Rethinking the SOLIDWORKS Graphical User Interface – Part 1: Anatomy of the SOLIDWORKS UI

   By Ben Colley on November 24, 2022

Introduction: SOLIDWORKS As an Extension of Yourself – Rethinking the SOLIDWORKS UI

As with most things in life, SOLIDWORKS exists in a perpetual state of change. New functionality comes along. Existing commands get more powerful. Movement gets smoother. Icons get… bluer. (If you used SOLIDWORKS before 2016, you know what we’re talking about). The program is constantly changing for the better, but one thing that stays relatively constant is the overall layout of the user interface. And as good computer users, we learn to work with what we’re given; we become experts at following the workflow that the program seems to indicate we should follow by its presentation of features. But what if things were different; what if the SOLIDWORKS user experience could follow our logic, according to the workflow that feels most natural to us as individual users? It can. With very little effort (and no programming skills) you can transform the entire SOLIDWORKS user interface to work as an extension of your own modeling personality.

SOLIDWORKS stands above other CAD software in large part due to its intuitiveness and clean user interface. “Out of the box”, the interface is designed to function in a way that maximizes user productivity and minimizes clutter. However, SOLIDWORKS doesn’t force a one-interface-fits-all mindset on its users. In fact, a remarkable amount of flexibility is built into the SOLIDWORKS interface, just waiting to be explored. Everything from the layout of menus and toolbars to the methods of activating commands can be tailored to look and function according to the desires of each user. And having SOLIDWORKS act as an extension of your own personality and logic can make you a faster and more productive modeler.

Reaching the point where SOLIDWORKS acts as an extension of your thinking is a journey, however, and the “ideal layout” in SOLIDWORKS can range anywhere from one extreme of minimalism to another extreme of maximum utility, so we’ll break down the discussion into four parts:

  • Anatomy of the SOLIDWORKS Graphical User Interface
  • Customizing the UI
  • The Minimalist Approach to the UI
  • The Maximum Visibility Approach to the UI

To start the discussion, in this post, we’ll take an in-depth look at the SOLIDWORKS user interface, “out of the box”.

An Anatomy of the SOLIDWORKS GUI

The SOLIDWORKS UI is something that a lot of us haven’t thought too hard about. But SOLIDWORKS R&D and a great many SOLIDWORKS users in years past have given a great deal of thought to the SOLIDWORKS interface, shaping it into the elegant, deceptively simple layout that we rely on to be there when we need it, and to stay out of our way when we’re trying to work. In fact, the interface is so clean, that portions of it can escape our notice as we develop our own workflow habits, going to the same areas of the program day after day. But nothing in the interface is “extra”, or there by accident; it’s there because SOLIDWORKS users over the last decades have tested and proven what is worth taking up preciously limited real-estate on screen, and what is not. As such, each element of the SOLIDWORKS UI deserves a closer look

Before getting deep into a list of menus, tabs, and windows, a definition of basic terms may be helpful. What do we mean by the GUI (or UI, or User Interface)? The UI is the visual representation and arrangement of a program, and the means by which a user interacts with it. A good UI 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.

SOLIDWORKS is well-known for having a clean, intuitive UI. Consider this breakdown of the SOLIDWORKS UI’s basic anatomy.

Breakdown of SOLIDWORKS UI

The SOLIDWORKS User Interface is primarily comprised of nine major sections:

  • The Menu Bar
  • The SOLIDWORKS Menus
  • The Quick Access Tools
  • The CommandManager
  • The FeatureManager Design Tree
  • The Heads-Up View Toolbar
  • The Graphics Area
  • The Task Pane
  • The Status Bar

Though minor changes to the User Interface happen every year to make the program workflow a little smoother, the presence and location of these nine elements have remained fairly constant for over a decade and will likely exist in some form for years to come. So, let’s dive into each of the nine primary elements of the SOLIDWORKS UI.

The Nine Elements of the SOLIDWORKS UI

The Menu Bar

SOLIDWORKS Menu Bar

Spanning the display from left to right, the Menu Bar contains:

  • The SOLIDWORKS Menus
  • Quick Access Tools
  • The name of the currently open file
  • The search prompt (search Commands, Help, Files, or MySolidWorks)
  • User login credentials
  • SOLIDWORKS Help
  • Application window options (minimize, maximize, close).

Help was also located among the SOLIDWORKS menus prior to 2020, but it is now primarily accessed from the question mark ( ? ) icon at the far-right side of the Menu Bar. If you want to look up your serial number, access tutorials, user forums, or SOLIDWORKS Help, the question mark icon is where to look.

The SOLIDWORKS Menus

SOLIDWORKS Menu Bar

At the top-left, the red SOLIDWORKS menu tab expands to display the dropdown menus that we would typically expect to see in a Microsoft Windows-style program:

  • File
  • Edit
  • View
  • Insert
  • Tools
  • Window

These menus contain a wide variety of document-level options for saving, opening, printing, and inspecting your file, options for customizing aspects of the user interface, and access to all the SOLIDWORKS modeling functions available for the CAD environment in use (part, assembly, or drawing). The SOLIDWORKS Menus may be pinned permanently visible using the pin icon to the right.

Quick Access Tools

Quick Access tools in SOLIDWORKS

The Quick Access Tools toolbar is comprised of tools that deal at the file-level. It includes:

  • Home (the splash screen with Recent Documents, file templates, etc.)
  • New Document
  • Open
  • Save
  • Print
  • Undo/Redo
  • Selection Tools
  • Rebuild
  • File Properties
  • Options/Customize/Add-Ins

The quick access tools are always visible in the Menu Bar by default but may be moved to the CommandManager if desired. As a SOLIDWORKS toolbar, it may also be customized to include favorite commands, or show fewer commands.

The CommandManager

Command Manager

The CommandManager contains a series of tool pallets that are optimized for your current CAD environment and is the most readily customizable aspect of the interface. It is arranged into tabs that each contain a different category of tools. At the part or assembly level, the primary tabs include:

  • Features (or Assembly, in an Assembly file)
  • Sketch
  • Evaluate
  • SOLIDWORKS Add-Ins.

Special application tools such as Surfacing, Sheet Metal, Weldments, Simulation, CAM, etc. may be shown by right-clicking any of the tabs, choosing “Tabs” from the drop-down menu, and check-marking any additional tabs that you would like to see.

Tabs menu drop down

At the Drawing level, the tabs include:

  • Drawing
  • Annotation
  • Sketch
  • Markup
  • Evaluate
  • SOLIDWORKS Add-Ins
  • Sheet Format

Each tab of the CommandManager contains the most commonly used tools for the current environment but may be customized to include additional user-preferred tools, as a host of additional tools lies just under the surface (often accessible from the Insert or Tools tab in the SOLIDWORKS Menus). Alternatively, the CommandManager may be collapsed or hidden if a cleaner interface is preferred.

The FeatureManager Design Tree

FeatureManager Drop Down List

The FeatureManager Design Tree displays all the design information about the part, assembly, or drawing file being viewed. The FeatureManager is comprised of the following tabs across the top:

  • FeatureManager Design Tree tab (shown by default, the primary design and layout information for the part, assembly, or drawing)
  • The PropertyManager (an in-context properties menu)
  • The ConfigurationManager
  • The DimXpert tab
  • The DisplayManager (appearances, decals, lighting, etc.)

The main FeatureManager tab plays an integral part to model and assembly files, as most user operations are stored here.

At the part-level, the primary planes, origin, and material of the part is shown, along with the history of every modeling operation used to construct the part. This history gives the user the ability to “go back in time” and make changes to any previous operation as needed.

At the assembly-level, the primary assembly planes and origin are shown, along with a listing of every component and subassembly present. Beneath this is a folder that contains all the mates that are in use in the assembly, and then any assembly features that have been used, such as cuts and holes. As shown in the Assembly tree image (center), the FeatureManager may be expanded out to reveal a Display Pane with information about hidden/shown components, display style, appearance, and transparency.

At the drawing level, the main FeatureManager tab displays any sheets, drawing views, and sheet formats present in the drawing file. Drawing views may be expanded to show their assembly or part level features.

The Heads-Up View Toolbar

Heads-up view tool

The Heads-Up View Toolbar is composed of tools for visualizing your part, assembly, or drawing. These tools deal with orienting your model (or drawing) and changing its appearance and appearance style. Like other toolbars, this list of tools may be customized or hidden.

The Graphics Area

Graphics area where model/assembly/drawing is visible

Taking up most of the screen’s real estate is the Graphics Area, where your model/assembly/drawing is visible, and able to be interacted with. By default, a soft, 3-point-lighting scene is applied to the background, allowing for optimal visibility of the subject, but this scene may be changed to any variety of preset or custom scenes.

At the bottom-left of the Graphics Area is an interactive triad that indicates the model’s orientation in 3-Dimensional XYZ space. The space has a virtually unlimited footprint in all directions, scaling to the size and positional needs of the model. As such, standard views will scale with the model as well, keeping the bounds of the model reasonably fit to the viewing window.

At the top-right are the local minimize/maximize/exit/switch-window commands, which allow a user to have multiple SOLIDWORKS files open at once, and to switch between them at will.

The Task Pane

SOLIDWORKS Task Pane

On the right side of the SOLIDWORKS User Interface is the collapsible Task Pane. By Default, the Task Pane includes the following tabs:

  • SOLIDWORKS Resources. This includes access to the Welcome screen, SOLIDWORKS tools like the Property Tab Builder, SOLIDWORKS RX, and the Copy Settings Wizard, Online Resources, and Subscription Services.
  • The Design Library. This includes libraries of CAD models from SOLIDWORKS.com, Toolbox components, library features and parts, and any bookmarked CAD folders you may want to use.
  • File Explorer. This is a condensed view of Windows Explorer that can be easier to navigate than a typical File-Open.
  • View Palette. This tab applies to Drawings only and populates with standard orthographic and axonometric drawing views that can easily be added to the sheet.
  • Appearances, Scenes and Decals. This tab allows you to explore the SOLIDWORKS database of part and scene appearances and apply them to parts or assemblies. User-defined folder-locations may be added to this tab to expand the database further.
  • Custom Properties. This tab is dependent on the Property Tab Builder utility and gives users the ability to input custom properties in more of a prompt & response fashion. If no Property Tab Builder has been used for the part (or template), nothing will show in this tab.
  • PDM and 3DEXPERIENCE tabs. If a user is connected to a PDM vault or 3DEXPERIENCE connector, tabs will become visible for those products once the add-ins are enabled in SOLIDWORKS.

By default, the Task Pane will collapse when not in use, but may be pinned visible if desired. The Task Pane may also be hidden, for a cleaner User Interface. See article, “Rethinking the SOLIDWORKS Graphical User Interface – Part 3: The Minimalist Approach” for tips on simplifying the SOLIDWORKS User Interface.

The Status Bar

SOLIDWORKS Status bar

Spanning the bottom of the screen from left to right is a simple but useful display bar for your part, assembly, or drawing.

On the bottom left, the user’s currently installed version of SOLIDWORKS (package, year, and service pack) is displayed. Towards the right is information on what is being edited currently (part, assembly, sheet, sketch, etc.) On the right side, the system units are shown, and may be changed on the fly. In a drawing, Sheet Scale is also included here and may be redefined by a standard or user-defined scale.

The SOLIDWORKS UI – Conclusion

As this basic breakdown of UI elements has demonstrated, SOLIDWORKS packs a remarkable amount of functionality into an elegant, intuitive interface. Everything on screen serves a purpose, giving a wealth of information and utility to the user. So next time you hop on SOLIDWORKS, try to take in the whole interface, realizing that every square inch is designed to make us more productive and more successful in our CAD work. To continue the discovery of how to make the SOLIDWORKS interface your own, keep an eye out for Part 2 of this series, “Customizing the SOLIDWORKS User Interface”.

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Ben Colley

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