When someone mentions the phrase CSS frameworks, for a lot of people, the first thing that comes to mind is Bootstrap, Tailwind CSS, or Semantic UI. Fair enough. They are all incredible frameworks for building complex and in-depth layout structures.
But, generally speaking, such frameworks are intended for projects where the design transpires across multiple pages. For a simple project - portfolio, blog, resume pages - a framework that has a bundle size of 50kb+ seems a bit overkill.
Why choose a minimal CSS framework?
For me, a lightweight CSS framework gives me the tools to create my main containers, assign a few elements to them, and then I can focus on custom styling if I need it. I don't need to get caught up with rules and design options that I will never use in practice.
And as I said earlier, bundle size for modern frameworks can be absurdly high.
This bundle size example is relevant in the context of fetching the framework directly through a CDN. It is typically possible to reduce the size of the bigger frameworks to something much more modest. But, out of the box, a framework like Tailwind CSS or Bootstrap is not intended to be minimal or lightweight by default.
In fact, Tailwind CSS's uncompressed bundle size is 3.5Mb!
The main advantages of lightweight frameworks
Apart from direct improvements in performance, what are some other reasons to use smaller CSS frameworks? Personally, I love the idea of using a framework that gives me quick access to pre-defined layouts and additional style components. All without requiring me to do code gymnastics to get the design working across multiple devices.
Additionally, a smaller framework has a much more forgiving learning curve. In particular, if you're just starting out with styling things yourself - a lightweight framework helps you to understand how the design comes together on a barebones level.
Let's get cracking then.
The mission statement for the Pure.css library is lovely, "Include only the absolutely necessary configuration to reduce cascading overhead.". In practice, this converts to syntax that is both easy to understand, but also easy to style yourself. As a mobile-first library - it is an absolute delight to work with. And, has extensive availability of pre-made media queries.
If you look at the Layouts section in the docs. The examples provided there showcase how you can build a functional blog layout in just 100 lines of HTML.
And, because of the modular nature - the responsive grid included makes the design mobile-friendly out of the box. It's a great starter framework for anyone getting into CSS.
Jenil Gogari has done quite a few notable open-source contributions. And the micro-framework Chota is no exception. Not only is it lightweight, but also doesn't use preprocessors so it's very simple to get started with. Additionally, I love that Chota implements :root variables to define the overall design scheme.
Of course, variables have been around for a while now. However, older CSS frameworks that haven't been updated in 2-3 years just haven't got them implemented by default. So, in that context, using Chota feels really good if you're already familiar with the concept.
In terms of styling, Chota stands out with its intricate grid layout. Columns are tagged separately (12 in total), letting you bootstrap a multi-layered design in minutes.
Picnic has everything you'd need from a CSS framework but in a compact size! The library is written using the SCSS preprocessor and is by default based on variables. Furthermore, the modular nature means you can pick and choose the layout elements you need.
And, of course, because Picnic employs placeholder classes - you have complete freedom to style it yourself. With a little over 3,500 stars on GitHub - it's the go-to minimal framework for personal projects and simple layouts.
As the author implies, it is a fully functional framework ready to be used in production.
Notable features include in-built animations, both Flexbox and Grid, and also a demo of nearly a dozen custom layouts. If you're into WordPress, the author has built a separate boilerplate template for structuring a theme based on this framework.
It seems that CJ Patoilo (the author) is caught up with life since his GitHub profile is looking a little bleak for the last 2 years. However, because Milligram is a complete framework - it is more than functional and usable for rapid layout prototyping.
More importantly, it is only 2kb when fully compressed.
Though, you might be wondering, "What do I even get for only 2kb?!". And the answer is - pretty much everything you need to design a personal website. Grid is included, as are elements like headings, forms, tables, floats, and ways to display code syntax.
Yan Zhu, the author of Spectre, has done some incredible contributions to the CSS community. And the Spectre framework is one of his best works, too. Despite having been around for years, Spectre manages to pull in around 1,000 daily downloads on npm.
So, what is the framework all about? It is based on the concept of being a lightweight design base, with a focus on using Flexbox for responsiveness. Unlike similar barebones solutions, Spectre components are custom-designed to provide a sense of personality to the design.
And with the number of components available, you can go ahead and use Spectre to build anything from landing pages to application interfaces. Check out the docs for a live demo!
Not all frameworks are built to overcome difficult problems. In fact, while Mustard UI is a lightweight library, it's more about the design style it provides.
The goal is to have a solid (modular) starting base that can be used to prototype clean layouts. That is also how Mustard UI is structured. If you need additional features, you can customize them yourself. In the docs you'll find plenty of examples hosted on CodePen.
And, last but no least, Mustard UI has full support for utilities, too. A general theme can be set prior to you starting work using pre-defined variables.
Bonsai provides both base components as well as utility classes. Just the base style alone is enough to produce creative and stylish interfaces. The framework doesn't intrude with custom classes, so you can in fact apply Bonsai to an existing (unstyled) HTML page.
This will result in your page being transformed with all the Bonsai style specifications.
As for utilities, Bonsai absolutely knocks it out of the park. There are around 100 custom-built utility classes included in the framework. Each class provides you with the freedom to add custom styles and additional design features.
And the majority of those classes are fully compatible with media queries: responsive.
How small can a framework be, really? As it turns out, very small. Production-ready "lit" framework is only 400 bytes. And yet, delivers comprehensive tooling to get a responsive website layout going. The framework itself is focused on providing a responsive grid interface, but also adds some common elements like cards, lists, and table design.
You can however take it a step further with the "util" extension. The utilities (1kb) include various additions of components and spacing options. All in all, the lit framework is an exceptional choice for a starter framework. And the performance is unmatched.
Bootstrap but cuter? That's Cutestrap! Although the framework hasn't seen much love (new versions) in recent years, it's completely functional. Cutestrap is packed with custom HTML elements, but also adds support for theming, advanced typography, and custom styleguides.