I distinctly remember how much hatred I had in my heart when I lived through my first UI update. The year was 2009; I had just gotten my braces off and I was ready to smash that ‘Like’ button on my high school crush’s status when I logged into Facebook the first time that week. I was devastated to find that something looked a miss. Text navigation was replaced with iconography, event reminders were further down on the page, and it was altogether unsettling. Who did this? I had just gotten comfortable navigating around the site like a pro, cultivating Farmville success like you wouldn’t believe while returning meaningless ‘Pokes’ at lightning speed. I knew that functionally, the site was the same, but it felt like my furniture had been completely rearranged while I wasn’t home.
Years down the line, I find myself sitting at the other end of the table, working as an Experience Designer, being the very change that I hated so much on that brace-less day. I’ve learned to appreciate the change and ~generally speaking~ improvements that I experience through the UI updates of my favorite applications. But it’s only human to be resistant to change.
I, like many other designers who had made the bold switch from prototyping in Photoshop to prototyping in Sketch years ago, was all-in on Sketch and tended to cover my ears and rock back and forth when I heard people talk about Figma. I felt like I’d been ahead of the curve by using Sketch. I remember having to lobby for my UX team in a previous role to make the switch from Photoshop to Sketch. And a little over 2 years later, the current shifts again.
In my current role at Slalom Consulting, the Experience Design Team is extremely agile and adaptable. In order to serve a variety of clients with differing tech stacks, we have to be ready to deliver quality work through Sketch, Figma, Axure, and the list continues to grow.
Designers are notoriously picky people, it’s what makes us good at what we do. So, switching from our bread and butter to a toasted croissant is not the easiest thing for us. But, if you stop to think, you may realize croissants are just bread dough with baked-in layers of butter.
If you’ve been Figma-curious, I offer you this brief walk through of what you’ll gain, what you’ll lose, and what will be primarily the same but just different enough to drive you insane for several weeks.
- Both tools are top of line. If you’re new on the block and are coming to either of these tools for the first time, know that you have already made a good choice. Either tool is an absolute state-of-the-art prototyping software and no one would argue otherwise. Chances are, you’ll just like whatever feels most similar to the tools you come from!
- Sketch runs on Mac OS only. Figma is a browser-based application that also has Desktop Apps for Mac, and Windows. It sure sounds nice that Figma has 3+ options, but you probably only really need one. And if you’re a designer, chances are you live and die by your Macbook, so both options are a fit. Don’t let this be a deciding factor to you if you don’t plan on collaborating cross-platform. (However, do consider that being a web-based platform, Figma stores all of your design files in the cloud, freeing up space on your hard drive, and ensuring your most-up-to-date files are accessible from any machine with an internet browser.)
- Figma offers Real-Time collaboration. Sketch has workarounds. From the start, Figma has had the capability to allow multiple designers, developers, and/or content teams to be simultaneously working in one file. Similar to editing a Google Doc with multiple people, or collaborating in Miro. This ability is extremely beneficial if your design team is working in tandem on a shared file. Version control is never an issue in Figma.
- In Sketch, collaborating in a file with other designers can be tricky. For instance, imagine your design team is managing a comprehensive design system or a framework style guide. Your teammate is designing a set of new components while you have been managing typography. The changes you make to the text styles will impact any components that include text so you have to be in constant communication about who is hitting the save button when. You may even become blocked by your teammate out of fear that you’ll override their work if you start before they’re done. Aside from team communication, Sketch does offers a handful of workarounds that can help with version management. Plugins like Abstract and the recently launched Sketch Teams are made to circumvent this issue, though they’re not foolproof.
- Figma has more sophisticated, built-in developer hand-off capabilities. To belabor the point of Figma’s robust collaboration, it was created with cross-functional teams in mind, specifically design and development teams. Figma has a built-in panel view for developers accessing the file. It allows them to view the specifications for CSS, iOS, and Android instantly as designs are updated. Sketch’s built-in capabilities are limited to allowing the user to right click on an element and “Copy CSS”. However, Sketch has plugins and integrations aplenty to serve development teams just as well as Figma.
- When it comes to resources, Sketch takes the cake. Sketch has been around longer and has a much larger community than Figma thus far. There’s almost an infinite amount of icon libraries, design systems files, app plugins, vector illustrations, etc. made just for Sketch. The great thing about being a Sketch veteran is as you get more comfortable working in the tool and want for some automation of tedious tasks, all you need do is ask! Search for a solution and you shall receive.
In contrast Figma finally released plugin functionality in the Fall of 2019, starting off with a modest 40 public plugins. That being said, I’m sure that Figma will catch up quickly as its popularity momentum continues to heat up. One of my co-workers actually created a Figma plugin called Conditioner in his spare time, so make that 41+ plugins!
Artboards(Sketch) vs Frames (Figma):
- Artboards — Sketch uses the term ‘Artboard’ to describe the highesst-level container of your design content. Both Sketch and Figma support pinning and re-sizing rules within the ‘Artboard’ and work essentially the same way, with the notable exception that Sketch does not support nested artboards.
- Frames — Figma uses the term ‘Frame’ to describe the top-level container of your design content. What makes Frames more powerful than Artboards is the ability to nest them. Each frame can have it’s own layout grid, sizing preferences, and content clipping preferences. Figma’s approach intentionally translates better to a development rationale in which you would use “frames” or “divs” to hold sets of content.
Symbols vs Components
- Symbols — Sketch creates a page in your file called “Symbols” as soon as you designate your first one. This is by design and it can be very useful for keeping track of and updating your symbols. Editing your Master component will apply that change to all of the instances without existing overrides. You can also quickly locate symbols in the “Components” panel to search through Symbols. Text Styles, and Layer Styles you’ve designated.
- Figma — Figma’s equivalent of Symbols are called Components. Unlike Sketch, Figma doesn’t move or duplicate your master Component into its own page. Your master component lives wherever it was created and can move to whatever page you’d like it on. This can be a bit of an adjustment if you’re used to seeing all your symbols nicely displayed in a page view. But fear not, you can navigate to them and edit them just as quickly as in Sketch by finding each Master Component within the Assets panel, similar to Sketch’s Components Panel. The Assets Panel will show you all of your locally created components as well as any enabled library’s components.
Figma challenges what a prototyping tool can do with its invented concept of vector networks. If you’ve ever made a donut chart in Sketch, you can appreciate this.
While Figma may have Sketch beat with it’s ability to quickly make donut charts, rest easy knowing that the unspoken Sketch motto goes: “There’s a plugin for that”. In fact, there’s your choice of plugins for that and pretty much everything else.
A vector network takes the concept of paths — think back to Photoshop’s pen tool — and adds a much needed degree of freedom. Paths and the pen tool work the same way a machine drawing lines with a pen would work. It follows a chain of lines and curves from a start point to an endpoint, not able to lift up until the path is completed.
This means if you’re drawing a shape with intersecting or perpendicular lines, you’ll need to create multiple paths. Vector networks improved this age old technology by allowing lines and curves between any two points rather than needing to following a single chain.
Beyond reinventing paths, Figma’s vector networks also improve upon direction manipulation and object filling. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject matter of geometry and pen tools physics, but if it piques your interest, I highly recommend glancing over Figma’s explanation of their vector networks.
One thing I have to warn you about vector networks is that they are good design. Which means, *drumroll* you probably won’t notice them! If you are a design geek like myself you are probably gushing over the words you just read on the improvement vector networks make. But truth be told, my imposter syndrome had a good toy with me when, some two months into using Figma, I learned that there was any difference at all between Figma’s pen tool and every other pen tool I’ve ever used. However, I was somewhat relieved to read that in Figma’s own user testing, they discovered that many designers didn’t notice the difference between vector networks and paths. The tool just worked the way they expected it to!
Embrace the Adjustment Period
If you‘re coming from Sketch and finally ready to give Figma the old College try, get ready for a little turbulence during the adjustment period. The tools work almost identically but I’m just warning you not to pull your hair out when you’re still looking for the phantom ‘Create Symbol’ button 3 hours into using Figma. The muscle memory will get there.
TL;DR: Figma is the future, but Sketch has an unmatched wealth of resources. Follow your heart!