Contextual Styling: UI Components, Nesting, and Implementation Detail

With the recent move toward componentised UIs—that is, instead of building monolithic, page-based websites, we’re building design systems and UI Toolkits that come together to form the resulting pages—we’ve yielded a lot of benefits. UIs are

  • faster to construct;
  • much more consistent;
  • much more flexible, forgiving, and robust;
  • far easier to reuse, recycle, or repurpose.

The notion that all UI components are born equal—and should be able to exist anywhere, at any time, and independently—is a huge move forward for UI developers in terms of the consistency and quality of the products we work with.

It’s not all a solved problem, though.

Recently, Simurai and Philip Walton both wrote articles discussing way to manage exceptions, chiefly: How do we style a component when it’s inside of another one?

The example Simurai uses is the idea of styling a button slightly differently when it’s placed inside of the site’s header. A number of potential solutions are presented, and he (admirably) admits that

…there isn’t some awesome solution at the end that solves all the problems. It’s just me whining most of the time.

Which is what makes it such a great post: it’s excellent food for thought and left me pondering the problem for weeks!

This post you’re reading is my take on the conundrum. It isn’t a direct response, rebuttal, or criticism of his. It’s also going to be a little bit more philosophical.


I’m going to take the approach I take with nearly every problem I come up against as a developer: I’m not going to solve it, I’m going to remove it entirely.

If you need to change the cosmetics of a UI component based on where it is placed, your design system is failing. It’s as simple as that. Things should be designed to be ignorant; things should be designed so that we always just have ‘this component’ and not ‘this component when inside…’.

The problem here isn’t How do we style this?, it’s Why has this been designed like this in the first place?. Put another way, the problem here doesn’t exist in code, it exists in design. Back to the drawing board.

The design issue here is solved by subtly inverting the problem: instead of saying The buttons need to be smaller when they’re in the header, we need to be saying We have a smaller variant of our buttons, and it’s these that we use in the header.

It’s that subtle. They’re not smaller because they’re in the header, they’re smaller and they’re in the header.

This means our solution (using BEM syntax) is just a case of:

.btn {
  ...
}

.btn--small {
  ...
}

Implemented like so:

<div class="header">

  <a href="/log-in" class="btn  btn--small">Log in</a>

</div>

The header and the button have no idea the other one exists.

Simurai then poses something of a slippery slope argument (emphasis mine):

This works great too, but could get out of hand quickly. What do you do if at some point you want the font-size to be .9em? Create yet another variation? Button--justALittleSmaller. As the project keeps growing, the number of variations will too.

I would argue here that, again, the problem lies in the design. Your UI should not be designed so arbitrarily, and if it is then that is indicative or a poor approach that needs solving further back down the line. A good UI Developer wouldn’t let this happen, and a good UI Designer wouldn’t do it in the first place.

To provide another example: if a button needs to be full-width when placed inside, say, a modal overlay, we would choose to completely ignore that modal overlay. We have to choose to ignore context. Once we begin to do this, the solution becomes rather clear: we don’t have a button that needs to be full width when in a modal overlay, we have a variant of our buttons that is full width that we are able to use wherever we like.

Incorrect:

.modal .btn {
  width: 100%;
}

Correct:

.btn--full {
  width: 100%;
}

When designing a composable UI, we have to be wilfully ignorant. We aren’t allowed to know anything about context; we have to make decisions under the assumption that we know nothing about any other part of the system.

Basically, cosmetics should not change depending on the location of the component. As far as cosmetic changes are concerned, there is no such thing as context*.

Implementation Detail

Above, I tried to stress the word cosmetics as much as possible. Changing how something looks based on context is something we just shouldn’t be doing.

However. Here’s an interesting one I’ve been thinking about lately: How do we style implementation detail? How do we style something not when it’s in the context of another component, but when it’s in the context of an entire project?

When we’re working with componentised UIs, we need to completely ignore layout. There’s no point designing a nice, decomposed, fluid, context-ignorant UI Toolkit if we’re just going to stick a load of widths and floats on all the components. It completely negates the point of making a this-will-work-everywhere component if you then go and bake layout and implementation rules right into it.

Let me give you an example. Imagine a site’s main nav that we’re going to build as .nav-primary:

.nav-primary {
  /* This is how the nav should always look: */
  margin:  0;
  padding: 0;
  list-style: none;
  font: 12px/1.5 sans-serif;

  /* But this is implementation detail: */
  float: right;
  margin-left: 18px;
}

Above we can see two distinct types of declaration:

  1. We have a group of styles which make .nav-primary look like the primary nav. These declarations are constant, and should remain intact whether .nav-primary is placed in our styleguide, or in our project, or in another project, or another one, and so on.
  2. We then have some styles who are responsible for making .nav-primary float over to the right and have some leading margin on its left (presumably to stop it touching up to the site’s main logo). These styles are only needed when .nav-primary is inside the project. This is implementation detail, and doesn’t really belong in this ruleset.

Having the implementation-specific styling baked into the .nav-primary component limits our ability to use it without it automatically jumping over to the right of its container, which then completely negates the work we’ve done in designing this componentised UI in the first place.

So how do we apply this implementation-specific styling on top of the all-the-time styling?

There are three methods I’m toying with, and all have their good and bad sides.

Nesting

One option would be to use nesting to provide context. Because we’re not altering cosmetics of the component, it isn’t indicative of a failing in our design system (in fact, it’s actively working to keep our design system even more pure).

HTML:

<header class="page-head">

  <ul class="nav-primary">
    ...
  </ul>

</header>

CSS:

.nav-primary {
  margin:  0;
  padding: 0;
  list-style: none;
  font: 12px/1.5 sans-serif;
}

.page-head .nav-primary {
  float: right;
  margin-left: 18px;
}

What we’re doing here is writing CSS where we really do want to change something based on its context. It’s clear in its intention that .nav-primary has a constant and consistent visual appearance, but when it is inside of something specific (i.e. .page-head) it needs to snap into position.

It’s worth noting here that Simurai wasn’t sure where this nested ruleset should live:

This works great but the question is, where should this rule be added?

For me the answer is quite simple: it should stay in the .nav-primary file. This is because the subject (our key selector) is still .nav-primary; that’s the thing that’s getting styled, so we’d expect to find any CSS that affects it inside its (S)CSS file, not something else’s.

The Good

Although we are using nesting, we do have good Selector Intent: we really do want to make .nav-primary do something different when it’s inside of .page-head. Good Selector Intent means that our CSS is doing the right things for the right reasons.

This also pins down our implementation detail CSS to a limited scope—we only get the specific positioning when we’ve put the component into a specific place.

Further, we can have as many implementations as we like/need. We might have a .nav-primary inside of .page-head, but also one inside of .styleguide-example. We can have as many specific implementation as we need whilst keeping them all separate from the constant and global cosmetics. This is good Separation of Concerns.

The Bad

But, of course there are bad bits.

First and foremost, this is violating the Open/Closed Principle. This means that we are editing .nav-primary specifically, only we’re doing it via .page-head. We are not extending components here, we are altering them through conditions (i.e. increasing Cyclomatic Complexity).

Because of violation of the Open/Closed Principle, we have ended up with a dictatorial selector. We have written a selector that says If you put that in here, this will happen. This means we are now open to leaking styles: because the decision is made in our CSS and not in our view, things will happen whether we like them or not.

Let’s imagine we roll out a suite of new sub-sections of the site and have to produce a slight variant of .nav-primary, perhaps called .nav-primary--sub. We implement this in the DOM like so:

<header class="page-head">

  <ul class="nav-primary">
    ...
  </ul>

  <ul class="nav-primary  nav-primary--sub">
    ...
  </ul>

</header>

Because .nav-primary--sub sits alongside a class of .nav-primary, it’s going to get shunted over to the right. We probably don’t want this, so we’ll have to write some CSS to undo it. More CSS to achieve less styling is a definite Code Smell.

So nesting perhaps isn’t the best solution.

Utility Classes

Another solution might be to apply the implementation-specific styles via a suite of utility classes, like so:

HTML:

<header class="page-head">

  <ul class="nav-primary  u-float-right  u-margin-left">
    ...
  </ul>

</header>

CSS:

.nav-primary {
  margin:  0;
  padding: 0;
  list-style: none;
  font: 12px/1.5 sans-serif;
}

...

.u-float-right {
  float: right !important;
}

.u-margin-left {
  margin-left: 18px !important;
}

The Good

The good news here is that this method obeys the Open/Closed Principle, in that we’re not actually altering .nav-primary at all. This also means we have no leaky styles whatsoever.

We can also, as with the previous example, have as many implementations across the project as we need. Because we’ve decoupled UI and implementation, we are free to move .nav-primary wherever we want and configure its specifics ‘just in time’.

We also have a really nice paper trail of intent here: we can see in our HTML that we have clear separation of concerns. We have classes for component styling, and classes for bespoke or ‘in situ’ treatments. If we’d adopted Namespaces here we’d have even more clarity.

The Bad

I feel like if I’m to be entirely objective then I wouldn’t have any problems at all with this solution: it separates our implementation from our component styling perfectly, it allows us to have several different implementation configurations per project, and it avoids any potential leaks or collisions. But…

Utilities still feel kinda nasty. They have their place, but are only a short hop away from inline styles (though they are markedly preferable). It will begin to pollute our readable markup with visual (although readable and purposeful) noise.

Another problem is that we aren’t being told which utility classes are being used for implementation-specific styling and which ones are being used just because we needed a style trump.

One Stateful Class

The third possibility I’ve been looking at is introducing a simple stateful class of .in-situ which has all of the implementation-specific styles bound to it. This means our component styles are applied only to .nav-primary, and the implementation styles are applied to .nav-primary.in-situ.

HTML:

<header class="page-head">

  <ul class="nav-primary  in-situ">
    ...
  </ul>

</header>

CSS:

.nav-primary {
  margin:  0;
  padding: 0;
  list-style: none;
  font: 12px/1.5 sans-serif;
}

.nav-primary.in-situ {
  float: right;
  margin-left: 18px;
}

The Good

This has all of the same benefits as utility classes (obeys the Open/Closed Principle, doesn’t leak, separates concerns) but has the added benefits of less visual noise (because we’re only using one additional class, rather than several), and it also introduces a standard, project-wide convention.

When you have a large codebase, it’s nice to be able to know that everything related to implementation-specific styling is always going to be bound to the same class (albeit always chained to something else). This means that reading through and entire page of HTML you can see immediately which components are being styled specifically because of where they are.

The Bad

The one huge downside to this method is that we can only use it once per component. We only get one .nav-primary.in-situ selector per project.

If we’re limited to only one implementation-specific version of .nav-primary, well then we might as well have just baked it into .nav-primary from the start.

I guess we could replace .in-situ with .in-page-head, or .in-styleguide-example, so having in- as a stateful prefix and the rest of the classes string would be unique per implementation.

<header class="page-head">

  <ul class="nav-primary  in-page-head">
    ...
  </ul>

</header>

This does mean we could end up with a lot of different .in-* classes per component, but we are still managing to separate our concerns.

The Best Solution

I’m not saying this problem is solved at all, far from it, but from the three solutions I’ve outlined I’d have to say that, on balance—and speaking purely objectively—the utility classes is probably the best option.

It has fewer large downsides, such as leaking styles and limited usage, and it poses no real problems other than subjective ones (like, ‘Eww, utility classes are icky!’).

The Takeaway

This post was made up of two main sections. The takeaway from the first would be that having to change the cosmetics of a component because it’s in a certain context is a Design Smell. It’s indicative of the fact that your UI Toolkit and/or design system is failing, and the solution to that problem does not lie in code.

The second key point I’m making is that we need some way of separating component styles from implementation-specific ones. I cannot overstate this enough: applying layout and implementation-specific styles to a component completely negates the point of componentising it in the first place.

It’s not a solved problem, but it is something I’m looking at quite closely at the moment. I think I need to research the .in-* approach some more as well.


*Theming is the exception, but it’s a big enough departure from what we’re discussing here that I feel okay making this general statement. If you do have to deal with theming, take a look at my recent talk 4½ Methods for Theming in (S)CSS


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