STEP (the SMC in Time: Evolution of a Prototype interacting late-type dwarf galaxy) is a Guaranteed Time Observation survey being performed at the VST (the ESO VLT Survey Telescope). STEP will image an area of 74 sq. deg. covering the main body of the Small Magellanic Cloud (32 sq. deg.), the Bridge that connects it to the Large Magellanic Cloud (30 sq. deg.) and a small part of the Magellanic Stream (2 sq. deg.). Our g, r, i, Hα photometry is able to resolve individual stars down to magnitudes well below the main-sequence turn-off of the oldest populations. In this first paper, we describe the observing strategy, the photometric techniques and the upcoming data products of the survey. We also present preliminary results for the first two fields for which data acquisition is completed, including some detailed analysis of the two stellar clusters IC 1624 and NGC 419.