Changes to Sketch’s Conceptual Model

A few days ago, I received an email from Sketch informing me (a customer) of upcoming changes to the app’s licensing model. They come as part of broader changes, which you can read about here.

I was thrilled when I discovered Sketch. For a long time, one of my primary tools was Macromedia Fireworks, a pioneering drawing and prototyping application that blended bitmaps and vectors and featured ‘symbols,’ reusable components that could take variables.

At the time, nothing matched Fireworks for UI work. The component-based paradigm allowed you to design a button and drop it into several screens using different labels. If you tweaked the original button, all instances would change. Amazing.

Then Adobe bought Fireworks from Macromedia. The app lived on for a few years, but Adobe eventually killed it. In its stead, they offered Illustrator and Photoshop — useful tools, but neither had the power of Fireworks’s symbols.

Sketch was Fireworks’s second coming. Sketch, too, is a vector-based drawing and prototyping tool. It allows you to define ‘components’ — similar to (but more powerful than) Fireworks’s symbols.

Working with components was a good idea in 1998 when Fireworks debuted, and it remained so in 2012 when it was pulled. Sketch (2010) benefited from the gap in the market: the app gained market share as designers discovered its power.

Sketch’s developers have steadily improved the app since then. I’ve been a satisfied customer over the past five years. However, the market has shifted: Figma, a competitor, has gained market (and mind) share. It’s worth examining why.

Like Sketch, Figma is a component-based design tool. However, there’s a significant difference between them: Sketch is designed around a file-centric workflow. That is, the app runs on your computer and saves work to your local file system.

At its core, Sketch’s conceptual model is based on the notion that one user is working on one file at any given time and that file is stored locally. This file-centered paradigm is the traditional way of working with personal computers.

Figma, on the other hand, starts from the premise that design is collaborative. There are no local files: everything is in the cloud. More than one person can work on a given board at a time, and anyone can share work with others for feedback.

These are very different models. While there are some advantages to Sketch’s approach (most notably, greater control over files and backups), Figma’s is much more effective when working with others. And this turns out to be the primary use case.

Which brings me back to the email from Sketch. The company is rolling out better collaboration features. It’s doing so by introducing several distinctions in the app.

For one, now there’s not one but two Sketch apps: the Mac app and the web app. They seem to have different capabilities. (I say ‘seem’ because I haven’t yet tried the web app, since it requires a separate license. More on this below.)

There’s also a new concept called Workspaces, which is different from your local filesystem and is now “at the heart of Sketch”:

When you share a Workspace with your team, everyone gets instant access to every document, project and Library. Everyone can view and discuss designs and prototypes right in their web browser. And Editors can easily open files in the Mac app to move work forward.

Where do ‘Workspaces’ live? I assume it’s in the cloud. (Again, I haven’t tried this yet.) In order to use Workspaces, I need a Sketch subscription. This is different from paying for the Mac app — even if on a recurring yearly basis. (As I do.)

Until recently, Sketch touted the benefits of ‘native’ apps. The app’s new direction complicates that narrative. Perhaps native is good for some things but not for others. Where I save my work seems to depend on whether I intend to collaborate or not.

Then there’s the challenge of network effects. To collaborate effectively, team members to use the same app. The app everyone uses is the one most likely to be used by others. Lower barriers to collaboration incite more people to use the app.

But now there are now two versions of Sketch: one that has collaboration superpowers and one that doesn’t. I don’t think I have the one with superpowers — unless I’m invited to collaborate by someone who does. This distinction hampers network effects.

These are major differences from how Sketch has always worked and how it’s paid for. Compared to Figma, these new distinctions — web app vs. Mac app, Workspaces vs. file system, single license vs. subscription — create a more complex conceptual model.

If you’re a designer reared on local filesystem-based apps, Figma asks that you make one major conceptual leap: the fact that you no longer control your files.

(This isn‘t a minor ask. I often have trouble locating work among my several Figma accounts, especially when collaborating with others. I also have questions about privacy and control, as I do with other cloud-based apps such as Google Workspace.)

But once you’ve made that leap, Figma’s model is relatively simple. No need to know whether you’re in the Mac app or the web app; you log into Figma and get to work. Figma’s licensing model is also simpler: you pay for using the (single) app.

Sketch’s new licensing and conceptual models ask a lot of the user. My sense is they’re aimed at teams that have already adopted Sketch and want better collaboration. For teams starting from scratch, Figma’s model is cleaner.

Sketch came along when a successor to Fireworks was needed, and the team has greatly improved the app since. But overcoming this latest challenge won’t be easy, since it requires fundamental changes to how the app works and is paid for.