A motorcycle & sidecar team leave the ground at speed while negotiating a steep uphill section

The more complicated a WordPress site or plugin is, the more complicated the development process is for a front-end developer. For WordPress developers who build themes or plugins from scratch, there’s a lot of complex front-end coding, extensive tweaks to the CSS of themes, and plugin integrations that can require a lot of skill to execute. To that end, many experienced WordPress developers (and front-end developers in general) have turned to a number of tools like GruntJS and preprocessors like Sass to streamline front-end development and let them do more with fewer lines of code.

GruntJS is just one of these tools that has improved life for front-end developers. Read on to learn about it and why you’ll want to try it out to automate some time-consuming tasks for your next WordPress development project.

What is GruntJS?

Grunt is a workflow management tool (or, “task runner”) that automates those essential but repetitive code-based tasks like code optimization, JavaScript minification, testing, CSS preprocessing, debugging, and deployment. It runs in the command line and requires a little bit of configuration and planning up front. but makes the more tedious aspects of front-end development a breeze.

Grunt developers are able to capitalize on the tool’s plugins to streamline repetitive tasks—and there are more than 6000 of these plugins to choose from. A task like grunt-contrib-watch can be turned on and run in the background; when you’re finished, just turn the task off.

It may sound like an extra step in the development process, but Grunt has incredible value—think of it in terms of reducing software cost, making teams more efficient, and improving the overall quality of code by reducing mistakes from human error.

GruntJS Speeds Up WordPress Development

Grunt is not just for WordPress—it can be used to streamline any web workflow, whether it’s with GitHub, AngularJS, Bootstrap, or jQuery. However, it’s the number one task runner used by WordPress developers and theme designers, and with good reason. It helps out with WordPress builds across the board by running certain tasks in the development environment. A JavaScript configuration document called a gruntfile.js tells Grunt how to tackle all sorts of commands and file tasks, in the order you want them to, and they’re handled for you.

There are three main files that power WordPress themes: the functions.php file (written in PHP, that defines functions, classes, actions, etc.), index.php, and the style.css file (in CSS, that controls the styling). Of the three files, Grunt doesn’t touch the functions file, but it does give you an updated style.css file if you set it up to do so. For example, when you update your CSS code, a watch task can tell Grunt to generate an updated style.css file for you—no extra steps required.

With Grunt, there’s a plugin for nearly everything. Whatever task you’re looking to automate, chances are there’s a plugin to support it. Quick note: Grunt really shines with smaller projects. The more plugins you add, the slower it will run, due to it running tasks sequentially. Be sure not to let plugins overlap on tasks, letting your Grunt configuration get more verbose than it needs to be.

Here’s a look at some more you can do with Grunt and WordPress.

1. GruntJS tasks speed up WordPress development.

Grunt tasks generate a gruntfile, which tells Grunt what to do when it’s on and running. This means less bottlenecks by abbreviating the time required by more tedious tasks.

2. Edit your files and see those edits in real time.

Grunt watches for changes to files and reloads the browser to reflect those changes so you can see updates as you make them. An update that may take up to 30 seconds to load and a few steps plus a cache clear can happen automatically in the background. An example would be to set up a Grunt “watch task”—called grunt-contrib-watch—in which Grunt watches for changes to any files, whether it’s a JavaScript file, a CSS file, or HTML file. If a JavaScript snippet is added, Grunt will reload the browser so you’re editing and seeing changes in real time. (Note: This type of task does require some configuration and does not work right out of the box.)

3. Development scripts get prepped to be production-ready scripts.

With one command, Grunt can process, concatenate, and minify scripts before they’re sent to the production server, taking this time-consuming task of developers’ plates.

4. Keeps consistency of code among development teams collaborating on a project.

Inconsistency takes time to correct, and that can slow the development process down. GruntJS can help eliminate this time-consuming bottleneck by giving developers a set of commands they can share, resulting in more uniform coding standards.

5. Compress and minify files for the production phase.

CSS and JavaScript files are compressed and minified to be as small as possible when your dev site is ready for production. When working with GruntJS, developers can break down CSS and JavaScript files into manageable chunks and have them easily concatenated together for production.

6. GruntJS makes Sass even easier.

Sass is one of the most popular CSS precompilers in the WordPress community, allowing front-end developers to write more modular, organized CSS with fewer lines of code. But there are aspects of it that can get tedious or frustrating—things that GruntJS can handle for you by constantly monitoring your SCSS files for changes and running the Sass tasks for you. Just code in Sass and save the file, and Grunt will note that change, run the Sass task, and recompile a new, updated Sass file. All Sass code eventually needs to be compiled to pure CSS that a browser can read, and Grunt can automate that process for you, compiling your SCSS files together into your style.css file, in your development folder. This means you can preview styling changes in the browser in real time, as you make them.

7. Manage image file sizes and quality.

Grunt helps you optimize your site’s images by reducing file sizes without compromising quality, speeding up page load times overall.

8. Grunt runs on the Node.js environment, but you don’t have to know Node extensively to use Grunt.

Grunt is an application that needs a dedicated environment to run—specifically, a node package manager (NPM) in Node.js. Node comes installed on Macs but needs to be installed on Windows, and once it’s installed you can run it in your command line. You’ll need to know how to work with a NPM and the Unix terminal, but otherwise it doesn’t require you to do any Node programming.