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Sketch Hacks: Little Tricks to Improve Your Sketch Workflow

I started using Sketch early last year and was almost immediately floored by how much it got right compared to other tools (ahem Photoshop and Illustrator) I’d been using for years. In just over a year, it’s quickly become the first digital tool I reach for when trying to get an idea out of my head, whether that’s an interface, graphic, icon, or even flowchart.

Even since, I’ve talked it up to a number of friends and peers. Every time I find myself wishing I had a list of the many little details I love about Sketch, so I’m compiling it now.

Direct manipulation

Want to select an element in Sketch? Just click on it. No more hunting for it in the Layers palette or right-clicking and choosing it from a dropdown of every layer that appears beneath the mouse cursor. This gets me almost every time I go back to Photoshop now. Even better, if I want to manipulate the individual points of a vector element, I can select the element then just press Return. That opens the shape in Edit mode, which lets me edit each point directly (or tab through them individually).

Calculations in Inspector fields

Seriously, just do the calculations right in the inspector fields. It's magical!

How many times have you wanted to change the size or location of an element by a specific number of pixels? Now you can do the math directly in a field for that element. Just select it and its details will appear in the Inspector panel (on the right by default). Want to make it half as tall? Shrink it by putting ‘/2’ in the Height field. Want to nudge it 3 pixels to the right? Add ‘+3’ in the X position field. This has singlehandedly cut down on my use of the OS X Calculator app by probably 90%.

Keyboard shortcuts for duplicating & renaming elements

These are easily my most missed shortcuts when I have to return to Photoshop. The more I design interfaces, the more I find myself making copies of elements. (Sometimes I also want Symbols that will automatically update but we’ll get to that later.) I can quickly make a copy of an element or group of elements by hitting Cmd-D instead of using the mouse. Then, using Cmd-R to rename a selected element or group quickly makes me a lot more likely to logically name elements. (I know I use the Rename shortcut a lot because I end up constantly hiding and showing the Rulers in Photoshop attempting to do the same thing.)

Pages, artboards, and organization

The obsessive organizer in me is drooling at that list of pages.

As a semi-left-brained designer, I strive to keep my creative projects organized and easy for others to explore and understand. Sketch really gets me. First, you can create individual artboards within a page to organize by screens (if you’re designing an interface), variations (if you’re designing concepts), or related graphics (if you’re creating vector images or icons). Each artboard has its own name and dimensions, and any elements placed inside it are automatically grouped with it. I have used artboards to lay out pages for sites or screens for apps, as well as individual icons for sets.

Artboards are awesome for laying out a screen, then exploring either variants or interactions within the screen as separate duplicated artboards. So, for instance, I could have a Home screen artboard. Beside it, I could have an Empty state Home artboard, another version of the Home screen with different types of content, and another with any changes that occur because of an interaction.

Artboards are pretty great, but Sketch takes it a step further with Pages. You can organize sets of artboards into separate pages. This helps keep a single screen from getting too cluttered (and slowing down the computer). I tend to break out Pages into specific views of a site or app, with an overarching page for general patterns, styles, and guidelines. (They’ve added an automatic Symbol page now that’s pretty helpful, too.)

Copying colors + document colors

Mmm, loupey.

I’ve long been a fan of the shortcut in Photoshop to hold Alt/Option and click (with certain tools selected) to quickly sample a color before drawing. In Sketch, the equivalent would be Ctrl-C, which allows you to select a new fill color for a selected element. One huge improvement of this method over the Photoshop Eyedrop tool is a small loupe so you can pick colors down to individual pixels (and see the exact value you’re copying). And just like Photoshop, this tool works inside or outside of the app so you can Ctrl-C then click on colors in another app (like maybe a style guide in a web browser).

Document Colors let you keep your favorite colors corralled within easy reach.

On top of that, it’s easy to define color palettes specifically for a document or globally. (These are similar to swatches in Photoshop, but I’d argue easier to understand and update.) In the color picker on the Inspector panel, there are two sets of colors at the bottom: Global Colors and Document Colors. Global Colors persist whenever you use Sketch so make sure you save those for colors you use frequently across projects. Document Colors are useful for saving a set of colors only with a specific document. You can add a color by selecting an element with that color then hitting the Plus icon under the section you want to add it to. That’s it. To remove the color, right click on the swatch and select Remove. To apply that color to an element, select the element, hit the color swatch on the Inspector, and choose the color from the Document (or Global) colors. You can also set up Global and Document Gradients (of various types) and Patterns as well!

Smart symbols, overrides, and nesting

Symbols are similar to Smart Objects in Photoshop or Symbols in Illustrator and allow you to create a single object that is then reusable. When you make changes to a symbol, those changes are reflected across all of the child copies. With the latest version (3.7 when this was published), the makers of Sketch have begun making changes to the Symbol architecture to make them more easily extensible. One of the nicest changes is overrides: you can now change text and bitmap images within a symbol for each instance without affecting the content of your symbols overall. In practice, this means you have a collection of repeating elements with varied content that’s easy to reconfigure on the fly. They’ve also introduced an automatic Symbols Page that collects the symbols you create into a single spot.

Once you’ve started using symbols, you’ll want more and more of them. The symbol page that’s automatically generated is a great tool to organize them. But another quick way to organize them by related groups is to name them with a Parent / Variant pattern. This will automatically create a nested folder structure in the Insert Symbol menu.

Just look at those nested symbol folders!

Seriously, those keyboard shortcuts!

The wonderful keyboard shortcuts don’t stop with the duplicating and renaming ones I mentioned above. There are plenty of others that make zipping around the UI much more efficient if you take the time to learn them. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • Enter to edit an item or descend into a group
  • Esc to deselect an item or ascend to a parent group / artboard
  • Tab or shift-tab with a layer selected to switch to next / previous layers of the same hierarchy (combined with Enter or Esc to drill up or down into groups/artboards)
  • Space + dragging to move around the canvas
  • Z + dragging to zoom into the canvas
  • Fn + up/down to switch between pages
  • Hold Alt with an element selected to see the distance from that object’s edges to other objects

And that’s not all. Here’s a great resource to really dive into the other keyboard shortcut options.

More Sketch keyboard shortcuts

Shared Styles

So I can have a stylesheet in my Sketch? Sweeeeet

Similar to Symbols, Shared Styles let you maintain a set of visual styles for both layer elements and text elements that you can update to keep visual styles synced between multiple objects. Shared Styles are very similar to a CSS class - you can set multiple visual properties then apply those to other elements by using Shared Styles. With the latest version of Sketch (3.7), you can tweak styles of an individual element that’s got a Shared Style and choose whether or not you want to propagate those changes back to other elements sharing it.

Great exporting options

I can export ALL THE THINGS!

One of the first things that enticed me to try Sketch was its powerful, yet easy to use export options. You can export any individual element, group of elements, or even whole artboards by selecting them, and then add export options from the bottom of the Inspector panel. Even better, you can export multiple types of images all from the same element. Made some changes to a logo? Export PNGs at 1x and 2x resolution, SVG, and EPS so you can update it easily across print, web, and mobile apps.

Vectors and Layers together

Most of all, though, I just love how easy it is to create and edit everything in Sketch. Photoshop layers are great for knowing where things are in order, but they can be painful when editing and combining shapes. Illustrator layers and combined vectors have always felt like a confused tangle, where selecting a layer doesn’t actually represent selecting an actual object on the screen. Sketch feels just right with every element as a layer and groups/artboards/pages to organize them further.

Plugins

On top of how well it works on its own, Sketch has a pretty powerful architecture for plugins that allow you to really stretch what it can do to another level. Rather than attempt to dive into some of the great plugins here, I’ll save those for another post. Needless to say, if you do find anything lacking in Sketch, there’s a good chance someone has covered that weakness by building a plugin for it.

What are your tricks in Sketch?

These are some of the little things I love about Sketch, but what about you? Get in touch via Twitter or by email and let me know! I’d love to share what works for other people, especially if I missed an awesome little trick that’ll save me time or energy. (You’ll get full credit, I promise!)

Stay tuned for a new post coming soon on Sketch plugins! (Got some you love? Let me know!)

Haven’t bitten the bullet yet?

Compared to the juggernaut that is the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, Sketch is super reasonable at a whopping $129 one-time fee. Point upgrades are completely free (and add lots of great features like the symbol updates they’ve been working on). If you do any interface design or vector design, I strongly recommend you check it out. (There’s even a free trial available!)

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