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Colors And Theming - Creating Dynamic Themes

# Creating Dynamic Themes

Starting with react-md@v2, the majority of the packages now allow for customizing colors and spacing with CSS variables with the new theme API. This new theme API is extremely powerful and allows for a lot of additional customization and configuration in your app since your theme can be configured at a component-by-component basis or at runtime.

The @react-md/theme API

The @react-md/theme package is slightly different than the other packages since the naming convention will just be $rmd-theme-values, @function rmd-theme, @function rmd-theme-var, @mixin rmd-theme, and @mixin rmd-theme-update-var. The @react-md/theme package also has the most available theme values since it handles:

  • the general background colors
  • theme colors (primary, secondary, warning, error, success)
  • text colors (primary, secondary, disabled, help, icon)

You'll generally want to use the @mixin rmd-theme to apply one of these theme values to the background-color or color property or the @mixin rmd-theme-update-var to create a new theme for a component.

# Other packages' theme API

If a package supports the new theme API, the package will export:

  • $rmd-<packageName>-theme-values - a Sass Map of all the themeable variables that also create css variables
  • @function rmd-<packageName>-theme - a function to get a current theme value
  • @function rmd-<packageName>-theme-var - a function get get a current theme value as a css variable
  • @mixin rmd-<packageName>-theme - a mixin to apply one of the package's theme values as a css property
  • @mixin rmd-<packageName>-theme-update-var - a mixin to update one of the package's theme values with a new value

# Examples and Usage within react-md

The new theme API is used extensively throughout the react-md code base to create the themeable components along with different background colors based on elevation as well as the dense theme. Lets start by looking at the rmd-list-dense-theme mixin:

1234567891011121314@mixin rmd-list-dense-theme {
  @include rmd-list-theme-update-var(
  @include rmd-list-theme-update-var(
  @include rmd-list-theme-update-var(

This mixin should normally be applied at the :root selector (or html), but can also be applied to any class you want to update the list to use the dense spec.

12345678910:root {
  @include rmd-utils-desktop-media {
    @include rmd-list-dense-theme;

// or with a class
.dense-theme {
  @include rmd-list-dense-theme;

Even though the @mixin rmd-list-dense-theme uses the rmd-list-theme-var functions, it is not required and can be exchanged with any SCSS variable or value.

1234567891011@mixin rmd-list-dense-theme {
  @include rmd-list-theme-update-var(font-size, $rmd-list-dense-font-size);
  @include rmd-list-theme-update-var(
  @include rmd-list-theme-update-var(

The big difference between the two is that the second example will only be configurable compile time instead of run time. If you want to allow your user to define custom theme values or change the values on the fly, the first example allows you to only update the dense CSS variables while the second requires you to re-compile or call the mixin again with new values.

Another great example for CSS variable usage is the @react-md/button package. The button modifies the @react-md/icon package's color along with with sizing in the @mixin rmd-button-icon.

# Documentation Site Usage

If you haven't already, I highly recommend checking out the Theme Builder page and comparing to the v1 Theme Builder. Something that should hopefully stand out immediately is that the v1 Theme Builder causes the screen to flash colors while changing the theme while the current Theme Builder does not. This is due to the fact that the theme is actually configured via css variables in v2 while a new stylesheet must be requested and built from the documentation server in v1 to work.

The code for updating these variables is actually pretty simple as well:

1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829type CSSVariableValue = string | number | null;
interface CSSVariable {
  name: string;
  value: CSSVariableValue;

const variables: CSSVariable[] = [
    name: "--rmd-theme-primary",
    value: primaryColor,
    name: "--rmd-theme-secondary",
    value: secondaryColor,

useEffect(() => {
  const { style } = document.documentElement;
  variables.forEach((variable) => {
    style.setProperty(, `${variable.value}`);

  return () => {
    variables.forEach((variable) => {
      style.setProperty(, "");
}, [variables]);

You can check out the full source code in the Theme Builder GitHub folder or specifically the ThemeConfiguration.tsx and useThemeVariables.ts files.

# Server Side Rendering with Saved Themes

The documentation site uses a combination of cookies and localStorage to be able to save your theme as well as using the React context API to be able to access the current theme. Cookies are used to help prevent the screen flash on initial render while the localStorage is used as another backup in case cookies are cleared (this will cause a screen flash though). Here's the rendering steps:

  • server checks the req.cookies for a theme value and defaults to light if omitted or not a valid value
  • server renders the initial <html> with a className={`${theme}-theme`}
  • client loads with initial <html>
  • client checks if localStorage theme is different than server rendered theme
    • client updates theme if required
  • user changes the theme by clicking the lightbulb button in the header
    • client sets or updates the theme cookie to the new value
    • client sets or updates the theme localStorage key to the new value

Check out the Theme github folder for all the code that's used and additional information.

You can follow this same pattern for other theme variables such as the primary and secondary colors as well. However, if you are only applying the light or dark theme variable, it is actually recommended to follow the Conditional Dark Theme Guide instead using the prefers-color-scheme media query.