Category: CSS

Future Imperfect 2.0

A near-complete website rewrite

I spent a few weeks in August rewriting this website, and as promised here are the deets. The source code is available here under the MIT license.

Background

When I initially put this website together in January 2018, I used Julio Pescador’s Hugo port of the Future Imperfect theme. I’d heard good things about Hugo, I wanted to write blog posts in Markdown, and it was a good-looking theme that required minimal additional setup. It served me well for over a year, but a few things kept bothering me:

  1. The styling was very difficult to modify – it was nearly 3000 lines of CSS in a single file, with many duplicated colours and styles.
  2. The theme relied on a lot of JavaScript libraries: jQuery, highlight.js, Fancybox, Skel
    1. My simple static website was serving up hundreds of kilobytes of largely unnecessary scripts. As someone who grew up using a dialup modem, this offended me.

My goal was to rewrite the Hugo theme for extensibility and performance, and I figured it would take maybe a week. Of course, it took about 3 times that.

Dark Mode on the Web

Using the prefers-color-scheme media selector

I recently rewrote most of this website (more on that soon!) and it’s now much easier to work on. Last week, I shipped a feature that I really like: dark mode using the new prefers-color-scheme media query. If you have dark mode enabled in your OS and a reasonably new browser, reillywood.com now shows you a dark UI using the Solarized colour scheme:

Tailwind CSS

Web styles designed from scratch

I recently overhauled the UI for my letter builder web app, switching from Bootstrap to a neat framework named Tailwind CSS. It’s been great so far.

I dabble in web development, but it’s not “my thing”. Most of my time is spent on back-end systems and the occasional native UI. When I’m building a web UI, I usually spend a lot of time on MDN or W3Schools looking up syntax details.

Tailwind

Enter Tailwind. It’s a utility-first CSS framework, which in practice means they give you a whole bunch of “utility” classes which are effectively aliases for common styles. Here’s an example from when I was styling a button:

<button class="bg-blue-dark text-sm text-white rounded py-2 px-4 my-2"/>

With these classes, I’m saying that I want a dark blue background, small white text, 2 units of padding on the top and bottom (py-2), 4 units of padding on the left and right (px-4), 2 units of margin on the top and bottom (my-2), and rounded corners. Whew!

Right away, we can notice a few advantages relative to the normal way of doing things:

  1. This is fast to iterate on. I can add another utility class in-line without digging through my CSS file and reasoning about selectors.
  2. The class names are concise yet informative. py-2 is clearly operating on the Y axis (top and bottom), which is much easier to remember than a padding style with multiple unlabeled values.
  3. I have fewer choices to make. I didn’t need to worry about whether to use #0033CC or #0000FF for a dark blue, I just asked for dark blue. Same thing with padding+margins, I just chose from a small set of integers instead of wondering whether to do 0.5rem or 0.6rem.

Isn’t putting all your styles inline just asking for trouble?

Yes, this can get out of hand if you put too much stying inline – but Tailwind utility classes can be extracted into components as soon as you need some additional abstraction. The authors even recommend that:

Tailwind encourages a “utility-first” workflow, where new designs are initially implemented using only utility classes to avoid premature abstraction.

While we strongly believe you can get a lot further with just utilities than you might initially expect, we don’t believe that a dogmatic utility-only approach is the best way to write CSS.

Curation VS organic growth

I’m being a little hard on the “usual” way of writing styles in CSS. The web grew more-or-less organically, so it’s not fair to expect an overall design from the mess of styles available to modern browsers. Thankfully, that’s where projects like Tailwind come in.

It’s remarkable how much nicer it is to build web UIs when working with a thoughtfully curated and documented subset of styles. Sometimes a big step forward doesn’t need to come from a clever technical breakthrough – simply organizing existing information+symbols in a better way can reap massive benefits.

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I'm a software engineer in Vancouver, Canada. I'm interested in databases, urban planning, computing history, and whatever else catches my fancy.

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