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A Complete Guide to CSS Functions

May 4th, 2020

Introduction

In programming, functions are a named portion of code that performs a specific task. An example of this could be a function written in JavaScript called sayWoof():

function sayWoof() {
  console.log("Woof!");
}

We can use this function later in our code, after we have defined our desired behavior. For this example, any time you type sayWoof() in your website or web app’s JavaScript it will print “Woof!” into the browser’s console.

Functions can also use arguments, which are slots for things like numbers or bits of text that you can feed into the function’s logic to have it modify them. It works like this in JavaScript:

function countDogs(amount) {
  console.log("There are " + amount + " dogs!");
}

Here, we have a function called countDogs() that has an argument called amount. When a number is provided for amount, it will take that number and add it to a pre-specified sentence. This lets us create sentences that tell us how many dogs we’ve counted.

countDogs(3); // There are 3 dogs!
countDogs(276); // There are 276 dogs!
countDogs("many"); // There are many dogs!

Some programming languages come with baked-in functions to help prevent you from having to reinvent the wheel for every new project. Typically, these functions are built to help make working with the main strengths and features of the language easier.

Take libraries, for example. Libraries are collections of opinionated code made to help make development faster and easier, effectively just curated function collections — think FitVids.js for creating flexible video elements.

Like any other programming language, CSS has functions. They can be inserted where you’d place value, or in some cases, accompanying another value declaration. Some CSS functions even let you nest other functions within them!

Basics of CSS Functions

Anatomy of a CSS declaration. Inside of a selector class called .selector there is a declaration of background-image: url(‘parchment.jpg’); Arrows label the property (background-image), the function (url), and the argument

Unlike other programming languages, we cannot create our own functions in CSS, per se. That kind of logic is reserved for CSS selectors, which allow you to create powerful conditional styling rules.

As opposed to other programming languages — where the output of a function typically invisibly affects other logic down the line — the output of CSS functions are visual in nature. This output is used to control both layout and presentation of content. For example:

.has-orange-glow {
  filter: drop-shadow(0.25rem 0 0.75rem #ef9035);
}

The CSS filter function drop-shadow() uses the arguments we provide it to create an orange outer glow effect on whatever it is applied to.

In the following demo, I have a JavaScript function named toggleOrangeGlow that toggles the application of the class .has-orange-glow on the CSS-Tricks logo. Combining this with a CSS transition, we’re able to create a cool glowing effect:

You may be familiar with some CSS functions, but the language has a surprisingly expansive list!

Much like any other technology on the web, different CSS functions have different levels of browser support. Make sure you research and test to ensure your experience works for everyone, and use things like @supports to provide quality alternate experiences.

Common CSS Functions

url()

url() allows you to link to other resources to load them. This can include images, fonts, and even other stylesheets. For performance reasons, it’s good practice to limit the things you load via url(), as each declaration is an additional HTTP request.

attr()

This function allows us to reach into HTML, snag an attribute’s content, and feed it to the CSS content property. You’ll commonly see attr() used in print stylesheets, where it is used to show the URL of a link after its text. Another great application of this function is using it to show the alt description of an image if it fails to load.

calc()

If there’s one function you should spend some time experimenting with, it’s calc(). This function takes two arguments and calculates a result from the operator (+, -, *, /) you supply it, provided those arguments are numbers with or without an accompanying unit.

Unlike CSS preprocessors such as Sass, calc() can mix units, meaning you can do things like subtract 6rem from 100%. calc() is also updated on the fly, so if that 100% represents a width, it’ll still work if that width changes. calc() can also accept CSS Custom Properties as arguments, allowing you an incredible degree of flexibility.

lang()

Including a lang attribute in your HTML is a really important thing to do. When present in your HTML, you’re able to use the lang() function to target the presence of the attribute’s value and conditionally apply styling based on it.

One common use for this selector is to set language-specific quotes, which is great for things like internationalization.

Clever designers and developers might also use it as a hook for styling translated versions of their sites, where cultural and/or language considerations mean there’s different perceptions about things like negative space.

:not()

This pseudo class selector will select anything that isn’t what you specify. For example, you could target anything that isn’t an image with body:not(img). While this example is dangerously powerful, scoping :not() to more focused selectors such as BEM’s block class can give you a great deal of versatility.

Currently, :not() supports only one selector for its argument, but support for multiple comma-separated arguments (e.g. div:not(.this, .that)) is being worked on!

CSS Custom Properties

var() is used to reference a custom property declared earlier in the document. It is incredibly powerful when combined with calc().

An example of this is declaring a custom property called --ratio: 1.618; in the root of the document, then invoking it later in our CSS to control line height: line-height: var(--ratio);.

Here, var() is a set of instructions that tells the browser, “Go find the argument called --ratio declared earlier in the document, take its value, and apply it here.”

Remember! calc() lets us dynamically adjust things on the fly, including the argument you supply via var().

This allows us to create things like modular scale systems directly in CSS with just a few lines of code. If you change the value of --ratio, the whole modular scale system will update to match.

In the following CodePen demo, I’ve done exactly just that. Change the value of --scale in the Pen’s CSS to a different number to see what I mean:

It’s also worth mentioning that JavaScript’s setProperty method can update custom properties in real time. This allows us to quickly and efficiently make dynamic changes to things that previously might have required a lot of complicated code to achieve.

Color Functions

Another common place you see CSS functions is when working with color.

rgb() and rgba()

These functions allow you to use numbers to describe the red (r), green (g), blue (b), and alpha (a) levels of a color. For example, a red color with a hex value of #fb1010 could also be described as rgba(251, 16, 16, 1). The red value, 251, is far higher than the green and blue values (16 and 16), as the color is mostly comprised of red information.

The alpha value of 1 means that it is fully opaque, and won’t show anything behind what the color is applied to. If we change the alpha value to be 0.5, the color will be 50% transparent. If you use an rgb() function instead of rgba(), you don’t have to supply an alpha value. This creates terser code, but prevents you from using transparency.

hsl() and hsla()

Similar to rgb() and rgba(), hsl() and hsla() are functions that allow you to describe color. Instead of using red, green, and blue, they use hue (h), saturation (s), and lightness (l).

I prefer using hsla() over rgba() because its model of describing color works really well with systematized color systems. Each of the color level values for these functions can be CSS Custom Properties, allowing you to create powerful, dynamic code.

Syntax updates

In the upcoming CSS Color Module Level 4 spec, we can ignore the a portion of rgba() and hsla(), as well as the commas. Now, spaces are used to separate the rgb and hsl arguments, with an optional / to indicate an alpha level.

Pseudo Class Selectors

These selectors use specialized argument notation that specifies patterns of what to select. This allows you to do things like select every other element, every fifth element, every third element after the seventh element, etc.

Pseudo class selectors are incredibly versatile, yet often overlooked and under-appreciated. Many times, a thoughtful application of a few of these selectors can do the work of one or more node packages.

:nth-child()

nth-child() allows you to target one or more of the elements present in a group of elements that are on the same level in the Document Object Model (DOM) tree.

In the right hands, :nth-child() is incredibly powerful. You can even solve fizzbuzz with it! If you’re looking for a good way to get started, Chris has a collection useful pseudo selector recipes.

:nth-last-child()

This pseudo class selector targets elements in a group of one or more elements that are on the same level in the DOM. It starts counting from the last element in the group and works backwards through the list of available DOM nodes.

:nth-last-of-type()

This pseudo class selector can target an element in a group of elements of a similar type. Much like :nth-last-child(), it starts counting from the last element in the group. Unlike :nth-last-child, it will skip elements that don’t apply as it works backwards.

:nth-of-type()

:nth-of-type() matches a specified collection of elements of a given type. For example, a declaration of img:nth-of-type(5) would target the fifth image on a page.

Animation Functions

Animation is an important part of adding that certain je ne sais quoi to your website or web app. Just remember to put your users’ needs first and honor their animation preferences.

Creating animations also requires controlling the state of things over time, so functions are a natural fit for making that happen.

cubic-bezier()

Instead of keyword values like ease, ease-in-out, or linear, you can use cubic-bezier() to create a custom timing function for your animation. While you can read about the math that powers cubic beziers, I think it’s much more fun to play around with making one instead.

A custom cubic bezier curve created on cubic-bezier.com. There are also options to preview and compare your curve with CSS’s ease, linear, ease-in, ease-out, and ease-in-out transitions.
Lea Verou’s cubic-bezier.com.

path()

This function is paired with the offset-path property. It allows you to “draw” a SVG path that other elements can be animated to follow.

Both Michelle Barker and Dan Wilson have published excellent articles that go into more detail about this approach to animation.

steps()

This relatively new function allows you to set the easing timing across an animation, which allows for a greater degree of control over what part of the animation occurs when. Dan Wilson has another excellent writeup of how it fits into the existing animation easing landscape.

Sizing and Scaling Functions

One common thing we do with animation is stretch and squash stuff. The following functions allow you to do exactly that. There is a catch, however: These CSS functions are a special subset, in that they can only work with the transform property.

scaleX(), scaleY(), scaleZ(), scale3d(), and scale()

Scaling functions let you increase or decrease the size of something along one or more axes. If you use scale3d() you can even do this in three dimensions!

translateX(), translateY(), translateZ(), translate3d(), and translate()

Translate functions let you reposition an element along one or more axes. Much like scale functions, you can also extend this manipulation into three dimensions.

perspective()

This function lets you adjust the appearance of an object to make it look like it is projecting up and out from its background.

rotateX(), rotateY(), rotateZ(), rotate3d(), and rotate()

Rotate functions let you swivel an element along one or more axes, much like grasping a ball and turning it around in your hand.

skewX(), skewY(), and skew()

Skew functions are a little different from scaling and rotation functions in that they apply a distortion effect relative to a single point. The amount of distortion is proportionate to the angle and distance declared, meaning that the further the effect continues in a direction the more pronounced it will be.

Jorge Moreno also did us all a favor and made a great tool called CSS Transform Functions Visualizer. It allows you to adjust sizing and scaling in real time to better understand how all these functions work together:

As responsible web professionals, we should be mindful of our users and the fact that they may not be using new or powerful hardware to view our content. Large and complicated animations may slow down the experience, or even cause the browser to crash in extreme scenarios.

To prevent this, we can use techniques like will-change to prepare the browser for what’s in store, and the update media feature to remove animation on devices that do not support a fast refresh rate.

Filter Functions

CSS filter functions are another special subset of CSS functions, in that they can only work with the filter property. Filters are special effects applied to an element, mimicking functionality of graphics editing programs such as Photoshop.

You can do some really wild things with CSS filter functions, stuff like recreating the effects you can apply to your posts on Instagram!

brightness()

This function adjusts how, um, bright something appears. Setting it to a low level will make it appear as if it has had a shadow cast over it. Setting it to a high level will blow it out, like an over-exposed photo.

blur()

If you’re familiar with Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur filter, you know how blur() works. The more of this you apply, the more indistinct the thing you apply it to will look.

contrast()

contrast() will adjust the degree of difference between the lightest and darkest parts of what is applied to.

grayscale()

grayscale() removes the color information from what it is applied to. Remember that this isn’t an all-or-nothing affair! You can apply a partial grayscale effect to make something look weathered or washed out.

An interesting application of grayscale() could be lightly applying it to images when dark mode is enabled, to slightly diminish the overall vibrancy of color in a situation where the user may want less eye strain.

invert()

While invert() can be used to make something look like a photo negative, my favorite technique is to use it in a inverted colors media query to invert inverted images and video:

@media (inverted-colors: inverted) {
  img,
  video {
    filter: invert(100%);
  }
}

This ensures that image and video content looks the way it should, regardless of a user’s expressed browsing mode preferences.

opacity()

This function controls how much of the background is visible through the element (and child elements) the function is applied to.

An element that has 0% opacity will be completely transparent, although it will still be present in the DOM. If you need to remove an object completely, use other techniques such as the hidden attribute.

saturate()

Applying this filter can enhance, or decrease the intensity of the color of what it is applied to. Enhancing an image’s saturation is a common technique photographers use to fix underexposed photos.

sepia()

There are fancier ways to describe this, but realistically it’s a function that makes something look like it’s an old-timey photograph.

drop-shadow()

A drop shadow is a visual effect applied to an object that makes it appear like it is hovering off of the page. There’s a bit of a trick here, in that CSS also allows you to apply drop shadow effects to text and elements. It’s also distinct from the box-shadow property is that it applies drop shadows to the shape of an element rather than the actual box of an element.

Skilled designers and developers can take advantage of this to create complicated visual effects.

hue-rotate()

When a class with a declaration containing hue-rotate() is applied to an element, each pixel used to draw that element will have it’s hue valued shifted by the amount you specify. hue-rotate()‘s effect is applied to each and every pixel it is applied to, so all colors will update relative to their hue value’s starting point.

This can create a really psychedelic effect when applied to things that contain a lot of color information, such as photos.

SVG filters 

filter() also lets us import SVGs filters to use to create specialized visual effects. The topic is too complicated to really do it justice in this article — if you’re looking for a good starting point, I recommend “The Art Of SVG Filters And Why It Is Awesome” by Dirk Weber.

The word “West!” rendered in a Wild West-style font, with layered teal drop shadows giving it a 3D effect. Behind it is a purple starburst pattern. Screenshot.
This effect was created by skillful application of SVG filter effects.

Gradient Functions

Gradients are created when you transition one color to one or more other colors. They are workhorses of modern user interfaces — skilled designers and developers use them to lend an air of polish and sophistication to their work.

Gradient functions allow you to specify a whole range of properties, including:

  • Color values,
  • The position on the gradient area where that color comes in,
  • What angle the gradient is positioned at.

And yes, you guessed it: the colors we use in a gradient can be described using CSS color functions!

linear-gradient() and repeating-linear-gradient()

Linear gradients apply the color transformation in a straight line, from one point to another — this line can be set at an angle as well. In cases where there’s more area than gradient, using repeating-linear-gradient() will, er, repeat the gradient you described until all the available area has been filled.

radial-gradient() and repeating-radial-gradient()

Radial gradients are a lot like linear gradients, only instead of a straight line, color transformations radiate outward from a center point. They’re oftentimes used to create a semitransparent screen to help separate a modal from the background it is placed over.

conic-gradient() and repeating-conical-gradient

Conic gradients are different from radial gradients in that the color rotates around a circle. Because of this, we can do neat things like create donut charts. Unfortunately, support for conic gradients continues to be poor, so use them with caution.

A teal and red donut chart set to 36%. To the right of the chart is a range slider, also set to 36%. Screenshot.
An adjustable conic gradient donut chart made by Ana Tudor

Grid Functions

CSS Grid is a relatively new feature of the language. It allows us to efficiently create adaptive, robust layouts for multiple screen sizes.

It’s worth acknowledging our roots. Before Grid, layout in CSS was largely a series of codified hacks to work with a language originally designed to format academic documents. Grid’s introduction is further acknowledgement that the language’s intent has changed.

Modern CSS is an efficient, fault-tolerant language for controlling presentation and layout across a wide range of device form factors. Equipped with Grid and other properties like flexbox, we’re able to create layouts that would have been impossible to create in earlier iterations of CSS.

Grid introduces the following CSS functions to help you use it.

fit-content()

This function “clamps” the size of grid rows or columns, letting you specify a maximum size a grid track can expand to. fit-content() accepts a range of values, but most notable among them are min-content and max-content. These values allow you to tie your layout to the content it contains. Impressive stuff!

minmax()

minmax() allows you to set the minimum and maximum desired heights and widths of your grid rows and columns. This function can also use min-content and max-content, giving us a great deal of power and flexibility.

repeat()

You can loop through patterns of grid column and rows using repeat(). This is great for two scenarios:

  1. When you do know how many rows or columns you need, but typing them out would be laborious. A good example of this would be constructing the grid for a calendar.
  2. When you don’t know how many rows or columns you need. Here, you can specify a template that the browser will honor as it propagates content into your layout.

Shape Functions

Like filter() and transform(), shape CSS functions only work with one property: clip-path. This property is used to mask portions of something, allowing you to create all sorts of cool effects.

circle()

This function creates a circular shape for your mask, allowing you to specify its radius and position.

ellipse()

Like circle(), ellipse() will draw a rounded shape, only instead of a perfect circle, ellipse() lets you construct an oblong mask.

inset()

This function will mask out a rectangle inside of the element you apply it to.

polygon()

With polygon(), you are able to specify an arbitrary number of points, allowing you to draw complicated shapes. polygon() also takes an optional fill-rule argument, which specifies which part of the shape is the inside part.

Why so many?

CSS is maligned as frequently as it is misunderstood. The guiding thought to understanding why all these functions are made available to us is knowing that CSS isn’t prescriptive — not every website has to look like a Microsoft Word document.

The technologies that power the web are designed in such a way that someone with enough interest can build whatever they want. It’s a powerful, revolutionary concept, a large part of why the web became so ubiquitous.

The original post A Complete Guide to CSS Functions.