18Dec/2017

Most often used plugins for my sketch workflow

A small collection of sketch plugins to speed up my design workflow

The sketch is now one of the most popular UI design tools since 2013. The program is great by itself, offering not only unique UI design features, but also really connect your design to a potential design system. But just like many other programs, the plugins community plays also a distinguished role in the sketch. The plugins can’t be your guarantee to be a better designer, but I found myself can often focus my time on design much more on the real problem solving if the plugins are properly used. Now after 4 years of the sketch, I want to share some of my most used plugins.

I would group them into the following categories:

  • Utilities
  • Element and Layer manipulation
  • Style and Symbol management
  • Design collaborations

So without further reduce, let’s dive in.

The Utilities

Any plugins can help me to access sketch features faster or easier, are what I considered as the utility class. It is the most overlooked class plugin because some of the features they offering might seems very trivial. Even you can still use sketch without this kind of plugins, but some of them can save you so many endeavors and time, I am surprised that some offerings are missing as the core features in the sketch.

1. Runner for sketch

website ➞ sketchrunner.com.

This is essentially the “spotlight” for Mac Os as for Sketch. This plugin helps you to run anything in the sketch. It helps to reduce the time you look for the tools or assets, it also saved your last action and gives you suggested search result. I personally think it is one of best plugins I used, especially considering the sketch interface itself sometimes can feel a bit “primitive”, but this plugin compensates this so well. So let’s look at some of the cool features for this plugins.

example on sketch runner

usage
  1. Type + ' to open the Runner search interface
  2. Then type anything you want to execute in the sketch.
  3. You can press tab to jump into different mode. There is also insert mode, this mode becomes really handy when you want to insert your symbols to your design, because it also offers the larger preview for your symbols, unlike the default sketch insert symbol dropdown.
tips: you can browse through your symbol assets by tab to the insert section.

So, if you are tired of looking for elements or have to repeat certain actions again and again, try sketch on sketchrunner.com.

2. Keys for sketch

website ➞ Keys for sketch.
This plugin helps you to customize your own shortcut in the sketch. I know it sounds again like it should be the core feature.

usage
  1. Open your sketch preference
  2. Click the Keys in the preference panel
  3. Click and type your desired shortcut key in the list.

Thanks for the Runner, I don’t have to use shortcut keys that often, but if you are using Adobe program shortcut a lot, and want to have a smooth landing in the sketch it might be a nice option to have. But in my opinion, proceed with caution, since this feature really really should be one of the core features in Sketch, no one can tell if sketch decides to roll out their own sketch shortcut key mapping features some time in the future.


Element and layer manipulation

Sketch, as many’s preferred choice for digital UI design, has its solid foundation for manipulating the UI element’s properties. As UI designer, you can maximise your design effort most of the time by using the native sketch core feature. However, if you want to further reduce your repeatable task and increase the automation in the workflow, I find myself often end up using the following plugins.

1. Autolayout in Anima

website ➞ animaapp.github.io

This plugin basically introduces how flexbox layout works in your sketch. If you are not familiar with how Flexbox works, you can find the introduction here.

usage
  1. Select the desired layers/groups/elements.
  2. Click on the folder icon on the auto layout panel.
  3. Configure your flexbox group properties, e.g. gutter spacing, item alignment, alignment direction and collapse/expand.

example on stack

After you applied the auto layout onto your items and other elements added inside the group will inherit your configured flexbox properties. This is quite useful in both bigger UI layout and also micro UI elements. F.x. you can ensure that each spacing between your site row will be 60px, with the proper nesting, it will even push the elements to accommodate newly added elements. Or you can make the ultimate flexible button, here is a tutorial on Medium.

2. Rename it

website ➞ Rename It
In this plugin, it helps you to rename your layers in a more intelligent manner. E.g. you can use the predefined keywords to name your layer in numeric sequence or parent element layer name and so on.

usage
  1. Select the layers/elements/groups
  2. Run the plugins either in Runner or the plugins drop-down or by shortcut.
  3. Rename as you want

rename it gif plugin

The layers’ names and structure have never been the focus in digital UI design, but in the sketch, the layers actually provide designer a window to understanding how the HTML and CSS works. This is especially clear when you inspect your design in Invision platform. Each layer is translated to an HTML element(I know, this is totally not correct, but let’s abstract the HTML elements a little bit here.); and the style your applied to each layer(text, shape, groups) is translated to the CSS properties. Thus, providing human-readable layer names and layer structure will help you to accelerate the production speed.

Tips: by using the pre-defined keywords you can create a more readable layer names for the developers.

3. Find and replace

website ➞ Find and replace
Comes in handy when you need to place your placeholder text and replace them with client clear their mind. Again, for me, it looks like it should be another build-in core feature.

find and replace

4. sketch select similar layers

website ➞ sketch select similar layers
Select similar elements is actually a built-in feature in Adobe Illustrator, but to achieve the same action in the sketch, you will have to install this plugin. It is useful when you want to apply your style rules in multiple elements.


Style and Symbol management

Shared style and text style are two of the cornerstones for build and maintain a scalable digital UI system. You can read more about it in my earlier post. There are two main challenges when you are creating and applying these style rules.

  1. when should/should not you create a share style/text style.
  2. The interaction flow for creating these style rules in sketch contains few repeated steps, which can be both distractive and time-consuming.

The following plugins are just my approach on how to automate some of the workflows to speed up and simplify the process.

1. Styles Generator

website ➞ Styles Generator

If you are looking to generate styles rules form entire document, you can use sketch style inventory. However, at the moment, this plugin doesn’t work with the latest Sketch (v48), and to generate style rules from the entire document are quite risky, you might also take unwanted rules when you do that.

The Style Generator only will generate the style rules for your selected layers/elements. That will automate few steps from the default sketch actions. The style name will be taken from the selected layer, so if you can follow the sketch naming convention and group your rule hierarchy by /, you will save a lot of time on it.

usage
  1. Select the layers/elements/groups you want to generate styles from.
  2. (optional) Naming your selection after the sketch naming convention.
  3. Run Style Generator
Tips: by following the sketch naming hierarchy conventions /, you will get a drill down menu which represent visually how the shared style/text style is nested.

2. Style master

website ➞ Style master

Since the digital UI design system should be able to scale up easily, which also implies that you should be able to constantly identify your design patterns and should be able to document them without compromise the current design direction. So what should you do, when you are halfway through the design documentation and found that you want to rearrange and rename some of the styles? Currently, the sketch doesn’t have the options to bulk your actions, and it is normal for a digital UI design system to have a very comprehensive shared styles. Currently, I use style master, it helps you to rearrange/rename you style in bulk action, so you don’t have to repeatedly go through the default sketch renaming workflow.

usage
  1. Open your style master in sketch plugins
  2. Rename your selected styles by the patterns you want.

3. Symbol Organizer

website ➞ Symbol Organizer

The symbol is another power and unique offering from the sketch, it also quite often suffering from the lack of management from build-in sketch features. The sketch is able to separate your symbols in a separate Page, but it didn’t offer an easy way for you to layout your symbols. Sometimes you will end-up looking at hundreds of symbols, and wondering how should I gestalt them so the design is more readable for others and more manageable for yourself. Symbol Organizer can help you to automate most of the rearrangement action, you can also configure how your symbol layout should be, the rules are again, you guessed it, based on the sketch naming conventions. So if you are using / to group your symbol hierarchy, you will be able to control the layout from there.

usage

  1. jump to your Symbol Page in Sketch
  2. (optional) configure your desired symbol layout by run the Configure Symbol Organizer
  3. Run the Symbol Organizer

Design Collaboration

I have only listed Invision as the plugin for Collaboration, this is because, with the latest sketch release, it looks like the sketch have taken the ‘share’ and collaborating more seriously. The libraries feature is really a natural extension on how the ‘symbol’ idea can live across multiple designers. This is really good because if you are already familiar with Sketch symbols, you don’t have to re-learn different concepts, you can work as you always did and publish and maintain your symbol in the library. The sketch currently doesn’t have the same powerful features as Figma in Real-Time collaboration, even I believe that creative solutions need teamwork, but real-time collaboration just seems to sacrifice too much focus. Besides the library concept, together with envision, the sketch has a lot to offer when it comes to share and teamwork.

1. Invision

website ➞ Invision
At the bottom line, you can use revision as Dropbox, where you can share and require different insights on your prototypes. But Invision also offers much more, with the right mindset, it is also a platform where you can manage all your visual assets, share mood board, production delivery center and create project space.

Reflection on sketch’s future and plugins

With so many different plugins the sketch really shows that it has won the designer by their heart. The community continues to put max effort into contributing to improving the product experience. But this also raises questions. A lot of the features I listed above could be included as the built-in feature, but how will sketch advance in 2018 if the community is so driven by the plugins?

With lack support for windows platform, there are a lot of different competitors which are gear-up to go head-to-head with the UI design tools. Figma and the new Invision Studio are probably the 2 tools I am most excited with. The latest release of Sketch V48 have further strengthened how the designer can leverage symbols, but I also notice that there is a drop in the performance(constantly crashing, slow rendering in bigger files). I believe that sketch will eventually improve the performance again as they always do.

To close this post, have you also notice that more competitors have set their killer feature as UI motion design, which both sketch and sketch plugins have not found a better answer for it. There are few options when it comes to motion design in sketch and its plugins, they either rely on export your assets to Adobe After Effect (Sketch to AE plugins) or build the prototype motion on the 3rd part (Invision prototype). With so many good practices has been solved, the UI design community will keep shifting the design focus to other areas, such as UI motion design, digital UI design system. But I guess before the sketch or sketch plugin communities have integrated timeline in their next release, we, a designer will have to spend more time on different tools to stay ahead of the game.

Halei Liu

Crafting digital experience since 2005