Tips for Refactor CSS: Complete Guide

Initial audit

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Guide: Tips for Refactor CSS: Complete Guide

CSS refactoring must be an essential part of the front-end development workflow if we are to have a manageable and optimized codebase. When we refactor CSS, we will clean up and reorganize our existing code without adding new ones features or fix bugs.

Refactoring helps prevent CSS explosion, improve code readability and reusability, and makes CSS slimmer and faster to run

Refactoring is usually needed after a while, because even projects that started with a concise and organized code base sooner or later start to lose their clarity; consistency, outdated rules and duplicate code parts appear; and we are also starting to override styles and use more and more hacks and workarounds.

The best way to keep our CSS codebase maintainable is to adhere to the rule of thumb “refactor early, refactor often”. In this post we’ll take a look at some of them tips on how to run an effective CSS refactoring process.

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1. Perform an initial audit

It’s best to have a better idea of ​​what to refactor start with an extensive audit to see what we currently have

There are many great online tools that can help us with this. CSSDig is a powerful Chrome extension that analyzes a website’s CSS and explores its weaknesses, such as too specific selectors or repetitive properties.

Unused CSS examines unused CSS rules, while linting tools, such as CSS Lint, make it possible to quickly find compatibility, maintainability, and other issues.

It is also important to manually review the code during the initial audit, as many architectural-level problems can only be noticed in this way.

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2. Set Up a manageable plan

Restructuring working code is always a chore, but we can ease the pain if we make a plan about what to do, up the refactoring process into manageable chunks, and make a feasible schedule.

In CSS refactoring, there is one crucial thing that we should always consider: some things we refactor, eg changing selector names, cause the needed to modify the code of the relevant HTML and JavaScript files also.

It is therefore a good idea to trace these additional changes that we need to make, and build them up in our refactoring schedule along with the primary, CSS-related tasks.

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3. Follow the progress

Before you begin refactoring, this is an essential step to take back up our first filesIntroducing a version control system, such as Git or Subversion, into our workflow can also significantly improve the refactoring process, as we have a record of the sequential steps we’ve taken, and we can return to a previous stage if we want to redo things

Git version control

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4. Stick to a coding style Guide

A coherent coding style guide can dramatically improve code readability and maintainability, so before we start refactoring it is essential to use set up a CSS coding style guide

The most important things to decide are:

  • naming conventions
  • formatting rules
  • declaration order
  • units and values ​​we want to use
  • comment rules

If we don’t want to create our own coding style guide, we can also use someone else’s, such as ThinkUps which can be found on Github.

Coding style Guide

However, it is not enough to just introduce a coding style guide, we must too stick to it when we rewrite the code during refactoring, and expect the same from everyone who is working on our project.

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5. Set Up a coherent file structure

After we are done with the preparations, the first thing to do is set up up a good CSS file structure that pays attention to the cascading nature of CSS.

It depends mainly on the project how best to organize our files, but there are some universal rules, such as using a separate normalize.css file for CSS reset styles, a separate global.css for global styles that are in the can be used throughout the project, and to store third-party libraries in a separate folder.

If we want to play it safe with our CSS file structure, there are also ready-made architectures, such as SMACSS or ITCSS, that provide effective techniques about how to organize CSS files in a scalable way

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6. Remove unused and duplicate lines

After a while, CSS files usually start to fill up with unused lines that we need to identify and clean up while refactoring. There are many online tools that allow us to do that examine these outdated rules, and sometimes we can quickly dump them too.

The best known tool for this purpose is probably UnCSS, a Node.js module that allows to quickly remove unused CSS rules, and it also provides us with advanced configuration options that make it easy to fine-tune the cleaning process. .


It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t necessarily want to remove unused lines from all the CSS files we have, for example from global, reset or third-party style sheets, so that’s needed rule them out during cleaning.

In addition to outdated lines, duplicate lines also lead to unnecessary code bloat and performance loss. We can remove them using the CSS Purge Node.js module, but we can also work with CSS linters to look for duplicate lines in our CSS files.

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7. Reduce specificity

The specificity of a CSS selector is calculated based on the number and types of inner selectors it contains. CSS specificity is expressed as a 4 digit number that is easiest to understand when we take a look at this visual CSS specificity calculator:

Reduce specificity

The lowest specificity (0001) belongs to selectors that only target one common HTML element, such as


  • . The more inner selectors a composite selector contains, the higher its specificity.

    Certain selectors, such as id or selectors that come from inline styles, have higher priorities because they override the styles associated with more common selectors. For example, the specificity of the # id1 selector is 0100.

    In refactoring, the goal is to minimize the specificity of selectors (keep them short). selectors with higher specificity significantly reduce selector reusability, and lead to bloated code base

    The 3 main types of high specificity selectors are:

    1. Qualified voters, such as p.class1 (defining the p tag is not necessary here, as it becomes impossible to use the same class with other HTML elements)
    2. Deeply nested selectors, such as .class1 .class2 .class3 .class4 …
    3. IDs, such as # id1

    Online tools, such as CSSDig mentioned in Step 1, can be used to quickly find these selectors with high specificity. It can also be useful to set up up a line in the coding style guide on things like the maximum level of nesting or a limit for using id selectors.

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    8. Delete important lines

    CSS rules followed by the! Important statements take precedence over regular style rules. Use sooner or later! lead to incoherent codeIt’s no coincidence that most fluff tools mark them as faulty.

    When we need to write CSS quickly, we can come to rely on them for their simplicity.

    The biggest problem with! Important declarations is that if we want to ignore them in the future, we’ll do even more! Major declarations need to be up and running, so it’s best to remove them during the refactoring process whenever possible.

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    9. Clean up magic numbers and hard coded values

    During our daily CSS workflow, we sometimes encounter problems that we cannot solve, and we start so-called magical numbers, values ​​that work for some reason, but we don’t understand why. Take the following example for example:

    .class1 {position: absolute; top: 28px; left: 15.5%;}

    The main problem with magic numbers is that they are indirectly, and they embody the anti-pattern of “permutation programming.” During the restructuring process, we need to remove these random lines from our code and replace them with more reasonable solutions where possible.

    The same rule of thumb applies to hard-coded values also. Probably the most common hard-coded values ​​can be found in line height rules:

    / * bad, we need to add extra fixed line height rules to the children of .class1 * /

    .class1 {font-size: 20px; line-height: 24px;}

    / * good, the flexible line height rule can also be safely used by child elements * /

    .class1 {font-size: 20px; line height: 1.2;}

    Hard-coded values ​​make our code less future-proof and rigid, so as part of refactoring, we have to dig them up, and replace them with flexible values

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    10. Refactor units and values

    To make maintenance and debugging easier in the future and to avoid failures that may result from the simultaneous use of different units, such as em and px, we must stick to coherent rules about how we use relative and absolute values

    If we’ve used them inconsistently in the past, we need to convert them so that they can form a concise system

    If we use too many similar colors on our site, it could also be wise rationalize the color scheme by reducing the number of colors we use. (Here’s a post on it how to choose a website color scheme in a practical way.)

    Refactor colors

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