One of the questions that comes up regularly when talking about zero frameworks is how can you expect to stitch together an application without a framework? The short answer is "the same way you stitch together native elements," but I think it's interesting and instructional to look at those ways of stitching elements together individually.

There are six surfaces, or points of contact, between elements, that you can use when stitching elements together, whether they are native or custom elements.

Before we go further a couple notes on terminology and scope. For scope, realize that we are only talking about DOM, we aren't talking about composing JS modules or strategies for composing CSS. For the terminology clarification, when talking about DOM I'm referring to the DOM Interface for an element, not the element markup. Note that there is a subtle difference between the markup element and the DOM Interface to such an element.

For example, <img data-foo="5" src=""/> may be the markup for an image. The corresponding DOM Interface has an attribute of src with a value of "", but the corresponding DOM Interface doesn't have a "data-foo" attribute, instead all data-* attributes are available via the dataset attribute on the DOM Interface. In the terminology of the WhatWG Living Standard, this is the distinction between content attributes vs IDL attributes, and I'll only be referring to IDL attributes.

With the preliminaries out of the way let's get into the six surfaces that can be used to stitch together an application.

Attributes and Methods

The first two surfaces, and probably the most obvious, are attributes and methods. If you are interacting with an element it's usually either reading and writing attribute values:


or calling element methods:


Technically these are the same thing, as they are both just properties with different types. Native elements have their set of defined attributes and methods, and depending on which element a custom element is derived from it will also have that base element's attributes and methods along with the custom ones it defines.


The next two surface are events. Events are actually two surfaces because an element can listen for events,

ele.addEventListener(‘some-event’, function(e) { /* */ });

and an element can dispatch its own events:

var e = new CustomEvent(‘some-event’, {details: details});

DOM Position

The final two surfaces are position in the DOM tree, and again I'm counting this as two surfaces because each element has a parent and can be a parent to another element. Yeah, an element has siblings too, but that would bring the total count of surfaces to seven and ruin my nice round even six.

  <img src="">

Combinations are powerful

Let's look at a relatively simple but powerful example, the 'sort-stuff' element. This is a custom element that allows the user to sort elements. All children of 'sort-stuff' with an attribute of 'data-key' are used for sorting the children of the element pointed to by the sort-stuff's 'target' attribute. See below for an example usage:

<sort-stuff target="#sortable">
   <button data-key=one>Sort on One</button>
   <button data-key=two>Sort on Two</button>
 <ul id=sortable>
   <li data-one=c data-two=x>Item 3</li>
   <li data-one=a data-two=z>Item 1</li>
   <li data-one=d data-two=w>Item 4</li>
   <li data-one=b data-two=y>Item 2</li>
   <li data-one=e data-two=v>Item 5</li>

If the user presses the "Sort on One" button then the children of #sortable are sorted in alphabetical order of their data-one attributes. If the user presses the "Sort on Two" button then the children of #sortable are sorted in alphabetical order of their data-two attributes.

Here is the definition of the 'sort-stuff' element:

    function Q(query) {
          function(e) { return e; });

    var SortStuffProto = Object.create(HTMLElement.prototype);

    SortStuffProto.createdCallback = function() {
      Q('[data-key]').forEach(function(ele) {
        ele.addEventListener('click', this.clickHandler.bind(this));

    SortStuffProto.clickHandler = function(e) {
      var target = Q(this.getAttribute('target'))[0];
      var elements = [];
      var children = target.children;
      for (var i=0; i<children.length; i++) {
        var ele = children[i];
        var value = ele.dataset[];
          value: value,
          node: ele
      elements.sort(function(x, y) {
        return (x.value == y.value ? 0 : (x.value > y.value ? 1 : -1));
      elements.forEach(function(i) {

    document.registerElement('sort-stuff', {prototype: SortStuffProto});

And here is a running example of the code above:

  • Item 3
  • Item 1
  • Item 4
  • Item 2
  • Item 5

Note the surfaces that were used in constructing this functionality:

  1. sort-stuff has an attribute 'target' that selects the element to sort.
  2. The target children have data attributes that elements are sorted on.
  3. sort-stuff registers for 'click' events from its children.
  4. sort-stuff children have data attributes that determine how the target children will be sorted.

In addition you could imagine adding a custom event 'sorted' that 'sort-stuff' could generate each time it sorts.

So there's your six surfaces that you can use when composing elements into your application. And why the insistence on making the number of surfaces equal six? Because while history may not repeat itself, it does rhyme.