Category Archives: smashingmagazine

Building A Component Library Using Figma

Building A Component Library Using Figma

Building A Component Library Using Figma

Emiliano Cicero


I’ve been working on the creation and maintenance of the main library of our design system, Lexicon. We used the Sketch app for the first year and then we moved to Figma where the library management was different in certain aspects, making the change quite challenging for us.

To be honest, as with any library construction, it requires time, effort, and planning, but it is worth the effort because it will help with providing detailed components for your team. It will also help increase the overall design consistency and will make the maintenance easier in the long run. I hope the tips that I’ll provide in this article will make the process smoother for you as well.

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Monthly Web Development Update 6/2019: Rethinking Privacy And User Engagement

Monthly Web Development Update 6/2019: Rethinking Privacy And User Engagement

Monthly Web Development Update 6/2019: Rethinking Privacy And User Engagement

Anselm Hannemann


Last week I read about the web turning into a dark forest. This made me think, and I’m convinced that there’s hope in the dark forest. Let’s stay positive about how we can contribute to making the web a better place and stick to the principle that each one of us is able to make an impact with small actions. Whether it’s you adding Webmentions, removing tracking scripts from a website, recycling plastic, picking up trash from the street to throw it into a bin, or cycling instead of driving to work for a week, we all can make things better for ourselves and the people around us. We just have to do it.

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Inspired Design Decisions: Avaunt Magazine

Inspired Design Decisions: Avaunt Magazine

Inspired Design Decisions: Avaunt Magazine

Andrew Clarke


I hate to admit it, but five or six years ago my interest in web design started to wane. Of course, owning a business meant I had to keep working, but staying motivated and offering my best thinking to clients became a daily struggle.

Looking at the web didn’t improve my motivation. Web design had stagnated, predictability had replaced creativity, and ideas seemed less important than data.

The reasons why I’d enjoyed working on the web no longer seemed relevant. Design had lost its joyfulness. Complex sets of build tools and processors had even supplanted the simple pleasure of writing HTML and CSS.

When I began working with the legendary newspaper and magazine designer Mark Porter, I became fascinated by art direction and editorial design. As someone who hadn’t studied either at art school, everything about this area of design was exciting and new. I read all the books about influential art directors I could find and started collecting magazines from the places I visited around the world.

The more inspired I became by mag- azine design, the faster my enthusiasm for web design bounced back. I wondered why many web designers think that print design is old-fashioned and irrelevant to their work. I thought about why so little of what makes print design special is being transferred to the web.

My goal became to hunt for inspiring examples of editorial design, study what makes them unique, and find ways to adapt what I’d learned to create more compelling, engaging, and imaginative designs for the web.

My bookcases are now chock full of magazine design inspiration, but my collection is still growing. I have limited space, so I’m picky about what I pick up. I buy a varied selection, and rarely collect more than one issue of the same title.

I look for exciting page layouts, inspiring typography, and innovative ways to combine text with images. When a magazine has plenty of interesting design elements, I buy it. However, if a magazine includes only a few pieces of inspiration, I admit I’m not above photographing them before putting it back on the shelf.

I buy new magazines as regularly as I can, and a week before Christmas, a few friends and I met in London. No trip to the “Smoke” is complete without a stop at Magma, and I bought several new magazines. After I explained my inspiration addition, one friend suggested I write about why I find magazine design so inspiring and how magazines influence my work.

Avaunt magazine cover

Avaunt magazine. (Large preview)

That conversation sparked the idea for a series on making inspired design decisions. Every month, I’ll choose a publication, discuss what makes its design distinctive, and how we might learn lessons which will help us to do better work for the web.

As an enthusiastic user of HTML and CSS, I’ll also explain how to implement new ideas using the latest technologies; CSS Grid, Flexbox, and Shapes.

I’m happy to tell you that I’m inspired and motivated again to design for the web and I hope this series can inspire you too.

Andy Clarke
April 2019

Avaunt Magazine: Documenting The Extraordinary

Andy Clarke reading Avaunt magazine

What struck me most about Avaunt was the way its art director has colour, layout, and type in diverse ways while maintaining a consistent feel throughout the magazine. (Large preview)

One look at me is going to tell you I’m not much of an adventurer. I don’t consider myself particularly cultured and my wife jokes regularly about what she says is my lack of style.

So what drew me to Avaunt magazine and its coverage of “adventure,” “culture,” and “style” when there are so many competing and varied magazines?

It often takes only a few page turns for me to decide if a magazine offers the inspiration I look for. Something needs to stand out in those first few seconds for me to look closer, be it an exciting page layout, an inspiring typographic treatment, or an innovative combination of images with text.

Avaunt has all of those, but what struck me most was the way its art director has used colour, layout, and type in diverse ways while maintaining a consistent feel throughout the magazine. There are distinctive design threads which run through Avaunt’s pages. The bold uses of a stencil serif and geometric sans-serif typeface are particularly striking, as is the repetition of black, white, a red which Avaunt’s designers use in a variety of ways. Many of Avaunt’s creative choices are as adventurous as the stories it tells.

Avaunt magazine spread

© Avaunt magazine. (Large preview)

Plenty of magazines devote their first few spreads to glossy advertising, and Avaunt does the same. Flipping past those ads finds Avaunt’s contents page and its fascinating four-column modular grid.

This layout keeps content ordered within spacial zones but maintains energy by making each zone a different size. This layout could be adapted to many kinds of online content and should be easy to implement using CSS Grid. I’m itching to try that out.

For sans-serif headlines, standfirsts, and other type elements which pack a punch, Avaunt uses MFred, designed initially for Elephant magazine by Matt Willey in 2011. Matt went on to art direct the launch of Avaunt and commissioned a stencil serif typeface for the magazine’s bold headlines and distinctive numerals.

Avaunt Stencil was designed in 2014 by London based studio A2-TYPE who have since made it available to license. There are many stencil fonts available, but it can be tricky to find one which combines boldness and elegance — looking for a stencil serif hosted on Google Fonts? Stardos would be a good choice for display size type. Need something more unique, try Caslon Stencil from URW.

Avaunt’s use of a modular grid doesn’t end with the contents page and is the basis for a spread on Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum of Cold War curiosities which first drew me to the magazine. This spread uses a three-column modular grid and spacial zones of various sizes.

What fascinates me about this Cold War spread is how modules in the verso page combine to form a single column for text content. Even with this column, the proportions of the module grid still inform the position and size of the elements inside.

 Avaunt magazine spread

© Avaunt magazine. (Large preview)

While the design of many of Avaunt’s pages is devoted to a fabulous reading experience, many others push the grid and pull their foundation typography styles in different directions. White text on dark backgrounds, brightly coloured spreads where objects are cut away to blend with the background. Giant initial caps which fill the width of a column, and large stencilled drop caps which dominate the page.

Avaunt’s playful designs add interest, and the arrangement of pages creates a rhythm which I very rarely see online. These variations in design are held together by the consistent use of Antwerp — also designed by A2-TYPE — as a typeface for running text, and a black, white, and red colour theme which runs throughout the magazine.

Avaunt magazine spread

© Avaunt magazine. (Large preview)

Studying the design of Avaunt magazine can teach and inspire. How a modular grid can help structure content in creative ways without it feeling static. (I’ll teach you more about modular grids later.)

How a well-defined set of styles can become the foundation for distinctive and diverse designs, and finally how creating a rhythm throughout a series of pages can help readers stay engaged.

Next time you’re passing your nearest magazine store, pop in a pick up a copy of Avaunt Magazine. It’s about adventure, but I bet it can help inspire your designs to be more adventurous too.

Say Hello To Skinny Columns

For what feels like an eternity, there’s been very little innovation in grid design for the web. I had hoped the challenges of responsive design would result in creative approaches to layout, but sadly the opposite seems to be true.

Three examples using skinny columns

Top: Squeezing an image into one column reduces its visual weight and upsets the balance of my composition. Middle: Making the image fill two standard columns also upsets that delicate balance. Bottom: Splitting the final column, then add- ing half its width to another, creates the perfect space for my image, and a more pleasing overall result. (Large preview)

Instead of original grid designs, one, two, three, or four block arrangements of content became the norm. Framework grids, like those included with Bootstrap, remain the starting point for many designers, whether they use those frameworks or not.

It’s true that there’s more to why so much of the web looks the same as web designers using the same grid. After all, there have been similar conventions for magazines and newspapers for decades, but somehow magazines haven’t lost their personality in the way many websites have.

I’m always searching for layout inspiration and magazines are a rich source. Reading Avaunt reminded me of a technique I came across years ago but hadn’t tried. This technique adds one extra narrow column to an otherwise conventional column grid. In print design, this narrow column is often referred to as a “bastard column or measure” and describes a block of content which doesn’t conform to the rest of a grid. (This being a family friendly publication, I’ll call it a “skinny column.”)

In these first examples, squeezing an image into one column reduces its visual weight and upsets the balance of my composition. Making the image fill two standard columns also upsets that delicate balance.

Splitting the final column, then adding half its width to another, creates the perfect space for my image, and a more pleasing overall result.

Example using a skinny column

(Large preview)

I might use a skinny column to inform the width of design elements. This Mini Cooper logo matches the width of my skinny column, and its size feels balanced with the rest of my composition.

Example using a skinny column

(Large preview)

Sometimes, content won’t fit into a single column comfortably, but by combining the widths of standard and skinny columns, I create more space and a better measure for running text. I can place a skinny column anywhere within a layout to wherever I need my content.

Example using a skinny column

(Large preview)

An empty skinny column adds whitespace which allows the eye to roam around a design. The asymmetry created by placing a skinny column between two standard columns also makes a structured layout feel more dynamic and energetic.

Example using a skinny column

(Large preview)

Another empty skinny column carves a wide gutter into this design and confines my running text to a single column, so that its height reflects the image’s vertical format. I can also use a skinny column to turn typographic elements into exciting design elements.

Developing With Skinny Columns

Designs like these are surprisingly simple to implement using today’s CSS. I need just four structural elements; a logo, header, figure, plus an article to contain my running text:

<img src="logo.svg" alt="Mini Cooper"> 

I start with a design for medium size screens by applying CSS Grid to the body element within my first media query. At this size, I don’t need a skinny column so instead am developing a symmetrical three-column grid which expands evenly to fill the viewport width:

@media screen and (min-width : 48em) { 
body {
display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr; 
grid-column-gap: 2vw; }

I use line numbers to place items into my grid columns and rows. I place my logo into the skinny first column and the first row using a substring matching attribute selector. This targets an image with “logo” anywhere in its source value:

[src*="logo"] {
grid-column: 1;
grid-row: 1; }

Next, I place the header element — containing my headline and standfirst paragraph — into the second row. Using line numbers from 1 to -1 spreads this header across all columns:

header {
grid-column: 1 / -1;
grid-row: 2; }

With display:grid; applied, all direct descendants of a grid-container become grid-items, which I can place using areas, line numbers, or names.

This design includes a figure element with a large Mini image, plus caption text about the original Cooper model design. This figure is crucial because it describes a relationship between the img and figcaption. However, while this figure makes my markup more meaningful, I lose the ability to place the img and figcaption using CSS Grid, because by neither are direct descendants of the body where I defined my grid.

Luckily, there’s a CSS property which — when used thoughtfully — can overcome this problem. I don’t need to style the figure, I only need to style its img and figcaption. By applying display:contents; to my figure, I effectively remove it from the DOM for styling purposes, so its descendants take its place:

figure {
display: contents; }

It’s worth noting that although display effectively removes my figure from the DOM for styling purposes, any properties which inherit — including font sizes and styles — are still inherited:

figure img { 
grid-column: 2/-1; grid-row: 4; }

figcaption {
grid-column: 1;
grid-row: 4;
align-self: end; }

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UX Optimizations For Keyboard-Only And Assistive Technology Users

UX Optimizations For Keyboard-Only And Assistive Technology Users

UX Optimizations For Keyboard-Only And Assistive Technology Users

Aaron Pearlman


(This is a sponsored article.) One of the cool things about accessibility is that it forces you to see and think about your application beyond the typical sighted, mouse-based user experience. Users who navigate via keyboard only (KO) and/or assistive technology (AT) are heavily dependent not only on your application’s information architecture being thoughtful, but the affordances your application makes for keeping the experience as straightforward as possible for all types of users.

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Styling In Modern Web Apps

Styling In Modern Web Apps

Styling In Modern Web Apps

Ajay NS


If you search for how to style apps for the web, you’ll come across many different approaches and libraries, some even changing day by day. Block Element Modifier (BEM); preprocessors such as Less and SCSS; CSS-in-JS libraries, including JSS and styled-components; and, lately, design systems. You come across all of these in articles and blogs, tutorials and talks, and — of course — debates on Twitter.

How do we choose between them? Why do so many approaches exist in the first place? If you’re already comfortable with one method, why even consider moving to another?

In this article, I’m going to take a look at the tools I have used for production apps and sites I’ve worked on, comparing features from what I’ve actually encountered rather than summarizing the content from their readmes. This is my journey through BEM, SCSS, styled-components, and design systems in particular; but note that even if you use different libraries, the basic principles and approach remain the same for each of them.

CSS Back In The Day

When websites were just getting popular, CSS was primarily used to add funky designs to catch the user’s attention, such as neon billboards on a busy street:

Microsoft’s first site (left) and MTV’s site from the early 2000s. (Large preview)

Its use wasn’t for layout, sizing, or any of the basic needs we routinely use CSS for today, but as an optional add-on to make things fancy and eye-catching. As features were added to CSS, newer browsers supporting a whole new range of functionality and features appeared, and the standard for websites and user interfaces evolved — CSS became an essential part of web development.

It’s rare to find websites without a minimum of a couple hundred lines of custom styling or a CSS framework (at least, sites that don’t look generic or out of date):

Wired’s modern responsive site from InVision’s responsive web design examples post. (Large preview)

What came next is quite predictable. The complexity of user interfaces kept on increasing, along with the use of CSS; but without any guidelines suggested and with a lot of flexibility, styling became complicated and dirty. Developers had their own ways of doing things, with it all coming down to somehow getting things to look the way the design said it was supposed to be.

This, in turn, led to a number of common issues that many developers faced, like managing big teams on a project, or maintaining a project over a long period of time, while having no clear guides. One of the main reasons this happens even now, sadly, is that CSS is still often dismissed as unimportant and not worth paying much attention to.

CSS Is Not Easy To Manage

There’s nothing built into CSS for maintenance and management when it comes to large projects with teams, and so the common problems faced with CSS are:

  • Lack of code structure or standards greatly reduces readability;
  • Maintainability as project size increases;
  • Specificity issues due to code not being readable in the first place.

If you’ve worked with Bootstrap, you’ll have noticed you’re unable to override the default styles and you might have fixed this by adding !important or considering the specificity of selectors. Think of a big project’s style sheets, with their large number of classes and styles applied to each element. Working with Bootstrap would be fine because it has great documentation and it aims to be used as a solid framework for styling. This obviously won’t be the case for most internal style sheets, and you’ll be lost in a world of cascaded styles.

In projects, this would be like a couple thousand lines of CSS in a single file, with comments if you’re lucky. You could also see a couple of !important used to finally get certain styles to work overriding others.

!important does not fix bad CSS. (Large preview)

You may have faced specificity issues but not understood how specificity works. Let’s take a look.

(Large preview)

Which of the styles applied to the same element would be applied to the image on the right, assuming they both point to it?

What is the order of weight of selectors such as inline styles, IDs, classes, attributes, and elements? Okay, I made it easy there; they’re in order of weight:

Start at 0; add 1,000 for a style attribute; add 100 for each id; add 10 for each attribute, class or pseudo-class; add 1 for each element name or pseudo-element.

This is a simplified way of calculating and representing specificity which works in usual cases, but do note that the real representation would look like: (0,0,0,0). Here, the first number signifies the style attribute, second the ID, and so on. Each selector can actually have a value greater than 9 and it’s only when there is an equal number of selectors of highest weight that selectors of lower weight are considered.

So, for instance, taking the above example:

(Large preview)

(Large preview)

Do you see why the second example was the correct answer? The id selector clearly has far more weight than element selectors. This is essentially the reason why your CSS rule sometimes doesn’t seem to apply. You can read about this in detail in Vitaly Friedman’s article, “CSS Specificity: Things You Should Know”.

The larger the codebase, the greater the number of classes. These might even apply to or override different styles based on specificity, so you can see how quickly it can become difficult to deal with. Over and above this we deal with code structure and maintainability: it’s the same as the code in any language. We have atomic design, web components, templating engines; there’s a need for the same in CSS, and so we’ve got a couple of different approaches that attempt to solve these different problems.

Block Element Modifier (BEM)

“BEM is a design methodology that helps you to create reusable components and code sharing in front-end development.”


The idea behind BEM is to create components out of parts of apps that are reused or are independent. Diving in, the design process is similar to atomic design: modularize things and think of each of them as a reusable component.

I chose to start out managing styles with BEM as it was very similar the way React (that I was already familiar with) breaks down apps into reusable components.

(Large preview)

Using BEM

BEM is nothing more than a guide: no new framework or language to learn, just CSS with a naming convention to organize things better. Following this methodology, you can implement the patterns you’ve already been using, but in a more structured manner. You can also quite easily do progressive enhancements to your existing codebase as it requires no additional tooling configuration or any other complexities.


  • At its heart BEM manages reusable components, preventing random global styles overriding others. In the end, we have more predictable code, which solves a lot of our specificity problems.
  • There’s not much of a learning curve; it is just the same old CSS with a couple of guides to improve maintainability. It is an easy way of making code modular by using CSS itself.


  • While promoting reusability and maintainability, a side effect of the BEM naming principle is making naming the classes difficult and time-consuming.
  • The more nested your component is in the block, the longer and more unreadable the class names become. Deeply nested or grandchild selectors often face this issue.
<div class="card__body">
  <p class="card__body__content">Lorem ipsum lorem</p>
  <div class="card__body__links">
    <!-- Grandchild elements -->
    <a href="#" class="card__body__links__link--active">Link</a>

That was just a quick intro to BEM and how it solves our problems. If you’d like to take a deeper look into its implementation, check out “BEM For Beginners” published here in Smashing Magazine.

Sassy CSS (SCSS)

Put blandly, SCSS is CSS on steroids. Additional functionality such as variables, nesting selectors, reusable mixins, and imports help SCSS make CSS more of a programming language. For me, SCSS was fairly easy to pick up (go through the docs if you haven’t already) and once I got to grips with the additional features, I’d always prefer to use it over CSS just for the convenience it provided. SCSS is a preprocessor, meaning the compiled result is a plain old CSS file; the only thing you need to set up is tooling to compile down to CSS in the build process.

Super handy features

  • Imports help you split style sheets into multiple files for each component/section, or whichever makes readability easier.
// main.scss
@import "_variables.scss";
@import "_mixins.scss";

@import "_global.scss";
@import "_navbar.scss";
@import "_hero.scss";
  • Mixins, loops, and variables help with the DRY principle and also make the process of writing CSS easier.
@mixin flex-center($direction) {
  display: flex;
  align-items: center;
  justify-content: center;
  flex-direction: $direction;

.box {
  @include flex-center(row);

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