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Glitter - Explaining CSS & Layout

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Glitter is a project to explain CSS & Layout on the web, in line with the Extensible Web Manifesto. This document is meant to describe the problems that we are trying to solve and potential solutions to these problems.

These are by no means formal proposals, they should be seen as conversation starters for a more extensible web platform.

By explaining CSS & Layout we believe that we should empower developers/frameworks to create polyfills of wanted features in CSS. As an example, new features such as regions, should be polyfill-able without having to implement in native code.

This creates a virtuous cycle between developers, implementers, and working groups.


Problem statement:

People should be able to extend css in ways that they see fit. They should be able to add custom properties which do weird and wonderful things.

For example:

.foo {
  color: red;
  --color-filter: inverse();

The above custom property should be able to invert the computed color property from #F00 to #0FF.

Other parts of CSS which should be extensible are selectors, functions, media queries which we don’t cover here.


A javascript API which allows developers to register custom properties.

  name: '--color-filter',
  initial: 'inherit',
  apply: function(mutation) {
    if (mutation.value ==inverse()’) {
      // invertColor left as an exercise.
      mutation.rule.color = invertColor(mutation.rule.color);
  stable: true

We believe that this API can be implemented with a 1-shot javascript pass at the end of the recalc style phase in the browser. Although not shown above, this API can also handle custom properties depending on other properties, and applying 'modules' to the stylesheet so that the order of different extensions can be controlled.


Problem statement:

There is currently no way to efficiently and nicely tease out size information of blocks and text on the web. Currently DOM nodes have to be attached somewhere in the DOM to get size information, and multiple expensive queries to clientHeight / clientWidth (which trigger synchronous layout) have to be called.


Measure API: The measure API should be more powerful than clientWidth / clientHeight as it should reveal information such as baselines, and also potentially faster, as a full layout and paint shouldn't be triggered.

The API will probably have a 'block' mode, as well as a generator for laying out 'text' runs.

// {sizing-info} below is probably of the form:

// {style-info} below is probably of the form:
// (parentNode, indexPos)|(stylesheet)

measured = measureBlock(element, {sizing-info}, {style-info});
measured.width; // The measured width.
measured.height; // The measured height.
measured.firstBaseline; // The pixel offset of the first baseline.
measured.lastBaseline; // The pixel offset of the last baseline.

sizeGenerator = measureText(text);
// Send data for the next run.
measuredRun ={sizing-info}, {style-info});
// or measuredRun =;

// Additional read-only properties exposed on a DOM element.

Box tree API: Expose a read-only box tree API. This would expose information about the render tree, instead of just the DOM tree. I.e. pseudo-elements, line boxes. This should also expose a measure API.


Problem statement:

Measure provides half of the answer to layout: it lets you size and position your children efficiently, but it doesn't let you get sized and positioned as a child of another (built-in or custom) layout mode. A custom layout which only uses the Measure APIs described above would only be able to be implemented in a fixed width & height world. This is boring. We want custom layouts to work in the middle of an animating flexbox.

You need to be able to communicate how large you want to be to your parent during the middle of the layout phase. Which is currently not possible on the web.


We need a "computation engine" which runs in the middle of layout. The reason for this is that you need to pass information back up the render tree. It cannot be performed asynchronously or within a 1-shot javascript pass. There are a few ways which we could implement this “computation engine”.

EDSL: This is akin to the WebAudio API, that you build of a declarative representation of the computation that you want to perform and then run it inline with layout. I.e.

element.onLayout = new Layout(new Sum([new MeasureChild(c1), new MeasureChild(c2)]));

This would return the size of the two children as the size of the parent. It'd also need to position the children. N.B. Above is just an example of a possible API, we don't really know what we’ll actually need to build of the pipeline yet.

FastJS: Perform layout computations in JS. We believe that we can create a JS context with an ability to execute author code fast inline with layout. This JS code would have a limited API to mangle with (I.e. the JS couldn't remove DOM nodes). We would just provide a readonly version of the "DOM".

This approach could also expose just a tree with Node#measure & Node#position functions. Information (such as style, and attributes) would be passed to the JS fragment in a pre-step (which has access to the real DOM) as JSON.

MultiDimensionalPants: Basically, maintain CSS layout code in JS as well as C++. Once the engine hits a custom layout, switch to using the JS impls of built-in layouts for the rest of that subtree, so you don’t pay switching costs as often. As an extension, we can provide 'safe' variants of the C++ layout primitives that can be called from JS, to make JS layout more efficient. Essentially, if it's too expensive to run JS in the middle of C++ layout, why not run C++ in the middle of JS layout instead?


Problem statement:

Developers should be able to perform crazy painting functions and override behaviour where necessary. There a couple of litmus use cases for this.

  • Custom 3D shadows. Instead of hacking around with the DOM, 3D Shadows could have be implemented as direct draw calls.
  • Efficient infinite lists. Minimal DOM for new effects (for example Android 5.0 overscroll effect). Instead of creating lots of nested DOM to create effects, we could simply paint instead.

An element API which exposes a "canvas" which records paint commands. For example:

element.paint.onBackground = function(canvas) {
  canvas.drawImage(pony); // An amazing background.

element.paint.onContent = function(canvas) {
  // element may have many children, we only want to draw 3.
  for (var i = 4; i < 7; i++) {

Roughly, one overridable method per draw phase from CSS2.1 Appendix E. The "canvas" object exposes the 2d canvas API, but rather than writing to a pixel backing store, just builds up a command buffer for later execution by the rendering pipeline. This should allow us to batch up JS paint calls, rather than interleaving custom-painting elements with their normal-painting siblings, and just weave their command lists together afterwards.

We believe that this API can be done without performance or security implications.