Since its earliest versions, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP, has been dogged by a perceived poor and unfriendly user interface design. While this is certainly a fair criticism, GIMP’s real strength lies in its less talked about customization options and its ability to tailor its design to a user’s particular taste.
How to Reduce GIMP User Interface Frustration
GIMP has had a reputation for being less than intuitive and unwieldy. This has been especially true for those coming from Adobe Photoshop; its most direct comparison. Much has been written weighing the pros and cons of GIMP and Photoshop.
The surface customization options available in the preferences menu are well documented, including tutorials on how to change the overall appearance of the program through downloadable GIMP themes, icons, and plugins.
But very little has been written about the deceptively deep customization options available in the program to help alleviate any UI frustrations. Let’s discuss the dialog and dock customization options that can fundamentally change the GIMP experience based on the user’s needs.
What are docks and dialogs in GIMP?
In GIMP, a tool can always be accessed through a context menu or the main menu at the top. The tools that are used the most and are anchored to the user interface, such as color or tool options, are called dialog boxes. These different dialogs can be grouped into multiple docks based on user preferences.
The way those dialogs and docks are placed and arranged on the screen is the often unwritten strength of GIMP’s customizability.
How to Show, Hide, and Move Dialog Boxes in a GIMP Dock
To get started, let’s take a look at how dialogs and docks work and interact with each other, starting with GIMP’s default layout when the program is first opened.
In the default layout, we can see three separate docks. There is a single dock to the left and below the toolbox. It contains four dialogues: tool options, Devices, Undoand Images.
On the right, there are two docks. The dock at the top contains three dialogs: brushes, patternsand Document history. Below is a panel containing dialogs for layers, channelsand Roads.
To show or hide different dialogs, click windows > Dockable Dialogs. Alternatively, selecting the arrow symbol to the right of any base will allow you to add a new dialog by selecting Add tab.
To remove a dialog, select the same arrow symbol and choose close tab.
To move a dialog to a different panel, simply click and drag the dialog’s tab and drop it onto the header area of any panel of your choice.
To create a new dock, click and drag the dialog tab to any edge of an existing dock and release when that dock’s edge is highlighted. Alternatively, releasing the dialog to any open area of the UI will create a new floating dock.
How to customize dialog options
Let’s take a look at the Dock options, starting with the arrow we select to add and remove dialogs. Next to the add tab and close tab Options are other options that can be used to tailor the appearance and behavior of each dialog.
- Separate tab: Create a floating dock with the dialog selected.
- Lock tab to dock: Prevents any further editing of the selected dialog.
- preview size: Change the size of the images in the dialog.
- Tab Style: Choose whether your dialog headers will be text only, icon only, or both.
- View as List/View as Grid: Choose whether to display dialog previews in a vertical column or as a grid.
- Show button bar: Show shortcuts to frequently used functions at the bottom of each dialog.
The top of that list of options is reserved for specific dialog box options. For example, the Brushes menu or the Paths menu, as shown in the screenshot above.
Customizing your docks in GIMP according to your use case allows you to show only the tabs that are necessary and hide the unnecessary ones. While all the tools are still available, only the ones you use most often are at your fingertips.
Examining the different uses of GIMP customization
Below are three possible examples of how GIMP can be customized to work with the preferences of different artists. These are of course subjective and designed to illustrate the end result of the process.
The photographer, who is interested in using GIMP to retouch photos, needs easy access to things like Histogram, Channels, and tools like Color Balance, Exposure, and Levels in the toolbox. While he limits most of the painting and transform tools to just what is necessary.
There’s little need for additional tools like paths, fonts, patterns, or gradients, so they’ve been removed. While a Sample Points dialog has been added to compare color and exposure settings.
the graphic designer
The graphic designer would use most of the tools in the group, and would need quick access to not only the color options, but also many of the transform options we’ve hidden in the photographer layout above.
We’ve brought back the full set of selection and transformation tools, as well as the Text and Font dialogs, which can be further enhanced by installing third-party GIMP fonts. The most frequently used tools have also been placed on a floating dock that can be conveniently moved around the screen for easy access.
While there are certainly other apps that are better suited to the painter’s workflow, GIMP is well worth it as an option for a hobbyist who doesn’t need a dedicated drawing app. Or just for someone who doesn’t want to have more than one drawing app on their device.
In the painter’s design example here, we’ve created two floating docks that can be moved to stay out of the artist’s way. In the case of a multi-monitor setup, those dialogs can be moved to a second screen, leaving the canvas to fill the entire screen.
Each panel contains only the most basic and necessary dialogs: Brushes, Layers, Tool Options, Color Picker, and Undo.
The GIMP user interface is what the user wants it to be
While the design itself is subjective in nature, it’s not an exaggeration to say that, right off the bat, GIMP’s user interface leaves a lot to be desired. But in the end, the GIMP user interface is as complex or as simple as the user wants it to be.
Customization options, especially those that are less well known, offer an optimized experience for a user who takes the time to consider what they will be using the program for and adjusts the user interface accordingly.
While GIMP isn’t the only alternative to Photoshop, the payoff for taking the time to customize the user interface in GIMP can mean a more streamlined experience for artists.