VIM setup for a designer/front-end dev on macOS

Updated for Oct 2017

Oh My Zsh + iTerm + Vim: a lean, mean, coding machine

Disclaimer: I have no idea what I’m doing. Use at your own discretion.

So I’ve made the initial dive into Vim, and wanted to talk about it. Sure, there are a ton of blog posts already about this, but I wanted to toss this setup in the ring for 3 reasons:

  1. This is current. Tools and plugins not only become deprecated, but also superseded by something better/faster/leaner. As of October 2017, I’m using things in active development that are improvements on older tools from earlier this year and before.
  2. I don’t like clutter. Reading other posts telling me to install x, y, and z for my rig with no explanation, I’m always wondering: but why? I don’t assume what’s right for me is right for you, but I do keep things light and simple. I also try to simplify configuration whenever possible—it’s not fun for me.
  3. I’m a designer. I ❤️ pretty things. My tools need to be fast, but that doesn’t mean they should be ugly too. I also need fuzzy finders, file trees, and other creature comforts Sublime & Atom users are used to. Fortunately, Vim has all that plus some.

Note: this assumes you have homebrew installed.

1/3: Oh My Zsh

Oh My Zsh adds pretty Git-flavored prompts and catches spelling errors as I type

What is it?

At a certain point, trying to customize macOS’ Bash shell with cool stuff like powerline can become a headache when you’re rebuilding your tools to depend on Python and burning time font debugging. Not to mention it’s a time sink hunting down all the random scripts and gists and throwing code willy-nilly into your ~/.bash_profile just to add one thing.

Z shell is a vast improvement over Bash, and you can invisibly set your system to use it instead (including Terminal, iTerm, and everything else you use). Add Oh My Zsh, and you get the benefits of an actively-developed shell with a rich feature set along with a community-driven plugin ecosystem: you can tap into some powerful tools with no fuss. Unlike Bash, this was designed to be customized, and you’ll thank yourself later for switching. And fortunately, it’s easy to try Z shell as it isn’t a system dependency. So even though it behaves like your system Bash does, you can cleanly remove it at any time you wish.


To get started, run from your Terminal:

sh -c "$(curl -fsSL"


Open up and edit your ~/.zshrc file to change settings (this is your new ~/.bash_profile). This is what mine looks like (with all the commented lines removed):

export ZSH=$HOME/.oh-my-zsh

# Theme

# Plugins
plugins=(brew git node osx postgres rbenv z zsh-syntax-highlighting)
source $ZSH/

You can set the theme of your Terminal here with ZSH_THEME="themename" with one of the packaged themes. You can also install your own.

As you can see, I have Homebrew, Git, Node, OSX, Postgres, Rbenv, and Z plugins installed. These help me out in auto-completing commands I type. The OSX plugin can open new Finder windows from my command-line, something not easily done from Bash. Z is “the new Autojump,” as they put it, and I can type any part of a folder name like z proj to jump to ~/sites/my-``**proj**``ect in my command-line from anywhere. And that’s just scratching the surface with plugins.

Last thing of note is the Zsh Syntax Highlighting plugin. That’s the spellchecker one that tells you if you’ve mis-typed a word, and it’s really powerful.

There’s a lot more to delve into, but the important thing of note is: your ~/.bash_profile file would either be hundreds of lines long at this point, or split up into multiple folders to have the same functionality baked into just a few lines of ~/.zshrc with Oh My Zsh. Read more about Oh My Zsh.

2/3: iTerm

Split panes: as good as it gets

What is it?

iTerm is something that I didn’t really need until my switch to Vim. But now I need it for one reason and one reason only: split panes. I can run my Rails server, Gulp tasks, optimize images with TinyPNG and SVGO, and have full command line access while I edit source code all in the same window. It saves me from having to switch back-and-forth between my editor and Terminal like I used to. So if you need to do anything in the command line while editing code—which is, like, all the time—you can either use iTerm or manage multiple tabs and windows for each project you have open. In essence, you get a cleaner, more efficient workspace that’s just not possible with Terminal alone.

Update: split panes are what tmux is for. I’m still in the process of learning it and don’t use it all the time. But a 24-bit color editor like iTerm is mandatory for me regardless, which means Terminal is out either way.

As a bonus, a few of Oh My Zsh’s plugins take advantage of iTerm’s features and aren’t accessible in Terminal, so you get to claim some extra functionality.


Just go to the iTerm website to download and install.


iTerm is pretty light on configuration, but you can find some pretty good themes for it.

It is useful to note the ⌘ + D and ⌘ + Shift + D shortcuts to split the current view horizontally or vertically. ⌘ + Alt + Arrows moves between splits.

3/3: vim-plug + Vim

Command line + code editor + file tree, all in one. What more could you want?

What is it?

Vim is the reason you’re reading this, and we’ll get to that in a sec. vim-plug is one of the several Vim package managers that make your life easier when working with Vim: it’s how you can have all your fancy fuzzy finders, file trees, and coding tools without drowning in Vimscript. I prefer vim-plug to Pathogen because it handles updates more easily, and it’s updated and actively maintained unlike Vundle. From there you can configure your ~/.vimrc file to taste.


First, you might want to install shiny new Vim 8.x instead of the old, stinky Vim that comes on your system:

brew install vim

It’s worth noting that vi will open the old 7.x version, but vim will open the new one installed by Homebrew (you can add an alias for vi into ~/.zshrc if desired).

Next, install vim-plug with a Terminal command as specified in the repo (view instructions for: Mac/Unix/Windows).

Then paste the following into ~/.vimrc (create this file in your home directory if it doesn’t exist already):

call plug#begin('~/.vim/plugged')

" Vim Plug
call plug#begin('~/.vim/plugged')

" Airline
Plug 'vim-airline/vim-airline'
Plug 'vim-airline/vim-airline-themes'

" CtrlP
Plug 'ctrlpvim/ctrlp.vim', { 'on': 'CtrlP' }

" Color Schemes
Plug 'flazz/vim-colorschemes'

" NERD Commenter
Plug 'scrooloose/nerdcommenter'

" vim-ripgrep
Plug 'jremmen/vim-ripgrep'

" Surround
Plug 'tpope/vim-surround'

" Syntastic
Plug 'vim-syntastic/syntastic'

call plug#end()

" Initialize plugin system
call plug#end()

Listed are some of my favorite plugins:

  • CtrlP: fuzzy-finder
  • NERDTree: file tree for Vim
  • NERDCommenter: easy comment toggling for most languages
  • surround.vim: handy shortcuts for surrounding lines, words, or blocks with HTML tags (<p>) or characters ().
  • Syntastic: next-generation Vim syntax highlighting and error checking for Babel, JSX, Ruby, or whatever you’re into.
  • Airline: powerful Vim theme based on Powerline. Absolutely essential for seeing what mode of Vim you’re in.

You’ll notice that these aren’t installed yet. Once your file is saved (:w), run the following with Vim still open:


This will install all your plugins listed. Need to update? Try running :PlugUpdate. Need to remove plugins? Remove the lines above, and run :PlugClean.

The sky is the limit, though! There are countless Vim plugins to choose from, and VimPlug takes all the pain out of managing them.


Last thing we’ll install is ripgrep. This is, from what I could find, the fastest search tool available. It’ll make your fuzzy finder faster than anything you’ve ever used before, and it can tap into some powerful code searching tools (such as hitting one keystroke to see all other instances of a reference almost instantly). To install, run the following from a Terminal:

brew install ripgrep


If you chose to install CtrlP for fuzzy-finding (highly recommended), I recommend the following setup by adding the following lines to your ~/.vimrc file:

" Packages
if executable('rg')
  set grepprg=rg\ --color=never
  let g:ctrlp_user_command = 'rg %s --files --color=never --glob ""'
  let g:ctrlp_use_caching = 0
let g:ctrlp_custom_ignore = {
   \ 'dir': '\.git$\|\.yardoc\|bower_components|node_modules|public$|log\|tmp$',
   \ 'file': '\.so$\|\.dat$|\.DS_Store$'
   \ }

" Key Commands
map <C-\> :NERDTreeToggle<CR>

What this does is hooks up CtrlP to ripgrep for crazy fast searching (just hit—you guessed it—Ctrl + P to access your fuzzy finder). You can also edit the list of files/folders you don’t want CtrlP to find with ctrlp_custom_ignore (I added thebower_components/ and node_modules/ directories to my ignore list).

When browsing with CtrlP, simply hitting Enter will open the file in the same split, but you can open it in a new horizontal or vertical split by pressing Ctrl + x or Ctrl + v, respectively.

I also added a shortcut for NERDTree to open the file tree from any window with Ctrl + \. You can similarly close the tree with the same command.

See the rest of my _~/.vimrc_ file on GitHub.

New Workflow

My current workflow when working on a Rails project:

z proj
-> ~/sites/my-project
rails s

Starts my rails server. I then hit ⌘ + Shift + D to open a new split above and open Vim with:


From there, I’ll hit

Ctrl + p

to look for the file I want inside my project directory, and open it by hitting Enter. If I want to load another file side-by-side, I’ll open the file with

Ctrl + p<br>Ctrl + v

I can then hit

Ctrl + w + Arrows

to move between the Vim splits, or

⌘ + Alt + Arrows

to move to the command line below. I can now navigate through my code without touching my mouse. If I need to find something in the current file, I’ll hit


and then enter a search phrase (n/N go forward/backward, respectively, through the highlighted results). Or if I need to search my entire project for something, I’ll type

:Rg searchforthing

in normal Vim mode, and all instances of that phrase will appear in the window (you can also set up a keystroke to search for any word under your cursor).

In the end, I’m still using Vim and it behaves a lot differently than Sublime and Atom (I’m still getting used to the whole normal/insert/visual mode thing). But with the plugins and tools described above, it’s a much friendlier form of Vim I’m jumping into, and with a little patience and an open attitude, I’m learning new ways that I can start writing code more efficiently.

My ultimate end goal with all of this is to spend less time writing code, and more time shipping finished products.