Designing Beautiful Shadows in CSS

354 points16
chrismorgan11 hours ago

> One more quick tip: unlike box-shadow, the filter property is hardware-accelerated in Chrome, and possibly other browsers.

In Firefox, everything is hardware-accelerated. And the `will-change` property is largely obsolete. (I personally wish they had stuck to the old translateZ(0) hack which was obviously a hack rather than defining will-change, since WebRender—what lets Firefox do all the rendering on the GPU—was already well underway and had demonstrated that something like will-change wasn’t necessary, though it was still a few more years before it was stabilised in Firefox.)

kevingadd4 hours ago

While I generally agree, even in a hardware accelerated world will-change can still be useful. If you're transforming a complex box with lots of typeset international text and stuff in it, it can be necessary to buffer that whole box to a scratch surface first, so will-change is useful to optimize that.

louissm_it2 hours ago

This post must have taken a ton of time to build, and it's extremely well done. The author has a really nice CSS course about to launch if anyone is interested.

steve_adams_8612 hours ago

Wow, this is way beyond what I expected. Josh consistently illustrates and explains these concepts extremely well. I really enjoy it.

I hadn’t considered the idea of colour matching to simulate raytracing. It looks great, but I’m not sure when I’d have a product to work on which would be complimented by this treatment. Maybe I work on boring stuff. Perhaps if it was done with enough subtlety I could get away with it.

I also wonder if it could become troublesome if you had nested ColourWrapper components. I suppose the most recent wrapper would take precedence, or it could be designed as such. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.

jvidjejnsjcj2 hours ago

To my eyes the best looking shadows on the page are the harder box-shadows, like the one labeled typical shadow at the beginning of the article. In particular the very soft shadows look indistinct and displeasing.

It might be because using a single, somewhat hard, black colored box-shadow is the most physically realistic option presented for a single distant light source. Adding more shadows of different radii at the same angle certainly does not approximate raytracing and give a more physically accurate result. In fact the lighting setup you would need to achieve that effect in real life would be very awkward, a set collinear lights of increasing size. Also, black is close to the best color to blend with for shadows, because it will lower the intensity of each color channel in roughly the same proportion. It won't give exact results unless you blend in sRGB space, but neither will any color blend, and black is probably the best approximation.

And two of his demos are very misleading. The majority of the 3D effect in the reveal demo comes from the actual 3D effect. Before sliding the slider, I couldn't judge the depths at all. And the elevation demo looks good, but I think much of the effect is from the size of the div increasing. If the purpose of the demo is to show the effect of shadow sharpness on perceived depth, it shouldn't confound it with another variable.

jagger2713 hours ago

It's posts like this that remind me why I force myself not to do front end. I always end up tweaking the same 10 lines of CSS until they're juuuuust right and never get anything done.

Great article!

duxup3 hours ago

I do front and back end work, I have a conversation like this a lot of folks:

Rando Dev: "OMG CSS!"

Me: "Bro if you just want to get the job done there's no shame in picking a CSS framework and getting it out the door. It will look nice and you're good to go."

Rando Dev: "Yeah but then I wanted to tweak this and then I had to tweak this other thing and ..."

Me: "Whose fault is that now?"

You really don't need to get into the nitty gritty to do just fine in CSS land.

The amount of give and take and work that goes into a good CSS framework is shockingly high / it's great that it is done for you. Be aware of that work if you decide to get into the details....

zxcvbn40387 hours ago

I abandoned front end development long ago for the same reason - the endless rounds of people undoing each other’s changes and moving things one pixel here, one pixel there, make the blue more blue, make the blue less blue, add more white space, remove more white space, etc. Maddening. I know the couch looks good everywhere if my wife has to move it, too bad we can’t apply that same tactic to front end development.

dgb2310 hours ago

I call it “pushing pixels”. It’s incredibly time consuming, the devil is in the details.

herodoturtle6 hours ago

I hear you - "pixel pushing" as it's called.

It helps to think of it as an art.

If you have the time to flesh it out, then enjoy the slow process.

I find the work is more rewarding that way.

rambambram8 hours ago

If it's "juuust right", I think you got something done. Don't be too harsh on yourself. ;)

jacknews7 hours ago

"In my humble opinion, the best websites and web applications have a tangible “real” quality to them. There are lots of factors involved to achieve this quality, but shadows are a critical ingredient."

Yet his own site style is totally flat?

klodolph3 hours ago

It’s not totally flat. Flat where appropriate. Documents should be flat. Shadows are for things that appear on top of other things. There’s a message on the left that says, “Hi there! Can I share a cool thing I’m working on with you?” This has a shadow, because it appears on top of the document.

philote3 hours ago

The "Posts" nav item has a dropdown that overlays the document and is still completely flat.

dsQTbR7Y5mRHnZv2 hours ago

There is a drop shadow on the posts nav item:

rtsil2 hours ago

The dropdown has a shadow for me with Chrome (and also a sound effect).

bla35 hours ago

"The shoemaker's children always go barefoot" as they say.

travisd9 hours ago

I highly recommend the “Refactoring UI” book. It’s full of very actionable principles and tips like this that you can start using tomorrow to make less ugly things. It includes things like: shadows, HSL for colors instead of RGB, how to strategically (de)emphasize text, etc. It won’t make you a designer, but it will make your personal projects less ugly and help you survive the gaps between consulting with a real designer.

albertgoeswoof4 hours ago

> If CSS had a real lighting system, we would specify a position for one or more lights. Sadly, CSS has no such thing.

Are there any post processing libraries that can add this? It would be super interesting to treat elements on the page in 3 dimensions

andrewingram4 hours ago

That's a good point. Could largely be achieved using a combination of design tokens to indicate light source, and an abstraction that allows assigning an elevation value (much like in Material Design) to individual elements.

Arguably what's missing is the ability to use blend modes with shadows, so that you don't need to explicitly know anything about the elements that the shadows are rendered on.

Edit: Found a Stackoverflow answer that shows a way to somewhat emulate this using a pseudo element:

karaterobot1 hour ago

That's all I could think about while reading this!

leephillips1 hour ago

I think the most important tip here is not to use neutral gray shadows. I’m no artist, but I’ve heard that an early lesson for all painters is never to use neutral grey shadows. They need not match the hue of the object they’re falling on, I don’t think; a blue tint is sometimes recommended.

prions1 hour ago

(amateur painter) Generally, shadows have a lower chroma and value than the color of the object.

If I'm painting a purple sphere, then the cast shadow will be a much darker value of purple.

benjaminjackman11 hours ago

This is a really good article and the examples are very pretty. I especially enjoyed the part about how filter:drop-shadow contours to the shape of the element (did not know that, and that's a handy trick).

However just beware that there can be a decent performance hit from having a lot of box-shadows.

bajsejohannes6 hours ago

The "optimized shadow" version has a lot of subtle banding artifacts, presumably because of the layers. If I squint, the optimized looks better, though.

daneel_w4 hours ago

It certainly looks very nice compared to a single basic box shadow. Though, 6 stacked boxes is also a reason why otherwise innocuous webpages are annoyingly jerky when scrolling through them.

tambourine_man4 hours ago

I get a white page with unexpected error on desktop Safari.

TypeError: null is not an object (evaluating 'e.current.getBoundingClientRect')

Gotta love React, TypeScript and all this wonderful modern frontend stack.

So resilient.

keb_4 hours ago

This is something I've wondered -- can someone smarter than me explain the benefit of using something like Next.js or Gatsby for a blogsite like this over an SSG like Jekyll or Zola? Doesn't Next & Gatsby deliver a bunch of JS to the client either way?

skavi10 hours ago

I wonder if there will ever be a way to plug web elements into “unified lighting environments” as in Fuchsia’s Scenic [0].


bayindirh5 hours ago

From the article:

"Layered shadows are undeniably beautiful, but they do come with a cost. If we layer 5 shadows, our device has to do 5x more work!

This isn't as much of an issue on modern hardware, but it can slow rendering down on older inexpensive mobile devices."

5x more work is always 5x more work. Can we just stop downplaying it?

makach6 hours ago

That was a really nice blogpost. It never occured to me that I could apply multiple shadows to an element.

johnthuss15 hours ago

This is a fantastic article! What a great resource for learning how to implement realistic and great-looking shadows in CSS.

jungleanimal9 hours ago

Wow.. Josh did quite a lot here I never expected this. I've never been able to make something like that and simulate ray tracing... wow just wow

jansan8 hours ago

It's common for that light source to be above and slightly to the left

Is this still the case? Windows used to have an almost 45° lighting angle, but more recently (MacOS, Material Design) the more common case is the light source shining from the top.

user-the-name4 hours ago

Yes, largely, the top-left light position is quite outdated, and modern designs are a lot more likely to have the light directly above.

Top-left was used in the past because the only lighting hints was the edge colours, and this looks weird with a light that is directly above, so typically a 45-degree light was assumed.

In modern design, there is very little edge colouring used, and instead the light determines only shadow positioning. And shadows look perfectly fine with a light positioned directly above. This placement feels a bit more natural, as it doesn't introduce an arbitrary sideways bias.

robbedpeter14 hours ago

Craft is beautiful. Thanks for this link!

brijeshpatel00710 hours ago

Thanks for sharing its help me in my work.

sscarduzio8 hours ago

The more I read, the more I think ALL of this should be taken care by a library/framework/toolkit

pacifika10 hours ago

Zero business value, slowing down mobile browsers. Great article and love the effect, though. The newsletter signup effect is worth a subscribe.

blowski9 hours ago

How can you say for certain there’s no business impact? I can imagine for really premium brands, this kind of attention to detail makes a difference.

croes1 hour ago

Difference for whom? I bet most users won't see a difference even if you ask them to search for it.

And most website lack more important features than shadows even premium brands. Sometimes premium brands in particular value looks over function.

wruza9 hours ago

That’s how. I guess it’s time to tell these guys what they were missing all these years.

tkzed498 hours ago

the Apple website uses background blur and has giant scroll-animated images. The store page has drop shadows and CSS transitions.

wruza8 hours ago
acomms3 hours ago

Why can't depth be a design element that creates visual hierarchy for a better UX? Better UX can generate business value.

travisd9 hours ago

There’s certainly value in, at the very least, understanding how shadows can help delineate elements and create depth (which is a huge part of how we as humans create visual hierarchy to determine what’s important).

Much of the article might not be exactly “business value focused” but neither are the technical deep dives of database systems, though you’d never hear this kind of comment on that kind of post.

tl;dr: it’s someone nerding out a bit, it doesn’t need to create “business value”