“Sketch filled a void that many people felt so keenly”

Sketch Co-Founder Pieter Omvlee on the tools history, COVID-19, and the competition with Figma and Adobe.

Sketch is the most important design tool today. In the last 12 months, I researched how designers use it to create websites, apps, and more. Now all the work is published as a book, covering the whole creative process. This is the full exclusive interview with Sketch co-founder and CEO Pieter Omvlee, which prefaces the book.

👉 You can buy the Sketch book now on Amazon and on the publishers website.

🙊 Don’t speak german? Tell me in which language you’d like to read the book.

Creators are the first when you want to understand a product to the core. They just have a unique perspective on the tool they’re building. And it is us, the designers on the other side who are their users.

Emanuel Sá and Pieter Omvlee are the co-founders of Sketch and both lead the company as the CDO and CEO. This conversation is about how it all started, their view on design today, and how the work of designers might change in the future.

From the idea to the first version of Sketch

Micha Kafka: Many designers are used to design with software for photo-editing or layouting before I transitioned to Sketch. Before you created Sketch with Emanuel, what tools were you using?

Pieter Omvlee: I’m a software engineer by trade, but have always had a great interest in the user experience aspect of software. When I started writing my own indie apps for macOS at university I wanted them to live up to the platform’s standard and have a great UI.

At first, this came in the form of toolbar icons and such that I needed. It was immediately apparent I could not design these myself. But the software that was commonly used was, indeed, inscrutable, but I also lacked the talent for it myself. I thought there had to be a better way and that’s partially what inspired Sketch.

Was that also how you and Emanuel met? What made you believe that you could build such software together?

Sketch v1.0: Two projects of the co-founders came together and formed the first version in September 2010.

Sure. So we had both been active in the Mac indie scene for a few years. Emanuel designing and me writing apps. We’d collaborated on a project before, and since that went well, we kept in touch.

I had already written a simple drawing app before and through my various interactions with other designers, I felt there was a need for something better and simpler. Emanuel felt exactly the same in his circle of friends and so we started working on this together, basing it off this older app that I already had. Having this support made the task seem less daunting than it really was!

Is there a specific philosophy or method that helped you prioritize features during the initial design and development?

We built the tool primarily for ourselves–with Emanuel as the test subject. He was designing Sketch in Sketch, and whenever he needed something that was missing or not working well yet we sat together and tried to hash out how it could work. We then repeated for nine months, which was the deadline we set for ourselves.

“At first, we built the tool primarily for ourselves”

How Sketch found its first thousand users

What were the reactions from users like when you first released Sketch?

While the product was limited in some important ways, it was very well received right at the beginning, which made it immediately clear to us that we had something special here. We had a lot of work to do to iterate on it, though, like adding missing features and making it faster.

And how did you find your first customers?

We had our connections in the designer community and teased the hell out of it. I think it really helped that we were filling a void that so many people felt so keenly.

Was there a particular event or tactic you did that gained people’s attention and accelerated growth early on?

Initially, we gave ourselves a nine-month deadline. This was because we felt we needed a concrete day or we’d never ship. And secondly, we wanted to be there in time for WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference, and win one of the Apple Design Awards.

Sketch v2: This version won the Apple Design Awards in August 2012

We were lucky to make that deadline and then win the award as well, which gave us a nice publicity boost early on.

Oh, I didn’t know that. But looking back today — what do you think made Sketch successful in the first years?

I think we simply shipped a product that solved a need, and then iterated on it relentlessly. It really helped that we built the product for ourselves, making us keenly aware of all its features, flaws, and future possibilities. As a result, our users felt we were listening to them and that we were solving the problems they experienced.

With that year-long experience, what advice do you have for designers looking to start their own companies?

Find a like-minded developer you can work well with, who will iterate your ideas quickly before you get too attached to them.

“We do have competition now”

After all these years, how would you describe Sketch today?

Well, today Sketch is a platform for digital design, that combines a powerful native Mac application and collaboration in the Cloud. The Mac app has all the tools to transform your ideas into wireframes, mockups, prototypes, and even production-ready assets.

In the Cloud, Sketch offers a whole range of tools to collaborate with your colleagues, collect feedback, and handoff with your developers.

Today, key features of design tools — like Symbols or Artboards — look obvious and almost feel inevitable. Back when you started Sketch though, these features were unheard of. Where did the idea for them come from?

We tried a lot of things, and it really helps if you can build the ideas you have really quickly, test them out with real documents on real work, and iterate. This is why it’s so critical that we built Sketch for ourselves. The feedback loops were short and we could iterate fast. Emanuel and I both have experience with a wide variety of software, much of it not directly related to design, but we were able to synthesize ideas from other apps and adapt them to a design environment.

Sketch v3: In 2014 it introduced a whole set of new features like symbols, styles, and a redesigned inspector

With the design industry moving as fast as it is, have you felt added pressure to ship more features faster?

The pressure has always been there. There were features missing when we shipped the first version of Sketch, and there still are. It is true that we do have competition now and that just invites feature comparisons, but we try not to get caught up in that and continue to build Sketch the right way in an order that makes sense to us and best serves our users.

HTML, iOS, and Android frameworks can all take varying approaches to design implementation — this reflects on areas of Sketch. How do you make decisions about which of these differing approaches to reflect? What do you prioritize?

For part of this, we’re tied by how we rendered and measured things when Sketch started, just to maintain backward compatibility. We’ve looked at the competing models out there and tried to see how we could better serve this or that market, but in the end, you realize that every platform does it in a different way.

“The core app needs a certain level of simplicity”

So we cannot exactly copy what Apple did with Autolayout because it’s useless for Android designers. In the end, you have to pick what works best for Sketch and help users then translate that to their specific environments.

Sketch has always had a rich community of plugins available. Do you intentionally leave some of the complexity and nuance for plugins as opposed to building those functionalities natively?

Indeed we do. We’ve benefitted greatly from our community of plugins. They’ve come up with use cases we could never have foreseen and opened up integrations with third parties that we would never have had the time to build. I also think it allows the core app to maintain a certain level of simplicity, which is important for new users.

After plugins were introduced at the end of 2015, the team gave them their own landing page shortly thereafter.

“I’ve never worked in a physical office”

In spite of the pandemic, most designers are asked to move near their companies office. What’s it like to manage a totally remote design process? Are there any particular keys to success?

I must preface this by saying I’ve never worked in a physical office before so I have no way to compare. But I think technology has come far enough that there’s not really any reason it can’t work. I think working remotely even helps people maintain focus, and when they have something to share we can all be there to listen, to give feedback, and to discuss.

Remote working is the default at Sketch, with the team is distributed all around the globe.

We do meet up once a year and bring the entire team together for a few days of in-person contact. Those days are great and invaluable in getting to know each other, and work is always better after that. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had to cancel our planned meetup for 2020, but we’ll definitely put it back on once it’s safe to do so again.

After 8 years of financing Sketch out of your own pockets, you recently raised a Series A funding round. Why the decision to raise funding, and has anything changed with an investor on board?

When we started Sketch we were building it for individual designers that mostly worked alone. Design departments have grown so much since then, creating an entirely new use case for Sketch, as teams of designers needed a company-wide solution for better product design. Our pricing model changed from a pay-once app to a SaaS subscription service, and our team grew from two to over a 100 people in many different countries.

Slowly, all the work that isn’t strictly about “building a good product” starts to weigh heavier and heavier on our team, and we realized we needed help with all this if we wanted to continue building a better product.

With more design tools out today, what would you say makes Sketch stand out from competitors?

We believe that designers care about the details and that they appreciate the responsiveness, look, and feel of a native app that’s built by people like them. At the same time, we can offer a rich collaboration experience through our Cloud platform. This is how we can get the best of both worlds; a powerful native app for designers and a simpler online experience for all the other stakeholders in a company like developers, copywriters, project managers, etc.

“The market is large enough to sustain multiple design tools”

And how does it feel to compete with industry giants like Adobe?

They’re good sports. When they announced Adobe XD, it was a great validation to us that an app focussed on user experience design was a valid niche to be explored. They’ve innovated in interesting ways and we’ve continued innovating in our ways. The market is large enough to sustain multiple design tools and we can all learn from each other and yet find our own unique way of doing things.

How design opens up to new departments

Design systems, Cloud, and real-time collaboration are all massive features that are changing the way people design. In your opinion, what features or ideas do you see shaping the way the industry moves next?

Design is a very collaborative effort, and we’ve seen it become more and more so over the years. As said, in the beginning, we sold to individual designers. Then, features like Symbols and Libraries opened us up to groups of designers working together.

Today, Sketch focuses on collaboration and introduces new ways of working together on a design.

Collaboration in the Cloud opens up design to other departments in the company — from development to copywriting to marketing. Ultimately this gets back to the very roots of Sketch, where a designer and a developer worked very closely together because we strongly believed that this is the way a good product gets built — through collaboration.

Trends in design and within design tools can come and go quickly — how do you decide what’s a fad and what’s a long-lasting trend that your product needs to accommodate?

We are our own worst critic in this regard and we are still building features that we want ourselves. This is a great way to separate a fad from a real trend. We’re not perfect, but we believe we can get it right more often than we get it wrong this way.

What I could never have imagined…

Just a last quick question: what are some of the coolest things you’ve seen people designing in Sketch?

The majority of designs being done in Sketch are user interfaces, but we’ve seen people draw pictures of cars with photo-quality reflections and shadows, and I’ve seen people illustrate children’s books with it. It’s very cool to see these ‘alternative’ uses.

Isabel Aracama draw this Chrysler 300 in Sketch back in 2013. It’s still around and available for download.

If you liked the interview with Pieter, I recommend you check out my first book on Sketch. Written for beginners and intermediates, it’s a comprehensive guide to the tool and covers all parts of the creative process.

👉 You can buy the Sketch book now on Amazon and on the publishers website.

🙊 You don’t speak german? Tell me in which language you’d like to read here.

If you like, connect with me on LinkedIn.

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