CSS Frameworks: A Comprehensive Guide For Web Designers and Developers

CSS frameworks offer a lot of benefits and flexibility for the developers and cut down development time.

Written by RamotionSep 30, 202215 min read

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is an essential language in modern web design and development. Since its first release 25 years ago, it has not only made the life of web designers and developers easier who are styling markup languages such as HTML or XML, but it also innovated how websites or web apps respond to different modern screen devices and browser challenges.

CSS offers power to web developers to design and build stunning and professional-grade effective websites. It enables you to do different valuable things, such as layout composition and customization. Still, one of the most important is to help you design beautiful and interactive website content using CSS stylesheets.

An excellent way to illustrate the significance of CSS in addition to a styling markup language component such as HTML elements is how you can arrange and control CSS elements on a particular viewport or screen device, which won't be possible with HTML or any markup language alone.

Additionally, you can now animate using CSS. Whether you are trying to create some animated buttons or navigation, put a page loader on your website, or even a simple extra touch to your webpage's overall aspect, CSS animation can provide an effective way to delight your website visitors. CSS can do this without using JavaScript or Flash.

CSS is filled with robust features to improve the productivity and workflow of your web development process as long as you are familiar with the rules and how they work.

Evolution of the Modern Web

Similar to HTML, CSS has its evolutionary iteration in history.

In 1996, the first version of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) was first introduced by Håkon Wium Lie, who works at CERN, the most sophisticated and widely recognized headquarters of the World Wide Web at that time, which was founded and developed to meet the demand for automated information-sharing around the world. CSS was not the only declarative styling language in development at the time, but its the most efficient one when it came to the project's goal. In 1998, CSS 2 was released with improved specifications and rules for better user design and page layout capabilities.

With the iteration of CSS2 to CSS3 comes a new saga of revolutionary web technology leaps which standardizes some old specifications and provides better document representation that can be applied across browsers with plenty of new valuable features, including those specifications from Google and Typecast. CSS3 is easier and faster to use when compared to CSS2 due to its robust new module system.

On the surface, CSS3 features many presentational hacks created and been used by developers for some time, such as fonts, drop shadows, text shadows, and rounded corners, along with a variety of new selectors, animations, and transitions that make styling modern web design a lot easier.

In summary, below are some of the groundbreaking CSS3 features in recent years:

Flexbox and CSS Grids

CSS Grid and Flexbox are the most innovative layout features that were introduced in CSS3. These features enable you to create complex layouts without needing floats and other CSS hacks. CSS Grid is primarily used for creating two-dimensional layouts. In contrast, CSS Flexbox is primarily used for creating one-dimensional layouts which can be controlled on both X- and Y-axis.

Transitions, Transforms, Animations.

In the web's old days, if you wanted to create some animation, you needed to rely entirely on JavaScript and Flash. CSS3 adds the ability to make transitions, transformations, and animations to gradually change properties from one style to another at a given duration.

Transitions

Enable you to change property values smoothly at a given duration. You can use this property using the transition property notation (e.g., transition: width 3s, height 3s, background-color 3s, transform 3s;)

Transformations

Enable you to shift property position and state (either rotate, scale, skew, or translate) from one state to another. You can use this property using the transform property notation (e.g., transform: rotate3d(1, 2, 3, 10deg);)

Animations

Enable you to create complex CSS animations. You can use this property using the @keyframes and other animation property notations such as animation-name, animation-duration, and animation-delay.

Vendor Prefixes.

Also known as CSS browser prefixes are used to add support or prefixes for a specific CSS property to different browsers. Instead of waiting for every other browser maker to catch up, vendor prefixes enable you to use those new features and immediately see them on the browsers that support them.

The most common vendor prefixes include:

  • -webkit- (Chrome, Safari, newer versions of Opera and Edge)
  • -moz- (Firefox)
  • -o- (Pre-WebKit Opera)
  • -ms- (Internet Explorer and Microsoft Edge)

Custom variables.

Allows you to define stand-ins CSS custom properties using the custom property notation such :root followed by --characters (e.g., --main-color: black;) which can be accessed through var() function (e.g., color: var(--main-color);).

A More Intuitive Web Design and Development

CSS is a declarative programming language that enables web designers and developers to create unique, professional, and attractive responsive websites. Its robust built-in properties and features give you the power to control every aspect of a web page, from layout, colors, typography, graphics, and animation at a minimum or even advanced level.

CSS will continue to evolve and dominate modern web platforms. This means that as web designers and developers, there is a weight of expectation to build even more creative and intuitive design, user-friendly UI / UX, and responsive design and layouts that work not only in different types of screen devices but also in all modern browsers.

Although it would be normal to say that style is more important than workflow, it certainly affects how you produce and manage the codebase in the long run. Furthermore, developing websites from scratch is quite a tedious task, especially for web design and development firms who are offering small business website services as it involves a reasonable amount of time to code. Maintaining a codebase is even more complex, especially if you are working in a team with other developers.

Coding from scratch and reinventing the wheel for every project is quite an endeavor. Not only do you need to write vanilla CSS codes for each layout and web element over again, but it can also put your codebase at risk of being bloated with so many CSS files to maintain and be read by the browser in production.

This is when a framework can help you in your workflow.

Defining CSS Framework

Using a framework is always an excellent option to simplify and speed up web design and development. Frameworks provide plenty of tools, built-in components, and codebases to easily and quickly create interfaces for your projects instead of building things from scratch each time.

Most of these frameworks are pretty streamlined and exceptional due to their resources. If you are a beginner, a framework might be ambiguous and challenging for you to understand, but once you get to know it, it will help you create more standards-compliant websites quickly.

By using a framework, you can create professional-grade standard-compliant websites and applications with nominal coding without agonizing about the low-level details of the product you are building instead of spending time starting from scratch. This reduces the project's development time and makes room for other things, such as improvements and bug fixes.

In web design and development, there are two kinds of frameworks:

  • Frontend Frameworks - are a set of tools and packages with pre-written and standardized codes for frontend tasks such as CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery.
  • Backend Frameworks - are set of libraries or codebases of server-side programming languages that help programmers to build the backend structure of a website or dynamic web application.

In essence, frameworks are essential in supporting the structures of the development process. Most of the popular frameworks being used and talked about these days in the tech industry are CSS frameworks which are regularly used to simply the frontend tasks, especially when designing HTML and CSS documents.

CSS frameworks also integrate JavaScript, jQuery, and other popular technologies to create interactive features that can be embedded in your projects using reusable components and modules without diving into high-level CSS details. CSS frameworks use CSS classes to create interfaces that can be adjusted with minimal coding and time.

CSS Framework Components

CSS frameworks are powered up by their own custom CSS and components. Components are all the rage today, which vary from simple layouts to complex web elements, the list may go on. Often, these components are functional for use in typical scenarios which do the heavy lifting on some of the common design challenges.

Styling can sometimes be overwhelming, so it's nice to have some handy CSS classes and components at your disposal. Below are some of the common components in all the CSS frameworks:

  • Grids - defines the customizable breakpoints, columns, rows, and gutters that determine how your responsive layout should behave.
  • Forms - defines the styles, and layout options for creating different form elements such as input, radio buttons, and checkboxes.
  • Typography - defines the font styles for different text elements such as headings, body text, and more.
  • Accordion - defines the styles and content of collapsing accordion and its tab items.
  • Navigation - provide styles on the responsive navigation header, including the collapsing logo and navigation item.
  • Card - provide styles for content containers with various style options.
  • Carousel and Slider - provide styles on the rotating images and text.
  • Pagination - provides style options on pagination to indicate a series of related web pages and content.
  • Modal - provide options to set up a dialog box that can be used as pop-up notifications or containers for custom contents.
  • Preloader - provides styles and support on spinning animation that shows before the web page loads.
  • Other media elements - such as images, badges, and list groups.
  • Utilities and Helpers - provides support to adjust certain styles or extend the default set of existing styles.

CSS Framework Purpose in Web Development

Before diving deep into the best CSS frameworks regularly used in the tech industry today, it's essential to look at the usability and efficiency of CSS frameworks in web design and development. A lot of factors can be discussed when it comes to the importance and benefits of CSS frameworks. Things like consistency, producing readable CSS classes, cross-browser compatibility, responsive layout design, faster development of websites and applications, and the list may go on.

A modern CSS framework often comes with pre-arranged sets of reusable CSS code, components, and modules to separate document content from document presentation cleanly and intelligently while taking away the guesswork out of the challenges in the web design process. An advanced CSS framework is even baked with a new scalable grid system and robust user interfaces that are lightweight to ensure the scalability of websites and applications you can create with it.

The common thing about the CSS frameworks is the adherence to a mobile-first approach that automatically creates a good UX experience for mobile users before designing for the desktop, tablet, or any other device when you use its components. This is intuitive as it obliterates the pain and bottlenecks of web design and development when dealing with different viewports and compact platforms.

Benefits of Using A CSS Framework

CSS frameworks provide a lot of benefits and flexibility for the developers and cut down development time. This provides an efficient amount of usability and little coding time without worrying about cross-browser and viewport layout issues or any inconsistencies.

Most web developers are having challenges building websites from scratch using pure CSS alone, which adds to the total complexity of design principles and practices such as responsive layout, UI elements, and interactivity. CSS framework provides an excellent solution while incorporating clean coding practices and scalability factors as your development progresses.

Some developers and technology enthusiasts discouraged the use of CSS frameworks due to potential bloated structure and inveterate HTML markup. Nevertheless, using a CSS framework gives you a lot of benefits, including:

Cross-Browser Compatibility

For years, dealing with different browsers, including old and new, has been a nightmare for many web developers. In addition, many modern browsers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Edge have taken the internet by storm in recent years, which has become overwhelming to take on. Plenty of open source CSS frameworks have solved these issues by providing built-in tools, libraries, and principles right out of the box.

Clean and Consistent Coding

CSS frameworks ensure that CSS codes, including custom CSS, are easy to read and understand by other developers to provide consistency in the project during the development process.

Code Maintenance

When developers code, it often gets messy as more CSS files get added for every feature each time. CSS frameworks help in the maintaining process and reduce the redundancy in code during development.

Useful Coding Practices Integration

While CSS frameworks provide pre-determined CSS classes and components, it's easy to incorporate your own coding practices that can make your workflow as unique and efficient as possible.

Solid Communities

Like any type of software or platform, CSS frameworks have huge communities ready to help you or find answers to your questions whenever you are stuck. These people can help you solve most of the future challenges you might experience in the development using CSS frameworks that were already asked by others who share the same thing.

Helpful Documentations

Every CSS framework, whether old or new, has already been developed with detailed documentation that helps learn about the framework. Documentation solves most of the questions and challenges about the framework usage if you take the time to read them.

Best CSS Frameworks List

There is a vast variety of CSS frameworks online. One framework may be best on a particular case but overkill on another. However, one thing is constant, all of them abstract common web design and development challenges and make the process easier and faster.

Check out the comprehensive CSS frameworks list below:

1. Bootstrap

Bootstrap is the most popular open source CSS framework developed by Mark Otto and Jacob Thornton. Since it was launched in August 2011, it has taken off in popularity until today. Bootstrap is the most comprehensive CSS framework on the web that is packed with many valuable components and interfaces, including grid layouts, forms, buttons, cards, carousels, and other JavaScript components.

Bootstrap is also one of the most widely used CSS frameworks for React, Ruby on Rails, Django, and other frontends, backend, and full-stack frameworks due to its easy integration and regular classes.

2. Foundation

Foundation is one of the most advanced yet mature CSS frameworks available online, developed by Zurb. Like Bootstrap, Foundation implements the mobile-first principle and comes with excellent features such as Flex Grid and Motion UI. It is the perfect CSS framework for developers who want the freedom to write less code with a lot of styling for advanced web applications. The latest version of Foundation is lighter when compared to other CSS frameworks, which means you can build faster websites, emails, and applications. Foundation is customizable and semantic, with solid responsive CSS modules loaded with extensible and useful tools.

3. Bulma

Bulma is a free, open source CSS framework that is used to create innovative and clean websites and applications. Bulma CSS is a robust CSS framework with ready ready-to-use UI components for developing scalable frontend code effectively. In response to the mobile-first approach, Bulma uses a powerful system known as tiles to create stylish and clean designs. Bulma comes with CSS variables and SaaS variables that make customization and scalability hassle-free.

4. Materialize

Materialized is a modern CSS framework based on Google's Material Design principle with a handful of brilliant components and classes that integrates cross-browser compatibility and device-agnostic features. Materialized is just a CSS framework with minimal customization options but a refined 12-column grid layout, animations, and transition features that help developers build and launch fast.

5. Semantic UI

Semantic UI is likely the most simple and minimalist CSS framework that uses semantic class names for the stylings of website components. With more than 3000 theming variables, font files, CSS, and JavaScript, for UI components, Semantic UI is easy to learn and use compared to other CSS frameworks. Semantic UI is the best framework to use if you want to create a simple and flat design based on a lightweight user experience.

6. Tailwind

Tailwind is a utility-first CSS framework that doesn't come with pre-written components or design practices. Tailwind gives developers the freedom to choose and decide on their own design than other popular CSS frameworks where you need to override some stylings. Tailwind doesn't come with inline CSS but provides a list of atomic CSS to implement a unique component and elements style faster. The best thing about this framework is that it can be integrated with SASS or PostCSS projects.

7. Pure

Pure is a super lightweight CSS framework with a ridiculously small set of CSS modules you can use to create modern and interactive websites or applications developed by Yahoo. It is meant as a starting point for every website that comes with a mobile-first philosophy and supports modern browsers. Pure is minimalistic and encourages developers to write design styles on top of their CSS modules.

Conclusion

Most CSS frameworks are tailor-made for mobile devices but with a few twists and optimization for usability and productivity. CSS frameworks are meant to help developers create immersive layouts with potential structural designs with minimal coding. They also cut off the development time by providing different tools and principles to speed up the developer's workflow.

Bootstrap, Foundation, Bulma, and Materialize are more suited for your project if you need feature-rich and pre-made components. However, if you need a minimalistic and utility-first approach to styling, Tailwind and Pure is the best framework for the job.