By design, the SOLIDWORKS interface is fairly straightforward. As SOLIDWORKS users, it doesn’t take us long to grow accustomed to the default layout of the program interface and the standard methods of accessing tools. However, the default layout is not necessarily the most efficient layout, and the standard methods are not the quickest methods for using SOLIDWORKS as a tool. This isn’t to say that the Default layout is inefficient, or that users can’t be quick modelers with the standard methods, but efficiency and speed are very dependent on the individual user. By default, SOLIDWORKS looks at the grand collection of users as a whole and arranges the UI to best serve the majority. But every user comes to SOLIDWORKS with a different background, different tastes, and a different set of skills. As such, parts of the interface can seem too limited to some, or too cumbersome to others, and could stand some adjustment in either direction to make the CAD experience more fluid.
So, what is the most efficient layout for the SOLIDWORKS interface, and what are the best methods for accessing the commands? That completely depends on the user as an individual and could range anywhere from a bare-bones minimalist setup where only the most essential tools are visible and mouse movements are practically non-existent, to a maxed-out high-visibility setup where all the tools are visible, and everything is controlled by mouse movements. So, we’ll have to have a discussion that accounts for the full spectrum of SOLIDWORKS users, from Minimalist to Max-Visibility. Regardless of which end we’re looking at the discussion starts with customizing the SOLIDWORKS UI.
Review: The Graphical User Interface
Before talking about changing the user interface, a quick review of terms may be helpful. What is the SOLIDWORKS GUI? The GUI is the program’s user interface – the visual representation and arrangement of SOLIDWORKS as a program, and the means by which a user interacts with it.
The basic SOLIDWORKS interface is comprised of nine major sections: the Menu Bar, the SOLIDWORKS Menus, the Quick Access Tools, the CommandManager, the FeatureManager, the Heads-Up View Toolbar, the Graphics Area, the Task Pane, and the Status Bar. Each of these sections is identified in the graphic below:
The SOLIDWORKS UI “out of the box” is designed in such a way that a user can readily perceive the program’s most important functionality, input data in a logical, intuitive way, and receive clear outputs from the program. This is thanks, in large part, to SOLIDWORKS’ keen attention to user feedback. Every year, the user-interface is tweaked and improved to make the standard program workflow a little smoother.
For a full breakdown of the SOLIDWORKS user interface, see article “Rethinking the SOLIDWORKS Graphical User Interface – Part 1: Anatomy of the SOLIDWORKS UI”.
The Extremes of the SOLIDWORKS User Interface
If you use SOLIDWORKS out of the box, then you will be accustomed to a UI that looks something like this:
It’s the default, time-tested layout of SOLIDWORKS that’s been around for about 20 years. The FeatureManager to the left, the CommandManager spanning the top, the task pane, the gradient background… You may not have considered, however, that nothing in the Graphical User Interface – the layout, look, buttons, and icons within SOLIDWORKS – has to be taken at face value as the only way to work in SOLIDWORKS.
For example, if you are all about a minimalist working environment, seeing buttons only when you want to see them, then your tailored SOLIDWORKS UI could look something like this.
No messy color schemes, toolbars only when and where you want them, maximum real estate for the model.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you want to see all of SOLIDWORKS all of the time, never having to dig through menus for anything, then your UI could theoretically look something like this:
This is a bit more extreme than we would recommend, but some people like to see everything everywhere… all at once.
Consider this: the last two graphics are snapshots of the exact same program, looking at the exact same file, with the exact same functionality available to the user. The only difference is user customization.
The Customize Menu
The central hub for customizing the SOLIDWORKS user interface is the Customize menu. From here, we have the power to make the interface as full or sparse as desired. We can tweak every aspect of what we see in the SOLIDWORKS window. The Customize menu can be accessed from the Quick Access tools at the top of the screen. To access the Customize menu from the Quick Access Tools:
Click the dropdown next to the Options gear icon > Customize
Or, the Customize menu may be accessed by right-clicking in the Menu Bar and selecting “Customize…”.
The Customize menu is comprised of seven tabs:
Toolbars are the categorized tool pallets that are shown or can be shown in the interface. They are analogous to CommandManager tabs, having similar groups of categorized commands; but in toolbars, the commands are presented in a more condensed and portable way. Toolbars have four primary characteristics that distinguish them from CommandManager tabs:
- Toolbars are always visible. Instead of being restricted to seeing one category of tools at a time depending on which CommandManager Tab is active, you always have visibility on whatever toolbars you’ve enabled.
- Toolbars are scalable and highly portable. The CommandManager can be docked to the top, left, or right of the screen, but it’s always going to span the full width or height of the interface. Toolbars, on the other hand may be moved around and nested with other toolbars anywhere on screen.
- There’s no text in toolbars. It’s assumed that the user will recognize commands by their icons (although command names and descriptions still pop up when you hover over the icons).
- The icons are all the same size. All commands are compact and grid-like, allowing many commands to fit on-screen at once.
Checking any of the toolbars in the Toolbars menu will pin them in view in your modeling environment. When checked, toolbars show up in particular locations and in various states of being docked or undocked; but any of them may be moved and docked wherever you like.
By default, very few toolbars will be shown since the core modeling tools are included in CommandManager tabs.
Also included in the Toolbars Tab is Icon Size and the option to show Quick Access Tools in the CommandManager instead of the Menu Bar. For users working with high-resolution monitors, bumping up the icon size can make SOLIDWORKS a lot more accessible.
In-Context Toolbars and Menus
It’s also worth mentioning that in-context menus and toolbars – such as the toolbar that appears when clicking on a model face – are customizable as well. In menus, the option to customize is normally the last option in the menu. On in-context toolbars, a second right-click on the toolbar itself will bring up the option to customize it with your own favorite commands.
The Task Pane
The Task Pane can also be customized with a right-click. This will allow you to check or uncheck whichever tabs you wish to see or reorder the ones that are visible.
- Shortcut Bars
This menu deals with the “S-Key” shortcut bar for each modeling environment – Part, Assembly, Drawing, or Sketch. From here you can resize the toolbar, add or remove commands, and toggle the Command Search line visible or invisible.
Since the Command Search was added to the Shortcut Bar in 2022, most customization to toolbars can be done without opening the Customize Simply search for a command in the search bar and drag it onto the Shortcut bar or any other toolbar on the interface. To remove commands or resize the Shortcut bar, you will need to open the Shortcut Bar tab of the Customize menu.
All of the buttons in SOLIDWORKS. Click and drag them to any of the tool panes on-screen to keep them within reach.
Add or remove items from the SOLIDWORKS dropdown menus (File, Edit, View… Search, etc.)
From this menu, you can assign keyboard shortcuts to commands, look up preset hotkeys, and assign new macros. All of the commands in SOLIDWORKS are included in this list, so it’s helpful to use the search field to filter the results and avoid a lot of scrolling.
While SOLIDWORKS comes loaded with a useful batch of pre-assigned hotkeys (F for “Zoom to Fit”, D for Breadcrumbs, Q for “Show Reference Geometry”, etc.), none of these mappings are locked, and may be changed to user preference. For instance, many people like to remap D to “Smart Dimension” and pick another letter like B for Breadcrumbs.
Hotkeys can be beneficial for users who want to avoid digging through command tabs, prefer keyboard input, or just want to save on clicks and mouse movement.
- Mouse Gestures
A more unique option that SOLIDWORKS gives us for alternative modeling methods is Mouse Gestures – a wheel-shaped toolbar that appears with a right-click & drag in the graphics area. Users can very rapidly access favorite commands by simply right-clicking & dragging in the appropriate direction, according to how the wheel is arranged. The wheel can include 2, 3, 4, 8, or 12 commands, and is context-specific for Sketch, Part, Assembly, or Drawing environments. Customization of Mouse Gesture toolbars is done from the “Mouse Gestures” tab of the Customize
From within this menu, you can enable/disable the mouse gestures wheel, set the number of gestures per wheel, and choose which commands to show on the wheel for each modeling environment. Like the Keyboard tab, you can cut down on scrolling time by filtering the command list with the Search Bar.
Show existing shortcut or menu customizations, reset to defaults.
Another thing that happens when you open the Customize menu is that all available CommandManager tabs (Sheet Metal, Mold Tools, Direct Editing, Simulation, etc.) become temporarily visible. This gives you a quick option for hiding or showing tabs in bulk, instead of having to open the Tabs menu repeatedly for every tab you want to hide or show. Simply right-click each tab and select “Hide Tab” or “Show Tab”.
Other Customization – UI Appearance
With the continuing shift of marketing applications to SOLIDWORKS Visualize and Composer (instead of the SOLIDWORKS modeling space), the applied scene has become more a matter of seeing the SOLIDWORKS model clearly than establishing an end-use setting for the model. However, SOLIDWORKS still offers a wide range of scenes and backdrops for users to choose from in the modeling environment.
The quickest way to choose a scene is from the Apply Scene dropdown in the Heads-Up Toolbar.
While only a few scenes show up in the dropdown menu, a sizable list of others may be accessed by selecting “Manage Favorites”. These scenes may also be selected from the Appearances tab of the Task Pane to the right. If a completely custom scene is needed, you can edit a preset scene, import an image of your own, and add or adjust lighting to get exactly what you’re looking for.
All of the colors in SOLIDWORKS can be customized. Most color customization happens from:
Options > System Options > Colors
From the Colors menu, you can control:
- Icon Color.
- Default – the blues, greys, and whites. The Default colors give a since of sleekness and unity to the interface.
- Classic – the pre-2016, yellows, greens, and oranges. The Classic colors contribute more contrast between the commands (and give a sense of nostalgia for those of us who have been using SOLIDWORKS for a while). The high contrast Classic colors can be helpful for users who keep a lot of tools visible on the interface at once, and need to distinguish between tool types quickly.
This is not to be confused with the scene, the background is the overall color of the interface – menus, taskbars, text, etc. There are four basic backgrounds available for the interface:
- A very light grey interface, and the current Default in SOLIDWORKS.
- Medium Light. The grey interface common to SOLIDWORKS pre-2016.
- A dark grey interface.
- A nearly black interface with white text.
Color Scheme. The individual color options for everything in SOLIDWORKS. Text colors. Selected faces. Temporary Graphics. Sketch Entities. Drawing paper color… Every item can be changed to any color in the full color spectrum. User-defined color schemes may be saved, allowing for the possibility to toggle back and forth between custom and default colors.
Between color schemes, backgrounds, icon colors, and scenes, radically different ambiences are quickly attainable with the SOLIDWORKS interface.
Customizing the UI – Conclusion
As we can see, SOLIDWORKS is highly customizable. Nothing in the interface has to be taken at its default value. But how does that help us as SOLIDWORKS users? With discretion, the combined optimizing of all these options can give us an interface that acts as a fluid extension of our own thinking as individual modelers. The sweet spot might exist anywhere along the spectrum between minimalist and busy, so we’ll explore the two extremes to cover how we can simplify in some areas and add visibility in others, starting in Part 3 of this series, The Minimalist Approach. (For the busier, high-visibility, approach, see follow-up post, “Rethinking the Graphical User Interface – Part 4: The Maximum Visibility Approach”)