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As far as programming languages go, CSS is the least fun to write. Without variables, mixins or mathematical operations, it can be very time-consuming to write CSS and a nightmare to make changes.

Introducing… Less: Leaner CSS.

Less is a gem that helps alleviate the pain of writing CSS by making it DRYer and far more intuitive.

To install the gem, simply run:

sudo gem install less

You’ll also want to use the less-for-rails plugin by August Lilleaas:

script/plugin install git://github.com/augustl/less-for-rails.git

Usage

To create a stylesheet using Less, simply add a new file to your /stylesheets directory with the format “.less”. Eg, application.less. Write your CSS in this file instead of application.css – the less-for-rails plugin will ensure application.css is updated as you make changes.

Previously, a snippet of CSS may have looked something like this:

div#content{
  width: 80%;
  margin: 0 auto;
}

div.comment{
  border: thin solid silver;
  border-bottom: thick solid #BEBEBE;
  background: #E5E5E5;
  width: 80%;
  margin: 0 auto;
  height: 100px;
}    

.comment p{
  margin-top: 5px;
  font-family: sans-serif;
}

.comment p a{text-decoration: none;}

form#new_comment{
  border: thin solid silver;
  border-bottom: thick solid #BEBEBE;
  background: #E5E5E5;
  width: 80%;
  margin: 0 auto;
}

With Less, this can be simplified to:

@comment_height: 100px;
@inner_width: 80%;
.centered{
  width: @inner_width;
  margin: 0 auto;
}

.comment_borders{
  @comment_background: #E5E5E5;
  border: thin solid silver;
  border-bottom: thick solid (@comment_background/1.2);
  background: @comment_background;
  .centered;
}

div#content{.centered;}

div.comment{
  .comment_borders;
  height: @comment_height;
  p {
    margin-top: @comment_height/20;
    font-family: sans-serif;
    a {text-decoration: none;}
  }
}
form#new_comment{.comment_borders;}

In this example, the variable @comment_height is set to 100px and the margin-top value for p tags within a .comment div is set to @comment_height/20. If we change the height of .comment this margin will also change so that it’s always a 5% of the total height.

Another really cool feature is the ability to apply mathematical operations to colour values. So if we have a div with background-color #7f7f7f, we can multiply this value by two for the text-color property, meaning the text will always be twice as bright as the background-color (up to the #FFFFFF limit).

The class .comment_borders is a mixin. Mixins allow you to store commonly shared values in one place. These can then be included into any other css instruction by simply writing the class name followed by a semicolon.

For more information, check out the Less homepage.

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Gavin Morrice

Full-stack developer, based in Scotland


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