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CSS variables are here for ages

Every front-end developer that starts reading about CSS preprocessors thinks “Oh, finally variables in CSS". Indeed, the ability to create and use variables in CSS makes our code much more flexible. However, I think that there is no need to use a preprocessor to create flexible stylesheets.

What is a variable actually

According to Wikipedia:

variable or scalar is a storage location and an associated symbolic name
(an identifier) which contains some known or unknown quantity
or information, a value

Shortly, a variable is some storage of our values. Also, we need storages because we do not want to write same values again and again. Moreover, of course, if we need to update the value we do not want to go all over our code and make changes. So, for me there are two characteristics of the variables that make them extremely useful:

  • Reusing of same values here and there
  • Single point of configuration

In the CSS world, we have many things that need to be variables. For example the main colors, the font sizes, font faces, gaps between the elements. That is why we were very happy when the preprocessors came. Finally, we have that:

// styles.scss

$primary-color: #333;

body {
    color: $primary-color;

In the Sass example above the $primary-color is a storage of the value #333.

Can I use variables in vanilla CSS?

The answer is NO (not yet). There is specification for that but that feature is not supported by most of the browsers. Here is how it looks like:

:root {
    –main-color: #06c;
#foo h1 {
    color: var(–main-color);

We define our variables in the top of the file and use the var keyword when we need them. It looks promising, but it is still not implemented in the stable version of the browsers. It is more like an experimental technology.

Thinking out of the box

Most people do not realize, but we are already using the variable-like coding in CSS already. Let’s take the following example:

// html
<div class="container">
    <div class="content">Content here …</div>

// css
.container {
    width: 400px;

In the DOM tree, we have something beautiful. We have nesting and inheritance of styles. In the example above the width of the .content div is actually equal to the width of the .container. It is like that because the default value of that property is auto which mean 100% of the containing block.

If we stop for a while and start thinking about what we did above we will see that we define a variable that has value of 400px. Let’s say that we want our .content div 324 pixels wide. Instead of writing

.content {
    width: 324px;

we may use the following:

.content {
    width: 81%;

We have a single point of configuration. We may add other children of the .container div, and they all will have the same 400 pixels as a base.

We could apply the same concept to text’s color. Considering the following HTML markup:

<div class="container">
    Some text
    <div class="content">
        Content here …
        <a href="#">link</a>

We may define the color in the very top element:

.container {
    color: #F00;

The .content div inherits the value, and the text Content here … is colored in red. However, the link does not. By default, the browser applies blue and overwrites our definition. Now, instead of using color: #F00 we should write:

.content a {
    color: inherit;

This tells to the browser that we want the value from the containing block. If, at some point, we decide to change the text color of our application we will do it in one place - the .container styles. It sounds like we are working with variables right.

This way of thinking may be a powerful instrument. Especially in the responsive design matter.

Improve your responsiveness

Recently I am finishing an HTML/CSS prototype of web application. One of the main requirements was that the app should be responsive, and it should cover wide range of devices. No framework involved. I had to write it in vanilla CSS. Once I started applying the concept above everything became fluent.

I’ll illustrate my workflow with a simple example:

<div class="container">

    <div class="content">
        <h1>I’m a title</h1>
        <p>Ullam, laborum, dolore debitis eaque itaque repellendus doloribus.</p>

    <div class="footer">
        <div class="info">Company Info</div>
        <div class="links">
            <a href="#">A</a>
            <a href="#">B</a>
            <a href="#">C</a>


We have a content block and a footer. The base font size is defined in the styles of the body tag:

body {
    font-size: 22px;

By default, these 22 pixels are spread to all the elements on the page (except the headings). So, the text and the links in the footer are also at 22px. On desktop everything looks OK. A nice big font and with proper font face the result is good enough. However on small devices we have to decrease the value of font-size property. We add the following meta tag in the of the document and start playing with media queries.

<meta name="viewport" content="user-scalable=no, width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0, maximum-scale=1.0" />

One possible solution would be:

@media all and (max-width: 400px) {
    .content h1 { font-size: 32px; }
    .content p { font-size: 16px; }
    .footer .info { font-size: 16px; }
    .footer .links { font-size: 16px; }

However, it is not flexible at all because we used these strictly defined values. Once we add another element in the DOM, we have to add a new rule.

A better approach would be to use em as a unit and not px. The em is relative to the containing block. In our case 1em is equal to 22px, because that is the default font-size of the very top element in the DOM tree.

We want to apply 16px as a font-size if the viewport’s size is under 400px. If 1em is equal to 22px then 0.7272em will be 16px (15.9984px). All we have to do is to apply styles to the .container div:

@media all and (max-width: 400px) {
    .container {
        font-size: 0.7272em;

It is that simple. The paragraph, the company’s information text and the links get 16px font size. The heading is by default 2em, so it receives 32px.

Now, let’s say that under 380px we want to have smaller letters but only in the .footer. And we want to apply 14px instead of 16px. It is clear that we will define rules directly for the footer, but this time we depend on the .container and not on the body element. So 14/16 = 0.875:

@media all and (max-width: 380px) {
    .footer {
        font-size: 0.875em;

Of course, the em unit may be used not only for setting the size of the font but for everything else. For example:

.banner {
    width: 10em; // 220px;

It has the same effect. If we change the font-size property of the banner’s container, its size will be updated accordingly.

Here is a JSBin demonstrating the final result:

JS Bin


Knowing how to use the inheritance in CSS is a handy skill. We write less, smarter and much more flexible styles. The fact that the values in CSS are coming from the containing block is very often underestimated. However, as we saw, this could improve our code. Especially while developing responsive web applications.

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