Tool Options evaluations

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The preliminary list of evalution targets is available at Preliminary evaluation list.

Notes on toolbars

Most applications evaluated -with the notable exception of GIMP- use toolbars as focal point of tool selection and manipulation, with the left vertical toolbar being the place for the toolbox and the top horizontal toolbar the place for options.

Most toolbars consist of labels, icons, toggle buttons and entry widgets in the form of sliders, drop down and spin widgets. Other widgets -radio buttons, check buttons, link buttons- are generally not found in these toolbars, with the exception of Photoshop.

The size of elements in toolbars is in general somewhat smaller than other default elements of the UI. The placing of the toolbar on top just below the window menu makes it harder to hit, since there are many targets there in a small vertical space (see pictures below for some examples). In GNOME 3 the hotspot in the topleft corner may even interfere if movements are too imprecise.

Tkr krita toolbar.jpg
Tkr illustrator toolbar.jpg
Tkr indesign toolbar.jpg
Default tool options toolbar location in Krita, Illustrator and InDesign respectively (click to enlarge)

In general tools in the toolbox can be selected by a single keypress, however tool options can often only be reached by selecting the toolbar and stepping through the options. The keyboard navigation behaviour is very inconsistent and incomplete, which makes it near impossible to manipulate options by keyboard alone.

Notes on complementary applications

Despite the fact that the Adobe suite looks similar and complement each other functionality wise, under the hood there are a lot of small differences even on the widget level that makes behaviour unpredictable between applications. A far stride from the united nature in which it presents itself. Although the opensource applications evaluated here are not necessarily meant to be complementary interface- or otherwise, the fact that some of them use the same widget libraries provides an opportunity to describe and provide a common set of widgets with similar behaviour, look and feel to create a greater sense of unity. Common behaviour could include key-/scrollevent, manipulation of entries, handling of measurement units and design.


Inkscape is a vector drawing program, as such it deals only with vector canvas objects that can be further manipulated at any time in their lifespan.

By default the toolbox is a toolbar on the left of the canvas. Tool options are in a toolbar just above the document, left aligned. This makes the tool options somewhat hard to reach, as it is close to the application menu and (in GNOME 3) close to the hot corner. On the other hand it is relatively close to the canvas. The toolbars can be torn off, but cannot be attached elsewhere, it is not possible to change their orientation. The toolbars use separators to define functional units, however some of these functional units can be quite large. The toolbars do not use radio or checkbuttons, labels or icons are used for clarification of setting. Inkscape uses sliders or spin buttons for numerical entry. The sliders are always ranged from 0-100 (even for eg. rotation settings) and consist of a label on top and the slider below, presumably to minimize horizontal space used, the label moves left or right with the position of the slider. Units are often used in combination with a functional unit, so there is no entry specific unit selection. One oddity encountered was the size of the font selection drop down, which was so large that it could contain even the largest font names easily. Inkscape uses icon buttons extensively to manipulate settings, however some of these icons look very much alike and the difference seems to small to easily differentiate between them.

Most tools are about creating or manipulating objects or their paths. Tools that create objects have "New" as a label on the left in the tool options toolbar, as soon as an object is created on canvas or an old object is selected this label is changed to "Change" to indicate you are now working on a live canvas object. Changes made in the toolbar are reflected immediately on the canvas, however changes on the canvas are not always immediately reflected on the toolbar. In cases of dragging paths on the canvas the toolbar was not updated until after the mouse-release. This behaviour is inconsistent between the different tools. Whenever an object is selected on canvas the options in the toolbar reflect the properties of that object until a non relevant tool or object is selected.

The tool options for manipulating numerical values consist of spinbuttons that can be stepped in steps of 1 by mouseclicks, 0.1 by mousescroll or 1 and 5 by keys. Manual input is also possible. For ranges that usually can go from 1 to a few hundred this is a rather slow way to manipulate these variables, although quite exact.

The major tools have all straightforward keyboard shortcuts. The tool options toolbar also is keyboard accessible, however stepping between the different proved to be difficult if not near impossible to navigate at times. The behaviour was also hard to predict.

Tool options stay the same between tool switches and reflect the settings of last selected relevant object. There is only an option to use a preset style (as in default colors) for every object or use the last used style, this option can be set by doubleclicking the tool icon.

Inkscape shares settings between documents, so if several documents are open the tool options reflect the settings of the object which was last selected or manipulated, no matter which document that was in.

Scribus 1.4.1

Scribus is a desktop publishing application, as such it deals only with vector canvas objects that can be further manipulated at any time in their lifespan.

The Scribus toolbox is by default located in the top toolbar just above the canvas. It is in between other toolbars for file manipulation, copy & pasting and a toolbar for PDF specific features. As such the toolbox may be hard to find in between the other toolbars. However the tools are close to the canvas and may be right above the action. Toolbars consist of just icons and contain no separators. The toolbars can be flipped horizontally or vertically and can be docked anywhere along the sides of the main window. The toolbox tools consist of basic functions like creating an image or textfield, manipulation of objects or creating basic shapes. The shapes tool icons have a drop down menu to select different shapes or to manipulate settings in a new window.

Creating new objects is always with a default setup, manipulation of options is a consecutive step. Manipulation is done through a double click on the object, which in some cases (drawn objects) opens a nodes menu for further manipulation or enters the field for manipulation (text, image, etc.). Further tool options can be found by rightclicking the object and selecting properties. This opens up a window with a default tab like interface, of which some tabs may be grayed out depending on the object. Manipulation of these options is immediatly visible on the canvas, the reverse is not true. Manipulating the canvas object is not visible in the options until after the manipulation (eg. resizing). The tabbed interface makes it impossible to have an overview of all settings at once.

Keyboard shortcuts for most tool options are readily available, as well as for the option windows. The option window is easily keyboard navigated. Manipulation of numerical settings is by spinbuttons and as such quite precise, but often slow.

Scribus has no concept of presets, every new object comes with the default settings and is to be manipulated afterwards. These defaults do not seem to be changable. Because of aforementioned defaults every new document comes with the same settings.

MyPaint 0.9.1

MyPaint is a painting application, as such it only deals with brushes and direct on canvas pixel manipulation.

The interface of MyPaint consists by default of a canvas with two floating windows, a brush selection and settings window and a color selection window. The brush selection is straightforward, a brush can be selected from a tagged set of brush icons and the icon indicates what to expect of this brush. The tagging of brushes avoids the brush icons list becoming too large and complex. Keyboard shortcuts are not available to select brushes. The options are available from the same window on the bottom and consists of sliders for opacity, radius and hardness.

The sliders are not precise and cannot be manipulated otherwise. They change size with the windows size, which makes them more or less precise or even -on small window sizes- unusable. Their values are somewhat unclear especially opacity of 0 to 2.0, radius -2.0 to 5.0. It is unclear what these values mean. Upon switching brushes these setups are returned to their default. However there is a keyboard system to save and select brush setups for the duration of the application runtime, 10 slots, saving by Ctrl+nr and restoring by pressing the nr. Also with rightclicking one can switch through up to 5 previous colors.

Changing tool options does not reflect on the canvas. Objects on the canvas cannot be manipulated. The tool option windows can be easily hidden with keyboard shortcuts to have maximal view of the canvas. The windows can be placed wherever is useful to the user.

MyPaint has no concept of multidocument editing.

Photoshop CS6

Photoshop is an image manipulation tool, as such it consists of per-pixel as well as object/selection manipulations.

The toolbox in Photoshop is the left toolbar, tool options are on top in a toolbar. The top toolbar is positioned just below the menubar and that makes it relatively hard to hit precisely. The top toolbar can be torn-off, but only be locked on top. The side bars can be dragged to either side and tools can be made 2 icons wide. It is not possible to flip the toolbars orientation wise. The toolbars are made into functional units by separators. An oddity was the use of check and even occasionally radio buttons in the tool options bar. Labels were used to clarify fuctionality.

Tool options can be directly manipulated in the tool options toolbar before or during the use of a tool. It is possible to define or recall presets by a drop down menu in the tool options toolbar, either per tool or for all tools. This makes it easy to add new presets and switch as long as there are not too many of them.

Tool options are usually quite sparse, but often have drop down menus for more specific manipulation. As such offering full functionality with limited space. Tool options for numerical input often consist of a combined spin/drop-down widget in which the drop down can be a slider or a selection of bigger steps. This means that precise manipulation is quite fast and manipulation of values on a macro level is 1 further step away. Keyboard shortcuts are plenty and navigating through toolbars is relatively straightforward. The spin widgets can contain unit indicators, it is not clear from the entry which units are accepted.

Tkr adobe spindropdown.jpg
Combination of spinbutton and drop-down control in Photoshop
Tkr adobe sliderdropdown.jpg
Dropdown slider control in Photoshop

The size of selected areas on the canvas is reflected in a widget on canvas, not in the tool options. The opacity of a gradient is reflected in the gradient selection drop down, not reflected immediately while manipulating the opacity.

Changes made in the tool options do not necessarily directly translate to a live canvas object, this behaviour is not consistent between tools. It may be that a value needs to be changed before the change is made on canvas. The other way around the feedback is consistently updated in the tool options. Transformations of live canvas objects are relative, not absolute.

Between documents the presets are saved, they are application wide. Settings for tools also stay the same between documents for the runtime of the application.

Illustrator CS6

Illustrator is a vector drawing program, as such it deals only with vector canvas objects that can be further manipulated at any time in their lifespan.

The toolbox is the left toolbar and tool options are in the top toolbar, keeping a consistent placement between Adobe applications. Toolbars can be torn-off and dragged around and attached on the opposite side, cannot be flipped however.

Tool options can be manipulated before creating an object. After creation manipulation of the tool options may not have a direct effect on the canvas. Tool options are similar widget wise to Photoshop, however Illustrator makes use of link like labels to open up a transient window with extra options. These -besides extending- sometimes duplicate functionality that is already in the toolbar, which can be somewhat confusing.

Tkr adobe labeldropdown.jpg
'Y:' Linkbutton opening up settings window in Illustrator

Like other Adobe products keyboard navigation is good, the there are a lot of keyboard shortcuts. However navigation of the toolbar seems to be lacking. Numerical entry in the toolbar is mostly done by the use of spin buttons that can be controlled by modifiers like Alt, Ctrl and Shift and take different steps depending on the modifier when using the keyboard up and down keys, scrolling with the mouse is also possible, but without modifiers. However it is still relative to the object size how fast and or precise this can be, since the modifications are absolute. So fast and precise manipulation is not guaranteed. Units are indicated and can be entered in the entry widgets, will be converted to pt.

Tool options by doubleclicking open up dialogs, which do not directly reflect their settings back on the canvas. Canvas objects that are manipulated do not get immediately updated in the tool options either, only after the manipulation is the toolbar updated.

Between documents the last tool setup is retained. There is no clear preset system like in Photoshop.

InDesign CS6

InDesign is a desktop publishing application, as such it deals only with vector canvas objects that can be further manipulated at any time in their lifespan.

The toolbox is the left toolbar and tool options are in the top toolbar, consistent with other Adobe applications. The tool bar (left) can be flipped, but not attached elsewhere, it can be sized to 2 icons wide. The top bar (tool options) can be attached top or bottom.

The tool options however consist of a double line toolbar and is per-line smaller than usual, which makes it especially crowded and difficult to reach targets. The tool options use separators for distinction of functional units. Labels are hardly used and mostly icons are used instead to maximize functionality in minimal space, but again makes it more crowded. The signature spin/dropdown combo is used extensively, making for a pretty fast, but also accurate control. The spinbuttons work with modifiers, however not with all modifiers other applications in the suite offer. It is not possible to mousescroll in spinbuttons, this is quite inconsistent with the other Adobe applications.

Changes in the tool options are reflected immediatly on canvas, but not if entered in a drop down. Numerical entry widgets can take other units than default, these will be converted to p when entered.

InDesign works with the create object first then manipulate paradigm, so there are no tool options to be set up front. Tool options are extensive however, leading to said crowding in the top toolbar. Keyboard navigation is reliable and predictable.

Tool options in InDesign are not shared between documents, as they are not shared between runs.

Krita 2.4.1

Krita is a program for sketching and painting, as such it consists of per-pixel as well as object/selection manipulations.

The toolbox is the left toolbar, general tool options are in the top toolbar and specific options are on the right in a docked widget. The toolbars are separated into functional units by separators, which are hardly visible (this might be a theming issue). The top toolbar cannot be moved, the tool bar on the left can be moved and made 2 icons wide.

Manipulation of the tool happens in different places, because of the seperation of options in the top bar and right widget. There is no way to retain setups, only the last used is remembered while the application runs.

Most tool options do not reflect back on the canvas, options like size of selections are not reflected in the tool options. The size of some objects can be manipulated in the options, but needs an adapt followed by enter cycle to be reflected on canvas. Krita uses a progressbar/slider like entry for some values (somewhat like GIMPSpinScale), which is relatively fast and can be accurate by entering the actual value by hand. Mousescrolling in this widget is possible in steps of 5, keyboard up/down will work as well, but the text won't get updated if selected. Tool options in the right widget are far from uniform and it seems every tool chooses it's own layout, preferred widgets and use of labels and/or icons. The top toolbar seems to be the place for general tool options, however not all options are general and may be grayed out depending on the tool used. Another oddity of the top toolbar are the opacity/flow/size progressbar/slider widgets, which are one functional unit, however only two can be shown at a time and the third is always hidden. There are unit indicators in entry (spin) buttons, these cannot be manipulated. Resource selection -like brush/pattern- is available from a button in the top bar and will open a transient window to relatively quickly select a new resource from a number of presets. There is also a button for brush settings, allowing to create new brushes or manipulate existing presets further. The size of this window does obscure the canvas considerably, switching resources like this requires a full break from the on-canvas workflow. It does contain a preview area, for quick testing of the brush.

Krita can manipulate multiple documents at a time, each has their own full window. Tool option settings are per window/document and get reset on creation/opening of a new document. Tool options are not retained between runs.

GIMP 2.8.0


GIMP by default consists of several windows, of which the main window is situated in the middle and has only a menubar. GIMP has a toolbox window on the left side of the screen, tool options are situated below the toolbox in a docked widget. There is also a window on the right side of the screen containing widgets for layers/paths/channels and brush/pattern/gradient selection below it. In the single window mode the same general layout is used, only now the widgets are docked in the main window in their respective positions. The toolbox section consists of a grid of the tool icons which changes layout on how wide the toolbox window is, by default it is 5 icons wide. The tool options are contrary to pretty much all other evaluated programs aligned vertically, which gives individual options by default quite some space. However vertical space is not unlimited and as such options may run off the screen, which introduces a scrollbar in the widget that also takes horizontal space.

The dockable widgets are all aligned vertically and cannot be flipped horizontally, the choice of widgets makes this practically impossible. The tools themselves however can be made 1 icon wide and as such aligned completely vertical.

The dockable nature of all widgets makes it possible to create a GIMP userinterface layout to ones personal liking, although it is likely that most users will not deviate too much from the default setup. The dockable elements all behave as tab pages and given the vertical nature of the layout the tab handle (which is also drag handle) uses valuable vertical space, but cannot be disabled.

The tool options by default are situated close to the toolbox, so from selecting a tool it is only a short way to manipulating the options. Options are mostly laid out in a top down fashion, in which the top consists of generally most used functions and more detailed functionality is hidden or down the line. Layout inside these widgets is inconsistent, with GNOME HIG rules applied inconsequently.


The GimpSpinScale (GSP) is often used for ranges, it is a hybrid spin and slider like button. The ranges themselves do not always make sense as they seem too wide (eg. brush size up to 1-1000) and are often overprecise (eg. brush size 2 numbers behind the decimal point), however despite the wide ranges it is sometimes possible to enter bigger numbers than the GSP supports. GSP as widget is quite fast and easy to hit because of it's size, however with multiple GSP's below each other they may be hard to tell apart on function, since the name is in the GSP and not necessarily standing out. Manipulation of GSP is also fast and sufficiently precise as long as there is enough horizontal space. Quick mouse selection high on the scale may interfere with the numerical entry, this problem increases with the length of the numerical value. Also the the scroll trick with the upper and lower part of the widget behaving differently on mouseclick + drag makes it difficult to actually hit the right part of the bar, since there is no indication of this area besides a changing mousepointer. The problems with the GSP increase if the tool options width is decreasing: areas become harder to hit, text entry is more of an interference and the widget becomes less precise. The GSP does react to mousescroll, but steps always just 1 even on very large scales, keymodifiers have no effect. If the GSP is selected keyboard steps with Up & Down keys or PgUp & PgDn worked, with the latter taking larger steps, however it depended on the GSP selected how big these steps were.

The use of check or radio buttons is quite common, this makes sense in the vertical layout. However the choice is not always consistent, sometimes a range of toggle buttons are used for similar functionality. Check buttons are sometimes used to hide further detailed options, there was no indication of which check buttons had this behaviour and which did not. The description of options was often redundant or somewhat confusing.

Choosing resources (brush/font/gradient/pattern) usually consists of a button with the resource as icon, a label and a text entry containing the name of the resource. The text entry also functions as text search, which is hard to discover in part because the entry is not very flexible input wise (eg. distinction is made between upper and lower case). The added value of a text search is questionable for resources which can easier be distinguished by vision. The button always provides a GIMP specific pop-up widget to search the resource visually, however this widget is a simplification of the resource specific tab/dock and does not offer as much options. The duplication of functionality may be unneeded and actually harm the discoverability of the extended options the resource tab offers.

Labels are often overdescriptive and tooltips in general are underused or just repeat the option.

The transformation tools like sheer/rotate/etc almost all open up another window to actually apply/manipulate the transformations, as such the tool options for these do not reflect the state of the canvas, the window does. Selection tools however did give immediate feedback on the canvas object and vice versa in the tool options. The measure tool also gives the option of adding an info window, however there is no feedback in the tool options.

Unit selection is always a drop down connected to an entry field (often a spin button). Because of the seperate widgets the connection may not always be clear and it also is quite a size hog to provide both an entry and drop down widget simultaneously.


By default there is no keybind to get to the tool options directly, however this can be added at will. In the default setup it is possible to tab from the toolbox selection into the tool options. Tabbing back and forth through the options is straightforward. Modifier keys (Alt/Shift/Ctrl) are used in some tools to change major functionality easily and quickly while working with a tool.

GIMP has the possibility of storing presets, however the accessibility of this feature seems to be quite low being in the bottom of the tool options widget. Making this feature more accessible would be a plus. GIMP has no concept of setups as defined in the vision, it is possible to switch the size/aspect ratio/angle GSP of paint tools back to defaults easily. It is unclear why this is only implemented only for these specific controls.

Settings between tools are in some cases shared. Options like brush size/aspect ratio/angle are shared between the paint tools, however opacity is not. It is unclear why this distinction is made.

GIMP is capable of handling multiple documents at once. In the windowed layout every new document get it's own new 'main' window, including menubar. The other windows display the elements of the document focused (eg. layers, paths). In the single window mode GIMP uses a tab in the main window for each document opened. Tool options are shared between all documents, so there are no specific setups for each document.