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Blueprint for NYC signage

Code Patterns & Style Guides

Living Style Guide documentation on the web is a difficult problem, gaining a lot of attention in the last few years. Let’s take an in-depth look at one way to store patterns directly in Sass, and generate documentation automatically.

I’ve often been asked how we sell style guides to our clients. The short answer is: we don’t. Our clients want to put usable features in front of real users on a tight schedule. Style guides aren’t the product, they’re part of the process.

Style guides are necessary, but keeping them alive can be difficult and time-consuming. We have to find ways to integrate documentation into the daily workflow, or it will get lost in the scramble for bigger and better features.

As Carl likes to say: un-tested code is legacy code – even if you wrote it an hour ago.

As I like to say: if you don’t document something, it doesn’t exist.

We’ve been struggling with these problems for a long time, and slowly developing a set of tools to help us manage our patterns in code, and document the results as we go. We’re not done, but we’ve learned a lot, and I’d like to show you what we have so far.

The first style patterns we add to any new project (including this OddSite design) are color palettes, fonts, and a typographic scale. These are what I call “abstract” patterns – conceptual rules that exist before any element is ever styled on the page.

My first goal is to make these patterns tangible in our code, so they “exist” somehow outside our own imaginations. Our living style guide (which will include colors, fonts, and sizes) must be based on real and meaningful code, or it’s nothing but theory.

Lucky for us, CSS pre-processors like Sass and Less were invented to solve this problem. It’s common to store abstract patterns in Sass variables. Here are some example variables from Bootstrap-Sass, where they define nearly 400 variables in a single file:

// brand colors:
$brand-primary:         darken(#428bca, 6.5%) !default; // #337ab7
$brand-success:         #5cb85c !default;
$brand-info:            #5bc0de !default;
$brand-warning:         #f0ad4e !default;
$brand-danger:          #d9534f !default;

// applied colors:
$link-color:            $brand-primary !default;
$link-hover-color:      darken($link-color, 15%) !default;

// font stacks:
$font-family-sans-serif:  "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif !default;
$font-family-serif:       Georgia, "Times New Roman", Times, serif !default;

// font sizes:
$font-size-base:          14px !default;
$font-size-large:         ceil(($font-size-base * 1.25)) !default; // ~18px
$font-size-small:         ceil(($font-size-base * 0.85)) !default; // ~12px

// spacing sizes:
$padding-base-vertical:     6px !default;
$padding-base-horizontal:   12px !default;

There’s nothing wrong about that approach, and it’s certainly not unique to Bootstrap. This is what variables are designed for, and patterns defined this way are easy to access without any help from a toolkit.

What’s missing is an explicit sense of the patterns developing here: brand-colors, link-colors, fonts, etc. Variables are only related in implicit ways, by giving them similar names. We assume that $brand-primary, $brand-success, and $brand-info are part of the same pattern because they look similar – but that implicit relationship relies on naming conventions, code proximity, and human interpretation. Sass has no way of understanding these relationships, or automating style guides from them.

To address those issues, we group all our common settings into a few map variables. If you haven’t used Sass Maps, they are a variable type similar to arrays, dictionaries, or objects in other languages – a set of key: value pairs contained in a single variable.

Converting the brand-colors above might look something like this:

$brand-colors: (
  'primary':  darken(#428bca, 6.5%),
  'success':  #5cb85c,
  'info':     #5bc0de,
  'warning':  #f0ad4e,
  'danger':   #d9534f,
) !default;

Now the brand-colors are grouped explicitly, clear to both humans and compilers, with less clutter in the global namespace.

Maps provide other advantages over variables, especially when you want to make programmatic adjustments. In fact, maps were added to Sass to replace variable-name interpolation. New variables can’t be generated in Sass, but new map keys can. The following code attempts to create and save lighter and darker versions of our primary brand color. This won’t work, using variables:

@for each $adjustment in ('lighten', 'darken') {
  $new-color: call($adjustment, $brand-primary, 10%);

  // There is no Sass syntax for this...
  $brand-primary-#{$adjustment}: $new-color;

But it does work, using map keys:

@for each $adjustment in ('lighten', 'darken') {
  $new-color: call($adjustment, $brand-primary, 10%);
  $new-color-map: ('primary-#{$adjustment}': $new-color);

  $brand-colors: map-merge($brand-colors, $new-color-map);

The same is true with accessing variable names and map keys programmatically. Using variables, it fails:

@for each $header in ('h1', 'h2', 'h3') {
  #{$header} {
    @if variable-exists('font-size-#{$header}') {
      // There is no Sass syntax for this...
      font-size: $font-size-#{$header};

Again, it works great with a map key:

@for each $header in ('h1', 'h2', 'h3') {
  #{$header} {
    @if map-has-key($text-sizes, $header) {
      font-size: map-get($text-sizes, $header);

That may not be a common use-case, but it can come in handy for automating repetitive patterns. More important to OddBird’s daily use, we can also automate some basic style guides with very little effort – looping through the maps to get all the data we need. We’ll get to that later.

Of course, no solution is perfect, and maps come with their own problems. Some are simple text-editor issues, like the ability for most language-helpers to autocomplete variable names, but not map keys. That’s a minor frustration, but there’s another map issue that can really ruin your entire day:

Sass variables can easily reference other variables – e.g $blue-gray: desaturate($blue, 20%); – but map values cannot reference other values in the same map.

$colors: (
  'blue': #339,
  'blue-gray': desaturate(map-get($colors, blue), 20%),

// SASS ERROR: Undefined variable: "$colors".

That’s ugly, and it doesn’t work. At the point where we are calling the map, it hasn’t yet been defined. Technically, we could only reference values from previously-defined maps, and build our patterns that way – but that gets even uglier:

$colors: (
  'blue': #339,

$colors: map-merge($colors, (
  'blue-gray': desaturate(map-get($colors, blue), 20%),

What’s the point of grouping all your values in a single variable, if you have to define it over and over, one small piece at a time?

Lucky for you, there’s nothing I love more than over-engineering Sass tools…

Clearly we have to make some changes to our map. Instead of referencing and manipulating values directly, we use an invented syntax to define what references and manipulations should happen:

// Define first...
$colors: (
  'blue': #339,
  'blue-gray': 'blue' ('desaturate': 20%),

Our syntax has two parts: a base color – which can be any color-value, or another key in the map – and an optional map of adjustments, including function names, and additional arguments:

$color: (
  // <name>: <base-color> (<function>: <arguments...>, ...),
  'blue-gray': 'blue' ('desaturate': 20%, 'lighten': 15%),

That’s hopefully human-readable, and loosely based on functional programming standards, but it will require processing in order to work. We need some functions that know how to parse our syntax, and return CSS-ready results.

At OddBird we have three abstract “Sass Accoutrement” toolkits (color, scale, and type) each containing a core function to compile our maps. In the color module, that function is simply called color(), and works like this:

// Calculate on-the-fly...
$result: color('blue-gray');

While 'blue' ('desaturate': 20%) doesn’t mean anything special to Sass, the color() function understands how to parse that syntax, and make the necessary conversions. First it has to look up the reference color (#339 above), and then call the adjustment function mentioned (desaturate), passing in the base color and the given argument (20%).

You can play with it yourself in this CodePen demo:

See the Pen Accoutrement Color Example by Miriam Suzanne (@miriamsuzanne) on CodePen.

As you can see, that demo also generates a rough style guide on-the-fly, with nothing but Sass and empty div elements – a pretty good proof-of-concept for the more robust style guide generator we’ll develop later.

The Theming Option

There’s an interesting side effect of our solution that I’ve never really dug into before now. While variable relationships are static, calculated at the point they are defined, our relationships remain dynamic until they are called.

Let’s start with a few colors defined as variables, with one color based on the other color:

$brand: #339;
$brand-light: lighten($brand, 10%); // #4040bf

If I override the value of $brand later in the document, that will have no effect on the value of $brand-light:

$brand: #339;
$brand-light: lighten($brand, 10%); // #4040bf

$brand: #933;

.static-variables {
  background: $brand-light; // #4040bf – still the same...

The lighten-10% relationship is lost, unless we re-define both colors at once. If we do the same thing using Sass maps, we get a different result:

$colors: (
  'brand': #339,
  'brand-light': 'brand' ('lighten': 10%), // #4040bf

$colors: map-merge($colors, ('brand': #933));

.dynamic-values {
  background: color('brand-light'); // #bf4040 – it changed!

Keeping that relationship dynamic could allow us to handle theming in new ways. Change the base color on-the-fly, and watch the results trickle down.

We use the same approach for colors, sizes, and fonts – with additional helpers to manage contrast-ratios, modular-scales (when needed), robust webfont importing, and (most importantly) automated style guides.

Since the abstract site configuration is stored in a meaningful way, we can export all that data to JSON and pass it along to a tool like SassDoc for display. We’re working on a SassDoc theme of our own, called Herman, which knows how to display color-palettes, type scales, and font specimens.

You can look at our OddSite config files on Github, and see the generated docs live. Herman is far from complete, but it’s already been useful in generating docs as we go – with little extra effort. Any time a new color is added to the map, it is automatically available to our color() function, and simultaneously appears in the style guide. The pattern is documented directly in the code.

That meaningful structure provides a lot of power, but comes with trade-offs. We have to invent our own syntax, which raises the learning curve for new developers, and eliminates some text-editor autocomplete gains. We’ve added dependencies to the project, making it also more difficult to test ideas in sandbox systems like Codepen and Sassmeister.

Are those trade-offs worth it? That depends on your needs, and the needs of the project. No solution is one-size fits all. We hope some of these issues can be resolved in our toolkit – like adding a hosted sandbox to our style guides – but your milage will almost certainly vary.

How have you handled site configuration and documentation in your projects? How would you improve on our map solution? We’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter, or through our handy contact form. Happy coding!

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