A designer’s experience learning vim

The first time I started using vim, it was more a necessity than by choice. It was a little bit too late for me to walk to work one morning and still make my morning meeting, so I did what I always did, rode my bike. Not even ten seconds after I had mounted and pushed away from my apartment building, my pedal collided with the oh so lovely marble curbs of dc and I was suddenly flying over my handlebars on one of the busiest streets in the morning. It could’ve been worse. I only ended up with a minor scrape on my leg, but the brunt of my fall had been stopped by my dominant hand. Riding the rest of the way to work that morning, I could barely squeeze the breaks properly and knew I had to lay off it for a few days in order for my hand to have a chance to heal.

Designing with one hand is a challenge. It’s nearly impossible to do in Photoshop or Sketch, which both require complicated multi-keyed commands to execute even the most basic tasks. Just try drawing a rectangle with one hand on a trackpad. It doesn’t really work. Switching to a mouse didn’t even occur to me. I had been using a trackpad ever since my sophomore year of college when I used to play some pretty intense World of Warcraft on a MacBook Pro.

I had heard about vim being great for only using keyboard commands, and ditching a trackpad meant one less thing for me to worry about. Everyone who had successfuly switched over to vim praised how much faster it could be. I didn’t have much to lose and at least I knew I could type with one hand, so I decided to try it out.

Tips for Switching to Vim

  1. Don’t expect to be that quick starting out. Hell. I was a lot slower. There’s a ton of commands you need to memorize, just like with any design program, and they’re probably not ones you’re familiar with. Vim Cheetyr helps a ton. Just have that open all the time.

  2. Start with small commands, and when you find yourself doing something a lot slower than in Sublime Text, look up a shortcut. There’s always a shortcut.

  3. Learn how to set up a .vimrc file. Setting up your preferences (especially syntax highlighting) helps tremendously.

  4. Don’t expect to code the same way as you did in Sublime Text. This isn’t like upgrading a version. Expect that everything is different and, again, always question if you can be doing something quicker.

Things I’ve learned

  1. It’s a hell of a lot easier to use vim with one hand than sublime text, sketch, or photoshop.

  2. It takes practice, but eventually it is way faster.

  3. Github merge messages seem a hell of a lot less scary. And you know the commands to quit properly instead of panicing and quitting terminal.

  4. It helps a lot with focusing on one task, especially since it’s a lot easier to work in one file at a time.

  5. It makes you feel like you’re in a secret club that’s visible to everyone but they don’t understand how awesome it is.

It’s been a few months since I first tried vim out, but overall, I’m enjoying it a lot more. With everything, it takes a bit of practice to learn, but it makes me feel like I’m driving a manual over an automatic; I’m just closer to the code. And, if I ever sprain my hand again, I’ll know I can still get things done.

I’m always looking to connect with fellow designers and am open to speaking opportunities. Let’s grab a coffee and chat if you’re in Seattle!

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Two people standing on the outside deck of a Washington State Ferry.