SpatialTau v2.2 – The Toolbar

SpatialTau is my weekly newsletter that goes out every Wednesday. The archive shows up in my blog a month after the newsletter is published. If you’d like to subscribe, please do so here.

The Toolbar

If there is one thing that you can take away from GIS software is it’s love of the toolbar. Every function has a little button on the toolbar. One can turn on all the toolbars in ArcGIS Desktop and you get this nightmare.

ArcGIS Toolbars

But it isn’t just Esri, QGIS almost as bad (possibly uglier).

QGIS Toolbars

I get some things are best done by having a toolbar, editing vectors for one seems so logical. But most are just some tool library that some programmer links up to some obscure bitmap graphic that represents what we’re trying to do. I’ve been struggling to think of a better way though.


  1. ModelBuilder/FME Workbench: The logical method to performing GIS analysis is a flow diagram. The data flows through analysis like water through pipes. At the bottom is the outcome (hopefully clean and pure). Rather than highlighting a feature/layer, you perform the selection with SQL-type statements and apply logic rather than luck.
  2. Scripting: Goes somewhat hand-in-hand with above. The visualization of the scripting is handled by ModelBuilder/FME Workbench allowing the GIS analyst to show others what they are doing. As much as I do love scripting and GIS, the visualization methods used by ModelBuilder/FME Workbench allow sharing of the model with other who might not see the workflow.
  3. Wizards: Yea I hate wizards but in a way they work better than a toolbar. They are very limited in what they do but it limits the user to the “rails” of the wizard workflow ensuring that they complete the analysis correctly. Most of the time the toolbars call wizards to complete a function. This is the method preferred by button pushers.
  4. Intellisense: This was the great hope I’ve had with GIS software. All the power of the command line but all the modern features of an IDE. Esri has prototyped this for Python and ArcPy but it is sort of a hack rather than the preferred method. I always felt I was at my best spatial analysis with ARC/INFO back in the day and I’m sure when Esri/QGIS release such a tool integrated into the application I’ll go back to using it.

I love the clean look of a blank canvas for creativity and unfortunately GIS software just clutters up that zen with crazy Windows XP logic. ArcGIS Professional brings the ribbon interface which hides much of these toolbars but it’s still confusing and illogical (seriously, those tabs are a crap shoot for finding a tool). There has been much innovation with mobile and web mapping. Hopefully we’ll see ArcGIS Professional and QGIS start to push the envelope with their interfaces. Just because we’ve been doing this way since ArcView 2.x does mean it is right.