Don't Play CSS Tetris

“Want to see the future?” Dale Sande (@anotheruiguy) leaned toward me with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. His laptop was crowded with code and design layouts. He proceeded to show me that I have been doing CSS all wrong.

My first mistake is using CSS at all. “If you’re like most developers you start designing a web page from the top-left down.  This ends up painting you into a corner,” Dale explains. Building style by stacking DOM elements together is like playing Tetris — you will always lose in the end.

He believes in a modular inside-out approach to design, one where developers start by identifying and isolating repeated widgets of design, like navigation links, sections, and forms. CSS was not designed for this approach, and Dale believes that SCSS provides the necessary features to encourage proper modular reuse.

In the object oriented SCSS (OOSCSS) approach, repeating widgets are developed outside of the actual composition — or “comp” as it is affectionately known — in a style guide. The guide shows each widget in all its guises, not just how they appear on the “happy path.” For instance, the guide shows how a login form  looks after a failed login attempt.

More ambitious widgets are composed from simpler widgets, and are displayed in the style guide as well. The chain of composition extends all the way up, until a comp is a simple matter of arranging big widgets. Dale believes there is no such thing as a one-off view, that is a page with small ad hoc differences not shared by sibling pages. One-offs are only situations which have not been properly forseen in the style guide. They should be unified.

For a style guide to be effective it must reference exactly the same styles as are live on a site. However, Dale uses sophisticated preprocessing tools to sculpt the final CSS which is served to the browser. This preprocessing can introduce unwanted dependencies to a simple site, which is why he advocates serving styles from a separate software stack, potentially from a different server than that which handles the site content. An elegant design is to mount your style server on a subdomain of your site, such as

Dale is developing a Compass extension which handles tricky layout mathematics and which provides a deft OOSCSS grid. He derides popular CSS frameworks: “The moment you pull in Twitter Bootstrap, you’ve applied over four thousand lines of styling — all before adding any customizations of your own. Most of these will be irrelevent to your markup.” He is developing an alternative framework, Toadstool, which includes only what you need when you need it. The framework will leverage SCSS’s upcoming silent class feature, which only serves those classes which are @extend’ed.

To learn about modern web styling I will refactor my 1up site to use a styleguide and serve styles from a separate Toadstool-powered Heroku server.

For more information about OOSCSS and Toadstool, see this presentation.

(crossposted at

Category: Development
Tags: Tutorial