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Understanding the blank theme of Magento 2

...or at least trying to!

Working on my first productive Magento 2 project I still struggle with the overly complex design of the new frontend framework. The concepts and structures involved are not neccessarily intuitive (at least to me), so I started strewing some breadcrumbs - hoping them to be of help guiding me (or you) through the forest.

So here we go...


LESS concepts to know

The definition of a variable can be placed after its assignment:

#selector { attribute: @foo; }
@foo: bar;

// Result:
#selector { attribute: bar };

The last assignment of a variable wins:

#selector { attribute: @foo; }
@foo: foo;
@foo: bar; // wins

@import "file" defaults to @import (once) "file":

@import 'foo.less';
@import 'bar.less';
@import 'foo.less'; // ignored
@import (multiple) 'foo.less'; // imported a 2nd time

The Magento 2 approach to mobile first

In its default themes Magento splits CSS into two main CSS files:

  1. styles-m.css (common and mobile related definitions)
  2. styles-l.css (desktop related definitions)

The desktop styles are loaded "on top" of the mobile ones and will only be effective above a certain breakpoint (defined in Layout XML and rendered in the HTML <head/> section.

Quick reminder: Fallback & Code generation in Magento 2

If a requested CSS file is not in it's place, Magento will look for a .less file with the same name and then trigger server side compilation (assuming developer mode is enabled).

We always want to compile our LESS to CSS via the provided grunt tasks, as it is much more perfomant.

While compiling, the Magento fallback system will be respected for requested LESS resources. See Magento 2 Developer Documentation for details.

Defining the "entry points" in Layout XML

In magento/vendor/magento/theme-frontend-blank/Magento_Theme/layout/default_head_blocks.xml the before mentioned CSS entry points are defined. Notice the media query for styles-l.css:

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<page xmlns:xsi="" xsi:noNamespaceSchemaLocation="urn:magento:framework:View/Layout/etc/page_configuration.xsd">
        <css src="css/styles-m.css"/>
        <css src="css/styles-l.css" media="screen and (min-width: 768px)"/>
        <css src="css/print.css" media="print"/>

This will be rendered to the following HTML in the pages <head/> section:

<link  rel="stylesheet" type="text/css"  media="all" href="<Vendor>/<theme>/<locale>/css/styles-m.css" />
<link  rel="stylesheet" type="text/css"  media="screen and (min-width: 768px)" href="<Vendor>/<theme>/<locale>/css/styles-l.css" />

Scaffolding common and mobile styles

In magento/vendor/magento/theme-frontend-blank/web/css/styles-m.less a lot of things happen, so we will analyze it step by step. Its structure may be a little confusing, as the sequence of imports and variable assignments is not absolutely intuitive. One has to follow each @import statement and draw a map to get an overview - and keep in mind, that, like stated above, in LESS the assignment/use of a variable can happen before the actual definition. You can find a complete, merged, gist of the file here.)

@import 'source/_reset.less'; // Imports: magento/vendor/magento/theme-frontend-blank/web/css/source/_reset.less

    // Resolves to:
    & when (@media-common = true) {  // @media-common defined in: magento/lib/web/css/source/lib/_responsive.less
        .lib-magento-reset(); // defined in: magento/lib/web/css/source/lib/_resets.less

The above executes the .lib-magento-reset() Mixin, which basically returns a buch of plain CSS to render at the very beginning. Notice: Both the variable and the mixin are defined in the base lib and are not imported yet.

@import '_styles.less'; // Imports magento/vendor/magento/theme-frontend-blank/web/css/_styles.less

    // Resolves to: 
    @import 'source/lib/_lib.less'; // Imports: magento/lib/web/css/source/lib/_lib.less
        @import '_actions-toolbar.less';
    @import 'source/_sources.less'; // Imports: magento/vendor/magento/theme-frontend-blank/web/css/source/_sources.less
        @import '_variables.less';
        @import (reference) '_extends.less';
    @import 'source/_components.less'; // Imports: magento/vendor/magento/theme-frontend-blank/web/css/source/_components.less
        @import 'components/_modals.less'; // Imports from lib: magento/lib/web/css/source/components/_modals.less
        @import 'components/_modals_extend.less'; // Imports from local: magento/vendor/magento/theme-frontend-blank/web/css/source/components/_modals_extend.less

(For readability the code listing is shortened. You can find a complete, merged, gist of the file here.)

Here it may become even a bit more confusing. First of all the actual base lib is included as fallback. Then most of them are overridden by local files from the blank theme. In addition _extends.lessis imported as reference, which seems to be some redundant - considering the following import:

// styles-m.less; line 18
@import (reference) 'source/_extends.less';

According to LESS behaviour, the second @importstatement would be ignored.

After that, some Magento 2 Magic happens:

//  Magento Import instructions
//  ---------------------------------------------
//@magento_import 'source/_module.less'; // Theme modules
//@magento_import 'source/_widgets.less'; // Theme widge

Magento 2 extends vanilla LESS by its own fallback logic. The @magento_import directive has to be commented out with a double slash to not interfere with the default LESS @import one. It iterates over all active modules and resolves every path for the given file relative to the current working directory. So the above would render to:

@import '../Magento_Catalog/css/source/_module.less';
@import '../Magento_Cms/css/source/_module.less';
@import '../Magento_Catalog/css/source/_widgets.less';
@import '../Magento_Cms/css/source/_widgets.less';

If you would place an equivalent file to your own module it would be rendered here as well. This is an intended hook for module designers.

The next statement...

//  styles-m.less
// ...
//  Media queries collector
//  ---------------------------------------------
@import 'source/lib/_responsive.less';

...invokes general media queries depending on the @media-target scope:

// magento/lib/web/css/source/lib/_responsive.less
// ...
& when (@media-target = 'mobile'), (@media-target = 'all') { ... }
// ...
& when (@media-target = 'desktop'), (@media-target = 'all') { ... }

In our case only the first block gets executed, as of the following definition:

// styles-m.less
@media-target: 'mobile'; // Sets target device for this file

Besides this, crazy magic things are happening in magento/lib/web/css/source/lib/_responsive.less

According to the documentation:

Magento UI library provides a strong approach for working with media queries. It's based on recursive call of .media-width() mixin defined anywhere in project but invoked in one place in lib/web/css/source/lib/_responsive.less. That's why in the resulting styles.css we have every media query only once with all the rules there, not a multiple calls for the same query.

Sounds good to me, but by the actual writing of this essay, I honestly am not yet understanding how it actually works.

So if some of you already figured this one out, just leave a comment here or open an issue/pull request at my github.

Next there is a general hook for overriding the themes variables:

//  Global variables override
@import 'source/_theme.less';

//  Theme file should contain declarations (overrides) ONLY OF EXISTING variables
//  Otherwise this theme won't be available for parent nesting
//  All new variables should be placed in local theme lib or local theme files

Last but not least we get another final opportunity to extend on a module basis by using a _extend.less file:

//  Extend for minor customisation
//@magento_import 'source/_extend.less';

And thats it: styles-l.less works pretty much the same - just ommiting inclusion of base lib and setting desktop scope.

Obviously, this can only be the starting point to get productive, but I hope it provides an initial overview of the components pulled into rendering by default in Magento 2 blank theme, thus helping you kickstart your first frontend.

But what would be best practice to build a new theme then?

I don't think there is a distinct answer. It totally depends on the project and your personall approach. If you decide to use the built in framework - wich I neither recommend nor discourage you to do - then Magento has a couple of key concepts to consider:

  • If you inherit from the blank theme, the Magento 2 CSS library is imported and can be used instantaneously.
  • For minor adjustments first try find a corresponding variable in magento/lib/web/css/source/lib/variables and overide them in your themes web/css/source/_variables.less file.
  • Every base lib file can be extended by putting an equivalently named file in your web/css/source/ directory
  • Global variables are meant to be overidden in your themes web/css/source/_theme.less
  • In addition you can use the final hook of placing a web/css/source/_extend.less file to your theme. Keep in mind though: this is a @magento_import directive iterating over all modules. So you could use this in your cutom module, too.
  • You can extend/overide module related styles by placing an own equivalent Vendor_Module/web/css/source/_module.less or Vendor_Module/web/css/source/_widget.less file in your theme.

Further more you could even think of adapting the CSS entry points to your own need, to pull in just the base lib components you really need, for example. I mean, if you wanted to... ;)