What Are Toolbars?

By Chris Loza

Toolbars are small graphical icons created for easier access to computer commands. They are typically located at the top of an application and can be customized to show the most used functions of the software. They are employed in Web browsers to display frequently used websites and perform simple browser functions such as reloading a page or adding a website to your favorites.

Difference With Menu Bars

The main difference between a toolbar and a menu bar is that a toolbar contains images and icons, while a menu bar contains words. Functionally, a toolbar acts as a shortcut to a specific function or command. Clicking a toolbar icon immediately executes the command. On the other hand, clicking a menu bar simply opens up the options under it. Microsoft Word, for example, has a menu bar called "File." Clicking on "File" lists down the options under it like "New," "Save" or "Print," which are the specific commands. A toolbar image that has a small printer icon immediately prints the Microsoft Word document.


Because a toolbar is a graphical representation of a specific command, the toolbar icons must be able to represent the commands they execute. They should be obvious or, at least, provide clues to the users on what they do. A printer icon obviously means that it is a printing command. A diskette or floppy disk icon may be a shortcut to save a file because diskettes and floppy disks are used for saving and storing files.


Toolbars show the most frequently used or commonly used commands. Easily recognizable icons can be unlabeled, without an accompanying one-word text to explain what it does, while less obvious icons can be labeled. Toolbars can be designed to be full or partial toolbars. Full toolbars show all the icons of the application or page, while a partial toolbar only shows the most frequently-used while hiding the rest. This is to prevent too much clutter on the window page and make the design appear streamlined and neat.

Toolbar Types

There are five types of toolbars. The first one is the primary toolbar, which works independently without a menu bar. The menu bar in a primary toolbar is either hidden or inactive. The second one is the supplementary toolbar, which works with a menu bar. In this type, the toolbar is merely an add-on to the menu bar so only a few toolbars are shown. A toolbar menu is a hybrid of a toolbar and menu bar. It is a toolbar that contains two or three similar commands grouped together. Customizable toolbars allow users to resize, modify, edit and even change the contents of the toolbar. A palette window's toolbar pops out of the application and presents the toolbar in batches or arrays. An example of this is the paint toolbar that shows the different available colors.