Learn about Magento 2 frontend architecture

Though still in development phase, Magento 2 comes with a unique set of changed/improved frontend approaches compared to its prototype Magento 1.X. The big difference is that frontend is now updated with newer technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery.
There are also significant changes/improvements to overall layout influence, file structure and a brand new introduction to Magento UI library heavily based on LESS preprocessor with built in compiler.
One of the main goals besides performance and scalability was to serve RWD out of the box. In this blog I’ll try to cover some of the main variances, dive into development and demonstrate some practical examples.


Theme workflow changes

When start with new theme theme_root_dir/theme.xml file is required to actually initialize it. There are a couple of other options to be taken into account as well. Add placeholder image for preview in administration, configure its parent theme, declare theme version etc. It’s quite similar approach to the one used in the newest 1.X versions.

The first changes I’ve noticed when starting to throw Magento 2 was indeed the removal of skin directory. Everything is organized directly under the app structure.

Another big change is that every module has its own VIEW directory where all module-specific template, layout, js, and css/less files are stored. This is a better methodology and certainly it will be beneficial for module developers. All visual content will be stored directly within the module separating it from Magento core.


What is the mean for us fronted developers?

It means that structure inside app/design/frontend/vendorName/newTheme/ is no longer divided into layout and template directories. Instead we need to include module directory and its complete order to override default directory structure.

For example, if the plan is to change something in 1column.phtml, it’s required to follow full directory order for a module Magento_Theme (this was a part of the page directory in 1.X versions).

Theming tradition is now completely redesigned to support unlimited fallbacks and app/design/frontend/base/default directory is no longer included. From the documentation provided so far, the recommended approach is to fallback to blank theme as a starting point.

At the time of writing this blog I was not in a position to properly test other options except to falling back to blank, but it seems this approach is valuable only for the projects requiring slight styling modifications/updates. From custom development outlook, in some cases where development differs very much from default settings it might produce an impact on the performance.

Theme stating process is pretty much the same as in previous 1.X versions except that now it’s possible to create a new theme from admin.

Layout updates/improvements

When it comes down to layout influence there are some really cool and interesting new improvements.

Before diving into practical examples it’s important to mention that layout files are now divided into smaller parts. Practically explained — what once was a layout handle now is a separate file.
Perhaps the intention was to simplify the maintenance.

Magento 2 presents the whole new concept for product/media image resizing actions right from the layout. Layout file view.xml is responsible and it needs to be placed under app/design/frontend/vendorName/newTheme/etc/ directory. Here is an example of resizing product catalog images in action.

While I believe that the main goal was to simplify actual resizing process for developers, it will certainly fail under majority of responsive design conditions. For example, we don’t want to cater big images for smartphone users on edge connection. Resizing from template files offered a better way to cater out multiple sources for different end user profiles. Right now inspecting a blank theme I only see a situation with just scaling images down in html.

One of the great and more than welcome changes is an introduction of a container wrapper, successor to a core/text_list block type which catered the role of a structural block in the previous versions of the system. What is really interesting is a possibility to pass attributes like htmlTag, htmlClass, htmlId directly from layout files.

My personal favorite is move method introduction. It’s a sort of refined action method set/unsetChild but now the process is much more natural. For example, if we need to insert source block1 into destination block2 this is the way how we can do it:


It automatically makes source block1 a child of a destination block 2.

It’s important to mention that Magento 2 offers a system validation for XML files using xml schemas for individual and merged layout files.

Magento UI library introduction

Magento 2 offers a complete UI library build up on LESS to match the specific system requirements. Reason for choosing LESS over other pre-processors is because Magento 2 comes with inner compiler to compile CSS directly from PHP. This will, according to Magento team, speed up development and allow developers to focus just on file editing/production while the system covers all the hassle with compiling etc.

However, this is not the only route to go with. This approach can be ignored and focus can be set on manually compiling with SASS or even writing down pure CSS.

UI Library itself provide tons of mixins (vertical rhythm,@font-face .etc) and a huge set of predefined variables to make the process more native and less demanding for a fronted developer. Does it really complete that?

Let’s check some useful examples following the recommended approach.

Magento UI library is located under store_root_dir/lib/web/css/source/lib


Element arrangement is quite in a way how I configured my own SASS files while dealing with Magento 1.X. I found it fairly familiar.

Now let’s check how can we spread some of the files. To import UI library to our theme it’s required to call/import lib.less file into styles.less which is default less file for a theme.

It’s impossible to explain all variants and options in one post so my focus will stay on a few practical examples to boost you to check it out on your own if you didn’t do it already.

Let’s say that we want to spread predefined @font-face mixin to include our own font to the site. Open Sans is already included by default. So let’s replace it with our own Lovelo Black. Let’s check default mixin for @font-face under the store_root_dir/lib/web/css/source/lib/typography.less

Pretty much frank, required parameters are @family-name and @font-path.

What we need to do now is to spread default typography.less. We’ll accomplish that by copying file to our theme directory. Here is an example of theme.less file after including typography.less

Once the process is completed it’s time to spread @font-face mixin to suit our needs.

And that’s it. We are now successfully extended UI Library @font-face predefined maxim.

Magento UI Library indeed provides a lot of powerful material and ideas in general, especially for projects that require more of a skinning type approach. On the other hand, I found it quite overcomplicated in some cases, especially for complex custom responsive projects that pretty much differ from default layout building.

For example, the entire responsive building is relying on 3 predefined variables @tablet @ desktop @mobile but even as it may be good for a starting point, it’s definitely not a fully scaled solution. Responsive design is all about content while this reminded me more of an adaptive approach with few predefined pixel based queries. Although the fact is that we can always upgrade and extend the system. After all, we can even avoid it altogether and start building our own architecture powered with SASS instead. We’ll certainly experiment with other approaches in the near future.

jQuery integration is a topic of its own and it’s too complex for this blog so I’m planning to write another one in the future.


It’s great to see that the new platform is finally shaping up. Now when the potential launch dates are known, it’s even more interesting. While still in development phase, Magento 2 is a greatly improved system when it comes to frontend development, compared to its prototype. With all new technologies included, improved architecture and workflow, frontend development now requires by far more professional approach than before.

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