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Charmingly Simple Styling for cljfx


JavaFX is designed to use CSS files for styling. CSS has it's own set of problems such as selectors unexpectedly overriding each other and having unclear priority. Because of that, inline styles are more predictable and, with cljfx, where styles can be described as maps, also more composable.

Unfortunately, CSS is unavoidable, because controls don't provide access to their internal nodes, and they can be targeted only with CSS selectors. What's worse, JavaFX does not allow loading CSS from strings or some other data structures, instead expecting an URL pointing to a CSS file. In addition to that, CSS is not always enough for styling JavaFX application: not every Node is styleable (for example, Shapes aren't). All this leads to a slow iteration cycle on styling and also to duplication of styling information in CSS and code.

Charmingly Simple Styling is a library and a set of recommendations that solve these problems. Library provides a way to configure application style using clojure data structures and then construct special URLs to load CSS for styling JavaFX nodes that is derived from the same data structures. Recommendations help setup cljfx application in a way that allows you to rapidly iterate on styling in a live app and keep some sanity in the world of CSS.

Installation and requirements

Latest version on Clojars:


Charmingly Simple Styling does not depend on cljfx itself, so it can be used in any JavaFX application built with Clojure.

Library overview

You want to create style description, both usable from code and loadable as CSS from URL. To achieve that, Charmingly Simple Styling extends JVM URLs with custom protocol — cljfxcss — that loads CSS from globally-registered style maps. CSS is generated by recursively concatenating all string keys in a style map to construct selectors, at the same time using keyword keys for associated selectors to construct rules.

Let's see how it looks with this walk-through:

  (:require [cljfx.css :as css]))

(def style
  (css/register ::style
    (let [padding 10
          text-color "#111111"]

      ;; you can put style settings that you need to access from code at keyword keys in a
      ;; style map and access them directly in an app

      {::padding padding
       ::text-color text-color

       ;; string key ".root" defines `.root` selector with these rules: `-fx-padding: 10;`

       ".root" {:-fx-padding padding}
       ".label" {:-fx-text-fill text-color
                 :-fx-wrap-text true}
       ".button" {:-fx-text-fill text-color
                  ;; vector values are space-separated
                  :-fx-padding ["4px" "8px"]
                  ;; nested string key defines new selector: `.button:hover`
                  ":hover" {:-fx-text-fill :black}}})))

;; `css/register` registers this style map globally so it can be loaded by URL, and puts
;; URL string in a style map at `:cljfx.css/url` key.

=> { 10, "#111111",
    ".root" {:-fx-padding 10},
    ".label" {:-fx-text-fill "#111111", :-fx-wrap-text true},
    ".button" {:-fx-text-fill "#111111",
               :-fx-padding ["4px" "8px"],
               ":hover" {:-fx-text-fill :black}},

    ;; URL has stringified version of keyword in query part of URL, and a hash of a style 
    ;; map in a fragment part. Query part is used to lookup style map in a global 
    ;; registry, and fragment is used to indicate that style is changed when it's 
    ;; redefined to trigger CSS reload in JavaFX

    :cljfx.css/url "cljfxcss:?"}

;; let's see how loaded CSS looks like:

(println (slurp (::css/url style)))

;; prints:
;; .root {
;;   -fx-padding: 10;
;; }
;; .label {
;;   -fx-text-fill: #111111;
;;   -fx-wrap-text: true;
;; }
;; .button {
;;   -fx-text-fill: #111111;
;;   -fx-padding: 4px 8px;
;; }
;; .button:hover {
;;   -fx-text-fill: black;
;; }

;; Later, in app description:

{:fx/type :stage
 :showing true 
 :scene {:fx/type :scene
         :stylesheets [(::css/url style)]
         :root ...}}

That's it: you define styles, register them and feed constructed URL to JavaFX.


Watch for changes while iterating on styles

Usually styles are static during the application runtime, but when you develop application styling, it's very important to see your changes immediately. To achieve that with Charmingly Simple Styling, you need to take 2 steps:

  • put registered style into application state, so re-registered style can be picked up on next render;
  • watch for changes in registered style and update it in app state.

When putting style in an app state, it might be useful to also put it into component environment with fx/ext-set-env, so you can access it easily. See ext-set-env/ext-get-env section in cljfx's manual.

When you keep style defed in a Var, you can just add a watch to that var that updates style in an app state to achieve instant reload. See example — it contains a style definition and a rich comment that you can use to start and stop watching for changes in style to instantly reapply styles in an app.

There are also 2 resources I found invaluable while iterating on application styling:

  • Official JavaFX CSS reference — to see what you can style with CSS
  • modena.css — default CSS used by JavaFX, helpful when documentation is not enough

Don't rely on priority rules

CSS has confusing priority rules, which, when relied upon, usually results in CSS files becoming append only with more and more overrides. In Charmingly Simple Styling, on the other hand, style maps are unordered, which means resulted CSS selectors are emitted in undefined order. That's made intentionally to promote a more reasonable approach: create different CSS classes for different purposes and then switch between them.

For example, instead of this:

;; BAD!

;; style map:
{".notification" {:-fx-background-color :black
                  "> .label" {:-fx-text-fill :gray}}
 ".danger > .label" {:-fx-text-fill :red}}

;; component:
(defn notification [{:keys [text variant]
                     :or {variant "info"}}]
  {:fx/type :v-box
   :style-class ["notification" variant]
   :children [{:fx/type :label 
               :text text}]})

You should use this:

;; GOOD!

;; style map:
{".notification" {:-fx-background-color :black
                  "-label" {"-info" {:-fx-text-fill :gray}
                            "-danger" {:-fx-text-fill :red}}}}

;; component:
(defn notification [{:keys [text variant]
                     :or {variant "info"}}]
  {:fx/type :v-box
   :style-class "notification"
   :children [{:fx/type :label
               :style-class (str "notification-label-" variant)
               :text text}]})

Be careful with indirect children CSS selector

Some selectors are very easy and straightforward to write using style maps:

{".style-class" {:-fx-background-color :red
                 "> .direct-child" {:-fx-text-fill :green
                                    ":pseudo-class" {:-fx-text-fill :blue}}}}

There is another type of selectors that looks ugly written that way:

{".style-class" {:-fx-background-color :red 
                 ;; ugly string starting with space, boo!
                 " .indirect-child" {:-fx-text-fill :green}}}

This should serve as a reminder that such selectors are bad for application performance, since JavaFX has to look through all parents of a every Node with class indirect-child to see if it has style-class class to figure out if selector applies. As JavaFX's wiki states on it's Performance Tips and Tricks page, you should follow these rules when doing CSS:

  • Avoid selectors that have to match against the entire set of parents
  • Use stylesheets not setStyles
  • Use pseudo-class state, not multiple style classes, for state-based styles

Prefer custom style classes

It might be tempting to use label class so it's applied automatically to all labels without a need to specify their style class. Unfortunately, it means that you will have to fight with default styles from modena.css, because it also targets label class. I think styling is more straightforward when you set your own style class on labels and don't have to worry about disabling unexpected insets or paddings.

Alternatively, you can set CSS url globally with Application/setUserAgentStylesheet, but that means you'll have to provide CSS for every element in an app.

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