First steps with Compass

A lightning talk by Thijs Jonkman at the Dutch Plone User Day once again brought Compass to my attention. I’ve read about it on other occasions, but I never actually tried it. But Thijs really wet my appetite.

First of all a bit of explanation about Compass. According to the website it’s an “open source CSS authoring framework which uses the Sass stylesheet language.” Let’s process this backwards…

Sass, which stands for “Syntactically Awesome Stylesheets”, is an extension of CSS3 and it adds a lot of useful features (e.g. variables, and mixins). These features make CSS development a lot easier. (And, speaking as a Python developer, more fun.)

Compass is a framework that makes working with Sass even better. Its core contains all kinds of useful mixins for e.g. CSS resets, CSS3 borders, a footer that sticks to the bottom of the page and code to help you with sprites, to name just a few. And if you need more than Compass delivers out of the box, there are many more plugins available.

Getting started

To get an impression of Compass, I decided to retrofit the CSS for this website with Compass. Luckily Brandon Craig Rhodes wrote the article Adding Compass to your project earlier this year. The article not only has instructions and tips on how to get started, it also contains two bash shell scripts to install and use Compass. Brilliant!

The Sass reference is also a read I can recommend. It explains the syntax and the available constructs.

Having both resources meant I could get started pretty quick. Another fact that got me underway fast is that one of the available Sass syntaxes, SCSS (Sassy CSS), is an extension of CSS3. This means that I only had to change the extension of my .css file to .scss to have a valid SCSS file.

The last thing that was missing was Sass support for my editor of choice, Emacs. (I know, I’m old-fashioned. ;-) ). But that was easily solved with the sass-mode by Nathan Weizenbaum, who is also the primary designer of Sass by the way.

Project integration


For this first experiment I used my own, Django site. I decided to put the compass directory directly in the buildout, next to my project directory (vlent). The structure of my buildout looks similar to this:

├── buildout.cfg
├── compass
│   ├──
│   ├── config.rb
│   ├──
│   └── sass
│       └── screen.scss
└── vlent
    ├── static
    │   └── css
    │       └── screen.css
    ├── templates
    │   └── base.html

(In reality there’s much more in there, but I think this effectively represents the idea.)

Alternatively I could have put the compass directory inside the vlent project directory, but somehow this feels a bit ‘cleaner’ to me. I guess I like the idea of not cluttering my project with the Compass stuff.

The most important setting I changed in my config.rb file was the css_dir:

css_dir = "../vlent/static/css"

I personally didn’t compress the generated CSS files since django_static is taking care of that for me, but Compass can also handle this for you.

I put both the Sass files and the compiled CSS files under version control. The main reason is to still be able to just checkout (clone) a tag of the buildout on the production machine and instantly have my CSS files, without having to install Compass there as well.


I experimented with Compass on a Django project, but using it for Plone theming could also be useful.

When you use the Plone 3 way of creating a theme (using the plone3_theme from ZopeSkel), there is a challenge. The skeleton suggests to put your own stylesheets in browser/stylesheets but if you need to override Plone’s stylesheets, you’ll probably put them in skins/my_theme_styles. But, as far as I can see, you can only have one output directory for your generated CSS files with Compass. A solution would be to just put all your CSS files in the skins my_theme_styles folder.

If you create a Diazo theme, things should be easier since there’s only one folder where the CSS files are located. But since I haven’t created a Diazo theme myself yet, I cannot comment on the best way to integrate Compass in such a theme. I guess you could just put the Compass stuff in the theme and make sure it’s excluded in the ZIP file you distribute?

To make a long story short: regarding the integration of Compass in Plone themes, I’ve still got more questions than answers.

First impressions

I must admit that I had expected that my file .scss would be shorter than my .css file. That did not happen. (In hindsight I could have known that by looking at the examples on the Sass website.) Nesting selectors and using mixins does make my code more readable. The variables make the CSS more maintainable since e.g. a color or font family only needs to be changed in a single place. Using Compass mixins for transitions and text shadow definitely makes my life easier since I don’t have to worry about the vendor prefixes.

Another small advantage is that single-line comments (marked with //) are removed from the output. This means I can now put hints in my code without it cluttering the CSS which will be served to the visitors of the site.


I must say I like using Compass and writing Sass. I get the feeling I’ve only scratched the surface yet and it will probably shine more when I start coding from scratch instead of converting existing CSS. I definitely intend to keep using it for this website and would love to use it on a bigger (customer) project!