generating theme tokens

December 29, 2020

generating theme tokens and falling back to defaults

I'm working on a theme/token generating library based on theme-ui and emotion. I've found myself using some variation of the same theme object across projects, but as I iterate on that object either improving it or tweaking it, I find it increasingly difficult to keep different versions up to parity. An example: I update how I'm using breakpoints in one so I need to go through each project and update the breakpoints there.

One solution would be to publish the theme object as an npm package, but I wanted something a little more dynamic. speculative fabulation (or sf) generates theme tokens (ex. colors, typography, buttons) as well as theme objects (ex. an object comprised of theme tokens). These can be passed into emotion's or styled-components's theme provider. sf operates on the idea that objects go in, objects come out -- you can extend, merge, or override theme defaults, allowing granular control over the theme you generate:

const defaultTheme = genTheme();
const defaultThemeWithNewColor = genTheme({ colors: { newColor: '#333' } });

Both functions return a full theme object, but you can drill down and update the specific tokens you need.

token generators

genTheme() is broken down into a series of token generators -- functions that return a token object, like colors or styles for a button. In working on these token generators, I set up a few parameters for how they should behave:

  1. generator files export a token object
  2. generators return a token object
  3. generators don't require arguments to return the token object
  4. generators merge and extend the token object by default
  5. generators can wholesale override the token object

For something like colors, this is simple enough:

import { merge } from 'theme-ui';
const defaultColors = {
  text: '#111827',
  background: '#F9FAFB',
  primary: '#2563EB',
  secondary: '#DE7283',
  accent: '#7C3AED',
  muted: '#88d1FF'
export function genColors({ override, ...restColors } = {}) {
  if (override) {
    return override;
  if (!restColors) {
    return defaultColors;
  return merge(defaultColors, restColors);
export default defaultColors;

By default, genColors() returns defaultColors. If we pass an override argument, it will return that object instead. Any other key/value pair we pass gets merged into default colors.

token generators -- deep and defaults

Things became slightly more complicated as I began working with typography. In the past, I've defined a default text base that includes things like font size, line height, and font family, spreading that object into each typographical element (i.e. p, ul, blockquote, etc.) (I'm ultimately leveraging the theme.styles object from theme-ui). This works for the first two generator requirements -- have a base set of styles; spread them into each element, return that:

export const defaultTextBase = {
  fontFamily: 'body',
  fontSize: ['sm', 'md'],
  lineHeight: 1.5,
  margin: 0,
  padding: 0,
  marginBottom: 4
const defaultText = {
  p: {
  ul: {
    paddingLeft: 8,
    ul: {
      margin: 0

The problem starts when I want to extend or merge styles into the base: if we're just spreading defaultTextBase into these elements, at what point do we actually merge or extend the base? One way to solve this would be to iterate through the keys in defaultText, spreading the base as we went, but this would prevent us from exporting an object from the generator file. Another way to handle this would be to get a diff between the new base and default base -- after all, we're just extending or merging into it. However, this presents an immediate problem if we're going to wholesale override the base at some point. So I ended up writing a utility that removes the default values (if present) from each element.

function removeDefaults(obj, defaultObj) {
  const defaultKeys = Object.keys(defaultObj);
  // mapObject does what it sounds like: allows us to map the key/value pairs in an object
  // mapObject = (obj, func) => Object.fromEntries(Object.entries(obj).map(func));
  return mapObject(obj, ([key, value]) => {
    const remainingValues = Object.keys(value).reduce((acc, curr) => {
      if (defaultKeys.includes(curr) && defaultObj[curr] === value[curr]) {
        return { ...acc };
      return { [curr]: value[curr], ...acc };
    }, {});
    return [

Once the default values are removed, we can determine the new base (overriding, merging into, or extending the default base) and use the above mapObject function to pass that base into each key. You can see the full implementation here

spread defaults // remove defaults

Something about this pattern seems useful, though I'm not entirely sure where. It goes something like this:

  1. Have a default base
  2. Spread that default base into each key of a token object. Export that object.
  3. If you need to extend or override that base, use the above function to remove those defaults
  4. Return new object using new base

I like this pattern, though I think it fits a specific use case. I do think it could be used in a more generalized way, and I'd be interested to hear alternative approaches to the above problem.