Tags: randomness

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Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

Custom properties

I made the website for the Clearleft podcast last week. The design is mostly lifted straight from the rest of the Clearleft website. The main difference is the masthead. If the browser window is wide enough, there’s a background image on the right hand side.

I mostly added that because I felt like the design was a bit imbalanced without something there. On the home page, it’s a picture of me. Kind of cheesy. But the image can be swapped out. On other pages, there are different photos. All it takes is a different class name on that masthead.

I thought about having the image be completely random (and I still might end up doing this). I’d need to use a bit of JavaScript to choose a class name at random from a list of possible values. Something like this:

var names = ['jeremy','katie','rich','helen','trys','chris'];
var name = names[Math.floor(Math.random() * names.length)];
document.querySelector('.masthead').classList.add(name);

(You could paste that into the dev tools console to see it in action on the podcast site.)

Then I read something completely unrelated. Cassie wrote a fantastic article on her site called Making lil’ me - part 1. In it, she describes how she made the mouse-triggered animation of her avatar in the footer of her home page.

It’s such a well-written technical article. She explains the logic of what she’s doing, and translates that logic into code. Then, after walking you through the native code, she shows how you could use the Greeksock library to achieve the same effect. That’s the way to do it! Instead of saying, “Here’s a library that will save you time—don’t worry about how it works!”, she’s saying “Here’s it works without a library; here’s how it works with a library; now you can make an informed choice about what to use.” It’s a very empowering approach.

Anyway, in the article, Cassie demonstrates how you can use custom properties as a bridge between JavaScript and CSS. JavaScript reads the mouse position and updates some custom properties accordingly. Those same custom properties are used in CSS for positioning. Voila! Now you’ve got the position of an element responding to mouse movements.

That’s what made me think of the code snippet I wrote above to update a class name from JavaScript. I automatically thought of updating a class name because, frankly, that’s how I’ve always done it. I’d say about 90% of the DOM scripting I’ve ever done involves toggling the presence of class values: accordions, fly-out menus, tool-tips, and other progressive disclosure patterns.

That’s fine. But really, I should try to avoid touching the DOM at all. It can have performance implications, possibly triggering unnecessary repaints and reflows.

Now with custom properties, there’s a direct line of communication between JavaScript and CSS. No need to use the HTML as a courier.

This made me realise that I need to be aware of automatically reaching for a solution just because that’s the way I’ve done something in the past. I should step back and think about the more efficient solutions that are possible now.

It also made me realise that “CSS variables” is a very limiting way of thinking about custom properties. The fact that they can be updated in real time—in CSS or JavaScript—makes them much more powerful than, say, Sass variables (which are more like constants).

But I too have been guilty of underselling them. I almost always refer to them as “CSS custom properties” …but a lot of their potential comes from the fact that they’re not confined to CSS. From now on, I’m going to try calling them custom properties, without any qualification.