My favourite 3 lines of CSS

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In Every Layout, we wrote about The Stack. It’s a marriage of Heydon’s Lobotomised Owl selector and my method of managing Flow and Rhythm with CSS Custom Properties.

Code language
CSS
.stack > * + * {
  margin-block-start: 1.5rem;
}

Let’s break the selector down: every direct sibling child element of .stack has margin-block-start added to it. This is achieved by the Lobotomised Owl selector, but the > combinator is added to prevent margin being added recursively. In writing modes that are left-to-right or right-to-left—such as English or Arabic—the margin is added to the top of the element.

I’ve been obsessed with this particular snippet for years now, and in recent years, I’ve enhanced it further with the flow utility:

Code language
CSS
.flow > * + * {
  margin-block-start: var(--flow-space, 1em);
}

As you can see, this is very similar to The Stack. The only difference aside from the name, is the use of Custom Properties—specifically the fallback value.

How fallback values work in CSS Custom Properties permalink

If you try to grab a CSS Custom Property value that hasn’t been defined, the initial or inherited value will be used instead, but if the Custom Property is invalid and you don’t provide a fallback, it’ll fail.

In the context of the .flow utility, this would be pretty bad, because if you’ve removed element’s default margin, like I do in a reset, you could end up with no space at all.

The fallback value for .flow gives us two benefits:

  1. There’s a sensible fallback for if --flow-space is accidentally set as an invalid value
  2. If --flow-space doesn’t exist, the margin-top-value will be 1em, which will be relative to the element’s computed font size

Diagram shows the variable space between elements because it is based on 1em: a relative size

The space is 1em by default, so if the font size is larger, there will be more space. This is a handy way of maintaining flow and rhythm if you’re using a type scale.

Why do I use flow over The Stack? permalink

I get asked this a lot and it’s a valid question. The reason is twofold.

Firstly, I use this utility everywhere on projects. At our studio, it is in every project we do, and probably will be forever. The reason is that because we use fluid type and fluid space, the .flow utility’s flexible, fallback-based setup works in harmony with our methodology of letting the browser do all the hard work for us.

Secondly, in contexts like prose content (often long-form content like this article), we like to manage how certain HTML elements space themselves. For example, we might want to reduce the space of elements that directly follow headings and increase the space around figure elements.

This snippet is from this site you’re looking at now:

Code language
CSS
.prose :is(h2 + *, h3 + *, h4 + *) {
  --flow-space: var(--space-s);
}

What the snippet does is:

  1. Look for elements that directly follow a h2h3 or h4.
  2. Assign --flow-space with the small item from the spacing scale

As for .prose itself, I’ve set the following:

Code language
CSS
.prose {
  --flow-space: var(--space-m-l);
}

By default, I tend to leave --flow-space as undefined, but in .prose contexts, I like a nice chunky bit of space between elements, so because Custom Properties are affected by specificity and the cascade, I create that more specific value.

The same as the last diagram, but this time the space is equal, because it's based on 2.5rem

With the spacing value used for --flow-space—which computes to around 2.5rem—we get consistent space between every element.

Why use margin and not gap? permalink

Again, I get asked this a lot. I remember when Safari finally pulled their finger out with gap, I sent Heydon a message saying we should make everything on Every Layout gap, which we were rather excited about. While we were putting actual thought into the second edition—which introduced gap to the layouts—we quickly realised we didn’t want to change The Stack.

This was partly down to the fact that in order to use gap, we would have to make The Stack, either a flex or grid parent. This could cause all sorts of problems for people that grabbed the layout and dropped it in existing projects. This makes up a very large portion of the people who use Every Layout in the real world.

Along with that, all of the control is put on the parent and not the elements themselves. Back in the context of .flow and --flow-space with a fallback value: this wouldn’t be possible with gap. This is because gap is set on the parent (.flow) and controls the space between child elements. The parent is in complete control and the child elements have no say in what gap is at any given moment.

Lastly, along with the flexibility of letting --flow-space be affected by the cascade, and if it’s not set, letting .flow inherit spacing values from the child element it affects. The other key reason I don’t like to use gap is Logical Properties. I personally want everything we build at the studio to use Logical Properties as much as possible, because you get much better multi-language and reading mode support out of the box. They’re really well supported now, too!

Wrapping up permalink

I honestly should have retired after making this iteration of .flow:

Code language
CSS
.flow > * + * {
    margin-block-start: var(--flow-space, 1em);
}

Especially now that we use that and the rest of the layouts from Every Layout at Set Studio. We’re essentially just colouring in front-ends at this point—apart from the odd occasion when we create a complex specific layout, where we use CSS grid layout to its full potential.

The main reason I’ve written this post though, is to send people to it when they ask why I use .flow or use margin, but also, I hope you’ve seen how damn powerful CSS Custom Properties are. They’re certainly more than just CSS variables, that’s for sure.

Hello, I’m Andy and I’ll help you to level up your front-end development skills.

I’m a designer and front-end developer who has worked in the design and web industries for over 15 years, and in that time, I have worked with some of the largest organisations in the world, like Google, Harley-Davidson, BSkyB, Unilever, The Natural History Museum, Oracle, Capita, Vice Media and the NHS.

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