From Tailwind to Vanilla Extract: the right CSS tool for the Design System job


Photo by Saul Mercado on Unsplash

Intro #

Recently I came into a new organization that is a good fit for developing it's own Design System. Although we're still early on the product development journey and we're just getting a couple of MVPs of the ground with a small team, we decided it would be worth to extract base components early on that would eventually become the foundation for a full featured Design System down the line.

The plan was to build the feature screens first and then extract common UI components as they revealed themselves. I've found this approach of "build then extract" to be a good balance of extracting base components while allowing the team to move forward with feature work. It does require some willingness to "let some things go", since there isn't always time to extract a component right then and there but the added benefit is that you can design the component's API that's, ideally, used in a couple different places.

Extracting Tailwind Components #

For our tech stack we chose React and Nextjs with Tailwind as a styling solution. I'd found tailwind to work really well with component UI libraries since it creates a natural boundary for style reuse instead of going down the road of using @apply. However building components for a design system is quite a different story from building application components. The former tend to need more flexibility: they are often times themable and include lower level utilities for layouts and spacing based on design tokens. While we had some doubts about being able to pull out this transition we felt confident enough to keep using tailwind to get things of the ground and figure it out down the road. Some encouraging words from the Netlify team also reassured us that the idea wasn't too crazy after all.

However as we started extracting out some components we started bumping into some difficulties with the utility classes approach. As a disclaimer, I think tailwind is fine if you're extracting components inside your own app and are keeping the API of each component fairly restricted but since we were looking to extract a design system the constraints are a bit different. That said, let's dive into some of the problems we found.

It's awkward to map tailwind classes to props

The first decision that we bumped into is how we should expose styling props for some components. For example imagine a component that exposes background property that accepts a color from your palette. Do consumers of the component pass in the class that contains the style or a string with the color value?. The former feels a bit odd, since you'd be repeating yourself by using the class background="bg-blue-400". The latter would take in the value, such as blue-400 and the component would rebuild the appropriate class dynamically which brings it's own set of issues which we'll discuss later.

// This feels odd
function Card({ background = "bg-white", }) {
return <div className={background} {} />

// This needs more work for every property
function Card({ background = "white", }) {
const backgroundClass = `bg-${background}` // No type safety

return <div className={topSpace} {} />

This is also the case for any other property that the component might expose and can get overwhelming pretty quickly.

You have to keep the Tailwind config in sync with component props

There's no real integration between React and Tailwind, meaning that they're not aware of each other, so every time you add or remove a value from Tailwind's config you have to remember to update or expose the corresponding props in your components. It's easy to forget this step and end up with out of date props and styles.

// tailwind.config.js
module.exports = {
extend: {
spacing: {
// New values
72: "18rem",
84: "21rem",

// Must update types that map to the new values
type SpacingProps = {
// New values
72: number,
84: number,

function Spacer({ top }: { top: SpacingProps }) {
return <div className={topSpace} {} />

Dynamically generating classNames don't get generated with JIT

Previously we discussed the awkwardness of interpolating values into strings to generate tailwind classes. Another issue is that there's no way for the JIT to know if a certain class needs to be generated or not, so you might get production bundles that don't include the classes that you're expecting. This might be confusing at first but the easy way to get around it is to whitelist the classes you want to be included in the bundle.

function Spacer({ top = "16", }) {
const topSpace = `mt-${top}` // mt-16 will be absent on the prod bundle since PurgeCSS couldn't find it
return <div className={topSpace} {} />

Deduping and CSS specificity issues

When it comes to overriding base styles for a component or ensuring that you don't apply 2 different classes that target the same CSS property you're on your own. Generally components in a Design System will have some default classes and allow expose some props to modify their appearance/behaviour. It's ultimately up to you to write the conditional logic that makes this work and it can get a bit hairy in some cases.

Sometimes you need to break out of tailwind

There's a good chance that you'll get to a point where you need to implement something outside of tailwind's utilities. The alternatives here are to use plain old CSS with @apply so you can keep using your tokens. This works fine but I've found that since className is already overloaded with utilities it's easy to miss when and where custom CSS was used which is something I'd rather see stand out in the code as an implementor.

Switching to Vanilla Extract #

Given the previous points we felt that we needed to stop bending tailwind backwards and use a different underlying tool to power our growing component library. Ideally we'd go for something that allows the use of design tokens directly as props. Vanilla Extract provides just with it's Sprinkles addon plust it comes with good Typescript support.

The switch

We decided to do the switch progressively, converting one component at a time as we needed to add functionality. Setting up the library was somewhat easy but it was helpful to see a couple reference implementations from Shopify's Polaris and Seek's Braid given that you need to do some plumbing in order to expose your atomic classes as props.

The good things

First class Typescript support gives you autocomplete for consumers and type errors for authors. This added an extra layer of confidence for the team to continue growing the Design System while avoiding unintentionally breaking application components.

The mental model while working with Vanilla Extract is a bit different than Tailwind. While it provides atomic classes it doesn't expect you to write your whole application with it. Thus, it feels more naturally to drop down to css in ts and finish the job. You still get to mix and match regular CSS properties with your atomic classes and it all gets extracted to static CSS at buildtime.

Defining low level components proved relatively simple, which in turn could be composed into more complex ones. Dessert Box was a great starting point to map your theme variables to a Box component that could later be used as basis for components such as Flex, Center, Grid, Cards, Button and more.

These components could be used to develop new features or to reimplement existing ones extracted with Tailwind. Since Vanilla Extract has first class variant support we could simplify a lot of conditional code to apply classes according to props. If a component get's particularly convoluted 'css.ts' files provide an obvious place to write styling logic.

The not so good things

Previously I listed dealing PurgeCSS when creating classNames dynamically as a problem. That's not really fair in this comparison since Vanilla Extract doesn't do any purging at all. But Vanilla Extract doesn't want you to map as much of CSS to utilities, so while in theory you could end up with unused CSS it's unlikely this will become a problem in practice.

While one of the initial value propositions of Vanilla Extract is that CSS in TS is closer to CSS than other approaches it's early to tell if this will be the case. So far I find that css.ts files tend to feel more like typescript files than style sheets. This is fine for developers and you get to have the full power of typescript at your disposal, but ideally you'd want designers to share ownership of this files and they might feel a bit daunting at first:

// A sample css.ts file.
export const step = styleVariants({
default: {},
active: {
color: "white",
background: vars.colors["purple-500"],
disabled: {
color: vars.colors["gray-400"],
background: vars.colors["gray-50"],

export const icon = style([
transition: "transform 75ms ease-in",
height: "6",
width: "6",

export const openAnimation = style({
transform: "rotate(180deg)",

You're restricted to one kind of variant per property. In tailwind you can get multiple kind's of variants for a single property. Think of how you can have hover:text-sm and md:text-lg at the same time. On Vanilla Extract + Sprinkles, as far as I can tell, you can only have one type of variant per property. This is fine 90% of the time and, as I mentioned before, since Vanilla Extract doesn't encourage to have every single style as an atomic property, it's best to pull out a css.ts if you're looking for multiple modifiers, but I do miss it some times.

Takeaways #

This article isn't by any means meant to bash on Tailwind. While it was a very real possibility that it wasn't going to be the right fit to build a Component Library it was still a good way to get the ball rolling given the team's size and constraints . I think it's valuable to write about the experience of hitting some of the walls that you might encounter with these libraries in the context of building a production application since I find that most articles focus on shallow use cases that don't give you the full picture in order to understand some of the trade offs of a library.

On a personal note, I am very impressed by Vanilla Extract and I feel like I'll be reaching for it more often on projects that require a component based approach, while keeping tailwind as my preferred solution for server side templates. I'm particularly excited to see how Web Components continue to mature and I think Vanilla Extract, being statically extracted at build time, fits into that ecosystem.