Tags: modular

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Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

Utopia

Trys and James recently unveiled their Utopia project. They’ve been tinkering away at it behind the scenes for quite a while now.

You can check out the website and read the blog to get the details of how it accomplishes its goal:

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

I may well be biased, but I really like this project. I’ve been asking myself why I find it so appealing. Here are a few of the attributes of Utopia that strike a chord with me…

It’s collaborative

Collaboration is at the heart of Clearleft’s work. I know everyone says that, but we’ve definitely seen a direct correlation: projects with high levels of collaboration are invariably more successful than projects where people are siloed.

The genesis for Utopia came about after Trys and James worked together on a few different projects. It’s all too easy to let design and development splinter off into their own caves, but on these projects, Trys and James were working (literally) side by side. This meant that they could easily articulate frustrations to one another, and more important, they could easily share their excitement.

The end result of their collaboration is some very clever code. There’s an irony here. This code could be used to discourage collaboration! After all, why would designers and developers sit down together if they can just pass these numbers back and forth?

But I don’t think that Utopia will appeal to designers and developers who work in that way. Born in the spirit of collaboration, I suspect that it will mostly benefit people who value collaboration.

It’s intrinsic

If you’re a control freak, you may not like Utopia. The idea is that you specify the boundaries of what you’re trying to accomplish—minimum/maximum font sizes, minumum/maximum screen sizes, and some modular scales. Then you let the code—and the browser—do all the work.

On the one hand, this feels like surrending control. But on the other hand, because the underlying system is so robust, it’s a way of guaranteeing quality, even in situations you haven’t accounted for.

If someone asks you, “What size will the body copy be when the viewport is 850 pixels wide?”, your answer would have to be “I don’t know …but I do know that it will be appropriate.”

This feels like a very declarative way of designing. It reminds me of the ethos behind Andy and Heydon’s site, Every Layout. They call it algorithmic layout design:

Employing algorithmic layout design means doing away with @media breakpoints, “magic numbers”, and other hacks, to create context-independent layout components. Your future design systems will be more consistent, terser in code, and more malleable in the hands of your users and their devices.

See how breakpoints are mentioned as being a very top-down approach to layout? Remember the tagline for Utopia, which aims for fluid responsive design?

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

Unsurprisingly, Andy really likes Utopia:

As the co-author of Every Layout, my head nearly fell off from all of the nodding when reading this because this is the exact sort of approach that we preach: setting some rules and letting the browser do the rest.

Heydon describes this mindset as automating intent. I really like that. I think that’s what Utopia does too.

As Heydon said at Patterns Day:

Be your browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

The idea is that you give it rules, you give it axioms or principles to work on, and you let it do the calculation. You work with the in-built algorithms of the browser and of CSS itself.

This is all possible thanks to improvements to CSS like calc, flexbox and grid. Jen calls this approach intrinsic web design. Last year, I liveblogged her excellent talk at An Event Apart called Designing Intrinsic Layouts.

Utopia feels like it has the same mindset as algorithmic layout design and intrinsic web design. Trys and James are building on the great work already out there, which brings me to the final property of Utopia that appeals to me…

It’s iterative

There isn’t actually much that’s new in Utopia. It’s a combination of existing techniques. I like that. As I said recently:

I’m a great believer in the HTML design principle, Evolution Not Revolution:

It is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away.

First of all, Utopia uses the idea of modular scales in typography. Tim Brown has been championing this idea for years.

Then there’s the idea of typography being fluid and responsive—just like Jason Pamental has been speaking and writing about.

On the code side, Utopia wouldn’t be possible without the work of Mike Reithmuller and his breakthroughs on responsive and fluid typography, which led to Tim’s work on CSS locks.

Utopia takes these building blocks and combines them. So if you’re wondering if it would be a good tool for one of your projects, you can take an equally iterative approach by asking some questions…

Are you using fluid type?

Do your font-sizes increase in proportion to the width of the viewport? I don’t mean in sudden jumps with @media breakpoints—I mean some kind of relationship between font size and the vw (viewport width) unit. If so, you’re probably using some kind of mechanism to cap the minimum and maximum font sizes—CSS locks.

I’m using that technique on Resilient Web Design. But I’m not changing the relative difference between different sized elements—body copy, headings, etc.—as the screen size changes.

Are you using modular scales?

Does your type system have some kind of ratio that describes the increase in type sizes? You probably have more than one ratio (unlike Resilient Web Design). The ratio for small screens should probably be smaller than the ratio for big screens. But rather than jump from one ratio to another at an arbitrary breakpoint, Utopia allows the ratio to be fluid.

So it’s not just that font sizes are increasing as the screen gets larger; the comparative difference is also subtly changing. That means there’s never a sudden jump in font size at any time.

Are you using custom properties?

A technical detail this, but the magic of Utopia relies on two powerful CSS features: calc() and custom properties. These two workhorses are used by Utopia to generate some CSS that you can stick at the start of your stylesheet. If you ever need to make changes, all the parameters are defined at the top of the code block. Tweak those numbers and watch everything cascade.

You’ll see that there’s one—and only one—media query in there. This is quite clever. Usually with CSS locks, you’d need to have a media query for every different font size in order to cap its growth at the maximum screen size. With Utopia, the maximum screen size—100vw—is abstracted into a variable (a custom property). The media query then changes its value to be the upper end of your CSS lock. So it doesn’t matter how many different font sizes you’re setting: because they all use that custom property, one single media query takes care of capping the growth of every font size declaration.

If you’re already using CSS locks, modular scales, and custom properties, Utopia is almost certainly going to be a good fit for you.

If you’re not yet using those techniques, but you’d like to, I highly recommend using Utopia on your next project.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

Fluid scale and tokens: a match made in heaven - Andy Bell

Andy takes Utopia for a spin—it very much matches his approach.

Utopia

This is the project that Trys and James have been working on at Clearleft. It’s a way of approaching modular scales in web typography that uses CSS locks and custom properties to fantastic effect.

Utopia is not a product, a plugin, or a framework. It’s a memorable/pretentious word we use to refer to a way of thinking about fluid responsive design.

Friday, August 9th, 2019

Building an extensible app or library with vanilla JS | Go Make Things

This looks like a sensible approach to creating a modular architecture for a complex client-side JavaScript codebase.

I know a lot of people swear by ES6 imports, but this systems worked really well for us. It gave us a simple, modular, extensible framework we can easily build on in the future.

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Baking accessibility into components: how frameworks help

A very thoughtful post by Hidde that draws a useful distinction between the “internals” of a component (the inner workings of a React component, Vue component, or web component) and the code that wires those components together (the business logic):

I really like working on the detailed stuff that affects users: useful keyboard navigation, sensible focus management, good semantics. But I appreciate not every developer does. I have started to think this may be a helpful separation: some people work on good internals and user experience, others on code that just uses those components and deals with data and caching and solid architecture. Both are valid things, both need love. Maybe we can use the divide for good?

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Web Components will replace your frontend framework

I’ve often said that the goal of a good library should be to make itself redundant. jQuery is the poster child for that, and this article points to web components as the way to standardise what’s already happening in JavaScript frameworks:

Remember when document.querySelector first got wide browser support and started to end jQuery’s ubiquity? It finally gave us a way to do natively what jQuery had been providing for years: easy selection of DOM elements. I believe the same is about to happen to frontend frameworks like Angular and React.

The article goes on to give a good technical overview of custom elements, templates, and the Shadow DOM, but I was surprised to see it making reference to the is syntax for extending existing HTML elements—I’m pretty sure that that is, sadly, dead in the water.

Friday, September 28th, 2018

What is Modular CSS?

A walk down memory lane, looking at the history modular CSS methodologies (and the people behind them):

Tuesday, September 4th, 2018

Pitfalls of Card UIs - daverupert.com

I’m going through a pattern library right now, and this rings true:

I’m of the opinion that all cards in a Card UI are destined to become baby webpages. Just like modals. Baby hero units with baby titles and baby body text and baby dropdown menu of actions and baby call to action bars, etc.

In some ways this outcome is the opposite of what you were intending. You wanted a Card UI where everything was simple and uniform, but what you end up with is a CSS gallery website filled with baby websites.

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

A Tale of Two Buttons

In defence of the cascade (especially now that we’ve got CSS custom properties).

I think embracing CSS’s cascade can be a great way to encourage consistency and simplicity in UIs. Rather than every new component being a free for all, it trains both designers and developers to think in terms of aligning with and re-using what they already have.

Remember, every time you set a property in CSS you are in fact overriding something (even if it’s just the default user agent styles). In other words, CSS code is mostly expressing exceptions to a default design.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

Web Components in 2018 - Blog | SitePen

A good explanation of web components, complete with some code examples.

Web Components are not a single technology. Instead, they are series of browser standards defined by the W3C allowing developers to build components in a way the browser can natively understand. These standards include:

  • HTML Templates and Slots – Reusable HTML markup with entry points for user-specific markup
  • Shadow DOM – DOM encapsulation for markup and styles
  • Custom Elements – Defining named custom HTML elements with specific behaviour

Pattern Library First: An Approach For Managing CSS — Smashing Magazine

Rachel goes into detail on how she uses pattern libraries—built with Fractal to build interfaces. I know it sounds like we paid her to say all the nice things about Fractal, but honestly, we didn’t even know she was writing this article!

After discovering Fractal two years ago, we have moved every new project — large and small — into Fractal.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

Monday, May 7th, 2018

What’s in a pattern name? — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan emphasises the importance of making a shared language the heart of any design system. I heartily agree!

This isn’t new thinking, mind: folks like Alla Kholmatova and Charlotte Jackson have been talking about this for ages. (And in doing so, they’ve massively influenced how I think about modular, pattern-driven design.)

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Questions To Ask Before Building a Component Library | Chromatic

  • What problems will a component library solve?
  • Is everyone on the project behind the component library?
  • How will the component library be used?
  • What tool(s) will be used to build the component library?
  • Where should the component library live?
  • How granular should the library be? How should it be organized?
  • How will component code be scoped? What about page layout?
  • What data will the library use? What else should it have?

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Bad Month for the Main Thread - daverupert.com

JavaScript is CPU intensive and the CPU is the bottleneck for performance.

I’m on Team Dave.

But darn it all, I just want to build modular websites using HTML and a little bit of JavaScript.

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

Lost My Name Design System

The really nicely documented design system for Lost My Name.

They’ve also written up the process of creating the design system which includes a refreshingly honest account of missteps made along the way—very valuable!

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Introducing Fractal and Federalist | U.S. Web Design Standards

Another instance of Fractal in the wild, this time for the Federalist design system.

Why Fractal?

  • It’s open source.
  • It’s easy to use.
  • It generates standalone HTML previews of each component.
  • It uses or supports many of the technologies we use already.
  • Fractal offers a customizable theme engine.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

On container queries. — Ethan Marcotte

Unsurprisingly, I completely and utterly agree with Ethan’s assessment here:

I’ve written some code that’s saying, “Once the screen is this size and the element appears in a different, smaller container, use a narrower layout on this element.”

But, well, that’s weird. Why can’t we apply styles based on the space available to the module we’re designing, rather than looking at the shape of the viewport?

I also share his frustration with the “math is hard; let’s go shopping” response from browser vendors:

There’s an incredible clamor for container queries, with folks from every corner of the responsive community asking for something that solves this problem. So personally, I’d love to see at least one browser vendor partner with the RICG, and get properly fired up about this.

We had to drag browser makers kicking and screaming to responsive images (to this day, Hixie maintains it’s not a problem that needs solving) and I suspect even more activism is going to be needed to get them to tackle container queries.

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

“Cooking with Design Systems,” an article by Dan Mall

Dan describes his approach to maintainable CSS. It’s a nice balance between semantic naming and reusable styles.

Warning: the analogies used here might make you very, very hungry.