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Drupalcon Portland: Responsive web design in a snap with Breakpoint and Sass


Media queries are a key part of responsive web design, because they control at what width (among other things) different CSS rules kick in. Breakpoint makes them easy.

Media queries are a key part of responsive web design, because they control at what width (among other things) different CSS rules kick in.

Breakpoint makes writing media queries in Sass super simple,” say Mason Wendell and Sam Richard, creators of the extension to Compass, and they’re right. It’s not surprising that we’d want them to present at Drupalcon, since design in Drupal, like web design everywhere, has been embracing responsive web design as a fundamental principle. (Side note: This website is in the midst of a responsive web design overhaul. Cobbler’s children and all that.)

I spoke to Mason and Sam about how Breakpoint makes responsive web design even easier. Don’t miss their Drupalcon Portland frontend session, “Managing Responsive Web Design with Sass and Breakpoint,” on Thursday at 10:45 AM.

IB: What motivated you to create Breakpoint? How has it changed your own workflow?

MW: Before Sass 3.2 came out I had written an article for The Sass Way that previewed some of it’s new features, including the ability to use variables in media queries. I created an example that baked in some names for breakpoints into a kind of “master mixin” for media queries. On my next responsive project I put the theories I’d written for that post into practice, and found that I could refine that approach. If I assigned a variable to each media query first the approach would be very flexible. Then when noticed that I wrote min-width queries way more often than any other type I set up defaults that made creating media queries very fast.

MW: There was a side effect that I think is more useful though. By assigning names to each of my media queries I’m able to keep them in context in a much more effective way. If I some media queries to deal with the width of a nav element, and then later I add an item to that nav, I can change the value of that variable and all the associated queries are adjusted. This is even more effective when handing code back and forth within a team.

SR: Breakpoint was created with the motivation to ease many of the pain points of working with media queries in CSS. The biggest pain point that Breakpoint solves is providing meaningful semantics to your media queries. When building content based responsive sites, early in your design process two unrelated items may happen to break at the same points, but as your project grows, those points may change and a simple find and replace will have unintended consequences. This is probably the biggest workflow win to using Breakpoint, all of your media queries now have proper semantics.

SR: The other big win for my workflow is Breakpoint’s no-query fallback, allowing me to very easily add in fallback code for any of the media queries I write.

IB: What can Breakpoint do that just assigning variable names to specific min-widths can’t?

SR: For starters, Breakpoint handles much more than min-width queries. It is designed to be future friendly and currently supports all CSS level 3 and level 4 media queries. Additionally, it’s syntax is easy to use to create complex media queries, including both and and or media queries. It has native handling for all of the different media query requirement for resolution (of which you need to write at least four different queries for currently) while just writing the standard. The no-query fallbacks are a huge win as well.

MW: The main benefit is that you can assign names and manage your media queries with variables. This helps you avoid having them scattered around your SCSS, and makes is easy to understand how they’re related and affect each other.

MW: While Breakpoint is optimized for min-width because they’re used most often it doesn’t stop there. There are a number of shortcuts built in, for fencing min- and max- values, converting pixels to ems, and even vendor prefixed queries like resolution.

MW: We even created a way to Breakpoint to report back to you what queries are in a particular context. Singularity GS uses this feature to kind of magically create responsive grid systems.

SR: Of all of Breakpoint’s features, probably the least used, but most powerful is Breakpoint Context. This allows you to call a function anywhere and get the current media query context allowing for amazingly intelligent mixins and functions to be written in Sass, something unique to Breakpoint that you simply don’t have with interpolating variables.

IB: Are there any responsive web design aspects specific to Drupal theming/frontend development that Breakpoint helps with?

SR: There is nothing Drupal specific that Breakpoint helps with. Breakpoint, like Sass, was built to be backend independent. This means that if you are building any site, regardless of if it’s a Drupal site or a Node site or a static site, Breakpoint is able to do its job handily without being caught up in being tied to a specific backend technology.

MW: One of the things I love about working with Sass is that it’s not Drupal-specific, and it’s meant to be used anywhere on the web. Breakpoint follows that example.

IB: Is Breakpoint a successor to Respond-To, or will that continue to get developed?

SR: In a way, yes and no. Respond-To was written before Breakpoint, but upon Breakpoint’s release, it was decided that our efforts should be focused on a unified Media Query engine, with Respond-To as a wrapper syntax for Breakpoint. This is how the current Respond-To project exists. As of Breakpoint 2.0, the Respond-To mixin has been incorporated into Breakpoint core, so you now can use Respond-To without needing an additional Compass extension!

IB: Do you use Breakpoints module (in Drupal 8 core)? Or do you just do all of that through Sass?

SR: I personally truly dislike the Breakpoint module. Every use case I’ve heard for it seems to be based on the thinking that sites have three or four breakpoints and that everything can be boiled down into an easy to use admin interface. There are no standard breakpoints, period, and good, reasonably complex responsive sites will usually have 20 or more breakpoints. Responsive cannot be done from the backend, and the Breakpoint module encourages you to do so (as does the Spark layout initiative).

IB: Do you think any aspects of Breakpoint might get rolled directly into Sass in the future?

MW: It’s possible, but we probably won’t move the obvious parts to the Sass language. There are some helper functions that we’ve written in Ruby that would be very useful in Sass core. Once that’s in we’ll be able to offer Breakpoint without Compass.

SR: I do not believe Breakpoint will be rolled directly into Sass, nor would I want it to be, as it is out of scope of Sass core. As much as I like them, I even think the color functions in Sass are out of scope for it. Sass core should simply be the language and the bare minimum function base for it to be useable. Sass doesn’t ship with any mixins, and I think it should probably stay that way. That being said, Breakpoint is fairly stable; our 1.3 release stood stable for six or so months without needing any changes until we rewrote the whole thing for our 2.x release, so maybe being merged into Compass isn’t out of the question, but I do not see a need for that.

IB: I hear in addition to Breakpoint, Sam went and created some kind of magic box of Sass called Toolkit. Want to say more about that?

SR: Toolkit started life as RWD Kickstart, a project Mason and I kind of made up on the spot a year ago at one of the first New York Sass meetups. Its original goal was simply to be a collection of Compass templates to make pulling in media query and grid solutions together easily. Since then, it’s evolved to be more of a collection of Progressive Enhancement, Design in Browser, and Modern Web Development tools, a toolkit if you’ll let me, of useful tools. I’d say the four biggest thing that Toolkit has are a modern Clearfix mixin, progressive enhancement replace text mixins, a triangle generation mixin, and an intrinsic ratio mixin to make using intrinsic ratios super easy. It also adds *, *:before, *:after { box-sizing: border-box} and img, video { max-width: 100%; height: auto; } to your stylesheets, which are the first two things I do for any responsive project.

SR: Toolkit’s templates have also evolved, Where originally there were five some odd different templates to choose from, now there are just two, a basic one to set up a basic partial structure, and a responsive web design one that pulls in Breakpoint 2.x for media queries and Singularity 1.x for grids.

IB: You sure know those late twentieth-century presidents.

MW: With a name like Breakpoint, how could I not revisit the cinema classic Point Break. Bodhi and his gang of thrill-seeking bank-robbing surfers evaded the FBI for years until the newly minted Special Agent Johnny Utah was on the case. I think we can all agree that there’s a poignant metaphor for web designer there. And some pretty sweet GIFs.

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