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Using Room-Design Software Isn't a Moving Experience

Several CD-ROMs on the market promise to take the frustration out of interior decorating, but the learning curve can be flat-out ugly.


Given only a chair, table, vase and area rug, some people can create an inviting living room space.

Give me the same objects and you might as well have a yard sale. I didn't get the gene for interior design, although I am an appreciator, much in the way I enjoy architecture, music, painting, indoor plants and other endeavors for which I have no talent. When a room is right, I know it--but creating one of those comforting spaces I see in magazines is beyond my ken.

Deficiencies in other areas of my life (spelling, for one) have been overcome by use of the computer. So why not decorating?

Several interior-design CD-ROMs on the market allow a user to input the dimensions of a room, incorporate existing doors and windows, and then add furniture and accessories. The furniture can be moved around and even resized (in case you have the budget for new pieces) until you are happy with the room.

These decorator-in-a-box programs also all come with computer-assisted design (CAD) that allows a user to view the results in 3-D. This mode makes a living room look like the set of a cheap, computer-generated Saturday morning cartoon, but it also allows a user to do a graphic walk-through to better imagine himself or herself among the new furniture arrangement.

These programs have come a long way since design software for the home computer hit the market as part of the CD-ROM craze of the mid-1990s. But overall, they still require a steep learning curve--you're likely to need the better part of a day, at least, just to create your first room layout on the screen.

Putting in the furniture and trying the CAD mode will take up the rest of that day. And even if you get everything successfully input, rearranging the furniture will take patience and practice.

In the end, is it all worth it?

No. Not for the occasional user. After the hours of drudgery and frustration spent just learning how to use these programs, I was no longer much interested in rearranging my living room.

The 3-D modes were, in particular, uninspiring. The 3-D sofas and chairs looked, for the most part, as inviting as those found in bus terminals. And the cabinetry didn't look worthy of particle board.

I found it more helpful, instructive and just plain enjoyable to draw a room to scale on a letter-sized piece of paper. (Using a type of triangular ruler, available at art supply stores, that adjusts automatically for scale makes this an easy task.)

I cut out rectangles, also drawn to scale, to represent the furniture pieces. Then I moved my paper furniture around the floor plan to test different arrangements.

Very analog. But it worked and took far less time than using one of these CD-ROMs. And it was a lot cheaper.

3-D Complete Home

Sierra Home, one of the big names in home software, recently discontinued this CD-ROM, but it still is available from some retail outlets.

In the spirit of there being no use in beating a dead horse, the less said about "3-D Complete Home" the better. It's a suite of programs that includes sections on designing a house, deck, landscaping and garden. It even includes a program for planning a home's electrical wiring.

The interior-decorating section was so difficult to use and uninspiring that I gave up after a couple of hours.

3-D Home Architect

This software suite from Broderbund also was meant to be used to design numerous parts of a home, but it cost a good deal less. It also was easier to use and produced better-looking graphics. But it still was a long way from user-friendly.

The problems started with the drawing of the basic room plan. There were several annoyances that added up to frustration and extra steps. If you made all your room and furniture measurements in inches (as the major furniture manufacturers do), you must convert them to feet and inches for the program.

The layout, when done, showed measurements from the middle of windows and other objects. So, if you wanted to find out just how close a sofa or bookcase was to a window's edge, you had to do the calculations in your head or get out a scratchpad.

The 3-D mode was graphically striking to the point of overkill. It showed my modest living space suspended in a cloud-filled sky, as if my room was on its way over the rainbow to Oz. Annoyingly, I could not move the furniture in this 3-D space--changes had to be made in the 2-D and then the 3-D had to be refreshed to see them.

Not that moving furniture in 2-D was any treat. The difficulty and limitations in moving objects was the most frustrating aspect of this program.

Complete Home Designer

This program from Data Becker was the most flexible and easiest to use. It almost made interior design by computer fun.

It took measurements in inches, allowed the dimensions of objects to be easily adjusted, and provided a view of a piece of furniture in 3-D before it was used in the design.

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