Magic wand and flying papers

The front-end developer’s toolbox has traditionally been pretty cut and dry: HTML5, JavaScript, AJAX, and CSS. Nowadays, the technologies that front-end developers need to know right out of the gate have broadened to also include tools that streamline the work they do, like the Bower package manager or task runners like Grunt and Gulp.

One tool that front-end developers can’t live without? CSS pre-processors. These are just as widely used as CSS itself for their ability to supercharge productivity, help developers write more succinct CSS, and to keep files organized. Whether it’s Sass, LESS, or Stylus, a pre-processor can help build upon some of CSS3’s best features.

Bottom line: Whether you’re designing a mobile app UI or customizing a WordPress site, if CSS is in your tool kit, a CSS pre-processor should be, too.

What is Sass (Syntactically Awesome Style Sheets)?

Sass is “CSS with superpowers”—but how does it work? It’s a pre-processor, which means you can code in Sass then compile it right into a CSS file that’s ready to upload to your site.

This might sound like adding an extra step until you look at all the things you can accomplish in Sass that you can’t with CSS alone. For example, CSS3 has a number of new extensions and features, like selectors, which make editing elements much easier. (Learn more about this and other new capabilities in this CSS vs. CSS3 article.) But even with improvements like selectors, Sass is still able to do a lot to improve upon the way developers write CSS.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Sass’s core advantages and how they can transform CSS.

  1. Save tons of time (and have better consistency) with variables. “Variables” are Sass’s way to help cut back on repetitive work. Any value in CSS—a color, a font, line spacing—can be stored in a Sass variable, then reused throughout the file. Once the Sass file is compiled to CSS, these values show up automatically throughout the CSS, line-by-line—without having to code them line-by-line. If a site has strict brand guidelines for colors and fonts, this ensures consistency in a stylesheet with way less effort.
  2. Write less code overall. This is always a win, and something developers are accustomed to with tools like libraries, frameworks, and APIs. When it comes to CSS, it’s no different—and Sass is able to do this with features like “mixins.” By creating a mixin, developers can group CSS declarations and reuse them throughout the file, without a lot of tedious coding.
  3. Sass fuels better responsive design. The CSS way of writing media queries often separated the queries by including them at the bottom of the stylesheet. In Sass, it’s a bit more integrated (in the code and in a developer’s process) and nested in a sheet with the “respond-to” mixin. It’s easier to write media queries and create responsive breakpoints, making the overall responsive design process much easier. Compared with frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation, Sass’s approach to responsive breakpoints is a lot cleaner because it’s contained in that one mixin.
  4. Make your CSS even more modular—and easier to work with. The more complicated an app gets, the bigger its CSS stylesheet gets, leading to more complex code that is harder to maintain. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a pain—and Sass takes care of this with “partials.” Partials are essentially code snippets, like the ones you’d find in libraries. These keep larger files more modular, but they don’t get compiled to CSS because they’re not complete files. Think of them as building blocks within Sass, and ways to maintain cleaner code in a logical way.
  5. Extenders let you pass attributes to multiple CSS selectors. This feature is all about inheritance, another time-saver that lets developers share properties between selectors. For example, an app might have a series of buttons. By extending certain attributes, all buttons will have the same shape, size, rounded edges, and font. Buttons for “Make a Payment” could be green, “Login” buttons could be yellow, and so forth, but all of the shared attributes will be coded once and inherited, saving developers a lot of time.
  6. Stay organized with nesting. “Nesting” isn’t a new approach—it’s how HTML is set up, and it helps developers visualize a hierarchy in their code. It’s something CSS lacks, but Sass does not, making writing code a more pleasant experience.

A few notes about getting started with Sass:

  • It’s relatively easy to set up and runs on Mac, Linux, and PC.
  • Developers can use the tool before learning Sass inside out. That’s because any CSS will work as a viable Sass file. As you get more comfortable with Sass, you can add its features in, but there’s no need to totally change gears from CSS right out of the gate.
  • Sass uses the Ruby scripting language, but you don’t need to have an extensive knowledge of Ruby to use Sass. Similar to the LESS CSS pre-processor that uses JavaScript, there’s not going to be a big learning curve with Ruby and developers can probably get by with minimal knowledge of the script.
  • Look into frameworks and toolsets for Sass like Compass and Bourbon. Both of these keep prefixes updated in Sass, among other things.

Ready to start working with a front-end developer who’s leveraging the speed and efficiency of Sass? Browse Sass freelancers on Upwork for your next development project.