coding character sheets

CSS Custom Properties

Paul Stefko
May 8, 2022
We look at a flexible and powerful feature of modern CSS that lets you write cleaner code and do some really sophisticated styling.
Tagscss html
📕 5 min.

There is a powerful feature in CSS that essentially lets you define variables just like in JavaScript: custom properties. In CSS, a custom property is a user-defined property that holds a value that can be reused elsewhere in your stylesheet. Custom properties leverage the power of the cascade to let you alter the value within different scopes without affecting it elsewhere on your page.

Let's take a look at how you use custom properties and give a few examples of what you might do with them.

Setting Properties

You create a custom property by giving it a name starting with two dashes --. Its value can be whatever string you want to reuse later. For example, a custom property for a color could take a value of a color keyword like red, a hex value like #FF0000, or any other valid color.

Let's say we want to define two colors to use throughout our site: a highlight color and a darker shadow. The following lines do that for a blue color palette:

--highlight: #29F;
--shadow: #259;

Anything using --highlight will be a brighter blue . And --shadow will be a darker, muted blue .

But remember: custom properties use the cascade just like anything else in CSS. That means you can redefine a custom property in a given element and the new value passes down to all of that element's children. If I want a value to apply to the entire page, I generally put the custom property in the :root pseudo-class so that it cascades down to everything else.

So, the following code...

:root {
--highlight: #29F;
--shadow: #259;
.contrast {
--highlight: #F92;
--shadow: #952;

...means that most of the page uses the blues we defined before. But any element with the contrast class will instead use orange and brown .

Calling Properties

Now that we've defined our custom properties, how do we use them? By calling the var() function inside other values. var() takes one argument, the name of a custom property, and may take an optional second argument, a default value. So the following code...

a {
color: var(--highlight);

...means that every link uses the value of --highlight for its text color. With our code above, that means most links are going to be blue , unless they are inside an element with the contrast class, in which case they'll be orange .

The optional default value is only used if the custom property isn't defined within the current scope. In some cases, you may want to define a custom property only in the scope where you need it, but you can still reference it in styles that do not always overlap.

For example, let's say we're using <dfn> elements to define game terms. In most of the text, we want these terms to use a basic darkgrey color . But in the section on creating characters, we want them to be goldenrod to match several other elements in that section. The following code does just that (leaving out whatever those other elements may be):

dfn {
color: var(--trait, darkgrey);
.characters {
--trait: goldenrod;

It's even possible to call var() inside another var() function. For example, in the above code, you could have <dfn> elements default to --highlight instead of darkgrey:

dfn {
color: var(--trait, var(--highlight));


Here's a specific use case for custom properties that you should be able to extrapolate into a more general design style. Let's build a background gradient using utility classes.

A utility class is a CSS class that typically imparts a single stylistic rule and can be combined safely with other classes. Rather than defining a single class for an element with many different styles in it, you could build up an element's styles from multiple utility classes.

When you combine the idea of utility classes with custom properties, you can build up sophisticated design patterns very quickly. This example is inspired by the Tailwind design system, which I am fond of and use for this site.

We've talked about background gradients before. Normally, one would build a bespoke gradient for a specific element. But with utility classes, we can compose one almost like writing a sentence. We start with a bg-gradient class. (CSS is generally cool with line breaks, so I added them for readability.)

.bg-gradient {
var(--gradient-direction,to right),

Here, each of the three arguments for linear-gradient() is a var() function calling a custom property. Each also includes a default value, because linear-gradient() doesn't really work if any of the values is left out.

We define those custom properties in a number of additional utility classes. We need one or more from-{color} classes, one or more to-{color} classes, and some number of to-{direction} classes. That looks something like:

.to-bottom-right {
--gradient-direction: to bottom right;

.from-blue {
--from-color: blue;

.to-red {
--to-color: red;

.to-green {
--to-color: green;

With all of these utilities, you could build this...

<div class="bg-gradient from-blue to-red"></div>
<div class="bg-gradient to-bottom-right to-green"></div>

...which looks like this (with the addition of height and width):


Custom properties let you create cleaner, more elegant CSS code, and they can help you solve some sticky problems. While entirely optional, they are worth the time it takes to learn their particular ins and outs. Give them a try!