Should you be using a CSS preprocessor? Probably.

We’ve been using CSS preprocessors for some time now but it wasn’t until recently that the reasons for using them really started coalescing for me. CSS preprocessors, like LESS or Sass, basically allow you to write CSS in a more powerful intermediate language which is then compiled down to normal CSS. Like a lot of developers, when I first started using LESS I had some reservations about introducing another layer of abstraction to our development stack. However, after developing a few reasonably sized projects with LESS I’m convinced that using a preprocessor is probably a great idea for many types of projects.

Avoiding the LESS vs. Sass discussion and looking at preprocessors as a class of tools, the clearest benefits are more expressiveness and better reusability.

More expressiveness

As a language, CSS is amazingly straightforward, it basically consists of selectors and rules which are written in flat, plain text files and then combine to style your HTML. Since there are no constructs for variables, conditionals, or functions writing CSS is simple – just fire up and editor and start making changes. The ease of writing and understanding CSS is certainly a benefit but it comes at the price of sacrificing how expressive the language can be.

Using selector specificity as an example, the benefits of the preprocessed files are clear.

Using regular CSS you might end up having rules that look like:

Versus the corresponding LESS:

Looking at the two examples, the LESS uses its structure to express how the nesting rules work and because of this has a higher information density than the regular CSS.

Another common issue where increased expressiveness is helpful is in writing semantically meaningful CSS class names. With regular CSS, the tendency was to normally end up with CSS rules that end up looking like:

The trouble of course being that the CSS class names are tied to their physical appearance as opposed to what they actually mean in your app. Although its possible to write semantic class names in vanilla CSS, the difficulty arises when you’re trying to uniformly apply things like colors, padding, and borders across a range of elements. Without variables and mixins it becomes significantly harder to manage or change these semantically named classes. Looking at how Twitter Bootstrap defines buttons, its clear how much more expressive the declarations are by keeping the colors in easily changed variables:

Better reusability

Another benefit which preprocessors introduce is better code reusability. Although CSS has imports, the amount of code which you can functionally reuse is pretty limited since existing rules can’t be included into new ones. The best you can really hope for is being able to reuse a common stylesheet across projects. Comparatively, preprocessed CSS offers mixins and functions both of which foster more reuse.

Some of the best real world examples of this are in the Twitter Bootstrap mixins.less file which includes mixins used throughout the framework. Additionally, projects that build upon the Bootstrap framework would also be able to leverage any functions or mixins Bootstrap defines further increasing reuse.

Anyway, looking at the benefits compared to the overhead of involving a preprocessor I think for any reasonably sized project you’d almost always be better of developing with one. It’s obviously going to come down to the specific project but I’d be interested in hearing everyone else’s opinion.