Many of us grew up with lighting templates that were pretty generic. The fixtures on the template looked somewhat like real instruments, but not quite. You had to add your own indications for beam angle, accessories, and the like. After a few years of experimentation, lighting designers Steve Shelley and Fred Allen came up with Field Template® (FT). No one had ever seen a template with so much information on the instruments. The FT had fixture weights, color frame size, beam spreads, and much more. Their template also included scale rulers and a patented alignment system for a clean light plot.

At the end of 2003, Field Template launched SoftSymbols, a set of symbols to work with VectorWorks®. The second version came out in October 2005, and SoftSymbols was also included as the de facto symbol library in Stage Research's SoftPlot Version 9, released in March; Version 3 is already being prepared.

What It Does

“SoftSymbols is a library of lighting symbols for VectorWorks and now SoftPlot. They can be used with or without SpotLight,” says Allen. Adds Shelley, “The symbols are organized into several different VectorWorks documents, sorted by manufacturer or use.” SoftSymbols can also be converted to AutoPlot.

Shelley admits to being an “anal-retentive graphic geek,” which pays off for his customers. Simplicity is what drives his obsession. “SoftSymbols has a universal set of line weights and shades,” he says. “I use no colors so that plots can be printed or faxed without loss of information, and all of my symbols have been designed so that they could have been traced from a FT plastic template. Not only does this — in my opinion — have a cleaner look, but it also allows for more alphanumeric data to be contained in each symbol, uses less ink, and allows the light plot to be easier to read.”

How It Came To Be

“Field Template came to be because we both wanted one,” says Allen. “Steve had designed the early model and attempted to have the existing template manufacturers make it. It was clear to me that the concept of aligning symbols on a grid was brilliant. Why no one had ever done that on a template is mystifying to me; it was such a logical thing to do. They all turned him down. I still wanted one. So I proposed that we band together and make it. How hard could it be? It was a lot harder than we ever suspected.” After many bumps in the road, they held version one in their hands in 1987.

“Flash-forward to 2003,” says Allen. “FT had grown to include FT Stage Plan, Striplight, FT Lite, FT Layout, FT Continental Lite, and FT Rules. It had become clear that we had a large library of symbols. Steve had made even more symbols to use with his drafting assignments.”

Shelley adds that it just kept growing from there. “Shortly after our first series of plastic templates were produced, I showed Fred how I made the design by pasting symbols into a graphics program,” he says. “He immediately saw the possibility of selling software collections of symbols. What I saw was a huge time-consuming project that I would have to tackle by myself, and then become technical support. I wanted none of it.”

Then came the issue of how to distribute the product. “After some consideration, I decided — and Fred enthusiastically supported — to make the product downloadable-only and to eliminate the jewel cases, shipping, hard copy directions, etc.,” says Shelley.”

Shelley then spent the next six months accumulating information from manufacturers to get the first version data complete. He learned VectorWorks and Spotlight, learned how to make symbols, and then created SoftSymbols v.1. “I also added new symbol libraries for ancillary symbols that I use in my light plots, including generic foggers and other hardware, as well as scales in imperial and metric,” he says. “We had a product. We would be open for downloads at LDI 2003.” However, troubles with the company's web developer and the shopping cart derailed the launch of SoftSymbols. After starting over, they were ready to go by USITT 2004. They have since released v.2, as well as regular updates with added manufacturers and additional support symbols for drawing sections.

What's Next

Plans are underway for v.3, which “will have updated libraries, more manufacturers, and more refined data,” Shelley says. “I hope to have separate data support sheets to allow for better data comparison. I'm working on a new metric set of symbols, along with more European manufacturers. We're also working on agreements with other designers to allow the Field Template website to be a symbol portal for other symbol packages. Negotiations are under way, and we hope to have more detailed information on all of this by LDI.”

While people wait for v.3, some updates have been introduced, including seven more manufacturers in 2006. “We have added two small, very affordable packages of symbols on the website,” says Allen. “One is the USITT RP-2, and the other is the ETC Pack. Both sell for $15. We feel that they are really a bargain, as is the full package at $95, which hosts 26 manufacturers and was recently updated for version two. Steve has a list of manufacturers that he chases.”

Shelley is still a man who can't say no. “If someone calls me and needs a symbol, I'll do what I can to produce it. In many cases, that starts the process to expand and create a new library for that particular manufacturer.”

What End-Users Have To Say

“As it happens, I rarely use SoftSymbols, simply because most of my drawings wind up being based on already-existing drawings,” says lighting designer and creator of Lightwright, John McKernon ( “However, whenever I need a symbol for something I don't already have — and don't want to invent — I will often use SoftSymbols. I like them because they're attractive, communicate what they are clearly without being overly fussy, and are short enough front-to-back to fit when drawing lights in tight spaces. Some symbol sets that are available try to make symbols the same size as the actual objects they represent, which makes them difficult to use when drafting tightly spaced lights that happen to have accessories such as top hats and/or scrollers.”

Los Angeles-based lighting designer and principal of Palmer & Company Design & Production ( John Palmer uses SoftSymbols because of how sharply the symbols reproduce on a drawing. “I really didn't like the symbols that came native with SpotLight,” he says. “I find that they have way too much information; they are too much like an architectural drawing of a fixture instead of actually a plot symbol. I find that they get difficult to read, especially depending on how you have the drawing scaled, whereas with SoftSymbols, you can choose how you want to view it, and you can read them very clearly.”

One of the features that Palmer really likes about SoftSymbols is that “if I print in ¼-inch scale, it matches the Field Template that I have in my wallet. If I have to add fixtures onto a drawing and hand it over to the electrician, the symbols are the same, and I don't have to create a legend explaining it. It's cleaner, faster, and keeps everything looking a little bit better. The one big thing that I had been looking for was something that Steve incorporated last year, which were the ETC Source Four enhanced-definition lens tubes, and he came along and did it.”

Lighting designer Aaron Copp adds that he was confident in Shelly's extensive background in developing CAD tools. “I think his graphic design sense is the best of all the symbol makers I've seen,” says Copp. “So many symbol libraries are unsophisticated and clunky-looking, and I won't send out a plot that looks like it was drafted by cavemen. The best feature of Steve's symbols is that they look professional and modern. I also like that he's taken so much time to make great accessory symbols, which is something that we all tend to overlook and throw in at the last minute.”

Lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, principal of JAS Lighting Design (, notes that for him, SoftSymbols is the most complete theatrical symbol library available outside of Spotlight for VectorWorks users. “The symbols are carefully drawn to scale,” he says. “The symbols are drawn without extra lines and layers that serve no purpose on a light plot. Everything packaged in SoftSymbols is clean-cut and accurate, giving your plot, electricians, assistants an easy way to read and identify the fixtures specified.”

Flexibility is a key for Sayeg, who particularly appreciates having the option of two versions for each symbol, “one with the numerical ID for lens degrees and the other with a standard USITT Slash,” he notes. “This comes in very handy when working with other designers; everyone has a preference, and SoftSymbols gives you that flexibility.” Sayeg has some additional products that he would like to see added. “I would like to see more European equipment — such as the Reich and Vogel line, DHA light curtains, VSFX projectors, a wider variety of HMIs, and more moving lights that are out on the market. All of my projects are drawn with SoftSymbols, and it's made drafting so much faster.”

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Michael S. Eddy writes about design and technology. He can be reached at