Diving Into Utility-First CSS

by Chance Smith

At Sodium Halogen, we’ve seen many projects with different types of CSS methodologies and frameworks (BEM, Bootstrap, Foundation, Bulma).

CSS + React has been wonderful with Styled Components

For over a year we’ve been playing with ReactJS + Styled-Components. We’ve loved not having to worry about CSS naming and overwriting cascading effects. It’s helped a ton.

What about projects that need classes to style elements?

We’ve recently had a project that is vanilla CSS and JS. No frameworks at all! 🙀

We didn’t see this coming. It’s also been a bit since we have had to create/write classes. Components in React there was less context switching having all HTML, CSS, and JS all in one file. Context switching is mentally expensive and time-consuming.

Looking at Utility-First CSS

Dan Mal (genius) was the first to introduce us to utility classes. You might have seen the spacing utility classes in Bootstrap before.

Utility classes are tiny bits of CSS, tied to a class name, that do one thing. Here are a few examples…

.flex-1 {
  flex: 1;
.ml-5 {
  margin-left: 5px;
.ml-10 {
  margin-left: 10px;
.ml-20 {
  margin-left: 20px;
.pl-5 {
  padding-left: 5px;
.pl-10 {
  padding-left: 10px;
.pl-20 {
  padding-left: 20px;

Pros for Utility-First CSS

  • writing way less CSS
  • more time in HTML (local space), less time in CSS files (global space)
  • way less class name creation/modifying
  • less BEM modifier class overhead

Cons for Utility-First CSS

  • not as easy to duplicate styles (templates/components really help with this)
  • messy HTML, similar to inline-styles (we might just have to change the editor theme or look past it)
  • not semantic-css names (CSS class names don’t have to be semantic, but your HTML does)

Tailwind Utility-First CSS Framework

At UndergroundJS conf in Nashville, TN, a few of us meet with another dev that introduced Tailwind.

We haven’t used the Tailwind in our no-framework project, but we have been modeling our own utilities classes the same way. So far we’re liking how much time we’re saving on layout and spacing.

/* layout */
.flex-24 {
  flex: 24 1 0%;
  margin-right: 30px;
.flex-7 {
  flex: 7 1 0%;
  min-width: 400;
.hover\:border-transparent:hover {
  border-color: transparent;

/* type */
.uppercase {
  text-transform: uppercase;
.lowercase {
  text-transform: lowercase;
.capitalize {
  text-transform: capitalize;

/* spacing */
.px-20 {
  padding-left: 20px;
  padding-right: 20px;
.pl-20 {
  padding-left: 20px;
.pl-30 {
  padding-left: 30px;

/* size */
.h-full {
  height: 100%;
.w-300 {
  width: 300px;

We’re going to give it a run by adding just what we need as we go. We’ll be meshing BEM and Utility-classes.