Rethinking the SOLIDWORKS Graphical User Interface – Part 3: The Minimalist Approach

By Ben Colley on

Imagine this: there exists in your mind an elegant, 3-dimensional shape, begging to materialize as something that can be seen, touched, and admired. If your inner Michelangelo had its way, you’d find the perfect marble slab and your favorite set of chisels and bask in the glory of your creation as it came to life before your eyes.

Being a little short of marble slabs and chisels, we opt for the next best option: we create a 3D model in digital form. And in reality, as CAD modelers, our work is generally much more numeric and feature based. An Extrusion here, a Revolve, a Fillet there… SOLIDWORKS presents the parametric modeling experience in a fairly elegant way, but there’s no escaping the fact that something is lost in translation from the tactile experience of forming something out of raw materials and computer-based parametric modeling. The more we get the program out of the way, however (the less we’re inundated with buttons and bars and menus), the smaller the gap becomes between forming something real and building something virtually. That’s the motivation behind the minimalist modeling environment; get the interface out of the way and let me build something.

Seeing a minimalist modeling environment can be relaxing to some, and stressful to others. On the one hand, it’s a relief to get all the toolbars, all the text, all the complexity out of sight so you can just look at your model. On the other hand, it can be unnerving not to have all the familiar buttons visible, just in case you might need them. If you’re accustomed to scrolling through tabs to see what your options are, then the minimal approach won’t be the best for you; in fact, you may want even more visibility of the interface so you don’t have to go looking for things (see the upcoming Part 4 of this series,The Maximum Visibility Approach). The minimalist SOLIDWORKS environment is best suited to users who are well-acquainted with the software – who know what capabilities are there, just under the surface. If you have a comfortable handle on what commands are available to you in SOLIDWORKS, then you may be able to work effectively with a sparse interface.

In this discussion, we’ll look at the ways that we can get the interface out of the way and be more productive as modelers as alternative ways of accessing commands are presented.

Customization – Quick Recap

In Part 1 of this Series, “Anatomy of the SOLIDWORKS UI”, we dug into the parts and terminology of what makes up the SOLIDWORKS user interface – the organization and means of interacting with the program. Having a good grasp of SOLIDWORKS’ constituent parts allowed us to move on to Part 2 of this series, Customizing the SOLIDWORKS Interface, where we dug into the technical steps of customizing all aspects of the SOLIDWORKS User Interface – the menus, toolbars, colors, etc. We saw that customization is carried out primarily from the Customize menu and the Colors menu (which is contained in the System Settings).

solidworks user interface articles

With the backbone of knowing how to customize the interface, we can find that sweet spot for the interface that serves us best as individual CAD users. That sweet spot might be 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 with the Minimalist Approach (For the more busy, high-visibility, approach, see upcoming post, “Rethinking the Graphical User Interface – Part 4: The Maximum Visibility Approach)

The Minimalist Approach

minimalist interface

The clean extreme is all about hiding and simplifying things. If you’re a minimalist your goal is to cut down on clicks and mouse movement, and to get everything that’s unnecessary for the majority of your work out of your way. Almost everything in the interface can be hidden, so it’s up to you to determine what elements are and are not essential to your workflow. Some elements, such as the Heads-Up Toolbar or the FeatureManager, are an integral part of the modeling process for the average user, so it may be impractical to hide those elements. But if you need to maximize your workspace, there’s nothing to keep you from hiding everything on screen except for the model. (You can hide the model too, but… then you’ll just be looking at an empty screen.)

So, what are some of the main steps you can take to achieve a minimalist interface in SOLIDWORKS?

  • Hide unnecessary toolbars.
    By default, there aren’t too many extra toolbars visible in the interface, but over time, they might get turned on and left on, cluttering your screen. One common toolbar that shows up is the Selection Filters toolbar that spans across the bottom of the screen and can be toggled visible or invisible with F5. If you don’t use selection filters often, this would be a good one to toggle off. All other toolbars, such as MBD Dimension tools, Curve tools, Annotation tools (etc.) may be hidden individually from the Toolbars tab of the Customize menu, or by clicking “Reset to Defaults” at the bottom of the menu.
  • Choose a light color scheme.
    This may seem like a surprising one to include, but a light color scheme can add a sense of spaciousness and order. If there is too much contrast and variety of colors on screen, it can feel cluttered and distracting, and just reminds the user that there’s a computer program standing between them and their model. To give SOLIDWORKS a cleaner look:
    • Change the scene to something light. By default, SOLIDWORKS now has a light and pleasant 3 Point Faded scene, but this default might become changed, or may change temporarily when working with legacy files. “3 Point Faded” or “Plain White” are excellent choices.

Note, setting the scene only affects a change at the file-level. To set SOLIDWORKS’ global default scene:

Open the Appearances tab of the Task Pane > browse for your desired scene > right-click the scene > select “Set as default scene”

appearances set default

  • Change the Icon and Background colors to “Default” and “Light”, respectively. These options can be accessed from: System Options > Colors

system options - color

  • Collapse or hide the Task Pane.
    On the right side of the screen, the Task Pane contains model libraries, appearances, file management, and SOLIDWORKS Tools applications. It is collapsed by default but may become pinned open. Collapsing the Task Pane can open up a lot of room in the graphics area. You can collapse the Task Pane by clicking the pin icon at the top-right of the Task Pane. Or, if you want to hide the Task Pane altogether, it can be toggled off along with the other toolbars in the Customize menu.
  • Collapse the FeatureManager.
    The FeatureManager typically plays an important role in the modeling process, but it may be collapsed if desired. Just click on the tab that protrudes from the right edge of the FeatureManager, and the window will collapse off-screen. The tab remains visible on the left edge of the SOLIDWORKS window, allowing the FeatureManager to easily be toggled open or closed.

collapse featuremanager

  • Hide unnecessary CommandManager Tabs.
    If you occasionally use add-ins or specialized tools, then their CommandManager tabs might be left visible across the top of the graphics area. Hiding these tabs can help to simplify the UI. These can be hidden one at a time from the Tabs menu, or in bulk after opening the Customize menu, where all available tabs become temporarily visible to Hide or Show.
  • Uncheck “Use Large Buttons with Text”.
    By default, SOLIDWORKS displays the name of each command in the CommandManager along with its respective icon. If desired, seasoned SOLIDWORKS users can hide this text by right-clicking on the Menu Bar and unchecking the option, “Use Large Buttons with Text”. This will simplify the CommandManager to show only the icons for each command and will add a significant amount of space to the top of the screen.

use large buttons

  • Collapse and/or hide the CommandManager.

If you’d like to have CommandManager commands visible only when you need them, you can collapse the CommandManager by clicking the arrow at the right end of the bar. The CommandManager will be toggled visible if you click any of the named tabs (Features, Sketch, etc.).

The CommandManager can also be hidden entirely (tabs included) if desired. Just right-click in the menu bar and uncheck “Enable CommandManager”. This may be desirable for a minimalist workspace if your workflow relies primarily on hotkeys, shortcut bars, and mouse gestures.

  • Move Quick Access Tools to the CommandManager.

The basic file operation commands, or Quick Access Tools along the top (Home, New, Open, etc.) may be moved off the Menu Bar to the CommandManager. Doing this will pin these tools to the left end of every CommandManager tab. Used in combination with a collapsed CommandManager, this provides a very clean Menu Bar with a near absence of visible buttons. This option is in the “Toolbars” tab of the Customize menu.

show in command manager

The Minimalist Interface – Making it Work.

The minimalist interface – while visually pleasing – comes with the obvious cost of visibility to the software’s functionality. This is where alternative workflows come in. While we are generally taught to cycle through CommandManager tabs to find commands and analysis tools, we are also given the freedom to create our own modeling workflows and means of accessing functions through customization tools.

  • Keyboard Shortcuts

For commands that you find yourself going to over and over again like lines, dimensions, extrusions, planes, etc. having hotkeys can cut way down on the labor time needed to construct models. Every command in SOLIDWORKS can be assigned a hotkey within the “Keyboard” tab of the Customize menu. And with the 2022 enhancement that puts the command search right in the S-key Shortcut bar, one can potentially access any function in SOLIDWORKS without ever seeing the CommandManager or docked toolbars.

keyboard shortcuts

We’re not limited only to single letters for mapping options. Shift, Ctrl, or Alt may be used in combination with letter keys to expand the mapping options four-fold. Perhaps it makes sense, then, to categorize combination mappings to different environments, such as single letters for Sketch commands, Alt + letters for Features, Shift + letters to Surface commands, and so forth. This breadth of potential hotkeys makes keyboard shortcuts the most versatile option that SOLIDWORKS gives us for working in a minimalist environment.

  • Mouse Gestures

Mouse gestures also lend themselves quite naturally to a toolbar-sparse modeling environment but take some strategy to set up wisely. All customization for mouse gestures is done from the Mouse Gestures tab of the Customize menu.

mouse gestures

You can set up the mouse gesture wheel to show up to twelve command sectors per modeling environment. While having twelve available commands in any given environment would give you access to a lot of your favorite tools, the toolbar can become too crowded to accurately pick the correct tool in a quick motion. Therefore, it may be most practical to use a smaller number of more general tools (Create Sketch, Confirmation Corner, Undo/Redo, etc.) in Mouse Gesture toolbars, in conjunction with other command access options, such as keyboard shortcuts.

The Minimalist Approach – Conclusion

Hopefully, this discussion has broadened your thinking on how a simplified UI can enhance your SOLIDWORKS workflow and make 3D modeling feel like more of a “hands-on” experience. This minimalist modeling approach of the SOLIDWORKS interface might seem fanciful, or too radical for some. In reality, most people won’t want to take minimalism to the extreme, as having no visibility of the program’s core functions can get impractical. But any combination of the tips that have been given can be used to make the SOLIDWORKS interface a cleaner and more productive environment for SOLIDWORKS users as individuals. Why go digging for “Extrude” over and over again when making extrusions is as second-nature to you as striking a key on the keyboard? Why go scouring the FeatureManager history for a plane when you have the Q-key to show all reference geometry? Why have a dozen tabs in the CommandManager that you never use? Why not get the program out of the way, and take full advantage of the options SOLIDWORKS has graced us with to make the interface work as an extension of ourselves?