CSS Style Guide


Just so we all know what we’re talking about, a CSS rule comprises one or more selectors followed by a declaration block consisting of one or more declarations. A declaration comprises a property and a value (some properties accept multiple values).

A rule in CSS looks like:

selector {
    property: value;

The basics (tl;dr)

  • Multi-line rules, not single line.
  • Spaces, not tabs.
  • Four space indentation.
  • Order declarations alphabetically (with some exceptions).
  • Use the simplest, least specific selector possible.
  • Make meaningful names, not presentational.
  • All lowercase for classes and IDs, no camelCase.
  • Separate words in classes and IDs with hyphens, not underscores.
  • ID selectors are allowed but use them sparingly and appropriately.
  • Don’t use !important.
  • You can use pixels for font-size, but you don’t have to.
  • Use unitless line-height.
  • Group related rules into sections.
  • Order sections and rules from general to specific.
  • Use Stylus but write it like plain CSS.

General guidelines

If a length value is 0, do not specify units; 0px and 0in are exactly equal because zero is zero.

Omit leading zeroes in decimal units, e.g. .75em, not 0.75em.

When using experimental properties with vendor prefixes, always include the unprefixed declaration as well, and always last in the list. An exception would be a strictly vendor-specific property with no standard implementation, like -webkit-font-smoothing.

When declaring gradient backgrounds, you don’t need to include the old Webkit syntax unless, for some reason, you need to target old versions of Safari.

Practice progressive enhancement! Include solid fallback colors for old browsers that don’t support rgba() or gradients:

.widget {
    background: #ccc;
    background: linear-gradient(rgba(155, 155, 155, .25), rgba(155, 155, 155, .5));

Hiding content

Consider screen readers when hiding content. Screen readers will not read content that is display: none; or visibility: hidden;. Hiding something visually but not from screen readers requires a bit more CSS. Be conscientious when choosing your hiding technique.

Simple selectors

Use the least specific selector required to do the job.

Favor classes over IDs.

IDs aren’t forbidden, but reserve them for either major blocks (site header, main nav, etc) or very specific singletons that are truly unique. Hanging styles from ID selectors can lead to specificity wars requiring ever more powerful selectors to override previous styling.

Avoid qualifying class names with type selectors. E.g. .widget is better than div.widget.

Avoid adjoining classes unless there’s a good reason to do it.

Sometimes different elements share a class but have an additional modifier class that extends the meaning and changes the styling. E.g. .message.error and .message.success. You could simply take advantage of the cascade order and declare the .error and .success classes after the .message class, but you can’t always ensure classes will be kept in the proper cascade order (rules get moved around as style sheets are refactored, or they appear in different style sheets imported at different points, etc). In those cases you might prefer to create a single, more explicit modifier class rather than rely on adjoined classes, e.g. .message-error and .message-success.

However, don’t try to CLASS ALL THE THINGS by creating a unique class for every single element just for an easy style hook, or by creating oodles of generic classes to apply fine-grained styling at the expense of requiring a string of classes on each element in the markup.


/* Too specific */
.module-news-title-main {
    font-family: 'League Gothic', sans-serif;

.module-news-title-sub {
    font-family: Georgia, serif;

/* Too generic (and presentational) */
.size20 {
    font-size: 20px;

.size16 {
    font-size: 16px;

It’s usually better to style elements based on their context than to try to make every possible style rule free-standing and every element 100% reusable in any context on any page. Use descendant selectors judiciously but keep them simple.


.module-news h2 {
    font: 20px 'League Gothic', sans-serif;

.module-news h3 {
    font: 16px Georgia, serif;

Avoid !important in CSS unless absolutely necessary, which it almost never is.

Some off-the-shelf frameworks/libraries/plugins include !important styles of their own that you might have to override with another !important style, or they write out inline styling into the DOM that you have to override in a style sheet with !important. (One could consider these transgressions to be warning signs of a poorly made framework/library/plugin and you might want to seek better options that don’t force you to junk up your CSS.)

Fonts and typography

It’s alright to use pixels for font-size.

For many years CSS authors eschewed pixels and favored relative units for font sizing because IE 5 and 6 couldn’t scale text set in absolute units (like px). All modern browsers can scale text in any unit (or zoom the entire page) so this is no longer a driving concern, unless you’re catering to versions of IE from the previous century.

There are times when it’s better to use relative font-size units like em`s or percentages. You may have a bit of text that should be sized proportionally to a parent element whose font size is unknown. Some responsive designs call for globally resizing text in different layouts (e.g. globally bigger text for mobile), in which case it’s simpler to change a single base size on a parent than to re-declare the absolute ``font-size` of each element.

Just remember that relative font sizes inherit and cascade so you can end up with magic numbers like .6875em. The rem unit (root em) can avoid the cascade problems, but older browsers don’t support rems and IE9 and 10 don’t support them in shorthand font declarations (fixed in IE11). It’s always something.

If you use rem``s for font sizing, include a ``px or other fallback for older browsers.

Use unit-less line-height. It doesn’t inherit a percentage value of its parent element, but instead is based on a multiplier of the font-size, whatever that may be. E.g. line-height: 1.4; or in a shorthand font property: font: 14px/1.4 sans-serif;. Don’t use an absolute unit like px for line-height; it creates more problems than it solves.

Use “bulletproof font syntax” for webfonts. You usually don’t need to include SVG font files unless your project needs to target older versions of WebKit. For modern browsers, TTF + WOFF is sufficient, as well as EOT for older versions of IE (which may also be optional, depending on your target audience). Example:

@font-face {
    font-family: 'Open Sans';
    font-style: normal;
    font-weight: normal;
    src: url(/media/fonts/OpenSans-Bold-webfont.eot?#iefix) format('embedded-opentype'),
         url(/media/fonts/OpenSans-Bold-webfont.woff) format('woff'),
         url(/media/fonts/OpenSans-Bold-webfont.ttf) format('truetype');

Formatting CSS

When a rule has a group of selectors separated by commas, place each selector on its own line.

The opening brace ({) of a rule’s declaration block should be on the same line as the selector (or the same line as the last selector in a group of selectors).

Use a single space before the opening brace ({) in a rule, after the last selector.

Put each declaration on its own line.

Indent the declaration block one level relative to its selector.

Use a colon (:) immediately after the property name, followed by a single space, then the value.

Terminate each declaration with a semicolon (;), including the last declaration in a block.

Put the closing brace (}) on its own line, aligned with the rule’s selector.:

.selector-2 {
    property: value;
    property: value;

.selector-3 {
    property: value;

When you have a block of related rules, each with one or two declarations, you can use a single-line format without any blank lines between rules. It makes the block of related rules a bit easier to scan. In this case include a single space after the opening brace and before the closing brace. Add spaces after the selector to align the values.:

.message-success { color: #080; }
.message-error   { color: #ff0; }
.message-notice  { color: #00f; }


@keyframes bounce {
    0%   { bottom: 300px; }
    25%  { bottom: 30px; }
    50%  { bottom: 100px; }
    100% { bottom: 30px; }

When possible, limit line lengths to 80 characters. This improves readability, minimizes horizontal scrolling, makes it possible to view files side by side, and produces more useful diffs with meaningful line numbers. There will be exceptions such as long URLs or gradient syntax but most rules in CSS should fit well within 80 characters even with indentation.

Long, comma-separated property values – such as multiple background images, gradients, transforms, transitions, webfonts, or text and box shadows – can be arranged across multiple lines (indented one level from their property).:

.selector {
        linear-gradient(#fff, #ccc),
        linear-gradient(#f3c, #4ec);
        1px 1px 1px #000,
        2px 2px 1px 1px #ccc inset;
        border-color .5s ease-in,
        opacity .1s ease-in;

For vendor prefixed properties, use spaces to align the values, keeping the property names left-aligned as usual:

.selector {
    -webkit-box-shadow: 1px 2px 0 #ccc;
    -moz-box-shadow:    1px 2px 0 #ccc;
    -ms-box-shadow:     1px 2px 0 #ccc;
    -o-box-shadow:      1px 2px 0 #ccc;
    box-shadow:         1px 2px 0 #ccc;

Or, when the value has the prefix:

.selector {
    background: -webkit-linear-gradient(to bottom, #fff, #000);
    background:    -moz-linear-gradient(to bottom, #fff, #000);
    background:     -ms-linear-gradient(to bottom, #fff, #000);
    background:      -o-linear-gradient(to bottom, #fff, #000);
    background:         linear-gradient(to bottom, #fff, #000);

Also notice this implies a specific order for vendor prefixes from longest to shortest, mostly just for readability and consistency. It’s convenient that the unprefixed version, which always appears last, is shortest by default.


Use spaces (or soft-tabs) with a four space indent. Never use tabs.

Eliminate trailing whitespace at the end of lines. Blank lines should have no spaces.

Include one blank line between rules.

Include a single blank line at the end of files.

Property ordering

Order declarations alphabetically by property name (from A to Z), with a few exceptions:

  • Keep vendor prefixed properties together and ordered by length, with the unprefixed property last (see the earlier example).
  • Keep positioning properties together, namely position, top, right, bottom, left, and z-index.
  • You can optionally keep width and height together if you’re declaring both.
  • You can optionally keep some type-related properties together when that’s sensible, such as font-size, text-transform, and letter-spacing.

Many developers settle into their own system for ordering declarations based on relevance, logical groupings, line length, or just semi-random as they’re added. Although alphabetical ordering can defy any other logical ordering – adjacent properties may have nothing in common while closely related properties can be spread far apart – at least there’s no ambiguity about the alphabet and it’s easy to enforce the guideline across a team.

After all that, it’s actually pretty rare for a single rule to hold so many declarations that ordering becomes too much of a hassle. When in doubt, alphabetize.

Naming conventions

Names should be semantically meaningful, descriptive of the element’s content, purpose, or function, not its presentation.

Bad: .big-blue-button, .right-column, .small
Good: .button-submit, .content-sub, .field-note

Many CSS frameworks, such as Twitter’s Bootstrap and Zurb’s Foundation, define a lot of presentational classes for things like column widths, font sizes, and button styles. If you’re using such a framework, you can use those classes as mixins in a preprocessed style sheet, rather than littering markup with presentational names.


<div class="author-bio col-md-3 col-md-offset-2">


.author-bio {


For very large and complex sites, excessively repeating common declarations can lead to a lot of redundancy and CSS bloat. In those cases you can get better performance with some presentational classes if it leads to a significantly lighter style sheet. E.g. it can speed up a site considerably to specify column widths with a class in a few dozen HTML templates than to repeat the same width, float, and margin declarations a thousand times in CSS. We don’t have many sites operating on the kind of scale that warrants that approach, but there are always exceptions.

Names should be as short as possible and as long as necessary. Clarity is key. E.g. .prime-nav is better than .primary-navigation, but .article-author is better than .art-auth.

Avoid overly abstract names that require a cheat sheet to understand.

Bad: .color12, .r2-c6, .v

Names should be all lower case, no camelcase.

Bad: .badClassName, Better: .betterclassname

Separate words with hyphens, not underscores.

Bad: .bad_class_name, Best: .best-class-name

Use US English spellings (sorry, rest of the world). CSS itself follows US English so it’s inconsistent to mix standard spellings like color: #000; with classes like .colour-picker.

Style sheet organization

It’s hard to standardize on a particular structure for style sheets, especially when it comes to preprocessors and other tools that import and concatenate separate files. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to stick to some basic principles:

  • Group related rules into sections.
  • Give each section a title in a comment.
  • Order rules in a section from general to specific (remember the cascade).
  • Order sections in a style sheet from general to specific.
  • Add three blank lines between the last rule in a section and the next section’s title (clear separation between sections makes scanning easier).

A typical style sheet might be structured from top to bottom like so (only an example):

  1. A preamble comment with a table of contents and other info.
  2. Fonts (webfonts need to be declared first so you can reference them further down the cascade).
  3. Reset (global resets should be first so you can override them later).
  4. Base elements (no IDs or classes here, just general elements like links, headings, lists, forms).
  5. Base layout (setting up the general page layout for the entire site, arranging basic blocks like a global header, global footer, main content areas and sidebars).
  6. Global components/modules (general purpose widgets that will be reused like button links, a sidebar menu, pagination, breadcrumbs, footnotes, a search form, error messages).
  7. Specific page layout (pages that deviate from the base layout and need more more specific styling, like a home page, contact page, gallery page).
  8. Specific components/modules (less generic, self-contained widgets that need more specific styling like a download button, a contact form, or a carousel).

Many (most) websites end up with a few one-off pages or subsets of pages that require more specific styling, rules used only on those pages and nowhere else. To avoid dumping everything into a single ever-expanding CSS file, it’s usually best practice to split it into separate style sheets and combine them server-side so each page gets just the rules it needs.

For responsive layouts, collect all the rules for a given medium/viewport into a single media query rather than repeat the same media query several times throughout a style sheet.


All of the above guidelines (those relating to formatting and organization, at least) apply equally to vanilla CSS and to style sheets authored for a preprocessor. Here are some additional guidelines specific to preprocessors:

Keep nesting simple

Nested rules in pre-processed CSS turn into descendant selectors in the generated style sheet. The deeper the nesting, the more complex and specific the selector will be. Don’t nest rules unless necessary for context and specificity, and don’t nest rules just to group them together (use sectioning comments for grouping).

All the declarations for the parent element should come before the nested rules. Include a blank line before each nested rule to separate it from the rule or declaration above it.

Really Bad:

.wrapper {
    #sidebar {
        .modules {
            .module-news {
                background: #ccc;
                h2 {
                    font-size: 18px;
                padding: 10px;
        width: 320px;
        float: right;


.module-news {
    background: #ccc;
    padding: 10px;

    h2 {
        font-size: 18px;

Try to limit nesting to one or two levels. If you find yourself nesting rules deeper than three levels, you probably need to reconsider your approach.

If you wouldn’t need to use a descendent selector in vanilla CSS, you probably don’t need to nest it in a pre-processed style sheet.

/* Unnecessary nesting; the nested class doesn't need the specificity */
.module {
    background: #ccc;
    padding: 10px;

    .module-title {
        font-size: 18px;

/* Two rules for two elements */
.module {
    background: #ccc;
    padding: 10px;

.module-title {
    font-size: 18px;

If the parent rule has no declarations, nesting isn’t necessary at all. If you need the specificity, use an ordinary descendant selector.

/* Especially unnecessary nesting */
.breadcrumbs {
    ul {
        li {
            display: inline;
            list-style: none;

/* Better */
.breadcrumbs ul li {
    display: inline;
    list-style: none;

/* Best */
.breadcrumbs li {
    display: inline;
    list-style: none;

LESS vs. Stylus

Many current and past Mozilla websites use LESS as a CSS preprocessor. However, LESS appeared to be stagnating for a time and some projects moved toward Stylus as an emerging contender under more active development (and also because Stylus has some extra features and shares some traits with Python). LESS has since resumed more active development, but in an effort to standardize across Mozilla webdev, we’re making the call: it’s Stylus for us.

New Mozilla webdev projects should use Stylus for CSS preprocessing (or stick with vanilla CSS). Sites currently using LESS should work toward converting to Stylus as soon as practically feasible (tools can help). LESS isn’t forbidden, but prefer Stylus if you have a choice.

A Few Words About Stylus

On the Stylus website, right at the top of the home page, the creators crow a lot about how all these required CSS syntax bits, like braces and colons and semicolons, are optional in Stylus, as if they’re a great annoyance that we’ve all been clamoring to abolish for years.

Well, Stylus still generates ordinary CSS in the end, and inserts all those optional doodads on your behalf anyway because they’re still required in CSS. Just because Stylus makes them optional doesn’t mean we should omit them, especially if they make style sheets easier to read. For the sake of readability and smoother collaboration, we should try to make CSS look like CSS.

Format your Stylus-flavored pre-processed files as if you were formatting vanilla CSS. Do use mixins, variables, functions, etc. and take advantage of all the flexible goodness Stylus offers, but it should still read like a CSS document.

  • Use CSS syntax (Stylus allows it).
  • Include colons, semi-colons, and braces.
  • Identify variables with a dollar sign ($). It’s optional in Stylus but makes variables easier to spot by humans.

Bad (though valid in Stylus):

    background light-background
        font-size h-medium

Good (and still valid in Stylus):

.module {
    background: $light-background;
    h2 {
        font-size: $h-medium;

A Note on Sass/SCSS/Compass

Very few (if any?) Mozilla projects use Sass because it requires Ruby. While Sass is a fine tool, and can be awesome in combination with Compass, adding Ruby to our dev stack is a bridge too far. Sorry Rubyists; we’re a Python shop.

Even so, all the same formatting and organizational guidelines can apply just as well to Sass/SCSS. Live long and prosper.


Validate your CSS with the W3C’s online tool or equivalent.

Validation tools may report errors or give warnings for vendor prefixes, as they should. It’s something to be mindful of but it’s perfectly fine to use prefixed properties if you’re doing it right.

Validation warnings are very different from validation errors. You should take warnings under consideration and address them if needed, but errors are real problems that you need to fix.

If you’re using a preprocessor you’ll obviously only be able to validate the generated plain CSS, which can make it harder to track down where the errors appear in the source files. A well organized style sheet can ease the pain.

A Note on CSS Lint

CSS Lint is a useful tool and we recommend it, but take its results with a grain of salt. Many of Lint’s rules are phrased like absolute edicts when they’re more like soft warnings of things to be mindful of (e.g. “Don’t use too many floats”). Lint also forbids some things we expressly allow in our own guidelines (e.g. “Don’t use ID selectors”). If your file gets a slew of warnings from CSS Lint that doesn’t mean it’s bad, just be able to justify your decisions.

This shortcut to CSS Lint disables some of the more stringent rules we don’t necessarily abide.


Q: [insert question]

A: It depends.