Theming Styled Components in 2019

CSS-in-JS is on the rise! So far Styled Components is leading this movement. This CSS-in-JS library lets you use the best bits of ES6 and CSS to style your apps. I have been using styled-components on various projects at 2 different jobs for about a year now. In this post, I will go over the theming approaches I have seen, and new libraries that came out as recently as June 2019. I will go over what styled-components are and 5 different ways to make them more re-usable and customizable.

Styled Components basics

In Styled Components there are 2 ways to apply CSS to HTML elements:

// Either const BrandLink = styled.a` color: palevioletred; ` // Or const BrandLink = styled('a')` color: palevioletred; `

This is a BrandLink React component which renders an <a> tag with pale violet-red text.

If I want to have another component that has the underline removed I can do this:

const NavLink = styled(BrandLink)` text-decoration: none; `

And that's pretty much all you need to know to get started with styled-components.

Styled Components theming

The recommended theming approach is pretty simple. There is a ThemeProvider component that takes any javascript object and injects it as a prop into all styled components.

import { ThemeProvider } from 'styled-components' const theme = {primary: "mediumseagreen"}<ThemeProvider theme={theme}> <BrandLink href="#"> Themed </BrandLink> </ThemeProvider>

Now you can get mediumseagreen by accessing props.theme.primary like so:

const BrandLink = styled.a` color: ${props => props.theme.primary}; `;
<!-- However, you probably want to style all states of the anchor tag, and in this case, styling may be a bit repetitive: ```js const BrandLink = styled.a` color: ${props => props.theme.primary}; :link {color: ${props => props.theme.primary2}}:visited {color: ${props => props.theme.primary3}}:hover {color: ${props => props.theme.primary4}}:active {color: ${props => props.theme.primary5}}`; ``` -->

If you want your component to work without a ThemeProvider, you need to provide a default theme in React's defaultProps:

BrandLink.defaultProps = {theme: {primary: "palevioletred"}}

Alternatively, you can avoid using ThemeProvider altogether:

import theme from 'theme'; const BrandLink = styled.a` color: ${theme.primary}; `;

This is easier to write because it's shorter and the chances are that autocomplete for theme properties is better. But then changing this theme in runtime becomes a challenge. You can, however, start with this and do a global replace for theme. to props => props.theme. later 😉 when you actually need a dynamic theme.

Styled System

Styled System solves 3 problems I faced in styled-components.

  1. Writing ${props => props.theme.primary} all the time is kind of a drag
  2. Lack of conventions around theme object struction (take a look at System UI)
  3. Exposing styling-related props
import styled from 'styled-components' import {color} from 'styled-system' const BrandLink = styled.a` ${color}`; BrandLink.defaultProps = {color: 'primary'}

The ${color} part adds 2 props to BrandLink

  1. color same as the CSS property, but it maps to theme.colors
  2. bg which is short for background and it also maps to theme.colors

To consume this component wrap your app into a regular ThemeProvider and pass it a theme that has a colors property.

import { ThemeProvider } from 'styled-components' const theme = {colors: {primary: "mediumseagreen", external: "blue"}}<ThemeProvider theme={theme}> <BrandLink>Themed</BrandLink> <BrandLink color="external"> Link of another color </BrandLink> </ThemeProvider>

Truth be told, after using styled-system for awhile, I no longer like to mix style-related props with other props. But this does speed up development significantly.

In addition to that Styled Components v4 made it difficult to extend defaultProps. So const NavLink = styled(BrandLink)... may not actually work as you think should.


Xstyled solves the ${props => props.theme.primary} verbosity problem in a different way:

import styled from '@xstyled/styled-components' const BrandLink = styled.a` color: primary; `;

Where primary automatically resolves to theme.colors.primary. Nice!

While this project has got a lot of positive feedback, it's very new and there is a lot of room for improvement. In particular, there is one Pull Request that proposes to use a $ character as an indicator for variables, SASS style. This would come in useful in ambiguous situations such as margin: 2;, where it's not clear whether this is going to resolve to 2px or

It's interesting that Xstyled started out as a PR to Styled System, but it grew into something more.

Theme UI

Not very long after Xstyled came out, Brent Jackson showed the world Theme UI.

It's a theming solution for React apps built with MDX + Emotion + Styled System + Typography.js. Keep in mind that Styled Components are very similar to Emotion, which is why I'm including Theme UI in this post.

import { ThemeProvider, Styled } from 'theme-ui' const theme = {colors: {primary: "palevioletred"}, styles: {a: {color: 'primary'}}}const BrandLink = Styled.a export default props => <ThemeProvider theme={theme}> <BrandLink href="#">Hello</BrandLink> </ThemeProvider>

The Key differentiation to me is the integration with MDX, a markdown flavor with support for jsx. This is great! I've considered using MDX on my blog, and at the time I thought it might be an overkill. But now I need global CSS to style links in my posts. With Theme UI my content would automatically pick up styling from the theme.

CSS variables

Last but not least, you can always use CSS variables. People like to make fun of the #useThePlatform movement, but I think in this case it's a very reasonable option. The browser support is very much here. This is the most truly dynamic theming approach. You can change variables using media queries, including prefers-color-scheme. Meaning, supporting dark mode is super easy, no js required.

Anyway, here is the same example of a BrandLink:

:root {--primary-color: palevioletred;}

Note, that for CSS variables you don't need a ThemeProvider, the theme can be scoped using HTML/CSS scoping mechanisms.

import styled from 'styled-components' const BrandLink = styled.a` color: var(--primary-color); `;

I would love to see an initiative similar to System UI but based on CSS variables. How amazing would it be, if there was Stylish but based on CSS variables? Super amazing 🤔


I hope you found this review useful and maybe even learned a thing or two. Let me know if there is a theming approach for styled components that escaped my radar. I'm very excited about the future of frontend, and I'm looking forward to CSS-in-JS taking over the world and whatever comes next.

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