3ds Max Essentials: Customizing the UI

Summary: What's Customizable in Max (High Level)

When it comes to the customizability of Autodesk 3ds Max®, it’s no secret that it can morph itself into whatever you want the program to become.

Whether you're a modeler, animator, lighter, rigger, generalist, or technical artist, 3ds Max can become your own personalized tool box that is an extension of your own hand in your daily work. You can now combine different command types (such as creating objects and object modifiers) into a single menu, reducing the mouse travel and improving efficiency.

In this article, we're going to take a closer look at one specific aspect of customization with 3ds Max, the new enhanced UI. As part of this article, besides taking a deep dive into the operation of this feature, I will also be showing how I created the "Mograph" tools UI that includes custom buttons and icons. At the end of this article I will also provide a link to this UI so you can use it, customize it yourself, or share it with others.

Enhanced UI Summary

What Is the Enhanced UI?

The Enhanced UI is a new graphical user interface system that does two main things.

1) It provides a refreshed 3ds Max user interface with updated tool categories and new clusters of pre-existing tools in groupings that are more akin to their intended purpose as opposed to some technical requirement for menu placement.
2) It provides a way to allow you, the end user, to customize the menu system in almost any way you choose. The drop-down menus are "tear-able" (not to be confused with "terrible"… but I digress) and the resulting configurations are savable either by scene or as a preset. They are also distributable and deployable so they can be shared with others.

Where Is the Enhanced UI?

The Enhanced UI can be found in the upper left hand corner of the main UI at the very top of the screen. There is a drop-down menu that says "Workspace: Default" This default is the same baseline UI that ships with all 3ds Max installs (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Workspaces are in the Workspace drop-down menu

Within the drop-down, you can find the "Default with Enhanced Menus." This is the alternative default menu system that you can use on its own or use as a starting point to create your own customized menus.

Figure 2: Default UI (left) and the Default Enhanced UI (right)

Basic Default Customization

Enhanced UI Customization Basics

Now that we've enabled the Enhanced UI, how can we change it?

STOP! Before you begin mucking around with the UI, It's important to understand what I call the "save-logic" as it pertains to custom UIs.

The UI Save Logic

If you plan on saving this UI for future use, there is a specific method you must follow to properly save the UI you want and not wreck the default Enhanced UI.

The Save Logic is as follows. It’s simple but important.

Step 1: Turn on Enhanced Default UI (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Turning on the Enhanced Default UI

Step 2: Click “Save as New Workspace” FIRST. At this point you will be prompted for a new name (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Saving the New UI Workspace

Step 3: Edit and change the UI at will.

NOTE: All future edits are "automatically remembered" as you go. (I intentionally did not use the word "save.")

Step 4: The "save as default state" button is important. When we have completed the customization process, we then choose this button to "lock" in the changes. This is different than Saving a UI with a custom name.

HOT TIP: "But this methodology seems backward."

I can see how you'd say that, but remember that any changes you make to any enhanced UI are automatically "remembered." If you create a custom UI, then while working you make some temporary changes when doing something specific, those little changes are automatically remembered. If you want to return to the default state [of your customized UI], you select "Reset to default state." This does NOT bring back the default Max UI; rather, it brings back the customized UI you created in “locked” in Step 4.

Okay, now that you have the save logic down, let’s begin customizing.

1) If you haven't done so already, turn on the Default Enhanced UI.
2) Go to "Manage workspaces” from the drop-down and in the Manage workspaces dialog choose "Save as new Workspace." Give it a specific name.
3) Begin making your desired changes.

Since a custom UI is specific to any one individual, let’s take a look at what types of customizations can be made.

Simple Changes

One of the simplest things to do is peel off any command group. (see Figure 5). Just click the group title bar and drag. The command group becomes a floating dialog box. Now just because you've peeled it off does not mean that you've removed it from the drop-down menu. The "original" command group remains in the drop-down. You can just close the floating dialog when you're done with it.

Figure 5: A floating menu that has been torn off the drop-down menu

Probably the simplest thing you can do is reorganize the menus. In each drop-down menu appears a group of commands. You may notice that some command groups are icons and some are words (Figure 6). To change the appearance of the commands there is a small icon in the upper right corner of each group of commands (Figure 7).

Figure 6: The different display states of the menus

Figure 7: Changing menu layouts

The next change is also really simple—is the command group open (expanded) or closed (rolled up)? Just click on the plus or minus sign in the upper left corner to set this state for the next time you launch 3ds Max (Figure 8). Remember, these settings are saved as you go, so whether it is open or closed is your choice, but the state the menu is in when you close Max is the one that is remembered the next time Max opens.
What about Saving the Default state? More on this later.

Figure 8: Rollouts

Once you have a floating menu, you can combine different command groups by dragging any other command group to any other floating dialog that you've created. This makes for easy creation of custom dialogs based on specific tasks. Figure 9 shows a command group for character animation.

Figure 9: Multiple command groups in one menu

Advanced Customization

What about completely custom interfaces? Here's how we do that with the Enhanced UI menu system.

The following is the high-level overview of the process. We'll then unpack each step in more detail.

If you haven't read the section on Basic default customization, please do so before continuing. Before starting this phase of creating your new UI, you should have saved your new UI state. That process is explained in the previous section.

1) Create a main drop-down menu (like "My Tools").
2) Create a tools category menu into which you will place your tools (a submenu such as "Modeling Tools" or "Animation Tools"). Drop-downs can have more than one subcategory.
3)  Add commands to various submenus.
4) Clean up the UI by creating custom names, adding separators, or creating custom icons.

First let’s create a new menu for the menu bar. This is done easily from the Customize>Customize [Rollout]>Customize User Interface dialog box.

Steps for Creating a Drop-Down Menus:

1) Create a New Menu and give it a name (see Figure 10).

Figure 10 – Creating a new drop down menu

2) Locate your new menu in the Menus window. It will be listed alphabetically (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Location of new menu

3) Drag your newly created menu category over to the column on the right. This will add your new drop-down menu to the interface immediately and you can begin populating it with menu items (see Figure 12).

Figure 12: Adding the new menu to the UI

UI DESIGN TIP: The actual menu name and display name can be different. I used a custom menu name behind the scenes so I could easily differentiate my menus from the ones created by default or other tool companies. After you create a menu and add it to the right column, you can right-click on it and change its display name (see Figure 13).

Figure 13: Custom menu names

Next, let’s create a command group.

1) Just like in Step 1 from the previous section, create a new menu.
2) This time, before you drag it to the right column, click the plus sign next to your drop-down menu item to expand it. Then drag the new item to the right column dropping it "under" the menu name.

Figure 14: Creating a command group

3) Drag any commands from the Commands window on the left to the submenu on the right (see Figure 15).

Figure 15: Dragging commands onto the menu

Here's an example from my Mograph Tools workspace that shows how a completed menu looks once it is created  (Figure 16). In the following figure, you see both the menu as it appears in the Customize UI dialog and the actual menu (which has been peeled off).

Figure 16: The completed menu

Notice that some of the commands on the menu are greyed out. That's because this new menu combines both "Object create" commands and "Object Modify Commands" in one menu! They will remain grey until you create an object on which they will be used.

Adding Separators

Separating commands is easy, and recommended to help you or your intended user make sense of the how the tools are arranged in the menu. Creating a separator is as easy as dragging one over the right column, just like a menu or command.

HOT TIP: "Why do I need to create another menu? Why can't I add tools right to my menu?"

The main reason is that adding a submenu gives you the ability to tear off the submenu. If it weren’t in a submenu, it wouldn’t be tear-able. So it’s really a “best practices” kind of thing. But even if you try to not add the submenu, it will happen automatically. It’s important to do it explicitly so you are aware of what submenus are in the menu and that you are the one in control of what command is going where.

Custom Icons

Any custom UI isn't complete without a custom set of icons. Additionally, not all commands in 3ds Max have their own icon yet. But it’s important to realize that regardless of how you set up your UI, you're still working within the framework of an existing application and there are boundaries to what you can edit and create. Icons have specific requirements both in their creation (size), location and file name that must be adhered to in order for them to work properly.


The size of icon is pretty simple. It must be 32x32 pixels and .PNG format.


The location is very specific. New icons must be added to this location:
C:\Program Files\Autodesk\3ds Max 2014\UI_ln\Resources\Dark\Icons\Main

The new icons I created for the Mograph UI are shown in Figure 17.

Figure 17 – The created icons

Icon File Name

If you're still with me at this point, we are now getting into the nether regions of customizing a UI. This is where things get a little tricky, but it’s really not too bad. File names are specific and are generated by the application (3ds Max).

So let’s begin. First, identify the command for which you want an icon—usually it’s one that doesn't already have an icon. But if it does, and you’re changing it,  MAKE A BACK UP of the original icon .PNG file. This is because, as previously stated, you don't have control over the file name. That means if you're creating your own icon, you need to overwrite the existing one and use its name for your new icon. So back up any original icons.

It really doesn't matter whether you make the icon first or not. To find the name you need to use you need to navigate as follows.

NOTE: You're about to edit the ribbon. There is no need to save these changes as we are merely extracting information from it. But if you're doing a lot of custom icon work, you may want to save this change to the ribbon so you can come back and continue your work in later sessions without have to recreate this every time just to get the proper file name. Saving this ribbon is not related to saving your default state of your UI. When you're done creating all your UI icons, you can just delete whatever changes you make to the ribbon.

1)  Open the "Customize Ribbon" dialog box.
2)  Create a new "tab" by dragging it onto the "Existing UI" column in the middle (see Figure 18).

Figure 18: Create a tab on the ribbon

3) Using the same drag method, add a new "panel" to the temp tab (Figure 19).

Figure 19: Adding a panel to the tab

4) Now you can get the information you need. Find the command for which you are creating an icon and drag it to the panel.

5) Locate the "info" portion of the "Preview Window" column. At the bottom of the column is the file name needed to have the icon used properly by the application (Figure 20).

Figure 20: Finding the required file name


So now you know how to create a custom UI scheme for 3ds Max 2014 and up. By using the Enhanced UI menu system, it’s really easy to generate a multitude of workspaces that allow Max to work the way you want to work.
The example used in this article was the “Mograph” UI that I created for NAB 2013. If you would like to download and install it, you can get it from my “Pinning the Stack” blog on the Area here:


Chris Murray works for Autodesk Media & Entertainment. He is trained as an animator (3D variety) but considers himself a creative technologist. His daily role is a technical “evangelist” for Autodesk creating marketing deliverables for 3ds Max. He is the author of Mastering 3D Studio Max. He has a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) in Computer Animation from Miami International University of Art and Design. Follow him on Twitter: @chrismmurray

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