Build a pattern library

For the longest time I’ve resisted building pattern and component libraries for my projects. I’ve thought about them as a waste of time and resources. I conceptually understand their importance and how they benefit projects.

At An Event Apart last year I heard Brad Frost speak about Atomic Design and, based on my earlier research in Polymer and Web Components, I decided to take a look at design patterns again without web components.

Why a style Guide?

I’m also planning a full rebuild of my old labs website and decided to have a pattern library to make it easier to work in building the pages that I want to use. I started the design using Fractal and will probably continue to do so with the caveats we’ll discuss as we go through the process and build components

Starting with Fractal

Fractal is a component build system created by Clearleft is a fairly straightforward way to create elements and start building more complex structures based on those elements.

The idea is that you can build as small a component as you want. Most styleguides and pattern libraries build buttons, links and color palettes.

I haven’t gone that far down the rabbit hole, and perhaps I should. I’m playing with colors, strctures (Inverse color headers) but this should give me the chance to do so.

The most important thing for me is the ability to create mockups of the files and attach different stylesheets to test what the element looks like under different parameters.

Issues that I have with Fractal

If there is one issue I have with Fractal is that it’s a completely different environment with its own CLI and no plugin to run fractal from within Gulp other than using gulp-exec to run the fractal CLI.

Furthermore there is no easy way to rebuild the components into a static website. It’s a manual rebuild and reload process.

Exploring Fractal

Fractal is a Node application. To install it run the following command:

“`command data-user=”carlos” data-host=”rivendell”
npm install -g @frctl/fractal

This will install a `fractal` command line tool. ```bash fractal --help ┌───────────────────────────────────────────────────────┐ │ Fractal interactive CLI │ │───────────────────────────────────────────────────────│ │ - Use the help command to see all available commands. │ │ - Use the exit command to exit the app. │ │───────────────────────────────────────────────────────│ │ Powered by Fractal v1.1.4 │ └───────────────────────────────────────────────────────┘ fractal ➤

Core Concepts

Now that we’ve installed and run Fractal we’ll explore some of the basic concepts. This is not an exhaustive reference, for ythat go to the Fractal Guide that covers this in a lot more detail. This document covers how I use the tool.

View templates

Fractal can use any template engine we want. By default it uses handlebars with additional extensions. A basic Handlebar template looks like this:

<div class="entry">
    <h1>{{ title }}</h1>
    <div class="body">
    {{ body }}

This will take the title string from a configuration file or as passed to the element and use it inside the h1 element. It will do the same thing with the body content and the div in the body element.

We can create partial templates to build more comple layouts. For example we can create a page template, a header template and a footer-scripts template to hold different parts of our page.

The header template contains the head element and all its children. We use it because, other than the tilte, these elements are not likely to change. The template looks like this:

    <link rel="stylesheet" href="/styles/video-load.css">

    <meta charset="utf-8">
    <meta name="viewport" 


We use the footer-scripts to add scripts that we want to add to all content pages of our site. It contains all the scripts that I use so it may get pruned and made into different versions depending on what the specific page needs. The default script is shown below:

<script async src="/scripts/lazy-load.js"></script>
<script async src="/scripts/vendor/moment-with-locales.js"></script>
<script async src="/scripts/vendor/prism.js"></script>
<script async src="/scripts/vendor/fontfaceobserver.standalone.js"></script>
<script async src="/scripts/load-fonts.js"></script>
<script src="/scripts/lazy-load-video.js"></script>

The final template is for our basic pages. It will use the two partial templates we’ve seen before and build the page. The default Handlebars way looks like this:

{{> @header }}
{{> body }}

{{> @footer-scripts }}

We can nest templates inside each other to make content even more moular. We could take our header and title element and make a template out of them. We’ll look at this in more detail when we build a component.

If I’m working on a style guide then I will use them extensively. If I’m building the style guide as part of a larger project I may stick with standard handlebars or those available from the handlebars-helpers collection, I don’t want to stay tied to Fractal any more than absolutely necessary, particularly if the project is for a client.

You can check the existing Fractal helpers in the documentation guide (Using Handlebars section). I will use the render helper to illustrate how they work.

{{render '@header' }}
{{> body }}

{{render '@footer-scripts' }}

The result should be the same but behind the scenes Fractal will do additional work with the rendered template. We don’t need to know what it is, it just works 🙂

Context data

Context data can be used to populate parts of the template. The two most common ways to do it are to create a .json file or to use YAML front matter at the top of the page. The idea is that you don’t need to manually give titles or do things with the template, for example we could create the following JSON file for a component may look like this:

  "context": {
    "title": "Level 1 Heading",
    "author": "Aragorn, King of the West"

We could also provide the same data at the document level using YAML. The JSON file converted to YAML front matter works like this. We can extend this with additional information and data to work with our templates.

  title: "Level 1 Heading"
  author: "Aragorn, King of the West"

Configuration files

Components, documentation pages and collections can all have their own (optional) configuration files associated with them.

In order to be recognised, configuration files must:

  • Reside in the same directory as the item that they are configuring
  • Have a file name in the format item-name.config.{js|json|yml} – for example button.config.json, patterns.config.js or changelog.config.yml

Some things to note:

  • The javascript version (the one that exports a module) is not as strict as the JSON version in terms of quoting string attributes
module.exports = {
    title: "Base Layout",
    status: "prototype", 
    context: {
        "title": "Click me!",
        "author": "Carlos"
  "title": "Base Layout",
  "status": "prototype",
  "context": {
    "title": "Click me!",
    "author": "Carlos"

Some configuration items will have their values inherited from upstream collections or their default settings if the values are not set in the item’s configuration file directly.

This can also be thought of a cascade of configuration values from their default settings down through any nested collection configurations and into the item itself.

Naming & referencing

Fractal is a flat-file system, and makes use of some simple file and folder naming conventions to help it parse the file system and generate the underlying data model.

One of the main disadvantages of flat-file systems is that when one item references another via a path, moving any of those items inevitably results in those links breaking. So Fractal also supports a reference system, whereby items can use ‘handles’ instead of paths to link parts of the system together.

Unless told otherwise, Fractal will infer the name of a component or documentation page from its view template file name (or the parent directory for ‘compound’ components). It will then use this name (plus some other information) to generate a handle for the item. Handles are what will be used to reference that item elsewhere around your project.

Names and handles are both ‘slug’ type strings, and will contain only lowercase, alphanumeric characters plus underscores and dashes.

The name will also be used to generate a default label and a title for the item. Labels are the text that will be used when the item is referenced in any navigation (for example in the web UI) and the title value is the text that will be used anywhere else a human-readable name for the item is required.

For a template in blockquote-large.hbs:

├── components
│   └── blockquote-large.hbs

The following labels and slugs will be generated:

  • name: blockquote-large
  • handle: blockquote-large
  • label: Blockquote Large
  • title: Blockquote Large


Pages can have statuses associated with them.

Each status has a colour and a label that can be displayed in the web UI (and other places) to help people quickly understand the status of each component.

Fractal defines some default statuses, but you are free to define your own to suit the needs of your project, or customise the colours and labels associated with these statuses.

Building a component

In this example we’ll build a header element with title and author children. We’ll build two separate templates, the first one has the content of the template that we can style as needed.




The second template takes the content template and inserts it into a header element. The cool thing is that we can start with as small templates as we want or need to acommodate atomic design principles

  {{> @head}}

Moving the components to Fractal

To move a component into Fractal do the following:

  1. Create the Handlebars template
    • Make sure you’ve already created all the components that you’ll use inside the current element
  2. Create the configuration file for your component
  3. Create the styles (note that these are for display only, the style should go into your SASS or CSS)
  4. Preview.