Cascading Style Sheets, or “CSS,” is a style sheet language that allows you to change the look and feel of HTML documents. Bootstrap is a CSS framework that lets you build websites faster, without having to code your CSS from scratch.
To better understand the difference between CSS and Bootstrap—and help you decide which option to use for your project—join me as I take a look at the value of CSS frameworks and the pros and cons of using one compared to writing everything from scratch.
What Is a CSS Framework?
Is this the first time you come across the term “CSS framework?” Sounds complicated, I know, but it’s easier to understand than some of you might think. A CSS framework is a library of ready-made UX elements and CSS rules that you can use in your project.
When you use a CSS framework, you don’t have to write all of the CSS rules for your project—for example, the rules for your site’s structure, the styling of the text, forms, and buttons, and so on—from scratch.
Instead, you get a template (with documentation) to use and adapt for your project. If you really know the CSS framework you’re working with, as most web developers tend to do, you can prototype websites in minutes or hours and get them into production within days!
Is Bootstrap the Only CSS Framework?
No, Bootstrap isn’t the only CSS framework. Although Bootstrap was one of the first and is still one of the best, there are many other CSS frameworks you can use to create a website.
Some of the best alternatives to Boostrap are Foundation, Tailwind CSS, Bulma, and UIKit. Each has its pros and cons, and you should evaluate them objectively before choosing one for your project.
As a general rule when choosing a CSS framework, you should choose the one that offers the most of what you need and the least of what you don’t. This way, you will ensure that your style sheet is as lean as possible—that is, there are few unused CSS rules that slow down your site’s loading speed.
Why Use Bootstrap Instead of CSS?
Now that you know what a CSS framework is and how CSS, the stylesheet language, differs from Bootstrap, a CSS framework, let’s take a minute or two to talk about why you would want to use Bootstrap in the first place.
Using a CSS Framework Saves Time
Coding the CSS style sheet for your project from scratch can take up a lot—and I mean a lot—of time, especially if it’s a large website with a lot of sections and many different UX elements.
And, here, we’re not just talking about the time it takes to write the CSS rules themselves. We’re also talking about the time it takes to test and refactor those rules until you get them right.
If you use a CSS framework such as Bootstrap, you are saving time by using free, open-source code that’s based on the best practices and the latest standards. (It’s also well-documented and well-maintained.)
It’s Responsive and Cross-Browser Compatible
Creating responsive layouts can be tedious. And making them cross-browser compatible can be even harder, even if you don’t have to support legacy browsers, like Internet Explorer and such.
If you use a CSS framework like Bootstrap for your project, you get a responsive layout and cross-browser compatibility by default. So you’re starting out with a lot, without even having to write a single line of code!
This saves you precious time and allows you to focus on value-added work, such as customizing the Bootstrap framework and matching the look and feel of its components to your website’s UX mockups.
You Can Customize and Adapt It
As a CSS framework, Bootstrap is highly customizable.
With a few taps on the keyboard, you can customize the layout and UX components to match one-to-one with the look and feel that you’re looking for.
Among the things that you can tweak are the spacing between rows and columns, the margin and padding of the UI elements, the colors, fonts, and styles (say, border radius, shadows, etc.) of buttons and forms, and more.
(For all the customization options, you can check out the documentation for the latest version of Bootstrap here.)
It Has a Community of Developers
An often underrated benefit of using the Bootstrap framework is the vibrant community of source code contributors and web developers who use it. And that’s something you can’t get when you write your own CSS code from scratch!
If you’re having an issue with the Bootstrap framework, chances are somebody else has already had it and posted it in a development forum, like the Bootstrap community at Dev.to, about it.
And even if you can’t find the information you’re looking for, you can get the answer by asking the question yourself. The Bootstrap Slack channel, for example, has 45,000+ members.
Why Use CSS Instead of Bootstrap?
Okay, we talked about the reasons to use the Bootstrap framework. What about the reasons for writing your own CSS?
There are times when writing your own CSS style sheets for your project makes more sense than adopting a CSS framework, no matter what that framework is.
This is usually the right thing to do if (a) you’re working on a project for a relatively simple website that doesn’t require the use of an entire CSS framework, and/or (b) you have very specific requirements that, for one reason or another, are not met by Bootstrap.
Some web developers and web development teams prefer to write their own CSS style sheets for performance reasons. At first glance, the reasons are sound: When everything is written from scratch, there’s usually no code that goes unused.
But this is only true if you and your team take really good care of your codebase, which is rarely the case. Over time, even your self-written CSS code gets bloated with old, unused rules that slow down the loading of your website.