Rethinking the Graphical User Interface – Part 4: The Maximum Visibility Approach

By Ben Colley on

The Max Visibility modeler comes at SOLIDWORKS with a different attitude than the Minimalist. The maximalist modeler loves buttons, embraces the interface, and has no qualms with the disconnect that happens between the real world of physical creation and the virtual world of 3D modeling. Where the Minimalist wants the program out of the way, so nothing stands between them and their model, the Maximalist wants the program in full view. They want to see everything that the program has to offer to fulfill their modeling needs. They don’t want an indecipherable mess (nobody wants that), but they do want visibility of anything they might need for their job.

(See Part 3 of this series, “The Minimalist Approach” for tips on stripping down the SOLIDWORKS interface to its most basic.)

Four particular aspects of the interface exist that can be used to great effect in achieving a maximum-visibility interface. The four main weapons in a Max-Visibility modeler’s arsenal are:

  1. Toolbars
  2. The CommandManager
  3. Colors
  4. Viewports and Windows

With these weapons, a user can fundamentally change the way they view the program and the model. But these tools are only the means to a larger end for Maximalists, and that end is not just to have a busier interface. The goals of the Maximum Visibility approach are:

  • Accessibility
    Nothing you need on a regular basis is hidden in menus; it’s just a click away.
  • Visibility
    Whatever you need can be seen and identified immediately.
  • Efficiency
    The interface provides maximum utility without being hopelessly cluttered.

To guide our conversation about achieving a viable max-visibility interface, we’ll analyze how the four “weapons” of the Maximalist can be used to achieve these ends.

The Maximum Visibility Approach – Toolbars

The cornerstone of the Maximum Visibility approach is Toolbars. Toolbars provide the quickest way to scale up the interface for maximum visibility of functions, and as maximalists, we’ll take advantage of as many toolbars as it takes to keep us from having to dig for commands.

As we covered in Part 2 of this series (“Customizing the UI”), toolbars can be checked visible or hidden from the Customize menu. Or toolbars may be toggled on or off by right-clicking in the Menu Bar and expanding the Toolbars menu.

SOLIDWORKS Toolbar

Some questions arise when we start adding complexity to the interface. If we’re going to be adding toolbars everywhere, how do we prevent the creation of an interface that’s a cluttered mess? And with so many commands on the screen, how do we keep from starting a round of “Where’s Waldo” every time we need to hit a button? These are the questions we’ll answer with the lenses of Accessibility, Visibility and Efficiency.

Toolbars – Accessibility

Toolbars provide instant improvements to accessibility of your favorite tools. These tools might be only a couple clicks away in the CommandManager, but that’s only if the appropriate tabs are enabled, and the tools that you want are included in the default CommandManager tabs. As discussed earlier in this series, toolbars have four advantages over CommandManager tabs:

  • Toolbars are always visible. We always have visibility on any toolbars we’ve enabled.
  • Toolbars are scalable and highly portable. They are only as large as they need to be to contain the necessary commands, and they can be nested with other toolbars anywhere on screen.
  • There’s no text in toolbars. Only the icons.
  • The icons are all the same [compact] size. Many toolbar commands can fit on-screen at once.

These distinctions give us a great deal of flexibility to tailor our arrangement of tools however we like. If we want to see Sketch tools, Feature tools, Surfacing tools, and Simulation Tools all at the same time, we can. Or if we just want to see sheet metal and weldment tools sitting together on the right side of the screen, with sketch and feature tools together on the left side of the screen, we can do that too.

Toolbar accessibility

Toolbars – Visibility

Along with reducing the number of clicks it takes to get to a command, toolbars provide full visibility of SOLIDWORKS’ functions. If implemented poorly, however, toolbars can harm visibility as a user might have to study icons too closely to identify them. Here are a couple of pitfalls to avoid ensuring toolbars will improve visibility:

  • Having the wrong icon size. This is a subjective measure that depends on the user’s perception and the resolution of the screen. A medium icon size generally performs well for standard 1920×1080 monitors, but the user will need to determine if the icons are too small to decipher (this could be the case on a 4K monitor), or if they’re crowding out too much of the workspace.
  • Using the default color scheme. While the “new” blue color scheme gives the interface a cleaner, more coordinated look, it doesn’t lend itself particularly well to toolbars, as many of the icons look the same at a glance. You may find it helpful to revert icon colors to the Classic scheme of greens, yellows, and oranges. With this scheme, you can discern instantly which pallet of tools you’re looking at, as Sketch tools will show up in blue, Features will show up in green and yellow, and many of the specialty tools such as Surface and Sheet Metal will show up in orange. (See Part 2 of this series, Customizing the UI for more information on color schemes).

Toolbars – Efficiency

The biggest danger with toolbars is that the interface can become cluttered. If you have too many commands on the screen in no particular order, this will slow down your modeling as you find yourself hunting for commands. Here are some pitfalls to avoid ensuring your toolbars will increase efficiency:

  • Showing too many toolbars. It will not be in your interest to show all toolbars indiscriminately, as many of the toolbars are only useful in very specific circumstances. Choose only the toolbars that you’ll use.
  • Keeping toolbars wherever they pop up. The default placements of toolbars do not take into account a reasonable workflow, or a neat interface. If you’re going to show a variety of toolbars:
    • Arrange them in a grouping that makes sense for your workflow (Sketch, then Features, then specialty tools, etc.)
    • Nest smaller toolbars together. No need to put every toolbar on a separate ribbon that spans the screen if it doesn’t contain many tools.
    • Consider other environments. It might make sense to include some of the same toolbars (such as Sketch, Features, and SOLIDWORKS Add-Ins) in Part, Assembly, and Drawing environments. Where you place the toolbar in one environment is where it will show up in another environment though, so you’ll want to take that into consideration as you lay out your interface.
  • Having redundant commands. The commands shown on toolbars are 100% customizable. You can rearrange and remove commands or add commands of any category to a toolbar. As you start adding enabling toolbars, you may notice that some commands are repeated in different places. Consider the layout of this interface:

Toolbar efficiency

While the interface achieves a lot of accessibility to commands in an uncluttered layout, there are several commands that are wasting space. The Extrude, Cut, and Hole Wizard commands show up in the Features and Sheet Metal toolbars. The Fillet and Reference Geometry commands show up in the Features, Sheet Metal, and Surfacing toolbars. Also, a SOLIDWORKS Add-Ins toolbar has been enabled while the Add-Ins tab is still visible on the CommandManager.

SOLIDWORKS Add-in

This redundancy just takes away from your limited modeling space. Removing redundant commands will clean up the interface and ensure that none of the important commands on adjacent toolbars are crowded out.

To remove redundant or unneeded commands from toolbars, just open the Customize menu, and click & drag commands off the toolbars.

The Maximum Visibility Approach – The CommandManager

With the addition of toolbars, the CommandManager plays a less significant role in the SOLIDWORKS interface. But replacing the CommandManager entirely with toolbars may not be practical or efficient. In a balanced setup where toolbars are used in moderation, the CommandManager can still contribute to accessibility, visibility, and efficiency.

CommandManager – Accessibility

As the CommandManager is the primary means of accessing tools in the default SOLIDWORKS interface, it already has a lot of accessibility built in. Tools in a CommandManager tab may not be quite as accessible as those in a permanently pinned toolbar, but they’re still easy to get to; most tools can be found just one tab away. While you don’t want a bunch of tabs on the CommandManager that you never use, there may still be a good balance of tabs you can keep on the CommandManager for tools that you occasionally use. So, if you don’t want to take the toolbar mentality to the extreme, maybe you would like to keep certain toolsets that you don’t use very often tucked in CommandManager tabs.

CommandManager Tabs – Visibility

The important distinction of commands in the CommandManager is that they are labeled. This lends itself well to the maximum visibility environment, especially for less commonly used commands such as those found in the Evaluate tab. In the default horizontal arrangement of the CommandManager, however, the command icons are of differing shapes and sizes, due to the verbiage on each. This can make it a little cumbersome to scan through the commands and find the exact one you’re looking for. To maximize the visibility offered by the CommandManager tab, you may consider trying a vertical pinning on the left or right side of the interface, as this creates more uniformity in the command sizes, and the list form facilitates quicker comprehension.

CommandManager Tabs

Showing the CommandManager on the right side of the screen in a maximum-visibility interface can feel quite natural, as we are already accustomed to seeing tools available on the right in the Task Pane.

CommandManager Tabs – Efficiency

The CommandManager is designed to facilitate efficiency. It keeps the interface orderly, and its separation into tabs ensures that the user will only see the category of tools that they need at the moment. If your goal is to have maximum visibility of your toolset, however, then the separation of tabs becomes less efficient. Also, if you keep a tab visible that contains commands you never use, this will clutter up the interface. This is where the ability to create custom tabs can shine. If you’d like a tab on the CommandManager that shows nothing but your favorite tools (from any category), you can create one from scratch and name it whatever you want. To create an Empty tab:

Empty Tab option

Open the Customize Menu > Right-Click any of the available tabs > Click “Add Tab” > Click “Empty Tab”

Then add tools to the pallet just like you would for any other tab or toolbar.

The Maximum Visibility Approach – Colors

One very quick way to improve visibility in the interface is to customize SOLIDWORKS’ color scheme. As discussed earlier, a change to Icon colors can instantly help you differentiate the different categories of tools that are onscreen, between Sketch, Features, or other specialty tools.

SOLIDWORKS Color scheme

This change is made from the Colors tab in the System Options menu.

Beyond icon colors (as has been discussed in Part 2 of this series, “Customizing the UI) all of the colors in SOLIDWORKS are customizable – from Menus, to Sketch Colors, to Backgrounds, and everything in-between. Consider this example where the Default black is chosen for fully defined sketch entities:

Fully defined sketch entities

In an empty space where nothing is sitting below the sketch, black is an obvious choice for high visibility. For a sketch sitting on top of existing geometry, however, it can become almost impossible to distinguish sketch entities from model edges. To boost visibility of the sketch, a bright color like orange might be a good choice for fully defined sketch entities.

Similarly, consider the difference in color schemes for feature creation using default versus custom colors:

Default vs custom colors

On the default 3 Point Faded background on a standard grey model, yellow shaded temporary graphics can be difficult to distinguish from the model, especially for small features. You can instantly improve visibility of feature creation by switching to a dark scene or changing the color of the temporary graphics to a color with greater contrast.

The Maximum Visibility Approach – Viewports and Windows

Another quick and significant way to boost visibility of your model is to break the graphics area into multiple viewports or windows. Viewports and windows are similar, as both provide additional viewing spaces for your model. A new window opens what looks like a new file – a virtual clone of your open model with its own feature tree and viewing styles, but remains tied to the original file, as changes made in one window immediate reflect in the other. Viewports remain inside the original window and provide alternative viewing angles that are simultaneously shown. This can very helpful when you want to see how features, mates, 3D Sketches, etc. will affect the model from multiple perspectives.

Viewports and Windows in SOLIDWORKS

Viewports can be arranged as a grid of four, defaulting to aligned orthographic views (the alignments may be broken for free rotation if desired); as two stacked horizontal windows; or as two side-by side vertical windows, as shown above. To break the graphics area into viewports:

Open the Window menu from the Menu Bar > Expand Viewport > Choose your preferred arrangement

Expand viewpoint

A similar, more temporary tool for assemblies is the Component Preview Window. This creates a temporary viewport for particular components of your assembly that you want to interact with. This can be helpful when interacting with hard-to-access objects, such as internal components.

Component preview window

Just preselect whatever components you want in the separate viewport and activate the Component Preview Window command. By default, the Component Preview Window is available on the CommandManager Assembly tab, or at

Tools > Component > Preview Window

and may be added to any toolbar or tab for easy access.

Component preview window

Save Settings

SOLIDWORKS gives us the option to Save user settings for all UI customization to a file, or to load customization from a file. To save your customization settings to a file, hit the dropdown menu next to the Options gear, pick Save/Restore Settings… and follow the prompts to Save Settings, specify location for the settings file, and select what types of customizations to save.

Save Settings

What we have covered in this series involves a good deal of change from the default settings. If these changes make you more productive as a modeler, saving your settings will be of benefit for the following reasons:

  • Upgrades/new computers

When upgrading SOLIDWORKS, you have the option to port over your custom settings from the previous version, but for one reason or another, this might get bypassed. Save your settings to ensure that your settings can be restored to a new version or new computer location of SOLIDWORKS.

  • Other users

If another user borrows your machine, they might want to use their own custom settings or make use of the factory settings. Save settings to quickly allow the other user to import their own settings for their optimal SOLIDWORKS environment, then restore your settings when you return to your machine.

  • Experimentation

It may take a few tries to find the perfect UI layout. Saving your settings will give you the option to compare and return to previous layouts.

The Maximum Visibility Approach – Conclusion

The beauty of the Maximum Visibility approach is that it doesn’t have to be radically different from the default interface. It will look familiar, but more robust. With some discernment, a user can create an environment of ideal visibility while maintaining the overall cleanness of the SOLIDWORKS User Interface.

With the flexibility afforded by the SOLIDWORKS User Interface, users can truly craft an interface that works as an extension of themselves, allowing them to set loose on the workflows that make the most sense to them as individual modelers. Their SOLIDWORKS experience will be as unique as they are and produce the same quality of work that we would expect to see from SOLIDWORKS “out of the box”. It’s a scary and exciting thing to break away from the norm, but we hope the tips and information shared in this series will spur you to rethink the user interface and make SOLIDWORKS your SOLIDWORKS.

Maximum visibility approach