Symbols are the ultimate power tool in Sketch. However, In my experience, not many designers use them to their full potential. I’m going to break down symbols to help you with your organization, efficiency and ultimately reduce clutter in your sketch files. This is going to be a long one so grab a coffee and get ready. And, trust me, get this right and you will crush out amazing designs fast, with just a little upfront effort.
Why use symbols?
Well, we need to understand what are we trying to achieve with symbols in our Sketch file. We want:
Source of truth
Dynamic and editable
If a change needs to be made we want to do it once globally, not for every instance. We want to have a place where every component is located in its most current form. We want those components to be reusable and dynamic to be able to have one component work for multiple instances. Finally, we want our sketch files to be extremely well organized and easy to locate any source component. Below is my checklist of everything you need to know about how to use symbols in Sketch.
Let’s start with naming. Naming is probably the most important in terms of organization of Sketch files. If you aren’t already familiar with naming, we can use ‘/’ to create a folder structure. For example, I have a primary and secondary button. I can name the one symbol ‘button/primary’ and another ‘button/secondary.’ this will create a folder of ‘button’ with two symbols, a primary and secondary. You can then easily change between the two in the overrides. This naming convention also applies to layer and text styles.
Usually, when a symbol is created it’s almost always a group of layers. The first thing I do is ungroup the symbol. Additionally, rename and reorganize the layers of the symbol to makes the overrides more manageable. Finally, select which layers should be able to be overridden. This is also helpful in reducing the clutter of the override pane.
Use Nested Symbols
Nested symbols are very powerful in Sketch. If you are familiar with the atomic design system, this is an effective way to use it within your design files. Having a group of symbols such as icons that can be used in larger symbols such as buttons and input fields makes each symbol that much more dynamic. One form field can now have any icon it needs to suit the situation of the design. Using layer and text styles in your symbols works similar to nested symbols. Consider them nested styles. Again, naming and organization of your symbols is key for this to be effective.
Use Layer and Text Styles
I’ve mentioned these in a few steps above. Using layer and text styles in your symbols is similar to nested symbols but allows for quick changes to colors and text styles. Just like with nested symbols using styles allows for a single symbol to be used in different situations. A great place to use this is on inputs. You can show an error state by just changing the text and layer style the input uses. Instead of having 4 symbols with 4 states you have 1 symbol with 4 states.
Everything we’ve done up to this point is to make the most out of overrides. Setting up our symbols with the steps above makes overrides simple and effective to use. We can use overrides to change pretty much anything we want to on the symbol. Giving us the greatest flexibility with just a single symbol. I don’t necessarily need 4 symbols for 4 different states of a component. Just change the text, color, or the nested symbols instead.
Resizing allows for one symbol to be used in a variety of situations. Set the resizing rules based on how that individual symbol should resize. Every symbol is different. Some require nothing, some require everything. This is usually trial and error to get each symbol to resize properly.
Don’t forget about the Symbols Page
Now that our symbols are clutch, let’s take a look at the symbol page itself. When a symbol is created, by default it’s sent to the symbols page and just thrown to the right of the previous symbol. It can become a real mess to find symbols, so reorganizing this page and grouping similar symbols together is a massive help, plus it just looks better. Keep in mind anytime you create a new symbol be sure to organize the symbols page immediately to stay organized.
Ok, so we’ve done all this work, now let's make the most of it. Be sure to use your symbols first. If a symbol doesn’t offer what you need to consider if what's needed will be reused and follow this guide to making it into a beautiful symbol. The more reusable components, the more cohesive our overall design becomes. And, if we ever need to change something in the future, the change is quick and painless.
There you have it, now we are all pros at Sketch symbols. If you know someone that could use this share it with them. Let me know in the comments what you found helpful or if I missed anything.
Getting this right is a huge task, I know. Luckily I’ve started this for you. Download my Sketch Starter Template here.