The Smashing Book #2 has a great section by Christian Heilmann on how and when to use css classes.

“Classitis” as Christian calls it is when classes are used everywhere. Instead of just using classes selectively to make certain elements standout, people add classes to everything and then let jQuery do it’s magic.

This can quickly turn into a maintenance nightmare because as soon as a class name changes, you’ll have to search your entire code base for all changes.

Here’s an example Christian gives on how NOT to use css classes:

<ul class="shopping-list first">
  <li class="list-item">Cucumber</li>
  <li class="list-item important">Apple</li>
  <li class="list-item">Orange</li>
</ul>

Christian’s main rule for applying css classes is:

add a class to mark the odd one out and to group elements not already grouped.

Here is how to do it right:

<ul class="shopping-list first">
  <li>Cucumber</li>
  <li class="important">Apple</li>
  <li>Orange</li>
</ul>

Instead of using .shopping-list .list-item to style, all you need is .shopping-list li.

You modify the important one with .shopping-list li.important, and then you don’t have to worry about the class specificity of .important versus list-item.

For more good examples of does and don’t about web and design, be sure to check out the excellent Smashing #1 and #2 books.