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CSS Overrides: Friend or Foe?

Reducing overrides helps make CSS more robust and predictable.



Anyone familiar with CSS will know how fragile it can be.

Changes to CSS must be made carefully. An innocent change can bring unforeseen and unwanted side effects: styles that are neither expected nor wanted. Adding or removing styles, re-ordering rule-sets, changing selector specificity, using important - all of these can break things.

The behavior of CSS is both unpredictable and unreliable. A combination that means we cannot confidently make changes. Something that passed QA yesterday can be broken tomorrow.

So what changed in the interval? Well, there could be two reasons:

  1. Undesirable styles were added
  2. Desirable styles were removed

These sound simple, and easy to avoid. However, if this is the case why is the frequency of breakages among CSS so high?

The answer is architecture and more specifically, overrides.

This statement may seem bold. Why would overrides contribute to CSS side effects given the language seems to encourage them. Even from a clean slate user-agent styles need overriding.

Programming language (abbreviated): css

body {
margin: 0px; /* reset user-agent style */

More often than not, the first styles we author override the defaults supplied by browsers. It therefore seems reasonable to continue this approach and adopt this architecture in our own styles going forward. Any style we want to "undo" is overridden.

We leverage the cascade, fine-tune specificity, and when all else fails use !important.

Problems with Overrides #

As CSS projects grow the convenience and appropriateness of overrides soon fades.

Our focus shifts from desirable styles - those visible to users, to fighting off undesirable styles - those that need undoing. The overriding architecture that once seemed harmless and even endorsed by the language becomes a real problem.

Screenshot of a HTML element whose font size is overridden 10 times.

We learn the hard way that it is overrides, and not CSS that are fragile and unpredictable.

Overrides are fragile because they rely on CSS and HTML, both of which are vulnerable to change. Changes in CSS directly impact which styles “win”. Changes to HTML structure and attributes can introduce previously non-existent overrides.

Overrides are unpredictable for several reasons:

  1. Global scope permits anyone to override.
  2. The side effects aren’t immediately apparent (exaggerated by #1).
  3. A lack of encapsulation dampens efforts to protect styles from being overridden.
  4. The longevity of an override is unknown. Just because a style wins today doesn’t mean it always will.
  5. They obfuscate developer intent. It’s hard to differentiate between an intentional and unintentional override, which can be left to interpretation.

These, plus the self-perpetuating nature of overrides leads to a catch–22 situation, in which the more overrides exist the more overriding you need to do. It feels safer to override an unwanted style than remove it. Once committed overrides are hard to escape.

There is a correlation between the volume of overrides and the time and energy spent managing them. I'd tentatively suggest a similar correlation exists between the number of overrides and UI bugs.

Finally, when two or more styles compete there is only one winner - never a draw. End users only get to see the styles that win. The time invested in styles that lose (those that are overridden) plus the extra overhead of managing overrides doesn’t seem to pay off.

So Why Override? #

If overrides are so bad why do we keep using them?

The first reason we’ve already touched on. CSS encourages overrides by teaching us the way to avoid undesirable styles is to override them. This fuels the perception that overrides are integral to CSS, despite their pitfalls.

However, in reality the only mandatory overrides are those that undo user-agent styles. Other usages are voluntary. We choose to bite the poisoned apple.

Further fuel is added since there isn’t anything to prevent overrides. This not only reinforces overrides are okay, but also allows them to happen. Other languages keep users in check by enforcing rules. If something shouldn’t happen we know about it. For example, in JavaScript you cannot change the value of a const through re-assignment. Browsers and runtimes tell us this shouldn’t happen, and more importantly, prevent it from happening.

Programming language (abbreviated): js

const color = 'cadetblue';
color = 'transparent';

// TypeError: invalid assignment to const 'color'

Sometimes the choice to override simply isn’t our own.

Not all overrides are intentional. It’s very easy to accidentally override a style without being aware of it happening. Nothing informs us an intentional or accidental override has occurred. Overrides operate silently, many of which go unnoticed until they need undoing.

So what can be done? #

The most popular CSS strategies around today share one thing in common:

They all reduce overrides.

BEM uses naming conventions to modularise CSS, leveraging name-spaces to encapsulate styles. CSS Modules implements local scope, where styles in one file cannot override styles in another. CSS-in-JS solutions such as styled components generate unique classes to avoid selectors clashing. Styletron assigns every unique CSS declaration to an atomic class.

Despite the implementation differences each approach converges in regards to overrides: the less overrides exist, the more robust and predictable CSS is. Which begs the question: if fewer overrides are better, why override at all?

It's time to invest in winning styles.

Introducing Immutable Styles - a new library that removes overrides from CSS. A place where all styles win.

Immutable Styles #

Parallels can be drawn between mutability in programs and overrides in CSS. An override mutates the value of an existing style. For example:

Programming language (abbreviated): css

p {
color: cadetblue;

p {
color: transparent; /* override the color */

Since the second rule-set has equal specificity and comes later in the cascade it wins. The original color of the paragraph is modified from cadetblue to transparent. This represents the usual behavior of CSS - all styles are mutable - all styles can be overridden.

Immutable Styles introduces the concept of immutability to CSS.

In object-oriented and functional programming, an immutable object is an object whose state cannot be modified after it is created. This is in contrast to a mutable object, which can be modified after it is created.

An immutable style cannot change after it is created - it can never be overridden. Any attempt to mutate (override) a style is not allowed. The CSS example above simply isn't possible when using immutable styles. The library detects the override and throws a compile-time error:

[Override Found] the "color" of "p" has already been defined

The "color" of "p" is defined here:

  color: cadetblue;

and again here:

  color: transparent;

The "color" of "p" cannot be overridden

This type of instant feedback is incredibly powerful. Both intentional and unintentional overrides become immediately apparent. Reminiscent of the const re-assignment example earlier - if a style attempts to override another style we know about it, and more importantly it is prevented.

Whether an override happens in the same file or in another file, among equal selectors or nested selectors, or even among different screen-sizes, immutable styles catches them all:

[Override Found] "nav button.btn--primary" overrides the "color" set by "button.btn--primary"

Overridden styles ("button.btn--primary"):

  color: skyblue;

Overriding styles ("nav button.btn--primary"):

  color: salmon;

The "color" of "button.btn--primary" cannot be overridden

Immutable styles make CSS predictable. Operating in the global environment is safer, since changes can no longer introduce accidental overrides. We can guarantee the value of a style will never change. In immutable styles the color of button.btn--primary will always be skyblue.

Immutable styles make CSS robust. The effectiveness of styles is no longer reliant on cascade, specificity and importance (things very prone to change). The outcome and longevity of styles becomes resilient to changes in both HTML and CSS. Encapsulation by design encourages us to organize and namespace styles accordingly.

Immutable styles solves problems by making things simpler. Keeping track of overrides is no longer a developer concern. The complex task of detecting and preventing overrides is offloaded to a compiler. The laborious task of reasoning with overrides - determining what override is intentional or not - is completely eliminated. The era of manually managing overrides is over.

So, could the era of CSS overrides be over?

This post was inspired by my research and work on Immutable Styles (and its predecessor, mono). Still in beta, the project is very welcome to feedback, fresh perspectives, new feature requests, and of course, contributors 🙂. If you would like to see some websites built without overrides checkout the examples below:

For so long - many of us - myself included - have accepted overrides as the de facto architecture for CSS. Hopefully this post will leave you questioning overrides and their effectiveness.

Perhaps next time you encounter an override take a moment to think about why it exists. Maybe it solves a problem, or maybe it is the problem.

About the author

I'm Callum, a Front-end Engineer at Nutmeg. Previously I wrote code for KAYAK, American Express, and Dell. Out of hours I publish blog posts (like this one) and tweet cherry-picks.

Feel free to follow or message me at @_callumhart on Twitter.