Customizing VS Code for every situation

by Sarah Kaiser

My workspace and editor needs to feel comfortable when I work or I can end up getting distracted. I do this by customizing my spilt ergo keyboard, PC lighting, terminals, and editors tuning. However, the more options or features for a tool, the more I can get sucked into the endless vortex of settings in trying to achieve what I want 😅

I want to cover in this post how to choose how and when to use the different customization tools in VS Code. I'll try and group the features by whether its something I would use mainly personally or to share with others (though some fall in-between). At the end I'll mention how these different features interact 👍

Disclaimer: These are not at all hard "rules" just some rough logic that I use to decide where I need to specify a customization.
Also I do a lot of demos and tutorials so I need to keep things extra compartmentalized, which may be overkill for others 😄

What can I customize about VS Code in the first place?

  • Editor settings like (but not limited to):
    • Themes + fonts
    • integrated git settings
    • Run and debug tasks, etc.
    • Keybindings
    • Code snippets
  • UI state: what windows/panes are visible and where, what files are open, etc.
  • Installed extensions and extension specific settings
  • Where my code gets run (if I am working with Dev Containers/Docker)

Personal settings

User settings

This is probably the most common way that folks are familiar with settings in VS Code, you can access your user settings and VS Code default settings by using the command pallet Preferences: Open User Settings. This gives you a nice UI view of your settings with a search bar at the top with some nice filtering options via the icon in the right of the search bar. You can also see a row of tabs along the top of the window just under the search bar that gives you a nice way to see the settings it knows about broken down by scope (user/default/workspace/dev container).

If you prefer to look at the settings files yourself, you can also use Preferences: Open User Settings (JSON) to edit the file directly. VS Code knows that it's a setting file so it will help with autocomplete for keys and values in the file.

Settings Sync

If you work on more than one machine, Settings Sync can help keep your VS Code experience the same no matter where you are working. It uses a GitHub or Microsoft login to connect VS Code to your synced profile, and has a lot of nice tools to manage what machines/settings are kept in sync as well as versioning and conflict resolution tools.

Often settings can involve specifying paths, keybindings, and other things that are machine specific, so you can configure if they get synced (they are not synced by default).

When to use: Settings Sync also syncs profiles so my strategy is to move any settings I want to sync to profiles, and turn setting sync on.

GitHub Codespaces dotfiles

GitHub Codespaces dotfiles aren't exactly a VS Code specific feature, but it interacts with how you might use VS Code in Codespaces. It basically allows you to setup all of your creature comforts/dotfiles that you would have on your local machine, but pre-added to any Codespace you start up.

I think the scope of what you can set with the dotfiles (a lot of scripting) is generally much more than just editor settings. They have more control over how your code is run, and thus is more similar to Dev Containers. Unlike containers, these dotfiles are not really shareable and are really more aimed at single-user scenarios.

Project settings


In general, VS Code assumes you have a single folder (a "workspace") you are opening to work from, but with larger projects that may not be true. Workspaces in VS Code are geared towards workflows that are comprised of multiple projects/directories, and let you specify any VS Code setting you could normally.

Here is a good article on how to configure Workspaces.

Dev Containers

My favorite customization option (and something I setup for nearly every project) are Dev Containers. Dev Containers are not specifically a VS Code feature, it is an open specification that tools like VS Code, Jetbrains, Codespaces, DevPod, and others use to help make it easy to configure an entire development experience. It does this by combining a Docker/Docker Compose container specification with a json settings file to configure settings/extensions in the editor you are using with the container (if the editor supports the specific setting from Dev Containers.)

One common situation that Dev Containers help with is when you need to make sure that you can reproduce how the code runs as well as what the editor looks like, for example during a workshop or tutorial. You can be confident that you will not hear "It's not working on my machine" from your peers, students, or contributors because you have fully specified a reproducible, containerized environment as well as an editor config.

For more on Dev Containers, see the VS Code docs and my PyCascades 2023 talk.

Hybrid: personal and project


Profiles in VS Code are a way to specify everything about the editor, without anything about the execution environment. Say you do a lot of web dev, Python dev, and presentation recordings in VS Code. It can be a lot to have all the extensions for each modality in which you use VS Code, so profiles can create different spaces for each kind of project. See my earlier blog post to learn more about how I use profiles 😄

Extension Packs

Extension Packs are one of the original ways to make customizing VS Code easier, and basically create meta extensions that take dependencies on all the other extensions that you want to install at once. They are useful when you want to share only extensions in a light-weight way, and not really influence or be opnionated about how the rest of VS Code is setup. There is a fun blog post on the VS Code blog on how to make your own pack!

How do the different Customization features interact?

In most cases you can combine multiple customization options here and VS Code will try and resolve the desired configuration based on a priority ranking detailed in the docs. Also if you look in the VS Code GUI for settings managment, the tabs at the top listing the different sources for settings/configuration will increase in priority to the right. This is just a tricky problem, and if you are having a hard time figuring out where something is being changed/configured, you can search in the settings GUI or look at the settings for each customization layer as JSON from the command pallet.


I tried to take a stab at representing the mental model that I use when I try to figure out how I want to customize something in the flow chart below:

Flowchart with a sequence of questions about your VS Code usecase

Hopefully this helps you understand the different options you have to make customizing and sharing VS Code easier!

If you have more questions or want to share how you use these features, find me on Mastodon 💖