Herman Starikov

Web Developer @ Coursera

Atomic-layout vs styled-system

Published on April 21, 2019.

Edited on May 5, 2019.

This post was originally published on GitHub.

Atomic layout

I have recently refactored my website from Rebass Flex-based layouts to atomic-layout and then to styled-system. Why did I do it? I'm new to CSS grid, but I have heard good things about it. And I've been following Kettanaito for a while now, he is working on atomic-layout for about a year. I always wanted to try building something with atomic-layout, but the opportunity did not present itself until I decided to rebuild my website.

Overall, I'm glad I started my CSS grid journey from atomic-layout. This library has great docs powered by Gitbook, another project I admire and have actually contributed to. The docs start with the motivation section, where Kettanaito outlines the core principals of composition and responsiveness in atomic-layout. And that makes sense, but in retrospective, I think the #1 motivation was different for me.

CSS grid helps me to avoid adding margins all over the place. Just think about it, if you are a frontend developer, how often do you wonder if you should add a bottom margin to this component, or a top margin to the next one. What about the last component in the list, will it have a margin too? Or do you need to do the index !== array.length - 1 && ... dance.

My absolutely favorite thing about atomic-layout is that it does not render components that are not in the current template. When I say "current template", I refer to the responsive nature of atomic-layout and how you can have different templates for different viewport sizes. This is great. On my website I 3 main sections: my bio, my external links, and my pinned GitHub projects. All three sections fit very nicely onto a desktop size screen. However, on mobile, I decided to separate them into individual pages and separate layouts. With atomic-layout I can reuse the children function that renders all the components but uses different templates for different mobile pages that show subsets of those components.

Now, regarding things that I don't quite like about atomic-layout. The number one would probably be the children function that Composition takes, which in turn takes an object of grid-area wrappers. I see why the author has done it this way because render-props are cool and this why you don't have to worry about grid-area. But I found myself in constant need to come up with names for these wrappers. And I know I'm not alone in that naming things is difficult.

Another thing that could be better about atomic-layout is the API. It seems too new for me. And I don't like that it does not map to the actual CSS property names. I'm sure every frontend developer who has worked with Bootstrap-type grids can figure out what a gutter is, but the CSS grid term for that is grid-gap and I think the CSS Working Group would like us to adopt the new terminology moving forward.

Styled system

When I was integrating atomic-layout onto my website I browsed the GitHub page of the project quite a lot. And found this issue, which I found curious. I'm a big fan of styled-system. My website is built with it. And funny enough at first I was upset that atomic-layout does not automatically integrate with my breakpoints from styled-system. I never thought of styled-system as a competitor for atomic-layout. Mainly because I use Rebass and it does not have a grid component, so I assumed that the grid is out of styled-systems's domain, but turns out it's not. It turns out I can implement my own grid component, very similar to atomic-layout, in just about 30 lines of code:

import styled from 'styled-components';
import {
} from 'styled-system';

const Grid = styled.div`
display: grid;

export default Grid;

If you are not familiar with styled-system, what we have here is a bunch of "mixins" if you will, that expose certain react props relevant to the CSS grid APIs. Note that I added space for padding only, because who needs margins anymore? And display is for hiding elements that are not in the current template. This part I'm not quite happy about, but this is the best I could think of for now.

- const repoTemplate = `
- emoji title
- emoji description
- emoji links

The new Grid requires templates in a slightly different format: the double quotes are required. But on the flip side, the template is no longer space sensitive and can be inlined into props.

- <Composition 
- template={repoTemplate}
- gutter={theme.space[4]}
- >
- {({Emoji, Title, Description, Links}) => (
- <>
- <Emoji as={Repo.Emoji}>
- {repo.description.substr(0, 2)}
- </Emoji>
+ <Grid
+ gridTemplateAreas={`
+ "emoji title"
+ "emoji description"
+ "emoji links"
+ `}
+ gridGap={4}
+ >
+ <Emoji gridArea="emoji">
+ {repo.description.substr(0, 2)}
+ </Emoji>

As you can see here, that API is a little different, but not too much. The template became gridTemplateAreas, the gutter turned into gridGap. And there are no more wrapper components so I need to add gridArea from styled-system as you can see below, but on the other hand, I don't need to namespace the Emoji component anymore.

- Repo.Emoji = styled.p`
+ const Emoji = styled.p`
+ ${gridArea}

And to give you another example, here is a dynamic grid of repos you can see on my website.

- {({Repos, More, TotalStars, Bio}) => (
- <Repos>
- <Composition
- autoRows
- areas="area"
- areasLg="area area"
- areasXl="area area area"
- gutter={theme.space[4]}
- gutterLg={theme.space[5]}
- >
- {() =>
- pinnedRepoTrail.map(({x, ...rest}, index) => {
+ <Grid
+ gridAutoRows
+ gridArea="repos"
+ gridTemplateAreas={[
+ '"area"',
+ '"area"',
+ '"area area"',
+ '"area area area"'
+ ]}
+ gridGap={{sm: 4, lg: 5}}
+ >
+ {pinnedRepoTrail.map(({x, ...rest}, index) => {


This concludes my comparison. I think both approaches are very worthy, and the main difference between them is naming conventions that the two libraries adopt. Personally, I'm going to stick with styled-system, because its naming feels more standardized to me. And I like how all styled-system props are universally responsive.

Overall I'm very happy with the CSS grid, and I hope to use it more in the future.

More from the Blog

Read a File in Create React App

October 29, 2019

How to use preval.macro to read any file in CRA

Theming Styled Components in 2019 (Part 2)

June 14, 2019

What are the options to make your styled-components more flexible

Theming Styled Components in 2019

June 14, 2019

What are the options to make your styled-components more flexible

Gatsby Blog for a Developer

May 31, 2019

What gatsby plugins I used for my blog.