When is the best time to display a custom cursor for a tool such as a paint brush in a paint application?

One option is when the user clicks the tool and drags over the workspace, the cursor changes only over the workspace, when the tool is active.

Another option is to switch to the tool immediately when the user selects the tool providing feedback that the tool has been successfully selected, but not as much feedback as to where it can be used. Its a little odd too when then selecting other tools such as an eraser because you are selecting the eraser with the paint brush cursor.

  • I've just quickly looked at the way photoshop does this and it changes the cursor when over the workspace, and not immediately on selection of the tool. The tool itself gives feedback to let the user know it is active by adding a border.
    – Wander
    May 17, 2012 at 14:20

1 Answer 1


The cursor should show the current active state of potential interaction. When over the Canvas, it should display the tool's cursor. When over the interface, it should show the typical selection cursor.

The cursor is a hint for what happens when the user interacts (clicks) with the current item. You don't paint buttons; you click them, so the cursor should stay the default pointer while picking tools. Other affordance cues like a button being depressed should be used to indicate "yes, you've selected the paint brush".

A good example of this in the wild is in Windows/ect, the mouse cursor only changes to a text selection cursor when over selectable/editable text. Even if you're focused on the text field, unless clicking with the mouse will select text, the mouse cursor shouldn't be the "select" cursor.

  • I get what you say, but with something like a kids activity, its kinda like, "I've picked up my paint brush now, and I'm going to go paint". You lose that if you: click tool, display pointer, drag over work area, display paint brush.
    – daveb066
    May 17, 2012 at 14:46
  • So are you making a kids tool? What is the context for your question? May 17, 2012 at 16:06
  • Kid's paint program.
    – daveb066
    May 17, 2012 at 16:42
  • @daveb066 Hm, in that context I can see an immediate cursor change as being appropriate. In that case it's more about being fun than clearly demonstrating affordance
    – Ben Brocka
    May 18, 2012 at 18:04

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