Clipboardian knot

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Clipboardian knot

Published by on March 30th 2010.

Clipboard seems a pretty straightforward thing. And it is…if you talk about clipboard in Notepad. In case of a complex graphic editor, it is a wild beast. A developer’s nightmare. Or a user’s nightmare if the developer gives up…

What to copy?

Imagine the next version of RealWorld Icon Editor supporting layers. While editing an icon, there are these things on the screen:

  • Window with images in the icon. One or more images can be selected.
  • Window with layers in the selected image of the icon. One or more of the layers can be selected.
  • Raster editor. With normal or floating selection.
  • Color picker window with an edit box, where you can specify hexadecimal color code (and hence copy/cut/paste text).

What should happen when user clicks “Copy”? Obviously, the best solution would be to read the user’s mind, but the mind-reading hardware got stuck in the eighties.

In current version, the application tracks the active window and the copied object is controlled by that window. If user recently clicked in the window with layers, the selected layers are copied. If they clicked in the image editor, the floating selection is copied. If they clicked in the icon image list, the selected images are copied. Etc.

This approach can create some confusion. The functionality of the Ctrl+C shortcut changes in time and newbie users will be confused or even consider the application faulty because it sometimes appears to work and sometimes not. Feedback must be given about what is about to happen. In the next version, the clipboard-handling toolbar buttons will have small overlays showing what will be copied or pasted.

Clipboard icons have overlays

Note the small overlay icons and the tooltip on the clipboard toolbar buttons. The Paste button has a different overlay, because the clipboard currently contains a picture. The other buttons have an “icon fragment” overlay indicating that selected images of the current icons will be cut or copied.

Another problem occurs if the active window does NOT contain a copyable information. Should the copy function be disabled in that case? I do not think so. Even if the tool configuration window does not allow me to copy anything, there is still that floating selection in the image editor (or other copyable things). In the current version, the copied information was almost random - in the next version, there will be hard-coded priorities.

Where to paste?

The problem with pasting is similar, but not exactly the same. The current content of the clipboard plays a role. This limits the number of ways a chunk of data can be pasted, but on the other hand, it is also more likely that the active window will not be able to handle the current pasting operation.

In the next version, the active window will get the first shot and if it fails to paste the data, other windows in predefined order determined by hard-coded priority will follow.


The next version of the icon editor is going to:

  • Introduce overlay icons indicating the meaning of the current copy/paste operation.
  • Hard-code priorities. For example, floating selection is going to be copied or pasted rather than the entire layer if neither of the handing windows is active.
  • And hence improve its mind-reading abilities a bit.

Recent comments

user icon Anonymous
I wish there were...
Vista & Win 7 icons
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What about ICL files?