Intermediate HTML and CSS

Frameworks and Preprocessors

Intermediate HTML and CSS Course

Introduction

At this point, you have written quite a bit of vanilla HTML and CSS, and learned many design techniques that you will continue to use as you grow as a developer. Throughout your experiences, you may have come across information on CSS frameworks and preprocessors (aka precompilers). Both of these types of tools can make writing CSS more streamlined and less tedious.

A useful reason to be aware about CSS frameworks and preprocessors is that they are commonly found in the workplace. Whilst interviewers for entry-level positions are likely to focus more on CSS fundamentals (even if the job uses a particular framework or preprocessor), it’s helpful for you to know what these tools are, and where to look for them once you’ve determined you need to learn them.

You should be aware that at this point in your learning, it is advised to continue using vanilla CSS in your projects. All of these frameworks and preprocessors are based around CSS and so developing strong fundamentals makes it significantly easier to learn and switch between any framework or preprocessor in the future. Trying to learn one during this course will not be as productive or valuable in the long run as improving your fundamental CSS skills.

Lesson overview

This section contains a general overview of topics that you will learn in this lesson.

  • Know what a CSS framework is.
  • Know some of the available frameworks.
  • Know what a preprocessor is.
  • Know some of the available preprocessors.

Frameworks overview

Different frameworks have different goals. Frameworks like Bootstrap do a lot of the heavy lifting of packaging up commonly used CSS code for you, even icons and interactions (like menu dropdowns). They are designed to abstract away the process of coding intuitive, reusable, and responsive elements. Things like Tailwind aim to change how we apply CSS through a different syntax, by supplying pre-named classes that typically only apply a single line of CSS each. A CSS framework is ultimately just a bundle of CSS that you can use and access, using the classes defined by the framework. For example, many frameworks provide a class called .btn that will add all the needed styles to your buttons, without you having to write any CSS. In general, to use a framework, you need to understand how it expects you to structure your website and which classes it uses to apply its specific set of styles.

You should be aware that there are quite a few frameworks available. Two other frameworks you may come across are Bulma and Foundation but there are many more out there.

Disadvantages of frameworks

Frameworks are great for rapidly producing sites with interfaces that end users can easily interact with. However, once you’ve taken a tour through some of the more popular frameworks, you’ll start noticing an awful lot of similarities between a lot of sites you encounter, due to similar use of frameworks. In addition to that issue, too many new developers also jump into learning frameworks too early in their education; the prospect of not having to practice writing vanilla CSS is very tempting. As a result, many developers do not get enough CSS practice under their belts to solidify the fundamentals of this very important language.

Additionally, the process of overriding a framework’s styling or debugging style issues on your page becomes very difficult if you have weaker CSS fundamentals. It is imperative to understand what a framework is doing “under the hood” so that you are equipped to handle these issues later (and trust us, you will have to).

Ultimately, frameworks can help you get up and running quickly - but they can constrain you in the long run. Once you’ve started a project using a framework it can be difficult to remove it. In the future, you (or your employer!) may have to decide whether or not to use a framework for a project and if so, which one.

Preprocessors overview

Preprocessors (aka precompilers) are languages that help you write CSS more easily. They can reduce code repetition and provide all sorts of time-saving and code-saving features, for example by allowing you to write loops and conditionals, and join multiple stylesheets.

CSS preprocessors are essentially extensions to vanilla CSS that provide some extra functionality. When you run the processor, it takes your code and turns it into vanilla CSS that you can import into your project.

Preprocessors do have some unique and helpful tools, but many of their most helpful features have been implemented in vanilla CSS, so it might not be worth the overhead of learning one unless you think you really need these features. For example, you have already learned about custom properties which used to be something only possible with preprocessors. CSS nesting also used to be a common advantage of some preprocessors but has now made its way into vanilla CSS and has recently started getting more browser support.

Some of the standard preprocessors in use are SASS, LESS and Stylus.

Assignment

  1. Read this brief overview of frameworks.
  2. Read this article, which considers the pros and cons of using a framework vs. CSS grid.
  3. Skim this article, which gives an overview of SASS, LESS and Stylus.
  4. Read this brief article, which gives some reasons for using a preprocessor.
  5. For balance, read this list of the disadvantages of using a preprocessor.

Knowledge check

This section contains questions for you to check your understanding of this lesson. If you’re having trouble answering the questions below on your own, review the material above to find the answer.

Additional resources

This section contains helpful links to other content. It isn’t required, so consider it supplemental.

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