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Thursday, October 26, 2023

Tailwind CSS for beginners: Mastering utility-first CSS

Introduction to Tailwind CSS

Tailwind CSS is a utility-first CSS framework that has grown rapidly in popularity over the past few years. With its focus on small, single-purpose classes instead of monolithic frameworks, Tailwind provides a highly customizable approach to crafting modern, responsive web interfaces.

In particular, Tailwind stands out for its flexibility compared to frameworks like Bootstrap. The utility-first methodology allows developers to piece together UI components in a customizable, Lego-like fashion by stacking classes. This improves workflow as you are not constrained to a framework's predetermined design.

In this comprehensive guide, beginners new to Tailwind CSS will learn the fundamentals of using this utility-first framework to improve their workflow and quickly build beautiful websites.

We'll cover key concepts like configuration, responsive design, composing classes, hover states, variants, customizing themes, and integrating popular plugins. You'll see real-world examples of sites and apps built with Tailwind CSS, like GitHub, Postmates, Laravel, and the templates provided in Tailwind UI. We'll also recreate components from MDN Web Docs and other sites to demonstrate how Tailwind speeds up styling and development.

By the end, you'll have the foundation you need to start integrating Tailwind's customizable utility classes into your own projects and prototypes. Let's dive in!

What is Tailwind CSS?

Tailwind CSS is an open-source utility-first CSS framework created by Adam Wathan in 2017. It focuses on small, single-purpose classes instead of monolithic frameworks like Bootstrap.

Some key features of Tailwind CSS:

  • Highly customizable: Tailwind is customizable down to the color hex values, spacing units, font properties, and more through its config file. This level of control allows you to modify Tailwind to match your design system perfectly.

  • Utility-first approach: With utility classes for padding, margin, fonts, flexbox and hundreds of other properties, you can craft UIs faster without writing custom CSS.

  • Mobile-first responsive design: Tailwind uses a mobile-first approach with responsive modifiers for controlling styles across device sizes.

  • Used by leading companies: Tailwind CSS is used by organizations like GitHub, Spotify, Netflix, HubSpot and many more for building their web applications.

The utility-first approach has made Tailwind CSS a game-changer for rapidly building modern, responsive web interfaces without getting bogged down in custom CSS.

Who is this guide for?

This guide is designed specifically for beginners who are new to Tailwind CSS or CSS frameworks in general. We'll walk through all the fundamentals you need to start integrating Tailwind into your own projects.

Here are some of the beginners who will benefit most from this guide:

  • Developers looking to learn Tailwind CSS basics from the ground up

  • Designers and prototypers seeking a faster workflow

  • Web designers who want to improve styling and responsiveness

  • Anyone interested in building modern, production-ready websites

Even if you have some experience with other CSS frameworks like Bootstrap, learning the utility-first approach in Tailwind will improve how you style and develop sites.

What will you learn?

By the end of this hands-on beginner's guide, you will:

  • Understand the utility-first philosophy behind Tailwind CSS

  • Know how to install and configure Tailwind in your projects

  • Master using utility classes to style HTML the Tailwind way

  • Learn mobile-first responsive design methods

  • Customize themes, fonts, colors, and other design tokens

  • Install and use popular Tailwind plugins like Typography and Forms

  • Extract reusable component classes from repeating utility patterns

  • Recreate site examples and templates using Tailwind CSS

We'll cover the key concepts through detailed explanations, real-world examples, and starter templates you can apply to your own projects.

The goal is to provide a comprehensive introduction to Tailwind CSS fundamentals so you can start building with confidence. Let's get started!

Tailwind CSS key concepts

Here are some of the core concepts we'll cover to give you a foundation in Tailwind CSS:

Configuration: Customizing Tailwind's default theme colors, font families, responsive breakpoints, and more through the config file.

Utility classes: Using Tailwind's utility-first classes for styling elements like padding, margins, color, flexbox, typography, and hundreds of other properties.

Responsive design: Making sites responsive with Tailwind's mobile-first breakpoint modifiers for controlling styles across device sizes.

Hover, focus: Styling states like hover and focus for accessibility using variant modifiers.

Plugins: Adding functionality by installing and configuring popular Tailwind plugins like Typography and Forms.

Custom CSS: Extending Tailwind with your own CSS or extracting reusable component classes.

We'll also show real-world examples of Tailwind CSS in action from sites like GitHub, Postmates, Laravel, and templates like Tailwind UI and DaisyUI.

By learning these core concepts, you'll gain the skills to start building robust, responsive sites with maintainable code using Tailwind CSS.

Getting Started with Tailwind CSS

Let's start by going over the basics of setting up Tailwind CSS in your project. We'll look at different installation methods, configuring and customizing Tailwind, understanding the anatomy of a Tailwind CSS file, and setting up PostCSS/Autoprefixer for production builds.

Installation Methods

There are a few different ways to install Tailwind CSS depending on your needs:

CDN links: For quick prototyping or embedding in sites like CodePen, you can include the Tailwind CSS and config files from a CDN like jsDelivr. This lets you start using Tailwind classes immediately without installing anything locally.

npm install: For most real projects, you'll want to install Tailwind CSS via npm which allows you to integrate it into your build chain:

npm install tailwindcss

Tailwind CLI: For advanced configuration and managing projects long-term, the official Tailwind CLI tool has commands for setting up Tailwind, modifying config, building CSS, etc.

We'll primarily be using the npm install method for this guide, but it's useful to understand the CLI and CDN approaches too.

Tailwind Configuration

The magic of Tailwind CSS is its configurability. By editing the tailwind.config.js file, you can customize:

  • Colors and default theme values

  • Font families and sizes

  • Spacing and sizing units

  • Border radius, box shadow defaults

  • Breakpoint prefixes for responsive styles

This is just a small sample - Tailwind exposes nearly everything as configurable to match your design system perfectly.

For now we'll stick to the default theme, but you can refer to the configuration documentation for examples of customizing values.

Anatomy of a Tailwind CSS File

A basic Tailwind CSS file imported into your HTML looks like this:

@tailwind base;
@tailwind components;
@tailwind utilities; 

This imports Tailwind's base, component and utility styles into your CSS using the @tailwind directives.

Base includes default element styles like headings, links, forms, etc.

Components contains basic abstractions like buttons, cards and navbars.

Utilities has all the atomic CSS classes for color, padding, font size, flexbox, etc.

We'll dive more into using utility classes later. Tailwind CLI's purge option strips out any unused CSS for a slim production build.

Tailwind CLI Commands

The main CLI commands you'll use while working with Tailwind CSS are:

tailwindcss init - Creates a tailwind.config.js file with the default configuration.

tailwindcss build - Compiles Tailwind classes into a bundled CSS file ready for production.

tailwindcss watch - Watches for changes and rebuilds your CSS.

tailwindcss serve - Starts a local development server for testing.

We'll use these commands later for building and compiling a complete project with Tailwind.

PostCSS and Autoprefixer

For a production-ready build, you'll want to integrate PostCSS and Autoprefixer into your Tailwind workflow.

PostCSS processes your CSS for compatibility across different browsers. Autoprefixer automatically adds relevant vendor prefixes to your CSS like -webkit and -moz.

Setting this up fully is outside our beginner scope, but know that integrating PostCSS and Autoprefixer is considered a best practice for sites using Tailwind CSS.

Okay, now that we've covered the basics of setting up and configuring Tailwind CSS, let's look at how to use utility classes to start styling HTML.

Core Concepts in Tailwind CSS

The utility-first philosophy is what makes Tailwind CSS unique. Instead of opinionated frameworks that apply blanket styles, Tailwind provides low-level utility classes for you to compose modular CSS fast.

Let's go over the core concepts of using utility classes, responsive modifiers, hover states, variants, and more.

Tailwind Utility Classes

At its core, Tailwind provides tons of utility classes for styling HTML without writing custom CSS:

  • Padding and margin utilities like p-6 or mx-auto for controlling spacing.

  • Sizing utilities for width, height, min-width, max-width.

  • Color and background-color utilities for applying color to text and background elements.

  • Flexbox utilities for displays, aligning elements, direction.

  • Typography utilities for font sizes, weights, letter spacing, line heights, etc.

And many more - check the utility documentation for the full list.

Instead of verbose CSS, you apply multiples classes directly on the HTML elements:

<div class="p-6 max-w-sm mx-auto bg-gray-100 rounded-xl shadow-md flex flex-col my-8">

  <h2 class="text-lg text-indigo-600 font-semibold">Card Title</h5> 
  <p class="mt-2 text-gray-600">Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipisicing elit. Perferendis, commodi?</p>

Composing small, purpose-built classes this way allows for rapid development and reduced maintenance overhead.

Responsive Design

One of Tailwind's biggest strengths is responsive design. Using responsive prefix modifiers, you can control styling across device or element sizes:

  • sm: applies styles from 640px width and up

  • md: applies styles from 768px and up

  • lg: applies styles from 1024px and up

Here's a responsive card example using lg: and md: breakpoints:

<!-- Full width card on mobile -->
<div class="p-6 mx-auto bg-indigo-100 rounded-xl">

  <!-- 2 column layout on md and larger -->
  <div class="md:grid md:grid-cols-2 md:gap-4">
    <!-- Card content -->


You can also customize or extend breakpoints in the Tailwind config file.

Hover, Focus and Other States

Tailwind provides utility classes for styling various states:

  • hover: modifies styles on hover

  • focus: for focus states

  • active: for active state

  • group-hover: applies styles on parent hover

Here's a button example with hover: and focus::

  class="bg-blue-500 text-white rounded-lg px-4 py-2 hover:bg-blue-600 focus:outline-none">

Tailwind recommends designing with accessibility in mind first, then enhancing with interactions like hover.


Variants modify how utility classes are generated by default. For example, to generate hover styles, you need to enable the hover variant in your config file:

// tailwind.config.js
module.exports = {
  variants: {    
    extend: {
      hover: ['responsive', 'focus'] 

Now hover utilities like hover:bg-gray-100 will be generated.

Common variants:

  • responsive for breakpoints

  • dark mode styles

  • focus for accessibility

  • group-hover for parent hover

  • first, last for styling first/last child

Plugins can also add their own variants - we'll cover those later.

Composing Utility Classes

With utility classes, you can assemble complex components by stacking modifiers, responsiveness, variants and more:

<!-- Container -->
<div class="p-6 mx-auto bg-indigo-100 rounded-xl">

  <!-- Card -->
  <div class="max-w-sm p-6 bg-white rounded-xl shadow-xl hover:shadow-2xl transition duration-500">
    <!-- Badge -->
    <span class="inline-block p-2 text-blue-800 bg-blue-100 rounded-full">
    <!-- Card body -->
    <div class="mt-4">
      <h1 class="text-2xl font-semibold text-gray-800">Card Title</h1>
      <p class="mt-2 text-gray-600">Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipisicing elit. Quis, fugit?</p>

Composing small, single-purpose utility classes like this is the key to rapid development with Tailwind CSS.

Now that you have a grasp of core concepts like utilities, responsive design, states, variants and composition, let's look at how to customize and extend Tailwind CSS for your projects.

Customizing Tailwind CSS

A major advantage of Tailwind is that nearly everything is customizable. Let's go over ways to extend Tailwind CSS with custom CSS, components, plugins, variants and more.

Extending with Custom CSS

To modify base styles or add custom utilities, you can add your CSS in the @tailwind directives:

@tailwind base;

/* Add custom base styles */  
@layer base {
  h2 {
    @apply font-serif;

@tailwind components;
@tailwind utilities;

You can also extract repeating utility patterns into reusable classes with @apply:

/* Custom utility class */
.icon-button {
  @apply inline-flex items-center justify-center h-10 w-10 rounded-full bg-indigo-500 text-white;

Then apply that class name on elements:

<button class="icon-button">
  <!-- Icon here -->  

This keeps your project DRY by reusing utility combinations.

Adding Variants

To add a custom variant like text uppercase support, first register it in your Tailwind config file:

// tailwind.config.js
module.exports = {
  variants: {
    extend: {
      textUppercase: ['responsive'],

Then generate the utilities by enabling the variant:

@tailwind variants {
  .uppercase {
    text-transform: uppercase;

Now you can use text-uppercase utilities in your HTML!

Extracting Reusable Components

For major components like cards, navigation, alerts, etc., you can extract their styles into reusable classes with @apply:

.alert {
  @apply p-4 mb-4 rounded-lg; 

.alert-danger {
  @apply bg-red-200 text-red-800; 

Now you can apply .alert and .alert-danger classes to elements without rewriting utility classes.

Extract components like this as your project grows to keep your CSS maintainable.


Plugins extend Tailwind's default functionality. For example:

  • Tailwind Typography adds opinionated typographic styles

  • Tailwind Forms constructs styled form components

  • Tailwind Aspect Ratio generates aspect ratio utilities

To add a plugin, install it with npm, then register it in your Tailwind config file:

// tailwind.config.js
module.exports = {
  plugins: [

Plugins can provide utilities, components, variants and more. Browse the plugin registry to find community plugins.

Modifying Tailwind Source Files

For advanced customization, you can edit Tailwind's underlying CSS source files directly:

  • tailwindcss/base: Default base element styles

  • tailwindcss/components: All component classes

  • tailwindcss/utilities: Utility class definitions

For example, you could adjust spacing/sizing scales, default colors, or breakpoint values by modifying these source files.

Use this advanced technique carefully, as changes can break Tailwind behavior. But the option exists for extreme customization!

Okay, now that you've seen ways to extend and customize Tailwind CSS for your specific needs, let's look at some real-world examples and starter templates.

Examples and Templates

One of the fastest ways to master Tailwind is by learning from real-world examples. Let's go over starter templates, recreating sites with Tailwind, building components from scratch, converting CSS to Tailwind, and more.

Starter Templates

The Tailwind CLI can scaffold starter