Looking ahead at Sketch and other design tools in 2017

2016 was a big year for Sketch, as well as the design and prototyping tools space in general. 2017 will be even bigger.

For the past few years we’ve been transitioning from a period where pre-mobile-era tools were lagging behind modern design workflows, to now having a bevy of amazing new tools vying for our affection. Sketch has become one of these beloved apps.

Major progress for Sketch

Sketch improved quite a bit in 2016. It started the year with a version 3.5 update and closed the year with 41.2 being the latest update. This span saw notable improvements. A progressive symbols overhaul allowed for nesting and eventually scaling and overrides. The introduction of Sketch Cloud sharing and image fills. Sketch Mirror saw a major update and a number of Android mirroring apps arrived to fill a void.

For a more comprehensive trip down memory lane, read their beautifully redesigned Release Notes page. Oh, and Sketch changed it’s versioning and pricing model too.

Sketch will continue to face the challenge of balancing their internal vision for the product, with input from their user base. Pieter Omvlee, creator of Bohemian Coding & Sketch spoke about this in a June 2016 Design Details Podcast interview.

Plugins are often a what makes (and breaks) Sketch

Sketch needs to get it’s plugin house in order. It was actually easier to deal with plugins a year ago, using Sketch Toolbox. Sadly it has been left to wither. It is not consistently supported by plugin developers or fully embraced by Bohemian Coding.

Some plugin makers are coming up with their own custom built-in updater modules, kudos to them for this effort but it’s not a long term solution. Sketch needs to either build robust plugin discovery, management and update engine into Sketch, or pick a winner in the 3rd party space and push all users and developers to support it.

Sketch has had some ups and downs regarding feature enhancements and sometimes buggy software updates. 3rd Party Plugins have helped keep users engaged. A strong plugin ecosystem may also be what helps stave off competition in 2017 — more on that in a moment*.

Tied to the Fate of Apple Hardware

To date, Sketch has made it clear that it has no plans to develop a Windows version. Meanwhile, Apple faced some legitimate criticism this past year for both its neglect of desktop pro models and the choices it made for the latest Macbook “Pro”. Sketch was actually included in Apple’s launch of the Touch Bar, however it will take some time to see if this offers Sketch any long term value or competitive edge.

In contrast, we saw some new and compelling hardware coming from Microsoft. The release of the Surface Studio definitely increased the number of Tweets pleading Sketch to create a Windows version. Going macOS-only back in 2014 seemed like a sound strategy. Things look a little different in 2017.

Apple’s not going to ‘lose’ anytime soon, but if Apple continues to let down their power users (designers and developers), a cross-platform competitor could trigger a noticeable defection from Sketch.

Competition is good, it’s why Sketch is popular

For the past few years, Sketch has enjoyed the position of being the scrappy competitor to established software like Adobe CC, OmniGraffle and others. In contrast, 2016 saw new entrants competing with Sketch, as well as a response from Adobe.

Cross platform availability is part of the competitive threat from these new offerings. That said, none of these competing apps have the same robust community of 3rd party plugins and resources that Sketch does — yet.

When Adobe XD beta first came out it was modest in feature set and pretty much a carbon copy of Sketch in its UI layout. In November, they added display of layers for a selected artboard, along with an approach to Symbols. Adobe capped off the year in December by releasing a Windows preview. They dedicated a lot of presentation time to XD at their annual conference. Seeing as updates to Illustrator and Photoshop have been incremental, it’s clear that Adobe’s has put it chips on XD. It seems safe to assume that XD will come out of beta in 2017 and it’s pricing strategy, relative to current CC product matrix, will be revealed.

Figma also made some significant progress in 2016. The browser based vector design tool went live with a public v1 in September. This included desktop apps for Mac and Windows (pretty much Site-specific browsers for their Web app, but convenient nonetheless). Figma also added a Symbols paradigm, and has had strong vector tools since the get go.

Affinity Designer launched it’s in-context Symbol creation and editing in October. Overall, Designer is more akin to Illustrator and Photoshop in its approach to app UI layout. It offers artboards and has some very powerful illustration capabilities that Sketch lacks. It also offers more advanced text styling and full color space support (RGB, CMYK, LAB, Grayscale). This makes it a powerful tool for designers who also do traditional illustration, logo design and print.

Subform App came out of nowhere in October and could be a major threat — or not. The exceeded their 100K goal on Kickstarter and have already started giving early backers access to the app. They aim to make it easier to build responsive designs for web and apps. They also offer “stateful components”, their version of high powered Symbols. Their layout model seems more like Auto-layout in tools like Xcode.

Thankfully for Sketch users, Anima App released a new Auto-Layout Sketch Plugin in December that offer this same kind of capability in Sketch. *This may help fend off the thread from Subform and others.

Prototyping tools are still exploring boundaries

The state of Prototyping software in 2017 is really a topic for a separate post. It’s almost impossible to name off the various prototype tools from memory at this point. It’s an embarrassment of riches that may actually be hindering the industry at the moment, because no clear ‘winner’ has really emerged. There will continue to be exciting developments in this space in 2017, and hopefully also some exits and consolidation.

At a high level, Sketch has chosen not to add native prototyping capabilities into the app and instead relies on 3rd party tools and integration to meet this user need. Perhaps 2017 will make clear what users want, now that they can get all in one (design + prototyping) tools like Adobe XD, UXPin and others.

Design specification, asset sharing & developer handoff

A model for design handoff has emerged that is pretty much based on the notion that developers don’t want to pay for or learn Sketch. Based on this assumption, a bevy of 3rd party tools saw a lot of success in 2016. These include: Zeplin, Avocode, Sympli, Sketch Measure and the newest entrant InVision Inspect. These tools have been a great help for designers, reducing time spent in manually marking up and exporting designs and assets. Most of them now also include some very helpful sharing, commenting and collaboration tools. InVision Inspect may be the in the best position to make a bold move in 2017, because it’s the only one of this group that’s also paired with prototyping features.

Moving closer to code

One other trend to consider is that a lot of these tools are moving “designers” closer to code for web and apps. The debates about whether or not designers need to code, confusion over the term “unicorn” (is it a superhero designer or a $1b+ valuation startup?) will persist into 2017 for sure.

At what point will Xcode and Android studio finally wake up and offer a designer-oriented interface into native app development tools, so folks can all just leap frog this abstraction layer of visual design and prototyping? Some are already doing this for web design and development. Native app development seems ripe for a more direct integration of design into the overall development process. Sadly, Apple, Google and others have yet to figure out how to make their obtuse development platforms more friendly for visual and UX designer types. Perhaps this will continue be the role of well integrated 3rd party tools — PaintCode for example. Whether it happens this year or not, a more direct intersection seems likely.

Prognostication for 2017 😉

  • Sketch integrates more officially/merges/acquires with 3rd party tools for prototyping and spec’ing (ahem, InVision?)
  • Sketch improves typography features (character styles, kerning precision, lists etc.)
  • Sketch improves arrowhead styling options ;-P
  • Sketch adds ‘magnetic’ handles and connectors to improve diagraming (like OmniGraffle)

May 2017 be a prosperous and peaceful year for everyone!


Originally published at sketchhunt.com on January 4, 2017.

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