BEMIT: Taking the BEM Naming Convention a Step Further

Anybody who’s followed me or my work for any length of time will no doubt know that I’m a huge proponent of the BEM naming convention. What I’m about to talk about in this post is not an alternative or different naming convention to BEM, but an augmentation: small additions that level BEM up a notch. This extended BEM syntax has been dubbed BEMIT, as it borrows some paradigms and patterns from the (as yet unpublished) Inverted Triangle CSS architecture. BEM + ITCSS = BEMIT.

For a quick recap on BEM, it works by breaking all classes in a codebase down into one of three groups:

  • Block: The sole root of the component.
  • Element: A component part of the Block.
  • Modifier: A variant or extension of the Block.

Blocks, Elements, and Modifiers: BEM. Absolutely every class in a project fits into one of these categories, which is why BEM is so great—it’s incredibly simple and straightforward.

The point of BEM is to give a lot more transparency and clarity in your markup. BEM tells developers how classes relate to each other, which is particularly useful in complex or deep pieces of DOM. For example, if I were to ask you to delete all of the user-related classes in the following chunk of HTML, which ones would you get rid of?

<div class="media  user  premium">
  <img src="" alt="" class="img  photo  avatar" />
  <p class="body  bio">...</p>
</div>

Well we’d definitely start with user, but anything beyond that would have to be a guess, educated or otherwise. However, if we rewrote it with BEM:

<div class="media  user  user--premium">
  <img src="" alt="" class="media__img  user__photo  avatar" />
  <p class="media__body  user__bio">...</p>
</div>

Here we can instantly see that user, user--premium, user__photo, and user__bio are all related to each other. We can also see that media, media__img, and media__body are related, and that avatar is just a lone Block on its own with no Elements or Modifiers.

This level of detail from our classes alone is great! It allows us to make much safer and more informed decisions about what things do and how we can use, reuse, change, or remove them.

The one thing missing from BEM is that it only tells us what classes to in relative terms, as in, how classes are related to each other. They don’t really give us any idea of how things behave, act, or should be implemented in a global and non-relative sense.

To that end, I decided to extend BEM to become BEMIT. BEMIT doesn’t add any other types of class—we still only ever have Blocks, Elements, or Modifiers—but it does add usage and state information.

Namespaces

So as not to repeat myself, it’s probably best you refer to my post from earlier this year, More Transparent UI Code with Namespaces, in which I introduce the idea of prefixing every class in a codebase with a certain string in order to explain to developers what kind of job it does. This Hungarian notation-like naming allows us to ascertain exactly what kind of job a class might have, how and where we might be able to reuse it (if at all), whether or not we can modify it, and much more. The linked article is pretty sizable, but will give you a whole load more insight into the technique.

The most common types of namespace are c-, for Components, o-, for Objects, u-, for Utilities, and is-/has- for States (there are plenty more detailed in the linked post). With this in mind, the above HTML would be rewritten as this:

<div class="o-media  c-user  c-user--premium">
  <img src="" alt="" class="o-media__img  c-user__photo  c-avatar" />
  <p class="o-media__body  c-user__bio">...</p>
</div>

From this, I can see that we have a reusable abstraction in the Media Object (o-media*) and two implementation-specific components (c-user* and c-avatar). These classes are all still Blocks, Elements, or Modifiers: they haven’t added a new classification, but have added another layer of rich meaning.

These namespaces tie in with the layers found in the Inverted Triangle CSS architecture, meaning every class has a specific place to live in our project (and on our filesystem).

Responsive Suffixes

The next thing BEMIT adds to traditional BEM naming is responsive suffixes. These suffixes take the format @<breakpoint>, and tell us this class when at this size:

<div class="o-media@md  c-user  c-user--premium">
  <img src="" alt="" class="o-media__img@md  c-user__photo  c-avatar" />
  <p class="o-media__body@md  c-user__bio">...</p>
</div>

So here we have o-media@md, which means be the media object at this breakpoint. Other possible examples:

  • u-hidden@print – a utility class to hide things when in print context.
  • u-1/4@lg – a utility to make something a quarter width in the large breakpoint.
  • o-layout@md – a layout object in the medium breakpoint.

The @ is a human readable and logical way of denoting conditional states. It allows developers to learn about any potential permutations or appearances that the piece of UI in question might have, just at a glance.

N.B.: You have to escape the @ symbol in your CSS file, like so:

@media print {

  .u-hidden\@print {
    display: none;
  }

}

Healthchecks

By having these strict and consistent patterns in our HTML we can do a number of things. Firstly, and most obviously, we can write much more expressive and rich UI code for our colleagues, meaning they can learn and reason about the state and shape of a project much more quickly. They can also contribute in the same consistent manner.

But another happy side effect we get is that we can run a visual healthcheck against our UI. By using substring selectors, we can target and then visualise the general makeup of a page based on the types of class it contains:

/**
 * Outline all classes.
 */
[class] {
  outline: 5px solid lightgrey;
}

/**
 * Outline all BEM Elements.
 */
[class*="__"] {
  outline: 5px solid grey;
}

/**
 * Outline all BEM Modifiers.
 */
[class*="--"] {
  outline: 5px solid darkgrey;
}

/**
 * Outline all Object classes.
 */
[class^="o-"],
[class*=" o-"] {
  outline: 5px solid orange;
}

/**
 * Outline all Component classes.
 */
[class^="c-"],
[class*=" c-"] {
  outline: 5px solid cyan;
}

/**
 * Outline all Responsive classes.
 */
[class*="@"] {
  outline: 5px solid rosybrown;
}

/**
 * Outline all Hack classes.
 */
[class^="_"] {
  outline: 5px solid red;
}

Of course this isn’t bulletproof—something might be both a Component and an Element and a Responsive class—but if we write the classes in pretty selective order (i.e. in the order of least to most important to know about, hence Hacks coming last), we can begin to get a nice visual snapshot of the makeup of any given page. You can read more about the benefits of this highlighting in my previous article about namespaces.

We can enable this healthcheck in multiple ways, but the simplest would probably be nesting the whole lot in a Scope class:

.s-healthcheck {

  ...

  /**
   * Outline all Responsive classes.
   */
  [class*="@"] {
    outline: 5px solid rosybrown;
  }

  ...

}

…which you can then add to your html element when you want to turn it on:

<html class="s-healthcheck">

Final Word

So there we have it, a couple of simple additions to BEM to turn it into BEMIT: adding information onto the beginning and end of the standard Block, Element, or Modifier classes to give us more knowledge about how the classes behave in a non-relative sense. Some more examples:

.c-page-head {}

@media screen and (min-width: 15em) {
  .u-text-center\@sm {}
}

.o-layout__item {}

@media print {
  .u-color-black\@print {}
}

Did you enjoy this? Hire me!

Hi there, I’m Harry. I am an award-winning Consultant Front-end Architect, designer, developer, writer and speaker from the UK. I write, tweet, speak and share code about authoring and scaling CSS for big websites. You can hire me.


I am currently accepting new projects for Q3–4, 2016 Referral scheme

Projects

  • inuitcss
  • ITCSS – coming soon…
  • CSS Guidelines

Events

  • Talk & Workshop

    FrontEndNorth, Sheffield (England), September 2016

I am available for hire to consult, advise, and develop with passionate product teams across the globe.

I specialise in large, product-based projects where performance and CSS scalability and maintainability are paramount.