Sasstraction

Emil has been playing around with CSS variables (or “custom properties” as they should more correctly be known), which have started landing in some browsers. It’s well worth a read. He does a great job of explaining the potential of this new CSS feature.

For now though, most of us will be using preprocessors like Sass to do our variabling for us. Sass was the subject of Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in San Francisco last week—an excellent event as always.

At one point, Chris briefly mentioned that he’s quite happy for variables (or constants, really) to remain in Sass and not to be part of the CSS spec. Alas, I didn’t get a chance to chat with Chris about that some more, but I wonder if his thinking aligns with mine. Because I too believe that CSS variables should remain firmly in the realm of preprocessers rather than browsers.

Hear me out…

There are a lot of really powerful programmatic concepts that we could add to CSS, all of which would certainly make it a more powerful language. But I think that power would come at an expense.

Right now, CSS is a relatively-straightforward language:

CSS isn’t voodoo, it’s a simple and straightforward language where you declare an element has a style and it happens.

That’s a somewhat-simplistic summation, and there’s definitely some complexity to certain aspects of CSS—like specificity or margin collapsing—but on the whole, it has a straightforward declarative syntax:

selector {
    property: value;
}

That’s it. I think that this simplicity is quite beautiful and surprisingly powerful.

Over at my collection of design principles, I’ve got a section on Bert Bos’s essay What is a good standard? In theory, it’s about designing standards in general, but it matches very closely to CSS in particular. Some of the watchwords are maintainability, modularity, extensibility, simplicity, and learnability. A lot of those principles are clearly connected. I think CSS does a pretty good job of balancing all of those principles, while still providing authors with quite a bit of power.

Going back to that fundamental pattern of CSS, you’ll notice that is completely modular:

selector {
    property: value;
}

None of those pieces (selector, property, value) reference anything elsewhere in the style sheet. But as soon as you introduce variables, that modularity is snapped apart. Now you’ve got a value that refers to something defined elsewhere in the style sheet (or even in a completely different style sheet).

But variables aren’t the first addition to CSS that sacrifices modularity. CSS animations already do that. If you want to invoke a keyframe animation, you have to define it. The declaration and the invocation happen in separate blocks:

selector {
    animation-name: myanimation;
}
@keyframes myanimation {
    from {
        property: value;
    }
    to {
        property: value;
    }
}

I’m not sure that there’s any better way to provide powerful animations in CSS, but this feature does sacrifice modularity …and I believe that has a knock-on effect for learnability and readability.

So CSS variables (or custom properties) aren’t the first crack in the wall of the design principles behind CSS. To mix my metaphors, the slippery slope began with @keyframes (and maybe @font-face too).

But there’s no denying that having variables/constants in CSS provide a lot of power. There’s plenty of programming ideas (like loops and functions) that would provide lots of power to CSS. I still don’t think it’s a good idea to mix up the declarative and the programmatic. That way lies XSLT—a strange hybrid beast that’s sort of a markup language and sort of a programming language.

I feel very strongly that HTML and CSS should remain learnable languages. I don’t just mean for professionals. I believe it’s really important that anybody should be able to write and style a web page.

Now does that mean that CSS must therefore remain hobbled? No, I don’t think so. Thanks to preprocessors like Sass, we can have our cake and eat it too. As professionals, we can use tools like Sass to wield the power of variables, functions (mixins) and other powerful concepts from the programming world.

Preprocessors cut the Gordian knot that’s formed from the tension in CSS between providing powerful features and remaining relatively easy to learn. That’s why I’m quite happy for variables, mixins, nesting and the like to remain firmly in the realm of Sass.

Incidentally, at An Event Apart, Chris was making the case that Sass’s power comes from the fact that it’s an abstraction. I don’t think that’s necessarily true—I think the fact that it provides a layer of abstraction might be a red herring.

Chris made the case for abstractions being inherently A Good Thing. Certainly if you go far enough down the stack (to Assembly Language), that’s true. But not all abstractions are good abstractions, and I’m not just talking about Spolky’s law of leaky abstractions.

Let’s take two different abstractions that share a common origin story:

  • Sass is an abstraction layer for CSS.
  • Haml is an abstraction layer for HTML.

If abstractions were inherently A Good Thing, then they would both provide value to some extent. But whereas Sass is a well-designed tool that allows CSS-savvy authors to write their CSS more easily, Haml is a steaming pile of poo.

Here’s the crucial difference: Sass doesn’t force you to write all your CSS in a completely new way. In fact, every .css file is automatically a valid .scss file. You are then free to use—or ignore—the features of Sass at your own pace.

Haml, on the other hand, forces you to use a completely new whitespace-significant syntax that maps on to HTML. There are no half-measures. It is an abstraction that is not only opinionated, it refuses to be reasoned with.

So I don’t think that Sass is good because it’s an abstraction; I think that Sass is good because it’s a well-designed abstraction. Crucially, it’s also easy to learn …just like CSS.

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