Why I Switched To Sketch For UI Design (And Never Looked Back)
User interface design has changed dramatically in the last few years, as traditional computers have ceded dominance to smaller screens, including tablets, mobile phones, smartwatches and more.
As the craft has evolved, so has its toolset; and from one app to rule them all — looking at you, Photoshop! — we have gotten to a point where it seems like a new contender among UI design tools crops up every month. And I have to admit that many of the new UI design tools look pretty good and promising.
The one app that seems to tower over everything else at the moment, though, is Sketch1. It has grown in popularity like I’ve rarely seen an app do in the recent past, and for a good reason: The developers of Sketch have figured out exactly what interface designers have been looking for and have steadily added functionality to address those needs. The pace of development of Sketch has been phenomenal, to say the least.
Yes, Sketch is Mac-only. I stayed away for a very long time simply because my entire team was using Windows. A couple years ago, I got my first Mac — a MacBook Air — and decided to give Sketch a try. I found Sketch so much better than my solution at the time (I was a proud Fireworks2 aficionado!) that I decided to invest in converting every one of our eight-member design team over to Macs and Sketch. We never looked back! Sure, the options were more limited then: Figma113 was not yet on the scene, Gravit Designer4 was just getting started, and Adobe XD5 was just a fledgling experiment, which we were not ready to bank on. That is not the case today, and you should consider the options if you are in the same boat. For us, though, Sketch has proven to be a great asset — even with all of the baggage. If you want to know why, read on!
Fast Evolution Link
Sketch 3 was released in April 2014, marking one of their most substantial updates with the introduction of symbols. It was followed by a bunch of incremental updates over the next two years. These included features such as artboard presets, a consolidated file format, improvements in performance, sharing capabilities and more.
Two years later, in April 2016, version 3.7 introduced much more powerful symbols, with the ability to nest and the option to override text and images in symbols per instance. This also kicked off a much more rapid development cycle, with powerful new features being released much more quickly. Version 39 (3.9) in July 2016 saw the introduction of symbol resizing, taking the first step towards easing responsive and multi-device design in Sketch. This release — and the versioning change — coincided with Sketch’s revenue model changing from one-time purchases to annual subscription. There was some backlash from users, but by and large, designers have embraced the new model in anticipation of faster development cycles. And Bohemian Coding, the developers of Sketch, did not disappoint.
In November 2016, version 41 brought along a complete visual overhaul of the user interface, and the ability to override nested symbols per instance. Version 43, released in April 2017, seemed like a small update, barring one huge change: a completely reworked file format. Sketch moved from a proprietary format to an open one (or almost open), making it easier than ever for third-party applications to read, parse and manipulate Sketch files outside of the application. AnimaApp’s Sketch Web Viewer8 is a great example of what the new format enables. (Read more in “New File Format in Sketch 439,” an excellent post by Ale Muñoz10, one of Sketch’s developers.)
Version 44 arrived in May 2017 with a completely reworked resizing interface for symbols, groups and artboards — heavily inspired by the UI in Figma113, probably Sketch’s closest competitor at the moment. This has rendered some functionality of the Autolayout plugin12 redundant and was a huge step forward for responsive and scalable design in Sketch. This release also introduced some major updates to artboard management — again, geared towards scalable design and taking advantage of the new, more powerful resizing controls.
Speed at the Cost of Stability? Link
Some might say that Sketch’s breakneck pace of development has come at the cost of stability and performance. Almost every major release seems to bring with it some performance issues, which take a couple of patches14 to address. For example, Sketch Mirror had a bug that caused the system’s bandwidth usage to skyrocket — and it stayed for a good three to four major releases before being fixed.
Around version 42, an issue was introduced that caused symbols to be duplicated when the user made copies of its instances. This one lingered for a couple of major releases and, in fact, is still a problem when dealing with files that were created in older versions.
These are not deal-breakers by any stretch, but I did consider other options for a brief period, wondering whether I was sailing on a slowly sinking ship. Thankfully, the developers seem to have taken notice of the situation and are doubling down on quality with newer releases. Besides, nothing out there seems to come anywhere close to the power and flexibility of Sketch as of now. The new open file format, a thriving (and mostly free) plugin scene and steadily growing support from third-party applications pretty much ensure that Sketch is here for at least the foreseeable future.
What sets Sketch apart from the rest is its well-rounded set of features that cater to my requirements as a UI designer. Sure, it does not have the gazillion functions and filters of Photoshop, the built-in prototyping capabilities of Adobe XD, the collaboration features and vector networks15 of Figma or the cross-platform capabilities of all of the above. Sketch simply does what I need for the most part, does it well, and has a thriving plugin ecosystem that more often than not makes up for what’s not already built in.
What follows is just a sample of Sketch’s features that make life easy for me and the team at my UX design studio day to day.
Artboards and Pages Link
For as long as I can remember, my biggest pet peeve with Photoshop was its single canvas. Creating a new file for every page on a website just didn’t make sense to me. Fireworks understood the problem16, and its pages feature was a godsend. Illustrator got around this with artboards. In today’s mobile and responsive era, though, neither of those concepts is enough. Sketch has both pages and artboards, and having used the application for a while now, I cannot imagine going back to one that doesn’t have them!
For my web and UI design projects, I use artboards for individual screens and pages for flows. For example, I’ll have a page for the onboarding flow of an app, another for the core actions, one more for settings, and so on. This makes it very easy to keep everything together and organized. You can even nest artboards, so that you can get a big-picture PDF of an entire flow, while at the same time exporting individual screens for prototyping.
Sketch also comes with a whole set of templates for the most common use cases (iPhone and Android apps, responsive websites, etc.), to be used as starting points for projects. These include artboards with the appropriate dimensions, named properly, and in some cases a basic set of UI elements to boot. The artboard picker was redesigned in a recent version, making it easy to quickly switch between sizes — and even to toggle vertical and horizontal orientation — on the fly. This, combined with the new resizing controls (more on that in a bit), makes designing responsive and multi-platform layouts extremely easy.
Layout Grids Link
Grids are an integral part of the modern UI design arsenal. It is surprising, then, how arcane the process of setting up grids in popular design applications is. I remember dreading the thought of setting up guidelines to precisely match a 12-column Bootstrap grid in Photoshop or Fireworks. (That’s before I hit upon a Fireworks plugin that did it.) But a grid made up of guidelines was still a hack and could be easily lost the moment you started adding more guides of your own.
Sketch addresses this problem by allowing you to set up layout grids for each artboard that are separate from guidelines and the traditional grid (both of which it still supports). You set the total width, number of columns and gutter width, and a nice red translucent grid is overlaid on your design instantly. Edit the numbers as needed and the grid adjusts accordingly. Again, these are per page, so you may have a 12-column grid for the desktop layout and switch to 8 columns for tablet and 4 columns for mobile. What’s more, you can also add rows to the grid, which can be invaluable when working with a set baseline grid19.
Couple this with the new resizable symbols and you’re looking at a massive boost in productivity when designing responsive layouts. Add to this the continuous stream of ingenious plugins being developed by the Sketch community and… well, you get my point.
Symbols and Styles Link
Symbols are by far one of the most powerful features in Sketch. And given how much they have improved, it is hard to believe that the feature was introduced less than a year ago. What started as simply a way to reuse a certain component across a design — à la Freehand and Fireworks — today has become a powerful feature in Sketch. I can safely say that symbols have saved hundreds of hours of work for me and my team in the last few months. And things are only getting better with each release.
A symbol could be as humble as a button with a rectangle and text on it, or as complex as an entire calendar with customizable dates, states and statuses. The example below is an extreme case, and I don’t recommend you go this far, but it helps to demonstrate how flexible symbols can be.
You can nest symbols within symbols, toggle them on and off at an instance level, replace or even hide text, replace images, displace elements based on the width of a text object, resize entire symbols (with full control over how each element within the symbol reacts to resizing)… the list goes on and on. Let me demonstrate some of the capabilities below with examples from our UI design projects.
As with any good tool, I keep discovering new and exciting ways to use its feature set every day. As an example, I recently figured out that you can convert an entire artboard to a symbol. Let’s say you’re designing the workflow for an app, and certain screens appear multiple times with subtle changes. Just convert those screens to symbols, and place them wherever you need with the appropriate overrides. Later, when you need to change a color (and trust me, you will), just change it in the original artboard, and every instance will follow.
The power of symbols in Sketch is much broader than I can cover here, so here are a few places to look for more in-depth coverage:
- “Unleashing the Full Potential of Symbols in Sketch25,” Javier Cuello, Smashing Magazine
- “Using Sketch to Quickly Swap Between Different OS Designs26,” Stewart Curry, Prototypr
- “Sketch Workflow: Atomic Symbols27,” Anthony Collurafici, Medium
The upcoming version 47 includes an update to the symbols, with the inclusion of shared libraries – individual Sketch files that act as central repositories for symbols across a team and files. It has created quite a buzz within the Sketch community as you can see in this roundup28 of related coverage.
Styles are a set of properties that can be applied to multiple elements and synced throughout a document to ensure consistency. They’re not unlike the styles we have come to know and use in everything from Microsoft Word to Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. In my team, we use these mostly to define text styles for elements such as
p. But they go much beyond, covering fonts, fills, border, shadows and more.
Mirror and Sketch Cloud Link
There was a time when design was usually handled by an individual designer (or two) who worked on individual Photoshop files that didn’t really have much to do with each other. Today, it is not uncommon to see teams of tens or even hundreds(!) of designers working together on a single product. That makes the ability to collaborate on design files extremely critical.
Sketch has enabled a designer to share a read-only view of the file open in the app for some time now. Simply share a URL, and anyone else on the same Wi-Fi network will be able to view the file you’re working on. This is very helpful when you want to share a work in progress with a fellow designer or developer sitting at the other end of the office or even in the same room, where everyone can see the files on their own screens.
Another use case for Sketch Mirror is for testing mobile UI screens on mobile devices. Simply open the link on a mobile phone — or use one of the many apps on iOS31 and Android32 — to see the preview in real time. Any changes you make to the design in Sketch are immediately reflected in all previews.
Useful as it is, Mirror does have the limitation of being restricted to devices on the same network. Sketch Cloud33 addresses that by allowing you to upload your files to the cloud and have others access them publicly or via a link that you share.