The “C” in CSS

One of the first things that I learned about CSS is that it cascades. Cascading is a lot like inheritance in OOP. It’s useful for the same reasons, and, for the same reasons leads to CSS fragility when misused.

At the beginnings of the Web, when CSS came out, we decided that presentation code should live separate from the content. It seemed like a reasonable decision. Pages were a lot like documents back then, and it was convenient not to set text-indent or font for every paragraph on the page.

Websites back then were pretty static, and we only used a small subset of elements, so the little CSS file that covered most pages had a good ROI. We saved a lot of bandwidth and made the content clearer and easier to maintain.

These days though, the Web is much more about Web-apps. They have rich dynamic interfaces. They have much more elements which combine in even more ways. Even with advanced CSS-specific architectures, it becomes harder and harder to maintain and grow our CSS.

The thing that contributes most to this is that presentation code lives separate from the content. Because it lives and grows separate from the elements it refers, the responsibility to keep them in sync rests with the front-end developers. And when the CSS grows to thousands of lines of code, that is too much to ask of humans. That decision that we made back then, seems to be counterproductive now.

Then React.js. came out. They had the idea to have CSS together with the rest of component’s code. It felt weird at first. But then I came to realize that the more I had CSS within my components, the less trouble I had with it.

A few months ago I started working on a single-page Web-app. I have started building it with React.js. Then I gave up on React.js and switched to raw JS. One thing that I kept though is the idea of having the CSS live with the rest of widget’s code.

Now I realize that event after a few months of coding, I have less than 100 lines in style.css, and I don’t have any trouble caused by CSS. And maybe CSS doesn’t necessarily have to cascade. It seems to be a lot more easy to work with when it’s seen as just styling.

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I initially wanted to entitle this article “There is no CSS” — to draw the analogy with the “there is no spoon” moment in The Matrix: I had all this trouble with CSS because I accepted it’s cascading nature, when “the truth” is that it doesn’t have to be. I just had to change my perspective on it.