is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
When I first tried Bohemian Coding’s unfortunately named but altogether amazing Sketch, my eyes lit up, and I recognized immediately that this was the user interface design tool for which I had been waiting for years. It combined the precision of a raster editing application like Photoshop with the versatility of a vector editing application like Illustrator, and it did so with all of the speed and nimbleness of a newly imagined, freshly written app, one free of the cruft that had been increasingly weighing down the dominant players in the graphics software market for years. Also, it was incredibly affordable.
That initial enthusiasm took a small hit when I realized that Sketch lacked a feature that I regard as critical: symbols. Photoshop calls them Smart Objects, and they allow you to reuse key graphical assets — a logo, a button, even a whole header or footer made up of many other Smart Objects — such that any change you make to one is instantly reflected to all the other instances. This affords tremendous efficiencies in interface design, where elements are constantly reused.
Still, there were enough fundamental advantages in Sketch over what I had been using previously that even the absence of that feature did not prevent me from switching. Within a few months of opening Sketch for the first time, I had transitioned almost my entire workflow over to it. Everything I’m designing for Kidpost is being done in Sketch. The same goes for everything that we’re designing at Wildcard — where, in fact, all of our iOS engineers are also running their own copies of Sketch, which lets them take measurements, generate assets and even make changes as necessary. No one has ever looked back.
Sketch 3 Beta
Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get access to the Sketch 3.0 beta and much to my delight, it prominently includes a symbols feature. The new version brings with it an upgraded file format which is not backwards compatible (that is, Sketch 3 will open files created with its predecessor, but not vice versa), so I haven’t moved over the majority of my workflow to it yet. But I have used it extensively for a few other, more isolated projects, and it’s been fantastic. Sketch’s symbols are as intuitive and powerful as I had hoped they would be; make a change to one symbol, and almost before you can blink, every other instance of that symbol is instantly changed, across every artboard in your document.
I almost want to say that having symbols available in a vector application that has the precision of a raster application has changed the way I do design, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s more accurate to say that having symbols makes Sketch an even closer match for how I would think about manipulating graphical objects — period.
In fact, I think that is the reason Sketch has gained so much traction in so short a time, and in a market that has been dominated for so long and in so thorough a fashion by Adobe. It’s true that Sketch probably could not have happened a decade ago; Bohemian Coding is clearly benefiting from lots of prior art, and from today’s powerful hardware and a very mature software ecosystem. But in my view their success is really predicated on bringing to bear a genuinely insightful understanding of how real people want to use graphics software.
They looked at all of the tools that existed before, and at all of the convoluted workarounds and hacks that designers had to adopt in order to produce what we saw in our heads, and they realized that they weren’t necessary any more. Rather than asking users to bend their thinking and working methods, Sketch bends itself to provide logical, intuitive and satisfying solutions. It’s a way of thinking that feels almost inspired and even joyful to me every time I use the app.
The new version of Sketch is due out within a month. If you want to get your hands on it as soon as it’s out, sign up to be notified.+