Bootstrap 3 to 4: Changes in how font size, line-height, and spacing is done. Or “what happened to $line-height-computed.”

Bootstrap 4 (I am writing this in the age of 4.3.0) changes some significant things about how it handles font-size, line-height, and spacer variables in SASS.

In particular, changing font-size calculations from px units to rem units; with some implications for line-heights as handled in bootstrap; and changes to how whitespace is calculated to be in terms of font-size.

I have a custom stylesheet built on top of Bootstrap 3, and am migrating it to Bootstrap 4, and I was getting confused about what’s going on. And googling, some things are written about “Bootstrap 4” that are really about a Bootstrap 4 alpha, and in some cases things changed majorly before the final.

So I decided to just figure it out looking at the code and what docs I could find, and write it up as a learning exersize for myself, perhaps useful to others.

Bootstrap 3

In Bootstrap 3, the variable $font-size-base is the basic default font size. It defaults to 14px, and is expected to be expressed in pixel units.

CSS line-height is given to the browser as a unit-less number. MDN says “Desktop browsers (including Firefox) use a default value of roughly 1.2, depending on the element’s font-family.” Bootstrap sets the CSS line-height to a larger than ‘typical’ browser default value, having decided that is better typography at least for the default Bootstrap fonts.

In Bootstrap 3, the unit-less $line-height-base variable defaults to the unusual value of 1.428571429. This is to make it equivalent to a nice round value of “20px” for a font-size-base of 14px, when the unit-less line-height is multiplied by the font-size-base. And there is a line-height-computed value that’s defined as exactly that by default, it’s defined in terms of $line-height-base.  So line-height-base is a unit-less value you can supply to the CSS line-height property (which _scaffolding does on body), and line-height-computed is a value in pixels that should be the same size, just converted to pixels.


As a whitespace measure, in bootstrap 3

Bootstrap wants to make everything scale depending on font-size, so tries to define various paddings and margins based on your selected line height in pixels.

For instance, an alerts, breadcrumbs, and tables, all have a margin-bottom of $line-height-computed (default 20px, with the default 14px font size and default unit-less line-height). h1, h2, and h3 all have a margin-top of $line-height-computed.

h1, h2, and h3 all have a margin-bottom of $line-height-computed/2 (half a line heigh tin pixels; 10px by default). And ($line-height-computed / 2) is both margin-bottom and margin-top for a p tag.

You can redefine the size of your font or line-height in variables, but bootstrap 3 tries to express lots of whitespace values in terms of “the height of a line on the page in pixels” (or half of one) — which is line-height-computed, which is by default 20px.

On the other hand, other kinds of whitespace are expressed in hard-coded values, unrelated to the font-size, and only sometimes changeable by bootstrap variables either.  Often using the specific fixed values 30px and 15px.

$grid-gutter-width is set to 30px.  So is $jumbotron-padding, You can change these variables yourself, but they don’t automatically change “responsively” if you change the base font-size in $font-size-base. They aren’t expressed in terms of font-size.

A .list-group has a margin-bottom set to 20px, and a .list-group-item has a padding of 10px 15px, and there’s no way to change either of these with a bootstrap variable, they are truly hard-coded into the SCSS. (You could of course try to override them with additional CSS).

So some white-space in Bootstrap 3 does not scale proportionately when you change $font-size-baseand/or $line-height-base.

Bootstrap 4

In Bootstrap 4, the fundamental starting font-size variable is still $font-size-base, but it’s defined in terms of rem, it is by default defined to 1rem.

You can’t set $font-size-base to a value in px units, without bootstrap’s sass complaining as it tries to do things with it that are dimensionally incompatible with px. You can change it to something other than 1rem, but bootstrap 4 wants $font-size-base in rem units.

1rem means “same as the font-size value on the html element.”  Most browsers (at least most desktop browsers?) default to 16px, so it will usually by default mean 16px. But this isn’t required, and some browsers may choose other defaults.

Some users may set their browser default to something other than 16px, perhaps because they want ‘large print’. (Although you can also set default ‘zoom level’ instead in a browser; what a browser offers and how it effects rendering can differ between browsers). This is, I think, the main justification for Bootstrap changing to rem, accessibility improvements respecting browser default stylesheets.

Bootstrap docs say not much to explain the change, but I did find this:

No base font-size is declared on the <html>, but 16px is assumed (the browser default). font-size: 1rem is applied on the <body> for easy responsive type-scaling via media queries while respecting user preferences and ensuring a more accessible approach.

Perhaps for these reasons of accessibility, Bootstrap itself does not define a font-size on the html element, it just takes the browser default. But in your custom stylesheet, you could insist html { font-size: 16px } to get consistent 1rem=16px regardless of browser (and possibly with accessibility concerns — although you can find a lot of people debating this if you google, and I haven’t found much that goes into detail and is actually informed by user-testing or communication with relevant communities/experts).  If you don’t do this, your bootstrap default font-size will usually be 16px, but may depend on browser, although the big ones seem to default to 16px.

(So note, Bootstrap 3 defaulted to 14px base-font-size, Bootstrap 4 defaults to what will usually be 16px). 

Likewise, when they say “responsive type-scaling via media queries”, I guess they mean that based on media queries, you could set font-size on html to something like 1.8​, meaning “1.8 times as large as ordinary browser default font-size.”  Bootstrap itself doesn’t seem to supply any examples of this, but I think it’s what it’s meant to support. (You wouldn’t want to set the font-size in px based on a media-query, if you believe respecting default browser font-size is good for accessibility).

Line-height in Bootstrap 4

The variable line-height-base is still in Bootstrap 4, and defaults to 1.5.  So in the same ballpark as Bootstrap 3’s 1.428571429, although slightly larger — Bootstrap is no longer worried about making it a round number in pixels when multiplied against a pixel-unit font-size-base.  line-height-base is still set as default line-height for body, now in _reboot.scss (_scaffolding.scss no longer exists).

$line-height-computed, which in Bootstrap 3 was “height in pixel units”, no longer exists in Bootstrap 4. In part because at CSS-writing/compile time, we can’t be sure what it will be in pixels, because it’s up to the browser’s default size.

If we assume browser default size of 16px, the “computed” line-height it’s now 24px, which is still a nice round number after all.

But by doing everything in terms of rem, it can also change based on media query of course. So if the point of Bootstrap 3 line-height-computed was often to use for whitespace and other page-size calculations based on base font-size, if we want to let base-font-size fluctuate based on a media query, we can’t know the value in terms of pixels at CSS writing time.

Bootstrap docs say:

For easier scaling across device sizes, block elements should use rems for margins.

Font-size dependent whitespace in Bootstrap 4

In Bootstrap 3, line-height-computed ) (20px for 14px base font; one line height) was often used for a margin-bottom.

In Bootstrap 4, we have a new variable $spacer that is often used. For instance, table now uses $spacer as margin bottom.  And spacer defaults to… 1rem. (Just like font-size-base1, but it’s not defined in terms of it, if you want them to match and you change one, you’d have to change the other to match).

alert and breadcrumbs both have their own new variables for margin-bottom, which also both default to: 1rem. Again not in terms of font-size-base, just happen to default to the same thing.

So one notable thing is that Bootstrap 3, as related to base font size, is putting less whitespace in margin-bottom on these elements. In Bootstrap 3, they got the line-height as margin (roughly 1.5 times the font size, 20px for a 14px font-size). In Bootstrap 4, they get 1rem which is the same as the default font-size, so in pixels that’s 16px for the default 16px font-size. Not sure why Bootstrap 4 decided to slightly reduce the separator whitespace here. 

All h1-h6 have a margin-bottom of $headings-margin-bottom, which defaults to half a $spacer. –default 1rem. (bootstrap 3 gave h1-h2 ‘double’ margin-bottom).

p uses $paragraph-margin-bottom, now in _reboot.scss. Which defaults to, you guessed it, 1rem.  (note that paragraph spacing in bootstrap 3 was ($line-height-computed / 2), half of a lot of other block element spacing. Now it’s 1rem, same as the rest).

grid-gutter-width is still in pixels, and still 30px, it is not responsive to font size.

list-groups look like the use padding rather than margin now, but it is defined in terms of rem .75rem in the vertical direction.

So a bunch of white-space separator values that used to be ‘size of line-height’ are now the (smaller) ‘size of font’ (and now expressed in rems).

If you wanted to make them bigger, the same relation to font/line-height they had in bootstrap 3, you might want to set them to 1rem * $line-height-base, or to actually respond properly to any resets to font-size-base, $font-size-base * $line-height-base. You’d have a whole bunch of variables to reset this way, as every component uses it’s own variable, which aren’t in terms of each other.

The only thing in Bootstrap 4 that still uses $font-size-base * $line-height-base (actual line height expressed in units, in this case rem units) seems to in custom_forms for custom checkbox/radio button styling. 

For your own stuff? $spacer and associated multiples

$spacer is probably a good variable to use where before you might have used $line-height-computed, for “standard vertical whitespace used most other places” — but beware it’s now equal to font-size-base, not (the larger) line-height-base.

There are additional spacing utilities, to let you get standard spaces of various sizes as margin or padding, whose values are by default defined as multiples of $spacer. I don’t believe these $spacer values are used internally to bootstrap though, even if the comments suggest they will be. Internally, bootstrap sometimes manually does things like $spacer / 2, ignoring your settings for $spacers.

If you need to do arithmetic with something expressed in rem (like $spacer), and a value expressed in pixels… you can let the browser do it with calc. calc($spacer - 15px)" actually delivered to the browser should work in any recent browser.

One more weird thing: Responsive font-sizes?

While off by default, Bootstrap gives you an option to enable “responsive font sizes”, which change themselves based on the viewport size. Not totally sure of the implications of this on whitespace defined in terms of font-size (will that end up responsive too?), it’s enough to make the head spin.

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