Generate All Your Utility Classes with Sass Maps

One of the powers of utility classes lies in giving you access to every small concept of your design system, in a slew of contexts. If your main color is royal blue, you can apply it as a text color on anything with a .text-royal-blue class, as a background color with a .bg-royal-blue class, etc. But how do you write them in an effective, consistent and scalable way?

TL;DR: this post goes in-depth in the how-to stuff. If you want to understand the whole thought process, read on. Otherwise you can grab the code on GitHub or test it out on SassMeister.

$royal-blue: #0007ff;

.text-royal-blue {
  color: $royal-blue;
}

.bg-royal-blue {
  background: $royal-blue;
}

...

That’s repetitive. Not only you’re hand typing the color name and value every single time, but you’re also creating an unmaintainable system. What happens when you have ten color utilities like these ones, and you need to add one more color to the scheme? You shouldn’t spend time on mindless, tedious tasks. That’s what scripting languages are for. If you’re already using Sass, you need to harness its power and let it help you.

Sass Maps?

Maps are a Sass data type that represents an association between keys and values. If you’re familiar with other scripting languages you could see it as an associative array. It allows you to store data, and have a name to reference each piece.

Lists and maps are a bit similar, in that they’re both storing a collection of data and they’re both iterable in an @each loop. But contrary to lists, maps make it easy to reference any piece of information by calling it by its name. This makes it ideal for grouping logically related information.

$colors: (
  mako-grey: #404145,
  fuel-yellow: #ecaf2d,
  pastel-green: #5ad864
);

Let’s add some logic

Now that our colors are neatly stored inside a map, we need to iterate it to generate our utility classes. To do that, we’ll use the @each directive inside a @mixin, that we’ll include later in our utility base class.

@mixin color-modifiers {
  // do stuff
}

Let’s now use the @each directive to loop through $colors and fetch the right data.

@mixin color-modifiers {
  @each $name, $hex in $colors {
    // do stuff
  }
}

We’re iterating $colors and at every loop, the current key will be referenced in $name and the color’s hexadecimal code will be in $hex. We can start building our ruleset.

@mixin color-modifiers {
  @each $name, $hex in $colors {
    &-#{$name} {
      color: $hex;
    }
  }
}

Now for every pair in the map, @each will generate a ruleset that references the parent selector with the & character, appends a hyphen and the color’s name, and sets the color attribute to the current hexadecimal value.

In other words, doing this:

.text {
  @include color-modifiers;
}

Will generate this:

.text-mako-grey {
  color: #404145;
}
.text-fuel-yellow {
  color: #ecaf2d;
}
.text-pastel-green {
  color: #5ad864;
}

Pretty neat, uh? Actually, we barely scratched the surface. For now, our mixin can only output rules with the color attribute. What if we want to create some utility classes for background colors?

Fortunately, Sass allows us to pass arguments to mixins.

@mixin color-modifiers($attribute: 'color') {
  @each $name, $hex in $colors {
    &-#{$name} {
      #{$attribute}: $hex;
    }
  }
}

Now we can specify exactly what attribute we want.

Let’s improve our mixin a little more: right now the modifier prefix is a hardcoded hyphen. This means your classes will always be in the form of .base-modifier. What if you need it to change? What if you also want to generate some BEM-flavored modifiers (two hyphens)? Again, that’s something we can achieve by using arguments.

@mixin color-modifiers($attribute: 'color', $prefix: '-') {
  @each $name, $hex in $colors {
    &#{$prefix}#{$name} {
      #{$attribute}: $hex;
    }
  }
}

Now we can generate modifier classes with any kind of prefix we want. So, doing this:

.text {
  @include color-modifiers($prefix: '--');
}

Will generate this:

.text--mako-grey {
  color: #404145;
}
.text--fuel-yellow {
  color: #ecaf2d;
}
.text--pastel-green {
  color: #5ad864;
}

Pro tip: in Sass, you can explicitly name arguments when you call a mixin or a function (like in the example above). This avoids having to provide them in order.

Maps within maps

I like to use a slightly different color system so I can manage tonal variations. By nesting maps within maps, I have a clean and readable way to keep shades grouped together.

$colors: (
  grey: (
    base: #404145,
    light: #c7c7cd
  ),
  yellow: (
    base: #ecaf2d
  ),
  green: (
    base: #5ad864
  )
);

If we want to work with such a color system, we need to adapt our mixin so it goes iterating a level deeper.

@mixin color-modifiers($attribute: 'color', $prefix: '-', $separator: '-') {
  @each $name, $color in $colors {
    &#{$prefix}#{$name} {
      @each $tone, $hex in $color {
        &#{$separator}#{$tone} {
          #{$attribute}: $hex;
        }
      }
    }
  }
}

We added a new argument, $separator, to link the color’s name and the tone. We could have used the $prefix but it doesn’t have the same purpose. Using a dedicated variable with a default value is a better choice, as it gives us full freedom when we use the mixin.

Now, doing this:

.text {
  @include color-modifiers;
}

Will generate this:

.text-grey-base {
  color: #404145;
}
.text-grey-light {
  color: #c7c7cd;
}
.text-yellow-base {
  color: #ecaf2d;
}
.text-green-base {
  color: #5ad864;
}

Great! We now have helpers composed of a base class, a color, and a tone. One thing we need to improve though is how base color modifiers are outputted. We actually don’t need that -base suffix, the base class and color are enough.

What we must do is check for the tone in the nested @each loop, and only output it and the $separator when it’s not “base”. Luckily for us, Sass already has everything we need.

@if, @else, if()

Our first instinct might be to use the @if/@else directives. Problem is, this would force us to repeat code and result in complicated code. Instead, we’re going to use one of Sass’ secret weapons: if().

if() is Sass’ conditional (ternary) operator. It takes three arguments: a condition and two return statements. If the condition is met, if() will return the first statement. Otherwise, it will return the second one. You can see it as an @if/@else shorthand.

@mixin color-modifiers($attribute: 'color', $prefix: '-', $separator: '-', $base: 'base') {
  @each $name, $color in $colors {
    &#{$prefix}#{$name} {
      @each $tone, $hex in $color {
        &#{if($tone != $base, #{$separator}#{$tone}, '')} {
          #{$attribute}: $hex;
        }
      }
    }
  }
}

Every time the nested @each loop will parse a $tone that’s different from “base”, it will return the $separator and the $tone as the class suffix. Else, it will return nothing, leaving the class as is.

.text-grey {
  color: #404145;
}
.text-grey-light {
  color: #c7c7cd;
}
.text-yellow {
  color: #ecaf2d;
}
.text-green {
  color: #5ad864;
}

DRY-ing it all up

In a real-world project, chances are you’ll want to use various map structures. For example, you could have one-level deep maps for font sizes and two-levels deep maps for colors. You’re not going to write a different mixin for each depth level. That would be repetitive and unmaintainable. You need to be able to rely a single mixin to handle that.

We want a generic mixin to generate all modifiers, and that’s able to handle multidimensional maps. If you compare the two mixins we came up with in this tutorial, you’ll notice they look a lot alike. The only difference is that one performs an extra loop before printing the computed CSS declaration. This is a typical job for a recursive mixin.

It will begin with an @each directive where we can start building our selector. This is where we’ll check if the current $key equals to “base” so we can decide to output it or not. Then, we’ll check if the current $value is a map itself: if yes, we need to run the mixin again from where we are and pass it the nested map. Otherwise, we can print the CSS declaration.

@mixin modifiers($map, $attribute, $prefix: '-', $separator: '-', $base: 'base') {
  @each $key, $value in $map {
    &#{if($key != $base, #{$prefix}#{$key}, '')} {
      @if type-of($value) == 'map' {
        @include modifiers($value, $attribute, $separator);
      }
      @else {
        #{$attribute}: $value;
      }
    }
  }
}

And voilà! This mixin will work with maps of any depth. Feel free to use it in your own projects! If you like it, you can show some love by starring it on GitHub. Also, if you want to improve it, please leave a comment on the gist so I can update it 👍

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Sarah Dayan

I'm a front-end developer with a taste for design and typography. I like to share what I know on HTML, CSS and JavaScript.