Modular CSS typography

This is the fourth in a series of articles that I've been writing about Modular CSS. So far we've covered:

Now I'd like to talk a little bit about modular typography. I'll be venturing out into some new territory in this article. The subject of typography seems to be something that has been mostly neglected in discussions of SMACSS and BEM. From what I can tell Nicole Sullivan has thought more about it than anyone else with OOCSS. I'm going to key off of her approach and add something I learned from a little library a co-worker is working on called Typeset.

On using a reset

For starters I like to reset all of my styles with a CSS reset. Compass provides a really nice one based in part on Eric Meyer's approach with a few modifications. It's a very good place to start. You can use it in Compass with the global-reset mixin:

@import 'compass';
@include global-reset;

A couple of people have asked me why I don't use Normalize.css. Normalize1 is a brilliant project and I have a lot of respect for Nicolas Gallagher and the team that has put it together. Having a common set of useable styles is a great starting point for many projects.

However, on my own projects I prefer a reset that changes the defaults for all tags to use the same formatting because it is more modular.

The first reason I like this approach is that zeroing out styles on all elements allows me to build-up styles using nothing but classes. This is handy because I can modify the tag structure of the document at any point (for semantic reasons) while maintaing the class structure to ensure that the styling will remain the same. In general I use tags for sematics and classes for styling.

The other reason to start with a fuller reset is that starting from zero allows you to layer on styles without worrying about turning off other styles. Read that one more time. Anytime you have to turn off styles in multiple places in your stylesheets your are spreading the knowledge of those styles throughout your stylesheet instead of having them in only one place.

My goal is to reduce the number of dependencies (connections) between rules spread across my stylesheets. Starting from zero puts me on much better footing to do that.

Base styles

After including a reset, I setup the base font settings for a project. Here's an example of doing this by setting the font on the body element:

body {
  color: $text-color;
  font-size: $base-font-size;
  font-family: $base-font-family;
  font-weight: $base-font-weight;
  line-height: 1.6;

Note that I've explicitly set the line-height of the entire document here. While things like headings often use a different line-height, this puts the rest of the document on even footing. Setting it here generally means that I have to fiddle with it much less frequently when styling.

OOCSS headings

Nicole Sullivan suggests that you define styles for headings with additional classes so that you can do things like style h2 tags like h4s when the occassion demands. A great example where this can be useful is in a sidebar. In a sidebar smaller headings from the main content are generally desirable:

<div class="sidebar">
  <h2 class="h4">Heading</h2>

One could argue that HTML5 section and header tags make this unnecessary because the actual heading number used is no longer semantic, but this approach is useful in other places as well. For instance, to style a definition list term in the same way as a heading:

  <dt class="h4">Term</dt>

The point is that adding these kinds of classes can make it that much easier separate the underlying semantic markup from the appearance of the element.

One step farther

Going back to what I said about the reset, I find it very useful to have zero styles defined by default so that I can layer on styles using nothing but classes. Any time I have to spend time overriding default styles I'm actually duplicating knowledge of those styles in more than one place in my stylesheet. Duplication of this kind is bad in my opinion.

With this in mind, I like to take Nicole's approach one step farther an not define any styles for headings, lists, etc. on a global level. Instead I define them all using modifier classes:

.h1, .h2, .h3, .h4, .h5, .h6 { font-family: $heading-font-family; font-weight: $heading-font-weight; }
.h1, .h2 { line-height: 1.1; }
.h3, .h4 { line-height: 1.3; }
.h1 { font-size: 400%; letter-spacing: -2px; }
.h2 { font-size: 250%; letter-spacing: -1px; }
.h3 { font-size: 200%; }
.h4 { font-size: 180%; }
.h5 { font-size: 130%; }

.fixed { font-family: $fixed-font-family; font-size: $fixed-font-size; line-height: $fixed-line-height; }

.quiet { font-color: $quiet-color; }
.loud  { font-color: $loud-color; }

.italic { font-style: italic; }
.bold   { font-weight: 700; @extend .loud; }

.block-margins { margin: 1em 0; }

.unordered-list { list-style-type: disc; }
.ordered-list { list-style: decimal; }

This gives me a set of classes that can easily be used to apply the same styles in any circumstance.

Typesetting my content

Now before you get all up and arms about classitis in my markup I have one final trick up my sleeve. For content I like to make use of a typography class which defines default styles for all kinds of tags. This is a trick I learned from Typeset.

The idea is that anywhere you need your full typographical styles you just apply them with the typography class:

<div class="blog-post typography">
  <h1>Blog post</h1>

Since I already have a ton of helpful modifier classes I can use the Sass @extend directive (learn more about @extend here) to make the definition of the typography modifier a snap:

.typography {
  i, em { @extend .italic; }
  b, strong { @extend .bold; }

  h1, .h1 { @extend .h1; margin: 1em 0 0.5em; }
  h2, .h2 { @extend .h2; margin: 1em 0 0.5em; }
  h3, .h3 { @extend .h3; margin: 1em 0 0.5em; }
  h4, .h4 { @extend .h4; margin: 1em 0 0.5em; }
  h5, .h5 { @extend .h5; margin: 1em 0 0.5em; }
  h6, .h6 { @extend .h6; margin: 1em 0 0.5em; }

  p, ul, ol, pre { @extend .block-margins; }

  ul { @extend .unordered-list; }
  ol { @extend .ordered-list; }

  pre, code { @extend .fixed; }

An example

To illustrate how this can all come together, I've put a full modular typography demo on Codepen here:

See the Pen Modular Typography by John W. Long (@jlong) on CodePen

In conclusion

Having a good approach to modular typography will provide a solid foundation for your projects. This approach has worked well for me on a lot of different projects and I'm comfortable saying that it's generally useful for anyone who is trying to structure their projects in a more modular way.

Of course, it's not the only way to write your stylesheets. Your milaege may vary.

Thoughts or questions? Please share them in the comments below.


  1. Chris Coyier was kind enough to point out that one way of using Normalize is to use it as a starting point for your base typographical styles and customize it as you see fit. In fact, looking back at the Normalize website this seems to be one of the recommended ways of using it. It would be interesting to take Normalize and use it as the basis for a better reset. Personally, I'd love to see an HTML meta tag for zeroing out styles on a website, because the concept of starting from zero and building up from there is so useful.

November 9, 2013 ~ Modular CSS, Advanced, Guides and Tutorials, John W. Long