as needed. For a radical take on fewer is better, check out Ken Huggins three posts on ArchiCHAZZ. Talk about minimalism. His articles aren’t about pens, but they show how many different ways we have to isolate elements in ArchiCAD. An over abundance of pen numbers does not need to be one of those ways.

Pen numbers should be assigned by graphic requirements only. If two elements are always going to read the same (i.e., always have a thin line weight or always be red) then they should have the same pen number, regardless of what the two things are—say a chair Object, a Window, and some 2D lines faking a piece of cabinetry. Having multiple identical pens complicates file management and hinders model revisions.

When contemplating a Pen Set strategy one should think about output as a primary driver. Currently much of our output is black and white (or gray scale) printed documents. But that is shifting. More of us are printing in color and BIMx Docs offers a whole new opportunity for advanced documentation. Your 2D views in BIMx Docs can be as wild as you can imagine—but that’s for another post. While you need to develop your Pen Sets to work with your current limitations and needs, keep an eye on the future. Think about where you’d like to be next; future proof your template for that eventuality. Also remember that while all your printing may be to the same plotter, the viewer might change. Think about how your Pen Sets (and all your graphic data) can modulate to enhance the experience of your various viewers.

Down to Earth

For the rest of this post I want to focus on the pens I use for cut fills and explain why I have four pens dedicated to cut fills. Okay there’s a fifth if you include Pen Number 10, which I use for the backgrounds of all cut fills. I use that unique background fill color so that I can turn all my fills gray or blue or whatever color I want without messing up all the elements that need to always stay white (ie, Pen 91). You can see this effect in my recent post on Intelligent Dumbing where I show how to create a perfect pochéd plan at any phase of a project. This color change needs to happen using both the foreground and background pen (i.e., both foreground and background pen need to change to the desired poché color) because that way every fill reads the same, regardless of if it’s an empty fill, a percentage fill, or some hatch pattern. Even if that concept doesn’t interest you, having all your cut fills use a dedicated background pen will offer flexibility in the future.

Okay so why do I have four pens for fill foreground colors? It’s all about graphics. It has nothing to do with what the elements really are. Here’s what each pen number is for:

  • Pen 13 is used for fills that are always displayed in every view (plan, section, and enlarged views).
  • Pen 14 is used for fills that only show up on plans.
  • Pen 15 is used for fills that show up everywhere but plans.
  • Pen 16 is used for fills that show up only on enlarged detail views.

Here’s an example of how the pens change visibility from plan to detail:

ArchiCAD Pen SetsWhy is this important and why does this matter now more than ever? Building Materials of course. For proper visibility of Building Materials in all views we need to be able to selectively turn on and off their fills. Maybe in a future version of ArchiCAD we’ll have the option to pick different fills for section and plan, or to be able to control each BMat’s fill based on scale, but not yet. (how cool would that be!) Anyways without creative use of pen numbers we either have to accept an over abundance of hatches in 1/4″ views, a dearth of hatches in other views, or a lot of 2D patching. And this is 2014. We should be just about done with 2D patching. So Pen Sets become the answer.

Once again, just like I describe in Intelligent Dumbing the goal with Pen Sets is to allow you to parse your data to suit the needs of the view/viewer. Embed as much data as possible into the elements (and ideally Attributes) and then figure out the best way to only display what is important for that view. The more we push towards global data for data that should be global (sorry about that bit of tautology), the faster and deeper we’ll be able to design with ArchiCAD. Dump as much reality into the digital approximations as possible and then use your graphic (and meta) data to highlight, describe, and hide that information as required. Let me say this all in another way: I use all those fill pens to SUPPORT and ENHANCE the functionality of Building Materials in my model. The more we can lean on Building Materials, the stronger our BIM will be.

Look again at my pens for fills. Here’s what is possible: creating an 1 1/2″ detail based on any part of the model with all the correct hatches automatically created, regardless of what is shown in the plans and sections. Just think for a moment about the implications.

Bonus Thoughts

ArchiCAD Pen SetsHere’s that same Pen Set from above, but my “all black” version of it.

Compared to my Pen Sets from a few years ago, it’s much more simplified. I’ve done my best to follow my own advice and remove as many pens as possible. There are now fewer pens and they are better grouped. My annotation pens, my “stay black in halftone” pens, and my miscellaneous detail pens are all grouped and aligned by pen thickness. All my sectional pens (10-16) and miscellaneous pens (31-36) are grouped as well. And if you are really eagle eyed you’ll notice that this version of my standard black pen set doesn’t factor in the decisions from this post. But that is the beauty of a smart Pen Set strategy. It’s easily adaptable for various output decisions. If I find that all toned sections are a mistake, it’ll be easy for me to globally revert to this version of my pen set by just tweaking pens 10, 14, and 16 (which by the way could be done even faster via an .aat file and the Attribute Manager).

Pretty cool, huh? Imagine learning that you need to remove all tone from a set of drawings. Imagine being able to say “oh, no problem. That’ll just take me like five minutes. Oh wait. Actually I already made that fix while we were talking just now.” Smart pens, never setting a View’s Pen Set to ‘Custom’ and a respect for global data makes that a reality.

Try it yourself

Curious how this all really works? Jump over to my blog and download my template. Once you open it up you can look at all my Pen Sets, place some elements (I suggest composite walls), and see how the elements change their appearance depending on the chosen Pen Set.

Are you following Graphisoft North America on Twitter? Click Here to keep track of all the latest ArchiCAD News in North America (and beyond). Do you have a question about Pen Sets? PLEASE ask me in the comments. I’d love to write a whole bunch of follow up posts on Pen Sets. I’ll even try to write them sooner than 2017.


  1. Geoff Briggs

    Thanks for the article. But I think you are leaving a lot on the table with such oversimplified pen sets. As you apply your logic to more and varied views and drawing types you will find you want to employ more and more pens. Saying that any two elements that share the same line weight should use the same pen precludes the other big drawing “innovation” you keep mentioning—color. A drawing reads so much better if different categories of elements have different colors, even if this is only experienced on-screen. We use materiality and structural function as the primary determinant. Furthermore, assigning the same pen to two disparate elements types, prevents you from altering their line weight (or color) at a later time. For example when, after a test print, you decide your plumbing fixtures need a lighter line weight. Once you relax and spread out your pens you will find the opportunities for “pen tricks” greatly expanded. The other thing your basic set lacks is some general purpose pens to add some contrast or pizzaz in certain circumstances. Having a generous pen table allows room for this along side an ample selection of dedicated pens. The important thing is for the logic to be simple and approachable. I believe pen sets can have those qualities while still offering far more power than your minimalist sets do.

    Geoff Briggs
    DeForest Architects
    Seattle USA

  2. Jared Banks


    Thanks for the great comment. Bringing back color into drawings is coming in the next post. 🙂 So good catch.

    And you’re right my pen sets do veer towards minimalism but I’m okay with that. It was a conscious decision to pair things down to as few line weights as possible. I’m taking a stand against needing a line weight to be just a little different—no “just a little thinner for just this group of elements…” That said the way my pen sets are structured (along with how I do layers, etc) if it becomes necessary to separate out all the plumbing or all the bearing walls or all the whatever elements, it’d be easy to segregate all those elements and give them a unique pen number. As you can see in my pen set, there is plenty of room to add! I could see the value of giving say plumbing a unique pen number for on screen visualization, but then again it’s also easy to just turn off everything but the plumbing layer. And there is the issue of how does one handle a piece of millwork with a sink in it? That’s really not that critical of a question though as we can all figure out good solutions to that.

    We need to do lunch again in a month or so and I’ll have to have you show me your pen sets. 🙂

    Also I’ll hopefully finish Pen Sets Part Five tonight and get that posted in the next week or so. I’ll be curious as to what you think of my ideas on bringing color back into my pen sets. It’s once again a little different that we’re used to.

  3. Jason Smith

    Hi Jared

    I used to have pens 1 to 10 as coloured pens with thickness that matched the old ink pens. I have used these pens up to V16. But I have changed to the AC pen sets style for 17. Always had to change pens for objects and doors etc. Yes I have used Favourites but I have found that updating the Favourites for each version of AC to be too time consuming (I had a lot of favs for each tool).

    I have found changing to the AC pet set style to be tricky. But after using it for a while it is has some benefits, visual recognition of elements via colour is good. I know that pink pens are plumbing elements for example. I have added my old style 10 pen weights it to it as well so I could revert back to them if needed, I haven’t yet.
    I have standard pen sets in my template as follows;
    Pen set 1 – site plans where all most of the pens change to 0.18mm or 0.13mm depending on the scale and level of detail.
    Pen set 2 – 1:100 scale plans and elevations. Cut pens change thickness
    Pen set 3 – Sections Cut pens change thickness
    Pen set 4 – Details Cut pens change thickness
    Pen set 5 – Grey scale all pens same thickness for DWG import or for reference plans/items that need to be grey scale.
    Pen set 6 – Plotter pens for pen set 2 most pens change to black or grey.
    Pen set 7 – Plotter pens for pen set 3 most pens change to black or grey.
    Pen set 8 – Plotter pens for pen set 4 most pens change to black or grey.
    The plotter pens are used for the drawings on the layouts

    Also AC has pens that relate to the base Building materials. So if you cut through a timber wall in the 3D window you see the timber pen (unless you override the surfaces).

    I would find you pen set a little limiting because you don’t have colours. I like to associate colour of the pen with a thickness. I have had to expand my mind a little to use the AC pens. I think I will continue to use them from now and you can reduce the number of favourites you need to make for elements.

    You talk about a piece of millwork and a sink. I model the sink separately from the unit just like it would be if you made the cabinet with a bench top and then added the sink. Also I have a plan & 3D view which shows all structure and MEP items together so that I can show plumbing penetrations in slabs to timber floors. If the project allows the time and fee the plumbing pipes can be modelled. If you like Jared I could send you a link of my template or a PLA of a project so you could see where I’m coming from.

  4. Jared Banks

    Jason, look again. There are colors! 🙂 The all black versions are just for output, I always work in color. Because 100% yes color = thickness.

    You do make a really good case for conforming to the out of the box pens. Maybe someday I’ll give that a try.

    Also the more people who mention giving mechanical/plumbing its own colors the more I am coming around to that viewpoint. I can see the big picture benefits to that. It definitely supports some of my larger BIM thinking logic which I’ll discuss in the next Pen Sets post. However my work just doesn’t require highlighting mechnical just yet, so avoiding unnecessary complexity is my default. Just because “it’d be nice to have” doesn’t make it work doing in my eyes. But I might add it in anyways as it might be worth exploring what value it adds. However it really won’t be hard to implement later should I need it.

    Thanks for the awesome comments as always!

  5. Jared Banks

    Oh and TOTALLY I’d love to see your template or a PLA!

  6. Janusz

    Thank you for sharing your secrets. I wonder if you could add some information about type of projects you working on with your template.
    Are you working in OPEN BIM and collaborating with other BIM consultants? How they interacting with your pen set.
    What type of drawings are included in your architectural documentation.

  7. Jared Banks

    Janusz, great questions. So this version of the template/pen sets have only been used with residential projects under about 10,000 sq. ft (so probably about 1,000 m2). Though I see no reason why the pen set logic wouldn’t work on any scale. I think on larger projects there might be a bit more differentiation for things like MEP elements. I’ll cover that shortly.

    As for consultants I’m working with a structural engineer using ArchiCAD right now. We were able to easily add in their required pens without any issue. But what the pens do when I sent them out via IFC or something else…I’m not there yet. But hopefully soon. Maybe. I like this engineer who using ArchiCAD! 🙂

    Regarding drawings: plans, sections, elevations, interior elevations, site plans, 1 1/2″ & 3″ details (sorry I don’t know the metric equivalents of those), 3D documents, so pretty much all types.

  8. Matthew

    I’m interested in what the best practice is (looking at this as someone who has just started using Archicad and just read about pen sets).

    Jared, do you still think the OOTB pen set is overkill? Is it better to start using that or is that potentially making everything overly complex?

    Having just realised the reasoning behind the setup in archicad and starting from scratch, is it better to go with the Archicad flow? I learnt about pen sets off of the back of wondering why the stairs were orange!

    If everything is already set up in Archicad around the pen sets, is it better not to stick with it?

    • Jared Banks

      Matthew, I have written so so much on this topic! The most recent post (As of this comment) is this one: https://blog.graphisoftus.com/archicad-education/tips-and-tricks/pen-sets-part-nine-graphic-overrides I have very strong opinions on Pen Sets and I think they are a very powerful, underutilized Attribute within ARCHICAD.

      I think the OOTB pen sets are inadequate. If you read through all my Pen Sets posts, most of what I do can’t be done as easily (or at all) with the OOTB Pen Sets. For instance, all my drawings are in full WYSIWYG color—I no longer do black and white drawings. The OOTB Pen Sets can’d do that. They have not been properly updated to take advantage of what ARCHICAD can do. If you are new to ARCHICAD and not using someone else’s template, then I think using the OOTB pen sets to start is fine. Since everything in the Library is set to work with those pens, it will make your life easier. BUT it’s not a long term strategy. Once you get to know ARCHICAD you’ll see the OOTB pen set limitations and want to devise a better solution—even if it’s just an augmentation of what is offered.

  9. Anonymous

    It seems to me that colors are vestigial from the days of rapidiographs, hand drafting, and AutoCAD. Since we are decades past those being a industry standard, I question the reason for their necessity.

    Working backwards: Discerning between any more than 3-5 (7 is really pushing it) line weights in the field is pretty difficult. (I’d like to see a Pepsi challenge with that one). Especially when seen through a set of dusty safety goggles. So what is the importance of having any more than 5-7 line weights? Different categories should be handled by layer visibility, not color. Colors on the other hand, if you really have to see them, should just be handled by their building material/surface color. And not pen.

    I have yet to work with anything but a greyed out set of engineering backgrounds on arch drawings–so dumbing down a couple of greys for them seems adequate enough.

    The use of layers should also be re-evaluated. It would make a heck of a lot more sense to me if they just corresponded to IFC categories. If a consultant is using arch drawing backgrounds they are also most likely greyed out, so the above applies from their side as well. CAD layer standards, are becoming more and more obsolete with IFC sharing becoming the dominant platform. Reduce the amount of layers, and if a consultant is still using autobad, let them choose the colors for the 16 odd different IFC categories we’ve used.

    So to restate my opinion, all of this is a vestigial carryover from the days of yore, and it’s importance should be re evaluated. Working in color is pretty to look at on screen now of days, but unnecessary IMO. It just kinda seems silly if you need color to tell that that a wall is different from a fan/bed/hvac/door.

    (I apologise if this seems like a rant but I just have strong feelings about the over complex organization of an already complex program.)

    • Jared Banks

      I completely agree. Since this post was written in early 2014 my views have evolved tremendously. I’ve written a lot on pen sets, here’s the most recent post: https://blog.graphisoftus.com/archicad-education/tips-and-tricks/pen-sets-part-nine-graphic-overrides I suggest you read part seven though: https://blog.graphisoftus.com/archicad-education/tips-and-tricks/pen-sets-part-seven-its-time-to-break-from-color-thickness That’s where I made the jump to full color drawings and broke with the rapidiograph past. Our views of Pens and Pen Sets needs to continue to evolve as ARCHICAD changes. The post above was really a pre-Building Materials mindset. My latest post looks at how Pen Sets needed to change again with Graphic Overrides.

      As for layers, I think you’ll enjoy my series on Layer Theory. The latest post is this one: https://blog.graphisoftus.com/archicad-user/archicad-layer-theory-part-5-attribute-names-and-the-tyranny-of-alphabetical-order In that series I look at Layers, Layer Combinations, and different logics for why to have different types of Layers.

      • Anonymous

        It is extremely refreshing to read your posts (bc they align closely with my thoughts on these matters lol).

        Your layer management is interesting, and I really like the locked unused layers for organization. Great workaround. I still think that there could be a lesson learned here from Revit (both should learn from one another, not one is better, certain programs do certain things differently and better IMO. Boot me off the site for saying that and even mentioning it’s name) if needed by using groups/sub groups and/or something based on IFC.

        I’d like to see layers grouped off of the Tool Pallet to start. With a few Exterior/Interior Structural/Non-Structural and other basic sub-groups. We are using building objects now, not lines. So let’s organize them that way. The days of AutoBad are over. Lines should be concerned with weight. And a couple greys for backgrounds. Which brings me to:

        Pen sets. I still think that it can all be boiled down to something more simple. The idea of having one pen set is great. The graphic override by layer is a great evolution. I still stick to my guns and say that a good possibility for a pen set is to keep the ootb layers for sanity’s sake (working in a larger firm), and boil the rest down. Down to nothing more than using them for line weights and a grey scale. Want to see some color? (For whatever reason) Use their building surface materials/surfaces–they are there for a reason and just make more sense. Want to see hatching? 2D vectorial fills (which are also there for a reason), and utilize graphic overrides.

        Your thoughts on these matters are very refreshing, and I look forward to reading more of your posts–and reading your previous ones as I have enjoyed them thus far! It’s important that these things evolve with the tech.

        • Jared Banks

          Thanks. I agree. I’d love if we had Layer subgroups or some more formal organization. I’ll leave you with one more thought regarding Layers. Make sure Layers aren’t duplicating other features of ARCHICAD for unnecessary reasons. We don’t need Layer by Tool because we can already select elements by Tool. Also Tools do so many things. A Slab Layer would be meaningless. And a Slab_ceiling layer would be less valuable than a ceiling layer for slabs, roofs, and shells. Finally, there are other ways to segregate elements that don’t require layers: structural function, renovation status, etc. As such we should be wary of including that info into our layering system because it might be redundant.

          Also I’d push back about keeping the OOTB layers or pens. If they don’t add value to your workflows, don’t keep them. Just because they are OOTB doesn’t mean they will make your life easier. They might make 1 or 2 things better, but might also handicap other, more important things. Just food for thought.


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