Joel Besada 09/02/2020

5 Ways to Improve Your React Native Styling Workflow

In April, we announced Shop, our digital shopping assistant that brings together the best features of Arrive and Shop Pay. The Shop app started from our React Native codebase for our previous package tracking app Arrive, with every screen receiving a complete visual overhaul to fit the new branding.

While our product designers worked on introducing a whole new design system that would decide the look and feel of the app, we on the engineering side took the initiative to evolve our thinking around how we work with styling of screens and components. The end-product became Restyle, our open source library that allowed us to move forward quickly and easily in our transformation from Arrive to Shop.

I'll walk you through the styling best practices we learned through this process. They served as the guiding principles for the design of Restyle. However anyone working with a React app can benefit from applying these best practices, with or without using our library.

The Questions We Needed to Answer

We faced a number of problems with our current approach in Arrive, and these were the questions we needed to answer to take our styling workflow to the next level:

  • With a growing team working in different countries and time zones, how do we make sure that the app keeps a consistent style throughout all of its different screens?
  • What can we do to make it easy to style the app to look great on multiple different device sizes and formats?
  • How do we allow the app to dynamically adapt its theme according to the user’s preferences, to support for example dark mode?
  • Can we make working with styles in React Native a more enjoyable experience?

With these questions in place, we came up with the following best practices that provided answers to them. 

#1. Create a Design System

A prerequisite for being able to write clean and consistent styling code is for the design of the app to be based on a clean and consistent design system. A design system is commonly defined as a set of rules, constraints and principles that lay the foundation for how the app should look and feel. Building a complete design system is a topic far too big to dig into here, but I want to point out three important areas that the system should define its rules for.

Spacing

Size and spacing are the two parameters used when defining the layout of an app. While sizes often vary greatly between different components presented on a screen, the spacing between them should often stay as consistent as possible to create a coherent look. This means that it’s preferred to stick to a small set of predefined spacing constants that’s used for all margins and paddings in the app.

There are many conventions to choose between when deciding how to name your spacing constants, but I've found the t-shirt size scale (XS, S, M, L, XL, etc) work best. The order of sizes are easy to understand, and the system is extensible in both directions by prefixing with more X’s.

Color

When defining colors in a design system, it’s important not only to choose which colors to stick with, but also how and when they should be used. I like to split these definitions up into two layers:

  • The color palette - This is the set of colors that’s used. These can be named quite literally, e.g. “Blue”, “Light Orange”, “Dark Red”, “White”, “Black”.
  • The semantic colors - A set of names that map to and describe how the color palette should be applied, that is, what their functions are. Some examples are “Primary”, “Background”, “Danger”, “Failure”. Note that multiple semantic colors can be mapped to the same palette color, for example, both the “Danger” and “Failure” color could both map to “Dark Red”.

When referring to a color in the app, it should be through the semantic color mapping. This makes it easy to later change, for example, the “Primary” color to be green instead of blue. It also allows you to easily swap out color schemes on the fly to, for example, easily accommodate a light and dark mode version of the app. As long as elements are using the “Background” semantic color, you can swap it between a light and dark color based on the chosen color scheme.

Typography

Similar to spacing, it‘s best to stick to a limited set of font families, weights and sizes to achieve a coherent look throughout the app. A grouping of these typographic elements are defined together as a named text variant. Your “Header” text might be size 36, have a bold weight, and use the font family “Raleway”. Your “Body” text might use the “Merriweather” family with a regular font weight, and size 16.

#2. Define a Theme Object

A carefully put together design system following the spacing, colour, and typography practices above should be defined in the app‘s codebase as a theme object. Here‘s how a simple version might look:

All values relating to your design system and all uses of these values in the app should be through this theme object. This makes it easy to tweak the system by only needing to edit values in a single source of truth.

Notice how the palette is kept private to this file, and only the semantic color names are included in the theme. This enforces the best practice with colors in your design system.

#3. Supply the Theme through React‘s Context API

Now that you've defined your theme object, you might be tempted to start directly importing it in all the places where it's going to be used. While this might seem like a great approach at first, you’ll quickly find its limitations once you’re looking to work more dynamically with the theming. In the case of wanting to introduce a secondary theme for a dark mode version of the app, you would need to either:

  • Import both themes (light and dark mode), and in each component determine which one to use based on the current setting, or
  • Replace the values in the global theme definition when switching between modes. 

The first option will introduce a large amount of tedious code repetition. The second option will only work if you force React to re-render the whole app when switching between light and dark modes, which is typically considered a bad practice. If you have a dynamic value that you want to make available to all components, you’re better off using React’s context API. Here’s how you would set this up with your theme:

The theme in React’s context will make sure that whenever the app changes between light and dark mode, all components that access the theme will automatically re-render with the updated values. Another benefit of having the theme in context is being able to swap out themes on a sub-tree level. This allows you to have different color schemes for different screens in the app, which could, for example, allow users to customize the colors of their profile page in a social app.

#4. Break the System into Components

While it‘s entirely possible to keep reaching into the context to grab values from the theme for any view that needs to be styled, this will quickly become repetitious and overly verbose. A better way is to have components that directly map properties to values in the theme. There are two components that I find myself needing the most when working with themes this way, Box and Text.

The Box component is similar to a View, but instead of accepting a style object property to do the styling, it directly accepts properties such as margin, padding, and backgroundColor. These properties are configured to only receive values available in the theme, like this:

The “m” and “s” values here map to the spacings we‘ve defined in the theme, and “primary” maps to the corresponding color. This component is used in most places where we need to add some spacing and background colors, simply by wrapping it around other components.

While the Box component is handy for creating layouts and adding background colors, the Text component comes into play when displaying text. Since React Native already requires you to use their Text component around any text in the app, this becomes a drop in replacement for it:

The variant property applies all the properties that we defined in the theme for textVariant.header, and the color property follows the same principle as the Box component’s backgroundColor, but for the text color instead.

Here’s how both of these components would be implemented:

Styling directly through properties instead of keeping a separate style sheet might seem weird at first. I promise that once you start doing it you’ll quickly start to appreciate how much time and effort you save by not needing to jump back and forth between components and style sheets during your styling workflow.

#5. Use Responsive Style Properties

Responsive design is a common practice in web development where alternative styles are often specified for different screen sizes and device types. It seems that this practice has yet to become commonplace within the development of React Native apps. The need for responsive design is apparent in web apps where the device size can range from a small mobile phone to a widescreen desktop device. A React Native app only targeting mobile devices might not work with the same extreme device size differences, but the variance in potential screen dimensions is already big enough to make it hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution for your styling.

An app onboarding screen that displays great on the latest iPhone Pro will most likely not work as well with the limited screen estate available on a first generation iPhone SE. Small tweaks to the layout, spacing and font size based on the available screen dimensions are often necessary to craft the best experience for all devices. In responsive design this work is done by categorizing devices into a set of predefined screen sizes defined by their breakpoints, for example:

With these breakpoints we're saying that anything below 321 pixels in width should fall in the category of being a small phone, anything above that but below 768 is a regular phone size, and everything wider than that is a tablet.

With these set, let's expand our previous Box component to also accept specific props for each screen size, in this manner:

Here's roughly how you would go about implementing this functionality:

In a complete implementation of the above you would ideally use a hook based approach to get the current screen dimensions that also refreshes on change (for example when changing device orientation), but I’ve left that out in the interest of brevity.

#6. Enforce the System with TypeScript

This final best practice requires you to be using TypeScript for your project.

TypeScript and React pair incredibly well together, especially when using a modern code editor such as Visual Studio Code. Instead of relying on React’s PropTypes validation, which only happens when the component is rendered at run-time, TypeScript allows you to validate these types as you are writing the code. This means that if TypeScript isn’t displaying any errors in your project, you can rest assured that there are no invalid uses of the component anywhere in your app.

Using the prop validation mechanisms of TypeScript

Using the prop validation mechanisms of TypeScript

TypeScript isn’t only there to tell you when you’ve done something wrong, it can also help you in using your React components correctly. Using the prop validation mechanisms of TypeScript, we can define our property types to only accept values available in the theme. With this, your editor will not only tell you if you're using an unavailable value, it will also autocomplete to one of the valid values for you.

Here's how you need to define your types to set this up:

Evolve Your Styling Workflow

Following the best practices above via our Restyle library made a significant improvement to how we work with styles in our React Native app. Styling has become more enjoyable through the use of Restyle’s Box and Text components, and by restricting the options for colors, typography and spacing it’s now much easier to build a great-looking prototype for a new feature before needing to involve a designer in the process. The use of responsive style properties has also made it easy to tailor styles to specific screen sizes, so we can work more efficiently with crafting the best experience for any given device.

Restyle’s configurability through theming allowed us to maintain a theme for Arrive while iterating on the theme for Shop. Once we were ready to flip the switch, we just needed to point Restyle to our new theme to complete the transformation. We also introduced dark mode into the app without it being a concrete part of our roadmap—we found it so easy to add we simply couldn't resist doing it.

If you've asked some of the same questions we posed initially, you should consider adopting these best practices. And if you want a tool that helps you along the way, our Restyle library is there to guide you and make it an enjoyable experience.


Wherever you are, your next journey starts here! Intrigued? We’d love to hear from you.