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Blender Sculpt Mode UI proposal

A couple of months ago I created that playlist with sculpting timelapses done with 2.5 releases. In most of them I go with basically the default UI and build upon that while working. But I can do that because I'm familiar with Blender, I know how its UI works.

Development of sculpting tools has been amazing the past two years, but the tools are not as accessible as they could.
There's been a growth in number of users that could be increased by making the sculpt mode more pleasant to use.

I can make the changes locally and live with that, but after going with the first-use-of-Blender exercise over all those versions of the interface, a sculpt layout in the defaults would be great to have.

William Reynish's article about Design & Open Source talks about establishing Core design principles to base the UI decissions.

I'm not a designer, so my opinion is most probably flawed and biased towards my main area of interest, but I think enforcing some already in place principles could make user experience better for sculptors.

I'll use the first three design principles from this article William linked to, as a way to structure the explanation. I haven't gone, in the text, into how to change panels distribution so we can improve experience, but I think Gianmichele Mariani UI proposal proves there's changes needed to be made in that regard too.

Stay out of people's way
When someone is trying to get something done, they're on a mission. Don't interrupt them unnecessarily, don't set up obstacles for them to overcome, just pave the road for an easy ride. Your designs should have intentional and obvious paths, and should allow people to complete tasks quickly and freely.

Blender is very complex, and the reason for it's complexity comes from it's intent to encompass all parts of a production pipeline into one package. It's massive set of features is one of its strengths I value the most. But, a consequence of this is a busy-looking UI.

The image above is Blender's default screen layout after you switch to sculpt mode in the 3d View.
Below, is a screen layout I created which shows all the relevant information I need when sculpting. While the needs of the user may vary, and some other layout choices could be made, I thinks this shows that current UI philosophy can be streamlined to avoid clutter.

Sculpting is just a tiny part of the Blender whole, and the user experience could be enhanced greatly with options already available, just by enforcing one aspect of current UI principles. There's a list of layouts, and it's very easy to add new ones and switch between them.

Perhaps focusing on a dedicated app mindset when it comes to UX decisions for these layouts could help in keeping the UI out of users way.

Present few choices
The more choices a person is presented with, the harder it is for them to choose.
This is what Barry Schwartz calls The Paradox of Choice. Remove the "nice to haves" and focus instead of the necessary alternatives a person needs to make in order to greatly impact the outcome.

By presenting the user with a work environment completely adapted to its task after one choice we can reduce the amount of available options for him immediately, thus allowing the UI more clarity.

Continuing with the sculpting example, below there's a picture of a zoomed-in tool shelf to hide choices that could be removed/ignored if better defaults were available.

Other panels may remain accessible, but having them out of the visible area leaves more space for fewer options while gaining more accurate tools.

Symmetry tab could be hidden if there were shortcuts for enabling/disabling. Avoiding unnecessary clicking and repetitive hand travelling.

X,Y,Z  keys could be used for this. The only conflicting key would be Z, but it  does not make much sense to activate wire-frame mode while sculpting.

Limit distractions
It's a myth that people can multitask. Short of chewing gum while walking, people can't actually do two things simultaneously; they end up giving less attention to both tasks and the quality of the interaction suffers. An effective design allows people to focus on the task at hand without having their attention diverted to less critical tasks. Design for tasks to be carried out consecutively instead of concurrently in order to keep people in the moment.

Here are a couple of screenshots of Blender with Softblend theme:

The reason I've been using this theme for some time now is that I find blender's new default too distracting. Everything has a lot of contrast, screaming for attention all the time.

Since some changes to the UI are being discussed and applied, I'd like to point to Martin's theme and his use of contrast for defining hierarchy and leading users eyes. By relying on colour and type for recognition of areas and options instead of shapes like it's done in current default, the theme minimizes the amount of information available at a quick glance, avoiding clutter without changing the structure of current UI.
Using this approach, which is already used in a few cases now, and giving the highest preference to objects in the 3d View may solve distraction coming from the interface.

Softblend may be an extreme example, and the colour choice is just a personal one, but playing with a wider range of opacities for options representation might be a good path to explore. Greying-out of unselected options as seen in the display panel is a good example of this.

Additionally,  one of the most central aspects of being a designer is the ability to say no, to keep focus on a few things and do them really well.

The above quote from William's post is what finally made me write all this.
There's been some people asking from time to time about turning Blender into a set of specific apps under a main framework, but all of these attempts have been approached from a technical side of things and usually rejected by coders. It seems like the idea is better not to be tackled from that side, but that doesn't mean it cannot be done through the UI.

Blender already has the infrastructure in place, it only needs better defaults.
A couple of possible solutions would be:

- create more niche layouts (maybe derived from BI Open Movies Usage?) that cater to individual pipeline needs. Sculpt, Bake, and Paint layouts come first to mind.

- adding a layout selector to splash screen like done with interaction presets.

Even though I tried to give a few solutions for my particular area of interest, those may not work for other areas or are already covered by existing design.

Regardless of the solutions exposed, the concept of breaking down Blender's feature set into defined areas is very valid, it should be expanded and given relevance in user experience. Working in that direction looks like a good way to avoid clutter in the UI.

Finally, I'd love to further discuss this, so feel free to comment.

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