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.
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:
- This is fast to iterate on. I can add another utility class in-line without digging through my CSS file and reasoning about selectors.
- 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.
- I have fewer choices to make. I didn’t need to worry about whether to use
#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.