Thoughts & Things

How to write custom utility pseudo-classes in CSS

March 05, 2020

Utility classes are my favorite way to design and code with CSS. I’m not here to argue their usefulness: check out my friend Sarah’s defense of utility-first CSS.

Being able to quickly add a class that tells an element what to do at what breakpoint isn’t anything new. We’ve seen versions of this before, with frameworks like Bootstrap having classes like col-xs-12, hidden-sm, and so on.

In both of these examples, there are specific media queries generated within the framework that change the properties of a class depending on the query. It’s quite handy.

Making your own utility classes can be fun but finding a canonical way to write out class names has always been a nuisance for me. I wanted something a bit clearer.

I’d seen frameworks like Tailwind use a really handy format for what they call pseudo-classes, but hadn’t given it much thought in my own practice, until I wanted to make some responsive margin classes.

“Why not just use Tailwind?” Great question. Tailwind is really great, but I was interested in constructing my own, so I did. By all means, use Tailwind if your project calls for it!

It’s really simple: you escape a : character to make a class act like a psuedo class.

.sm\:m-50 {
  @media screen and (min-width: 768px) {
    margin: 50px;
<p class="sm:m-50">
  This content will have a margin of 50px starting at 768px browser width.

Does it do anything really fancy? Not necessarily. It simply allows you greater customization (and fun!) in class naming conventions.

.hover\: {
  &bg-green {
    &:hover {
      background-color: green;
// <div class="hover:bg-green"></div>

.focus\: {
  &outline-none {
    &:focus {
      outline: none;
// <div class="focus:outline-none"></div>

.mobile\: {
  @media screen and (max-width: 479px) {
    &font-small {
      font-size: 14px;
.tablet\: {
  @media screen and (min-width: 480px) {
    &font-large {
      font-size: 18px;
// <p class="mobile:font-small tablet:font-large">Hi there!</p>

And so on. These aren’t perfect examples, but it gives you an idea of the types of classes you can construct, all with a simple \:.

You could, of course, use a different methodology to write your classes, and that’s totally fine. The point is to have a clear naming convention that helps you construct your pages as you write HTML.

I’m working on another article for building complex, responsive pseudo-classes using SASS loops and variables. See you in the next one!

Cory Miller. Front-End Developer at ConvertKit. Remote.