Creating Color Themes With Custom Properties, HSL, and a Little calc()

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Dieter Raber on

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Before the advent of CSS custom properties (we might call them “variables” in this article as that’s the spirit of them), implementing multiple color schemes on the same website usually meant writing separate stylesheets. Definitely not the most maintainable thing in the world. Nowadays, though, we can define variables in a single stylesheet and let CSS do the magic.

Even if you aren’t offering something like user-generated or user-chosen color themes, you might still use the concept of theming on your website. For example, it is fairly common to use different colors themes across different areas of the site.

We’re going to build out an example like this:

Same layout, different colors.

In this example, all that changes between sections is the color hue; the variations in lightness are always the same. Here’s an example of a simplified color palette for a specific hue:

A palette of multiple hues might look something like this:

This would take effort to do with RGB color value, but in HSL only one value changes.

Enter custom properties

Custom properties have been around for a while and are widely supported. Polyfills and other solutions for IE 11 are also available.

The syntax is very similar to traditional CSS. Here is an overview of the basic usage:

It’s common to see variables defined on the :root pseudo-element, which is always <html> in HTML, but with higher specificity. That said, variables can be defined on any element which is useful for scoping specific variables to specific elements. For example, here are variables defined on data attributes:

Adding calc() to the mix

Variables don’t have to be fixed values. We can leverage the power of the calc() function to automatically calculate values for us while adhering to a uniform pattern:

Since CSS doesn’t support loops, a preprocessor would be handy to generate a part of the code. But remember: CSS variables are not the same as Sass variables.

Implementing CSS variables

What we’re basically trying to do is change the color of the same component on different sections of the same page. Like this:

We have three sections in tabs with their own IDs: #food, #lifestyle, and #travel. Each section corresponds to a different hue. The  data-theme-attribute on the div.wrapper element defines which hue is currently in use.

When #travel is the active tab, we’re using the --first-hue variable, which has a value of 180°. That is what gets used as the --hue value on the section, resulting in a teal color:

<div class="wrapper" data-theme="travel">
.wrapper[data-theme="travel"] {
  --hue: var(--first-hue);  /* = 180° = teal */

Clicking any of the tabs updates the data-theme attribute to the ID of the section, while removing the hash (#) from it. This takes a smidge of JavaScript. That’s one of the (many) nice things about CSS: they can be accessed and manipulated with JavaScript. This is a far cry from preprocessor variables, which compile into values at the build stage and are no longer accessible in the DOM.

<li><a href="#food">Food</a></li>
const wrapper = document.querySelector('.wrapper');
document.querySelector("nav").addEventListener('click', e => {
  // Get theme name from URL and ditch the hash
  wrapper.dataset.theme ='href').substr(1);

Progressive enhancement

When we use JavaScript, we should be mindful of scenarios where a user may have disabled it. Otherwise, our scripts — and our UI by extension — are inaccessible. This snippet ensures that the site content is still accessible, even in those situations:

document.querySelectorAll('section').forEach((section, i) => {
  if (i) { // hide all but the first section = 'none';

This merely allows the tabs to scroll up the page to the corresponding section. Sure, theming is gone, but providing content is much more important.

While I chose to go with a single-page approach, it’s also possible to serve the sections as separate pages and set [data-theme] on the server side. 

Another approach

So far, we’ve assumed that color values change linearly and are thus subject to a mathematical approach. But even in situations where this is only partially true, we may still be able to benefit from the same concept. For instance, if lightness follows a pattern but hue doesn’t, we could split up the stylesheet like this:

    :root {
      --hue: 260;
  <link rel="stylesheet" href="stylesheet-with-calculations-based-on-any-hue.css">

Supporting web components

Web components are an exciting (and evolving) concept. It’s enticing to think we can have encapsulated components that can be reused anywhere and theme them on a case-by-case basis. One component with many contexts!

We can use CSS variable theming with web components. It requires us to use a host-context() pseudo-selector. (Thanks to habemuscode for pointing this out to me!)

:host-context(body[data-theme="color-1"]) {
  --shade-1: var(--outsideHSL);

In summary…

Theming a website with CSS custom properties is much easier than the workaround approaches we’ve resorted to in the past. It’s more maintainable (one stylesheet), performant (less code), and opens up new possibilities (using JavaScript). Not to mention, CSS custom properties become even more powerful when they’re used with HSL colors and the calc() function.

We just looked at one example where we can change the color theme of a component based on the section where it is used. But again, there is much more opportunity here when we start to get into things like letting users change themes themselves – a topic that Chris explores in this article.