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Documentation for developers

How to install and use VA Design System styles and components with your project.

Parts of the Design System

Using the Design System

If you are working in the vets-website repository, you can skip straight to the developer documentation. Otherwise, proceed below.

How you implement VADS styles into your project depends on how your project is structured and your preferences. The easiest way to get started is by using npm. For a prototype where you need the formation styles, you can add a <link> tag with the href set to

Install Formation into your project

We recommend using npm to install the formation package into your project.

$ npm install --save @department-of-veterans-affairs/formation

This line installs Formation as a dependency. You can use the compiled files found in the node_modules/@department-of-veterans-affairs/formation/dist directory.

If you would like to use the un-compiled Sass files instead, you can find those in the node_modules/@department-of-veterans-affairs/formation/sass directory.

If you prefer to change the location of the fonts/ and img/ directories relative to formation.min.css, set the following variables in your project:

$formation-asset-path: '../assets';
$formation-image-path: "#{$formation-asset-path}/img";
$formation-font-path: "#{$formation-asset-path}/fonts";

The example above is what is used on, but you can customize this for your project.

Sass functions, variables, and interactive components

If you would like to use the Sass functions, such as for spacing, and variables in your project, you can import the files from your project scss. This documentation site imports Formation’s Sass files in its application.scss.

Load the Web Component library

The Design System team is working on developing a library of reusable Web Components that can be used on any HTML page or React application.

This is already handled for the vets-website repository. To get our Web Component library set up in a new project, here is what we recommend:

  1. Add the web-components dependency to your node/yarn project using yarn add web-components@ Replace X.Y.Z with the release number you want from the ‘Releases’ page.
  2. Add this postinstall script to package.json then run yarn install (this is necessary since the built files aren’t committed to the git repo, so we must build them locally):
      "postinstall": "cd node_modules/web-components && yarn install --production && yarn build"
  3. Import the global CSS file which contains important CSS variables:
      import 'web-components/dist/component-library/component-library.css';
  4. Import the defineCustomElements JS function (applyPolyfills is only necessary if you wish to support older browsers such as IE11):
      import { applyPolyfills, defineCustomElements } from 'web-components/loader';
  5. In the same JS file, call the defineCustomElements function, optionally chained after a call to applyPolyfills:
      applyPolyfills().then(() => {
  6. Make sure this script gets loaded on the HTML page - preferably near the top of the document in the <head> tag.
  7. Any Web Components from the Design System (identified by tags prefixed with <va-*>) should now work as expected on your page.

Implementing design work

When a designer hands off work, it is vital to work through potential implications that design may have on Formation. Are there any new variations on components? Are there any new components not present on this site? For more on that process, read about how to contribute.

In general, some rules for implementing design work include:

  • Use spacing units instead of hard-coding pixel values for margins and padding
  • Use Sass variables for colors instead of hex codes
  • Discuss reusability of new design components and where is the most appropriate home for CSS and JS
  • Use the Formation naming convention
  • Do not use ID selectors

Use design system utilities

Sometimes you will need to modify certain default properties of a component depending on how it scaffolds with nearby elements. Use utilites instead of writing new CSS.


Use utility classes to override default properties. This allows components to maintain a well-defined baseline of properties.

<div class="a-container">
  <div class="a-component vads-u-margin-top--3"></div>


Don’t change CSS properties based on a container or other context. This makes baseline properties for components unclear.

<div class="a-container">
  <div class="a-component"></div>
.a-container .a-component {
  margin-top: 24px;

Contributing to the Design System

The two main ways for developers to contribute to the Design System are by writing new components or by modifying existing components. Regardless of which type of contribution you are making, each PR should:

  • have at least 90% test coverage
  • have appropriate comments/documentation for functions, classes, etc.
  • have Storybook stories for new features
  • minimize complexity
  • include only the smallest changeset required for the feature or fix

New components

If you want to contribute something to the Design System, see the Contributing to the Design System page.

Modifying existing code

PRs which make a change to the Design System should be manageable in size (less than ~500 lines of code). This is to meant to:

  • Save your time as the developer
  • Keep PRs tightly focused
  • Keep the review process short.

Writing CSS for the design system

When naming components, be sure to use Formation’s naming conventions.

Searchable selectors

Many of the features in Sass make it easy to use shorthand to reduce repetitive typing and write cleaner .scss files. However, this makes using search features in GitHub or text editors much more difficult because it is not always clear how the shorthand was written; finding the right query requires guesswork.


Write out the full name of each selector.

.alert {

.alert--warning {

.alert--error {


Don’t use Sass shorthand features, such as nesting with ampersands often used with BEM syntax.

.alert {
  &--warning {
  &--error {
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