Pieter Omvlee is the co-founder and creator of Sketch, a comprehensive tool to design products and support entire teams from early ideas, design, sharing feedback and developer handoff. Pieter lives in The Hague (The Netherlands) and, when he’s not working on Sketch, he plays reasonably good piano and bakes excellent pizza.
About a decade ago when Apple was busy launching the iPad and the social world was expecting the release of the new popular social tools Instagram and Pinterest, Sketch, a UI design tool, has already released its first version.
If previously there were no apps built specifically for UI & UX designers, Sketch was the leader to refine the industry and help design teams perform their work more effectively and efficiently.
To learn about the platform’s early beginnings, we talked to Sketch Co-Founder and Creator Pieter Omvlee. Pieter also talks about Sketch’s future plans and highlights how the platform empowers designers to deliver better projects.
Spotlight: Can you tell us how Sketch came about and how it impacted the industry?
Pieter Omvlee: Our mission at Sketch has always been to create the best possible tools for digital creators. All the way back since 2012, we helped define the industry and grow design’s influence on digital products by showing the world there was a need for dedicated UI and UX design tools. To this day, both Emanuel and I are still part of the evolution of Sketch and remain hands-on and actively work on improving the product.
We've seen design grow exponentially in the past 10+ years since we’ve been around. Today, design involves everyone from developers and project managers to researchers and customers — and it defines some of the largest companies in the world. And we’ve seen design evolve from an afterthought to a central place in the product development process to a hub where all stakeholders come together to discuss and decide how to build a better product. Our purpose has remained the same, to create the best possible tools for digital creators, and we’re still working hard on that mission, more than 10 years later.
As design’s role in digital products grew, we built a set of browser-based tools that opened up the design process, making it easy to bring in managers, writers, clients and other stakeholders. Now, our ‘best of both worlds’ approach combines an unrivaled native Mac app for editing and prototyping, with browser-based tools for collaboration, feedback, and handoff.
We’re keen to keep playing our part and continue being one of the industry leaders by making what we know best: powerful design tools that are available for more and more people. We remain passionate about design and the role it can play in making better products.
Sketch operates in 28 countries with 140 employees without an office for over 12 years now. How did you manage to grow the company at a time when remote work wasn’t even a norm?
Being remote is something that has defined Sketch from day one because when we started working together we were living in different countries – in fact, we only met about ten months into working, well after the first version of Sketch had been released! Although staying remote wasn’t a strategic decision initially, it worked so well from the beginning that we realized there was an opportunity to build a powerful culture around it, and so we did.
Being remote means we can work with some of the most talented people from all over the world — and everyone brings different experiences and perspectives that make their way into Sketch.
Freedom, trust and communication are key elements in our way of working, and because of our remote nature, we’ve developed a very text-focused way of collaboration. Let me give you a few examples. When hiring, we have a Slack chat with the candidate to get a sense of their written communication skills — this part of the process is fundamental to understanding if they‘re a good fit. I’ve hired many people without ever speaking face to face, or even on camera. Also, we give people a certain degree of freedom to choose their own schedule and fit work around their life — we use Slack status to let other people know our availability. And we‘re also very mindful when it comes to people‘s time, so we try to keep pings to a minimum, stay asynchronous and be effective in our internal comms.
However, we love seeing each other and understanding the value that meeting in person brings. That‘s why we get together in a different place every year, to meet, brainstorm, and come up with new ideas but especially to get to know each other better — which contributes to us collaborating better online.
Please tell us how Sketch differs from competitors like Adobe XD and Figma.
Differences often pointed out by people about being able to work on documents together in real-time are no longer true; we’ve built a powerful real-time collaboration engine into Sketch allowing dozens of people to work together on a single document – which is something we stress-tested for real during a fun pre Christmas ‘party’.
Similarly, the old excuse that Sketch only does design but that you’d need other tools for versioning, handoff and prototyping also are no longer true; all those tools are now built into Sketch and make for a great total experience.
The differences that remain are our superior handling of fonts, colors, native integration and our independence. For example, you’ll never be surprised by a Sketch bill because, unlike Figma, we’ve not engaged in ‘growth hacking’ tactics whereby we enthusiastically add more and more editors to your team and charge you for it after the fact.
How does Sketch empower designers to deliver better projects and why do Meta, Google and Stripe trust it?
We’ve pointed out some important differences in the paragraph above, but at our core, we‘re focused on giving everyone involved in the design process the tools they need. A Mac app for designers to create, team up, and prototype and a web app for everyone else to browse, give feedback, inspect, and handoff — in any browser. By keeping our focus on the details and on building the tools that our users need to do their best work, we believe we‘re able to provide an experience that designers and everyone involved in the design project enjoys.
At the same time, we give designers the choice to decide where and how they want to work — designers can work offline and save their files locally and only upload them when they‘re ready to. We‘re also committed to keeping things safe. From extra security with completely private draft documents, Two-Factor Authentication (2FA), secure URLs to ensure nobody forces their way into files, Single-Sign-On (SSO) for business plans and ISO 27001 certification.
The platform is only available for macOS users. What’s the rationale behind this and are you considering changing that?
We’ve built a native Mac app because that’s the platform we were both familiar with when we founded Sketch — it was the platform we were passionate about, the platform whose APIs were great to build an app like Sketch on top of.
Our work at Sketch has always been squarely focused on making a better design tool for people, and we’ve always considered ourselves the primary audience. Back in 2012, we built Sketch because Emanuel, my co-founder, desperately wanted something better than Photoshop, and that is still our modus operandi. We’ve not gotten into this business to win over every designer, and every possible customer. We started Sketch because we wanted to build a tool that we wanted to use ourselves, and we trust that there are others who share our goals, our sensibilities and that believe that if we charge them a fair price, we can run a long-term sustainable business. If that does not lead to world domination, that’s ok, because that was never the reason we started building Sketch in the first place.
While we‘re proud of our Mac app, we believe it‘s all about providing people with the right experience for them. That‘s why, as we covered at the beginning of the interview, we’re building two great apps for different use cases. A Mac and a web app that works together in harmony to support our users‘ workflow.
From Sketch Sessions to Sketch For Education, how important are knowledge and community building for your brand and what are your goals?
Community is at the heart of everything we do at Sketch. We built Sketch for designers like ourselves and we believe listening to the community and opening up a conversation around the product and the design space is fundamental to keep pushing the boundaries of the industry and our product. We’re still in this business because we’re passionate about design and always eager to share that with other designers.
And speaking about community, we’re thrilled to announce the launch of our new community forum, where we hope to open up meaningful conversations and provide a space for the Sketch community to share their thoughts, questions and achievements. The forum is an asynchronous space where we‘ll bounce ideas on all things Sketch and design. Our team will be actively engaging with participants, discussing, listening to what they‘ve got to say and taking it back to the product.
What can current and potential users expect from Sketch in the next couple of years?
Right now, we’re focused on polishing and making what we have better. We’ve added a lot of ground-breaking features and fundamental technologies to the app in the last few years, from real-time collaboration to our improvements to the web app with our infinitely scrollable and zoomable document previews on the web. Building on that, we want to take the experience of our web app to the next level and make it as powerful as it can be. We‘re also laying the foundations for bigger updates that’ll come to the Mac app further down the road and we‘re working on making it easier for designers to share their work, and iterate on each others’ ideas.
And tying it up to what I was saying about the community in the previous question, we want our community to help shape what‘s next for Sketch. While we have plenty of ideas, we believe a two-way conversation will enrich them and make them even better.
Thank you for your time, Pieter Omvlee. Best of luck to you and Sketch!
Keep up with Sketch on LinkedIn and read about other successful businesses here.