Journal tags: css

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sparkline

Stakeholders of styling

When I wrote about the new accent-color property in CSS, I pondered how much control a web developer should have over styling form controls:

Who are we to make that decision? Shouldn’t the user’s choice take primacy over our choices?

But then again, where do we draw the line? We’re allowed over-ride link colours. We’re allowed over-ride font choices.

Ultimately, I came down on the side of granting authors more control:

If developers don’t get a standardised way to customise native form controls, they’ll just recreate their own over-engineered versions.

This question of “who gets to decide?” used to be much more prevelant in the early days of the web. One way to think about this is that there are three stakeholders involved in the presentation of a web page:

  1. The author of the page. “Author” is spec-speak for designer or developer.
  2. The user.
  3. The browser, or user agent. A piece of software tries to balance the needs of both author and user. But, as the name implies, the user takes precedence.

These days we tend to think of web design a single-stakeholder undertaking. The author decides how something should be presented and then executes that decision using CSS.

But as Eric once said, every line of you CSS you write is a suggestion to the browser. That’s not how we think about CSS though. We think of CSS like a series of instructions rather than suggestions. Never mind respecting the user’s preferences; one of the first things we do is reset all the user agent’s styles.

In the early days of the web, more consideration was given to the idea of style suggestions rather than instructions. Heck, users could always over-ride any of your suggestions with their own user stylesheet. These days, users would need to install a browser extension to do the same thing.

The first proposal for CSS had a concept called “influence”:

h2.font.size = 20pt 40%

Here, the requested influence is reduced to 40%. If a style sheet later in the cascade also requests influence over h2.font.size, up to 60% can be granted. When the document is rendered, a weighted average of the two requests is calculated, and the final font size is determined.

I think the only remnant of “influence” left in CSS is accidental. It’s in the specificity of selectors …and the !important declaration.

I think it’s a shame that user stylesheets are no longer a thing. But I get why they were dropped from browsers. They date from a time when it was mostly nerds using the web, before “regular folks” came on board. I understand why it became a little-used feature, suitable for being dropped. But the principle of it still rankles slightly.

But in recent years there has been a slight return to the multi-stakeholder concept of styling websites. Thanks to prefers-reduced-motion and prefers-color-scheme, a responsible author can choose to bow to the wishes of the user.

I was reminded of this when I added a dark mode to my website:

Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.

Accent all areas

Whenever a new version of Chrome comes out, there’s an accompanying blog post listing what’s new. Chrome 93 just came out and, sure enough, Pete has written a blog post about it.

But what I think is the most exciting addition to the browser isn’t listed.

What is this feature that’s got me so excited?

Okay, I’ve probably oversold it now because actually, it looks like a rather small trivial addition. It’s the accent-color property in CSS.

Up until now, accent colour was controlled by the operating system. If you’re on a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “General”. There you’ll see an option to change your accent colour. Try picking a different colour. You’ll see that change cascade down into the other form fields in that preference pane: checkboxes, radio buttons, and dropdowns.

Your choice will also cascade down into web pages. Any web page that uses native checkboxes, radio buttons and other interface elements will inherit that colour.

This is how interface elements are supposed to work. The browser inherits the look’n’feel of the inputs from the operating system.

That’s the theory anyway. In practice, form elements—such as dropdowns—can look different from browser to browser, something that shouldn’t be happening if the browsers are all inheriting from the operating system.

Anyway, it’s probably this supposed separation of responsibility between browser and operating system which has led to the current situation with form fields and CSS. Authors can style form fields up to a point, but there’s always a line that you don’t get to cross.

The accent colour of a selected radio button or a checkbox has historically been on the other side of that line. You either had to accept that you couldn’t change the colour, or you had to make your own checkbox or radio button interface. You could use CSS to hide the native element and replace it with an image instead.

That feels a bit over-engineered and frankly kind of hacky. It reminds me of the bad old days of image replacement for text before we had web fonts.

Now, with the accent-color property in CSS, authors can over-ride the choice that the user has set at the operating system level.

On the one hand, this doesn’t feel great to me. Who are we to make that decision? Shouldn’t the user’s choice take primacy over our choices?

But then again, where do we draw the line? We’re allowed over-ride link colours. We’re allowed over-ride font choices.

Ultimately I think it’s a good thing that authors can now specify an accent colour. What makes me think that is the behaviour that authors have shown if they don’t have this ability—they do it anyway, and in a hackier manner. This is why I think the work of the Open UI group is so important. If developers don’t get a standardised way to customise native form controls, they’ll just recreate their own over-engineered versions.

The purpose of Open UI to the web platform is to allow web developers to style and extend built-in web UI controls, such as select dropdowns, checkboxes, radio buttons, and date/color pickers.

Trying to stop developers from styling checkboxes and radio buttons is like trying to stop teenagers from having sex. You might as well accept that it’s going to happen and give them contraception so they can at least do it safely.

So I welcome this new CSS condom.

You can see accent-color in action in this demo. Change the value of the accent-color property to see the form fields update:

:root {
  accent-color: rebeccapurple;
}

Applying it at the document level like that will make it universal, but you can also use the property on an element-by-element basis using whatever selector you want.

That demo works in Chrome and Edge 93, the current release. It also works in Firefox 92, which literally just landed (like as I was writing this blog post, support for accent-color magically arrived!).

As for Safari, well, who knows? If Apple published a roadmap, then developers would have a clue when to expect a property like this to land. But we mere mortals cannot be trusted with such important hush-hush information.

In the meantime, keep an eye on Can I Use. And lack of support on one browser is no reason not to use accent-color anyway. It’s a progressive enhancement. Add it to your CSS today and it will work in more browsers in the future.

More talk

The Clearleft podcast is currently between seasons, but that’s not going to stop me from yapping on in audio files at any opportunity.

By the way, if you missed any of season two of the Clearleft podcast, be sure to check it out—there’s some good stuff in there.

I’ve been continuing my audio narration of Jay Hoffman’s excellent Web History series over on CSS tricks. We’re eight chapters in already! That’s a good few hours of audio—each chapter is over half an hour long.

The latest chapter was a joy to narrate. It’s all about the history of CSS so I remember many of the events that are mentioned, like when Tantek saved the web by implenting doctype switching (seriously, I honestly believe that if that hadn’t happened, CSS wouldn’t have “won”). Eric is in there. And Molly. And Elika. And Chris. And Dave.

Here’s the audio file if you want to have a listen. Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed in your podcast-playing app of choice.

If you’re not completely sick of hearing my voice, you can also listen to the latest episode of the Object Oriented UX podcast with Sophia V. Prater. Our chat starts about eleven minutes into the episode and goes on for a good hour.

It was nice to be on the other side of the microphone, so to speak. The topic was Resilient Web Design but the conversation went in all sorts of directions.

I do enjoy a good natter. If you’ve got a podcast and you fancy having a chat, let me know.

SVGs in dark mode

I added a dark mode to my site last year. Since then I’ve been idly toying with the addition of a dark mode to The Session too.

As with this site, the key to adding a dark mode was switching to custom properties for color and background-color declarations. But my plans kept getting derailed by the sheet music on the site. The sheet music is delivered as SVG generated by ABCJS which hard-codes the colour in stroke and fill attributes:

fill="#000000" stroke="#000000"

When I was describing CSS recently I mentioned the high specifity of inline styles:

Whereas external CSS and embedded CSS don’t have any effect on specificity, inline styles are positively radioactive with specificity.

Given that harsh fact of life, I figured it would be nigh-on impossible to over-ride the colour of the sheetmusic. But then I realised I was an idiot.

The stroke and fill attributes in SVG are presentational but they aren’t inline styles. They’re attributes. They have no affect on specifity. I can easily over-ride them in an external style sheet.

In fact, if I had actually remembered what I wrote when I was adding a dark mode to adactio.com, I could’ve saved myself some time:

I have SVGs of sparklines on my homepage. The SVG has a hard-coded colour value in the stroke attribute of the path element that draws the sparkline. Fortunately, this can be over-ridden in the style sheet:

svg.activity-sparkline path {
  stroke: var(--text-color);
}

I was able to do something similar on The Session. I used the handy currentColor keyword in CSS so that the sheet music matched the colour of the text:

svg path {
  fill: currentColor;
}
svg path:not(stroke="none") {
  stroke: currentColor;
}

Et voila! I now had light-on-dark sheet music for The Session’s dark mode all wrapped up in a prefers-color-scheme: dark media query.

I pushed out out the new feature and started getting feedback. It could be best summarised as “Thanks. I hate it.”

It turns out that while people were perfectly fine with a dark mode that inverts the colours of text, it felt really weird and icky to do the same with sheet music.

On the one hand, this seems odd. After all, sheet music is a writing system like any other. If you’re fine with light text on a dark background, why doesn’t that hold for light sheet music on a dark background?

But on the other hand, sheet music is also like an image. And we don’t invert the colours of our images when we add a dark mode to our CSS.

With that in mind, I went back to the drawing board and this time treated the sheet music SVGs as being intrinsicly dark-on-light, rather than a stylistic choice. It meant a few more CSS rules, but I’m happy with the final result. You can see it in action by visiting a tune page and toggling your device’s “appearance” settings between light and dark.

If you’re a member of The Session, I also added a toggle switch to your member profile so you can choose dark or light mode regardless of your device settings.

Cascading Style Sheets

There are three ways—that I know of—to associate styles with markup.

External CSS

This is probably the most common. Using a link element with a rel value of “stylesheet”, you point to a URL using the href attribute. That URL is a style sheet that is applied to the current document (“the relationship of the linked resource it is that is a ‘stylesheet’ for the current document”).

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/path/to/styles.css">

In theory you could associate a style sheet with a document using an HTTP header, but I don’t think many browsers support this in practice.

You can also pull in external style sheets using the @import declaration in CSS itself, as long as the @import rule is declared at the start, before any other styles.

@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');

When you use link rel="stylesheet" to apply styles, it’s a blocking request: the browser will fetch the style sheet before rendering the HTML. It needs to know how the HTML elements will be painted to the screen so there’s no point rendering the HTML until the CSS is parsed.

Embedded CSS

You can also place CSS rules inside a style element directly in the document. This is usually in the head of the document.

<style>
element {
    property: value;
}
</style>

When you embed CSS in the head of a document like this, there is no network request like there would be with external style sheets so there’s no render-blocking behaviour.

You can put any CSS inside the style element, which means that you could use embedded CSS to load external CSS using an @import statement (as long as that @import statement appears right at the start).

<style>
@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');
element {
    property: value;
}
</style>

But then you’re back to having a network request.

Inline CSS

Using the style attribute you can apply CSS rules directly to an element. This is a universal attribute. It can be used on any HTML element. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the styles will work, but your markup is never invalidated by the presence of the style attribute.

<element style="property: value">
</element>

Whereas external CSS and embedded CSS don’t have any effect on specificity, inline styles are positively radioactive with specificity. Any styles applied this way are almost certain to over-ride any external or embedded styles.

You can also apply styles using JavaScript and the Document Object Model.

element.style.property = 'value';

Using the DOM style object this way is equivalent to inline styles. The radioactive specificity applies here too.

Style declarations specified in external style sheets or embedded CSS follow the rules of the cascade. Values can be over-ridden depending on the order they appear in. Combined with the separate-but-related rules for specificity, this can be very powerful. But if you don’t understand how the cascade and specificity work then the results can be unexpected, leading to frustration. In that situation, inline styles look very appealing—there’s no cascade and everything has equal specificity. But using inline styles means foregoing a lot of power—you’d be ditching the C in CSS.

A common technique for web performance is to favour embedded CSS over external CSS in order to avoid the extra network request (at least for the first visit—there are clever techniques for caching an external style sheet once the HTML has already loaded). This is commonly referred to as inlining your CSS. But really it should be called embedding your CSS.

This language mix-up is not a hill I’m going to die on (that hill would be referring to blog posts as blogs) but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Lists

We often have brown bag lunchtime presentations at Clearleft. In the Before Times, this would involve a trip to Pret or Itsu to get a lunch order in, which we would then proceed to eat in front of whoever was giving the presentation. Often it’s someone from Clearleft demoing something or playing back a project, but whenever possible we’d rope in other people to swing by and share what they’re up to.

We’ve continued this tradition since making the switch to working remotely. Now the brown bag presentations happen over Zoom. This has two advantages. Firstly, if you don’t want the presenter watching you eat your lunch, you can switch your camera off. Secondly, because the presenter doesn’t have to be in Brighton, there’s no geographical limit on who could present.

Our most recent brown bag was truly excellent. I asked Léonie if she’d be up for it, and she very kindly agreed. As well as giving us a whirlwind tour of how assistive technology works on the web, she then invited us to observe her interacting with websites using a screen reader.

I’ve seen Léonie do this before and it’s always struck me as a very open and vulnerable thing to do. Think about it: the audience has more information than the presenter. We can see the website at the same time as we’re listening to Léonie and her screen reader.

We got to nominate which websites to visit. One of them—a client’s current site that we haven’t yet redesigned—was a textbook example of how important form controls are. There was a form where almost everything was hunky-dory: form fields, labels, it was all fine. But one of the inputs was a combo box. Instead of using a native select with a datalist, this was made with JavaScript. Because it was lacking the requisite ARIA additions to make it accessible, it was pretty much unusable to Léonie.

And that’s why you use the right HTML element wherever possible, kids!

The other site Léonie visited was Clearleft’s own. That was all fine. Léonie demonstrated how she’d form a mental model of a page by getting the screen reader to read out the headings. Interestingly, the nesting of headings on the Clearleft site is technically wrong—there’s a jump from an h1 to an h3—probably a result of the component-driven architecture where you don’t quite know where in the page a heading will appear. But this didn’t seem to be an issue. The fact that headings are being used at all was the more important fact. As Léonie said, there’s a lot of incorrect HTML out there so it’s no wonder that screen readers aren’t necessarily sticklers for nesting.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re using headings, labelling form fields, and providing alternative text for images, you’re already doing a better job than most websites.

Headings weren’t the only way that Léonie got a feel for the page architecture. Landmark roles—like header and nav—really helped too. Inside the nav element, she also heard how many items there were. That’s because the navigation was marked up as a list: “List: six items.”

And that reminded me of the Webkit issue. On Webkit browsers like Safari, the list on the Clearleft site would not be announced as a list. That’s because the lists’s bullets have been removed using CSS.

Now this isn’t the only time that screen readers pay attention to styling. If you use display: none to hide an element from sight, it will also be unavailable to screen reader users. Makes sense. But removing the semantic meaning of lists based on CSS? That seems a bit much.

There are good reasons for it though. Here’s a thread from James Craig on where this decision came from (James, by the way, is an absolute unsung hero of accessibility). It turns out that developers went overboard with lists a while back and that’s why we can’t have nice things. In over-compensating from divitis, developers ended up creating listitis, marking up anything vaguely list-like as an unordered list with styling adjusted. That was very annoying for screen reader users trying to figure out what was actually a list.

And James also asks:

If a sighted user doesn’t need to know it’s a list, why would a screen reader user need to know or want to know? Stated another way, if the visible list markers (bullets, image markers, etc.) are deemed by the designers to be visually burdensome or redundant for sighted users, why burden screen reader users with those semantics?

That’s a fair point, but the thing is …bullets maketh not the list. There are many ways of styling something that is genuinely a list that doesn’t involve bullets or image markers. White space, borders, keylines—these can all indicate visually that something is a list of items.

If you look at, say, the tunes page on The Session, you can see that there are numerous lists—newest tunes, latest comments, etc. In this case, as a sighted visitor, you would be at an advantage over a screen reader user in that you can, at a glance, see that there’s a list of five items here, a list of ten items there.

So I’m not disagreeing with the thinking behind the Webkit decision, but I do think the heuristics probably aren’t going to be quite good enough to make the call on whether something is truly a list or not.

Still, while I used to be kind of upset about the Webkit behaviour, I’ve become more equanimous about it over time. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there’s something that Eric said:

We have come so far to agree that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser mostly due to bugs in their rendering engines or preferences of the user.

I think the same is true for screen readers and other assistive technology: Websites don’t need to sound the same in every screen reader.

That’s a really good point. If we agree that “pixel perfection” isn’t attainable—or desirable—in a fluid, user-centred medium like the web, why demand the aural equivalent?

The second reason why I’m not storming the barricades about this is something that James said:

Of course, heuristics are imperfect, so authors have the ability to explicitly override the heuristically determined role by adding role="list”.

That means more work for me as a developer, and that’s …absolutely fine. If I can take something that might be a problem for a user, and turn into something that’s a problem for me, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

I don’t have to petition Webkit to change their stance or update their heuristics. If I feel strongly that a list styled without bullets should still be announced as a list, I can specificy that in the markup.

It does feel very redundant to write ul role="list”. The whole point of having HTML elements with built-in semantics is that you don’t need to add any ARIA roles. But we did it for a while when new structural elements were introduced in HTML5—main role="main", nav role="navigation", etc. So I’m okay with a little bit of redundancy. I think the important thing is that you really stop and think about whether something should be announced as a list or not, regardless of styling. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (hence why it’s nigh-on impossible to get the heuristics right). Each list needs to be marked up on a case-by-case basis.

And I wouldn’t advise spending too much time thinking about this either. There are other, more important areas to consider. Like I said, headings, forms, and images really matter. I’d prioritise those elements above thinking about lists. And it’s worth pointing out that Webkit doesn’t remove all semantic meaning from styled lists—it updates the role value from list to group. That seems sensible to me.

In the case of that page on The Session, I don’t think I’m guilty of listitis. Yes, there are seven lists on that page (two for navigation, five for content) but I’m reasonably confident that they all look like lists even without bullets or markers. So I’ve added role="list" to some ul elements.

As with so many things related to accessibility—and the web in general—this is a situation where the only answer I can confidentally come up with is …it depends.

aria-live

I wrote a little something recently about using ARIA attributes as selectors in CSS. For me, one of the advantages is that because ARIA attributes are generally added via JavaScript, the corresponding CSS rules won’t kick in if something goes wrong with the JavaScript:

Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML).

But there’s one instance where I actually put the ARIA attribute directly in the HTML that gets sent from the server: aria-live.

If you’re not familiar with it, aria-live is extremely useful if you’ve got any dynamic updates on your page—via Ajax, for example. Let’s say you’ve got a bit of your site where filtered results will show up. Slap an aria-live attribute on there with a value of “polite”:

<div aria-live="polite">
...dynamic content gets inserted here
</div>

You could instead provide a value of “assertive”, but you almost certainly don’t want to do that—it can be quite rude.

Anyway, on the face it, this looks like exactly the kind of ARIA attribute that should be added with JavaScript. After all, if there’s no JavaScript, there’ll be no dynamic updates.

But I picked up a handy lesson from Ire’s excellent post on using aria-live:

Assistive technology will initially scan the document for instances of the aria-live attribute and keep track of elements that include it. This means that, if we want to notify users of a change within an element, we need to include the attribute in the original markup.

Good to know!

ARIA in CSS

Sara tweeted something recently that resonated with me:

Also, Pro Tip: Using ARIA attributes as CSS hooks ensures your component will only look (and/or function) properly if said attributes are used in the HTML, which, in turn, ensures that they will always be added (otherwise, the component will obv. be broken)

Yes! I didn’t mention it when I wrote about accessible interactions but this is my preferred way of hooking up CSS and JavaScript interactions. Here’s old Codepen where you can see it in action:

[aria-hidden='true'] {
  display: none;
}

In order for the functionality to work for everyone—screen reader users or not—I have to make sure that I’m toggling the value of aria-hidden in my JavaScript.

There’s another advantage to this technique. Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML). If something goes wrong with the JavaScript, the aria-hidden value isn’t set to “true”, which means that the CSS never kicks in. So the default state is for content to be displayed. There’s no assumption that the JavaScript has to work in order for the CSS to make sense.

It’s almost as though accessibility and progressive enhancement are connected somehow…

Influence

Hidde gave a great talk recently called On the origin of cascades (by means of natural selectors):

It’s been 25 years since the first people proposed a language to style the web. Since the late nineties, CSS lived through years of platform evolution.

It’s a lovely history lesson that reminded me of that great post by Zach Bloom a while back called The Languages Which Almost Became CSS.

The TL;DR timeline of CSS goes something like this:

Håkon and Bert joined forces and that’s what led to the Cascading Style Sheet language we use today.

Hidde looks at how the concept of the cascade evolved from those early days. But there’s another idea in Håkon’s proposal that fascinates me:

While the author (or publisher) often wants to give the documents a distinct look and feel, the user will set preferences to make all documents appear more similar. Designing a style sheet notation that fill both groups’ needs is a challenge.

The proposed solution is referred to as “influence”.

The user supplies the initial sheet which may request total control of the presentation, but — more likely — hands most of the influence over to the style sheets referenced in the incoming document.

So an author could try demanding that their lovely styles are to be implemented without question by specifying an influence of 100%. The proposed syntax looked like this:

h1.font.size = 24pt 100%

More reasonably, the author could specify, say, 40% influence:

h2.font.size = 20pt 40%

Here, the requested influence is reduced to 40%. If a style sheet later in the cascade also requests influence over h2.font.size, up to 60% can be granted. When the document is rendered, a weighted average of the two requests is calculated, and the final font size is determined.

Okay, that sounds pretty convoluted but then again, so is specificity.

This idea of influence in CSS reminds me of Cap’s post about The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck:

Hold on a second. I’m like a two-out-of-ten on this. How strongly do you feel?

I’m probably a six-out-of-ten, I replied after a couple moments of consideration.

Cool, then let’s do it your way.

In the end, the concept of influence in CSS died out, but user style sheets survived …for a while. Now they too are as dead as a dodo. Most people today aren’t aware that browsers used to provide a mechanism for applying your own visual preferences for browsing the web (kind of like Neopets or MySpace but for literally every single web page …just think of how empowering that was!).

Even if you don’t mourn the death of user style sheets—you can dismiss them as a power-user feature—I think it’s such a shame that the concept of shared influence has fallen by the wayside. Web design today is dictatorial. Designers and developers issue their ultimata in the form of CSS, even though technically every line of CSS you write is a suggestion to a web browser—not a demand.

I wish that web design were more of a two-way street, more of a conversation between designer and end user.

There are occassional glimpses of this mindset. Like I said when I added a dark mode to my website:

Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.

Custom properties

I made the website for the Clearleft podcast last week. The design is mostly lifted straight from the rest of the Clearleft website. The main difference is the masthead. If the browser window is wide enough, there’s a background image on the right hand side.

I mostly added that because I felt like the design was a bit imbalanced without something there. On the home page, it’s a picture of me. Kind of cheesy. But the image can be swapped out. On other pages, there are different photos. All it takes is a different class name on that masthead.

I thought about having the image be completely random (and I still might end up doing this). I’d need to use a bit of JavaScript to choose a class name at random from a list of possible values. Something like this:

var names = ['jeremy','katie','rich','helen','trys','chris'];
var name = names[Math.floor(Math.random() * names.length)];
document.querySelector('.masthead').classList.add(name);

(You could paste that into the dev tools console to see it in action on the podcast site.)

Then I read something completely unrelated. Cassie wrote a fantastic article on her site called Making lil’ me - part 1. In it, she describes how she made the mouse-triggered animation of her avatar in the footer of her home page.

It’s such a well-written technical article. She explains the logic of what she’s doing, and translates that logic into code. Then, after walking you through the native code, she shows how you could use the Greeksock library to achieve the same effect. That’s the way to do it! Instead of saying, “Here’s a library that will save you time—don’t worry about how it works!”, she’s saying “Here’s it works without a library; here’s how it works with a library; now you can make an informed choice about what to use.” It’s a very empowering approach.

Anyway, in the article, Cassie demonstrates how you can use custom properties as a bridge between JavaScript and CSS. JavaScript reads the mouse position and updates some custom properties accordingly. Those same custom properties are used in CSS for positioning. Voila! Now you’ve got the position of an element responding to mouse movements.

That’s what made me think of the code snippet I wrote above to update a class name from JavaScript. I automatically thought of updating a class name because, frankly, that’s how I’ve always done it. I’d say about 90% of the DOM scripting I’ve ever done involves toggling the presence of class values: accordions, fly-out menus, tool-tips, and other progressive disclosure patterns.

That’s fine. But really, I should try to avoid touching the DOM at all. It can have performance implications, possibly triggering unnecessary repaints and reflows.

Now with custom properties, there’s a direct line of communication between JavaScript and CSS. No need to use the HTML as a courier.

This made me realise that I need to be aware of automatically reaching for a solution just because that’s the way I’ve done something in the past. I should step back and think about the more efficient solutions that are possible now.

It also made me realise that “CSS variables” is a very limiting way of thinking about custom properties. The fact that they can be updated in real time—in CSS or JavaScript—makes them much more powerful than, say, Sass variables (which are more like constants).

But I too have been guilty of underselling them. I almost always refer to them as “CSS custom properties” …but a lot of their potential comes from the fact that they’re not confined to CSS. From now on, I’m going to try calling them custom properties, without any qualification.

Dark mode revisited

I added a dark mode to my website a while back. It was a fun thing to do during Indie Web Camp Amsterdam last year.

I tied the colour scheme to the operating system level. If you choose a dark mode in your OS, my website will adjust automatically thanks to the prefers-color-scheme: dark media query.

But I’ve seen notes from a few friends, not about my site specifically, but about how they like having an explicit toggle for dark mode (as well as the media query). Whenever I read those remarks, I’d think “I’m really not sure I’ve got time to deal with adding that kind of toggle to my site.”

But then I realised, “Jeremy, you absolute muffin! You’ve had a theme switcher on your website for almost two decades now!”

Doh! I had forgotten about that theme switcher. It dates back to the early days of CSS. I wanted my site to be a demonstration of how you could apply different styles to the same underlying markup (this was before the CSS Zen Garden came along). Those themes are very dated now, but if you like you can view my site with a Zeldman theme or a sci-fi theme.

To offer a dark-mode theme for my site, all I had to do was take the default stylesheet, pull out the custom properties from the prefers-color-scheme: dark media query, and done. It took less than five minutes.

So if you want to view my site in dark mode, it’s one of the options in the “Customise” dropdown on every page of the website.

CSS custom properties and the cascade

When I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions I said this about the brilliant Lea Verou:

As so often happens when I’m reading something written by Lea—or seeing her give a talk—light bulbs started popping over my head (my usual response to Lea’s knowledge bombs is either “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “I never thought of doing that!”).

Well, it happened again. This time I was reading her post about hybrid positioning with CSS variables and max() . But the main topic of the post wasn’t the part that made go “Huh! I never knew that!”. Towards the end of her article she explained something about the way that browsers evaluate CSS custom properties:

The browser doesn’t know if your property value is valid until the variable is resolved, and by then it has already processed the cascade and has thrown away any potential fallbacks.

I’m used to being able to rely on the cascade. Let’s say I’m going to set a background colour on paragraphs:

p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: color(display-p3 1 0 0);
}

First I’ve set a background colour using a good ol’ fashioned keyword, supported in browsers since day one. Then I declare the background colour using the new-fangled color() function which is supported in very few browsers. That’s okay though. I can confidently rely on the cascade to fall back to the earlier declaration. Paragraphs will still have a red background colour.

But if I store the background colour in a custom property, I can no longer rely on the cascade.

:root {
  --myvariable: color(display-p3 1 0 0);
}
p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: var(--myvariable);
}

All I’ve done is swapped out the hard-coded color() value for a custom property but now the browser behaves differently. Instead of getting a red background colour, I get the browser default value. As Lea explains:

…it will make the property invalid at computed value time.

The spec says:

When this happens, the computed value of the property is either the property’s inherited value or its initial value depending on whether the property is inherited or not, respectively, as if the property’s value had been specified as the unset keyword.

So if a browser doesn’t understand the color() function, it’s as if I’ve said:

background-color: unset;

This took me by surprise. I’m so used to being able to rely on the cascade in CSS—it’s one of the most powerful and most useful features in this programming language. Could it be, I wondered, that the powers-that-be have violated the principle of least surprise in specifying this behaviour?

But a note in the spec explains further:

Note: The invalid at computed-value time concept exists because variables can’t “fail early” like other syntax errors can, so by the time the user agent realizes a property value is invalid, it’s already thrown away the other cascaded values.

Ah, right! So first of all browsers figure out the cascade and then they evaluate custom properties. If a custom property evaluates to gobbledygook, it’s too late to figure out what the cascade would’ve fallen back to.

Thinking about it, this makes total sense. Remember that CSS custom properties aren’t like Sass variables. They aren’t evaluated once and then set in stone. They’re more like let than const. They can be updated in real time. You can update them from JavaScript too. It’s entirely possible to update CSS custom properties rapidly in response to events like, say, the user scrolling or moving their mouse. If the browser had to recalculate the cascade every time a custom property didn’t evaluate correctly, I imagine it would be an enormous performance bottleneck.

So even though this behaviour surprised me at first, it makes sense on reflection.

I’ve probably done a terrible job explaining the behaviour here, so I’ve made a Codepen. Although that may also do an equally terrible job.

(Thanks to Amber for talking through this with me and encouraging me to blog about it. And thanks to Lea for expanding my mind. Again.)

Programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions

I wrote recently about moving away from Sass to using native CSS features. I had this to say on the topic of mixins in Sass:

These can be very useful, but now there’s a lot that you can do just in CSS with calc(). The built-in darken() and lighten() mixins are handy though when it comes to colours.

I know we will be getting these in the future but we’re not there yet with CSS.

Anyway, I had all this in the back of my mind when I was reading Lea’s excellent feature in this month’s Increment: A user’s guide to CSS variables. She’s written about a really clever technique of combining custom properites with hsl() colour values for creating colour palettes. (See also: Una’s post on dynamic colour theming with pure CSS.)

As so often happens when I’m reading something written by Lea—or seeing her give a talk—light bulbs started popping over my head (my usual response to Lea’s knowledge bombs is either “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “I never thought of doing that!”).

I immediately set about implementing this technique over on The Session. The trick here is to use separate custom properties for the hue, saturation, and lightness parts of hsl() colour values. Then, when you want to lighten or darken the colour—say, on hover—you can update the lightness part.

I’ve made a Codepen to show what I’m doing.

Let’s say I’m styling a button element. I make custom propertes for hsl() values:

button {
  --button-colour-hue: 19;
  --button-colour-saturation: 82%;
  --button-colour-lightness: 38%;
  background-color: hsl(
    var(--button-colour-hue),
    var(--button-colour-saturation),
    var(--button-colour-lightness)
  );
}

For my buttons, I want the borders to be slightly darker than the background colour. When I was using Sass, I used the darken() function to this. Now I use calc(). Here’s how I make the borders 10% darker:

border-color: hsl(
  var(--button-colour-hue),
  var(--button-colour-saturation),
  calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 10%)
);

That calc() function is substracting a percentage from a percentage: 38% minus 10% in this case. The borders will have a lightness of 28%.

I make the bottom border even darker and the top border lighter to give a feeling of depth.

On The Session there’s a “cancel” button style that’s deep red.

Here’s how I set its colour:

.cancel {
  --button-colour-hue: 0;
  --button-colour-saturation: 100%;
  --button-colour-lightness: 40%;
}

That’s it. The existing button declarations take care of assigning the right shades for the border colours.

Here’s another example. Site admins see buttons for some actions only available to them. I want those buttons to have their own colour:

.admin {
  --button-colour-hue: 45;
  --button-colour-saturation: 100%;
  --button-colour-lightness: 40%;
}

You get the idea. It doesn’t matter how many differently-coloured buttons I create, the effect of darkening or lightening their borders is all taken care of.

So it turns out that the lighten() and darken() functions from Sass are available to us in CSS by using a combination of custom properties, hsl(), and calc().

I’m also using this combination to lighten or darken background and border colours on :hover. You can poke around the Codepen if you want to see that in action.

I love seeing the combinatorial power of these different bits of CSS coming together. It really is a remarkably powerful programming language.

Sass and clamp

CSS got some pretty nifty features recently. There’s the min() and max() functions. If you use them for, say, width you can use one rule where previously you would’ve needed to use two (a width declaration followed by either min-width or max-width). But they can also be applied to font-size! That’s very nifty—we’ve never had min-font-size or max-font-size properties.

There’s also the clamp() function. That allows you to set a minimum size, a default size, and a maximum size. Again, it can be used for lengths, like width, or for font-size.

Over on thesession.org, I’ve had some media queries in place for a while now that would increase the font-size for larger screens. It’s nothing crucial, just a nice-to-have so that on wide screens, the font is bumped up accordingly. I realised I could replace all those media queries with one clamp() statement, thanks to the vw (viewport width) unit:

font-size: clamp(1rem, 1.333vw, 1.5rem);

By default, the font-size is 1.333vw (1.333% of the viewport width), but it will never get smaller than 1rem and it will never get larger than 1.5rem.

That works, but there’s a bit of an issue with using raw vw units like that. If someone is on a wide screen and they try to adjust the font size, nothing will happen. The viewport width doesn’t change when you bump the font size up or down.

The solution is to mix in some kind of unit that does respond to the font size being bumped up or down (like, say, the rem unit). Handily, clamp() allows you to combine units, just like calc(). So I can do this:

font-size: clamp(1rem, 0.5rem + 0.666vw, 1.5rem);

The result is much the same as my previous rule, but now—thanks to the presence of that 0.5rem value—the font size responds to being adjusted by the user.

You could use a full 1rem in that default value:

font-size: clamp(1rem, 1rem + 0.333vw, 1.5rem);

…but if you do that, the minimum size (1rem) will never be reached—the default value will always be larger. So in effect it’s no different than saying:

font-size: min(1.rem + 0.333vw, 1.5rem);

I mentioned this to Chris just the other day.

Anyway, I got the result I wanted. I wanted the font size to stay at the browser default size (usually 16 pixels) until the screen was larger than around 1200 pixels. From there, the font size gets gradually bigger, until it hits one and a half times the browser default (which would be 24 pixels if the default size started at 16). I decided to apply it to the :root element (which is html) using percentages:

:root {
  font-size: clamp(100%, 50% + 0.666vw, 150%);
}

(My thinking goes like this: if we take a screen width of 1200 pixels, then 1vw would be 12 pixels: 1200 divided by 100. So for a font size of 16 pixels, that would be 1.333vw. But because I’m combining it with half of the default font size—50% of 16 pixels = 8 pixels—I need to cut the vw value in half as well: 50% of 1.333vw = 0.666vw.)

So I’ve got the CSS rule I want. I dropped it in to the top of my file and…

I got an error.

There was nothing wrong with my CSS. The problem was that I was dropping it into a Sass file (.scss).

Perhaps I am showing my age. Do people even use Sass any more? I hear that post-processors usurped Sass’s dominance (although no-one’s ever been able to explain to me why they’re different to pre-processers like Sass; they both process something you’ve written into something else). Or maybe everyone’s just writing their CSS in JS now. I hear that’s a thing.

The Session is a looooong-term project so I’m very hesitant to use any technology that won’t stand the test of time. When I added Sass into the mix, back in—I think—2012 or so, I wasn’t sure whether it was the right thing to do, from a long-term perspective. But it did offer some useful functionality so I went ahead and used it.

Now, eight years later, it was having a hard time dealing with the new clamp() function. Specifically, it didn’t like the values being calculated through the addition of multiple units. I think it was clashing with Sass’s in-built ability to add units together.

I started to ask myself whether I should still be using Sass. I looked at which features I was using…

Variables. Well, now we’ve got CSS custom properties, which are even more powerful than Sass variables because they can be updated in real time. Sass variables are like const. CSS custom properties are like let.

Mixins. These can be very useful, but now there’s a lot that you can do just in CSS with calc(). The built-in darken() and lighten() mixins are handy though when it comes to colours.

Nesting. I’ve never been a fan. I know it can make the source files look tidier but I find it can sometimes obfuscate what you’re final selectors are going to look like. So this wasn’t something I was using much any way.

Multiple files. Ah! This is the thing I would miss most. Having separate .scss files for separate interface elements is very handy!

But globbing a bunch of separate .scss files into one .css file isn’t really a Sass task. That’s what build tools are for. In fact, that’s what I was already doing with my JavaScript files; I write them as individual .js files that then get concatenated into one .js file using Grunt.

(Yes, this project uses Grunt. I told you I was showing my age. But, you know what? It works. Though seeing as I’m mostly using it for concatenation, I could probably replace it with a makefile. If I’m going to use old technology, I might as well go all the way.)

I swapped out Sass variables for CSS custom properties, mixins for calc(), and removed what little nesting I was doing. Then I stripped the Sass parts out of my Grunt file and replaced them with some concatenation and minification tasks. All of this makes no difference to the actual website, but it means I’ve got one less dependency …and I can use clamp()!

Remember a little while back when I was making a dark mode for my site? I made this observation:

Let’s just take a moment here to pause and reflect on the fact that we can now use CSS to create all sorts of effects that previously required a graphic design tool like Photoshop.

It feels like something similar has happened with tools like Sass. Sass was the hare. CSS is the tortoise. Sass blazed the trail, but now native CSS can achieve much the same result.

It’s like when we used to need something like jQuery to do DOM Scripting succinctly using CSS selectors. Then we got things like querySelector() in JavaScript so we no longer needed the trailblazer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the goal of any good library should be to get so successful as to make itself redundant. That is, the ideas and functionality provided by the tool are so useful and widely adopted that the native technologies—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—take their cue from those tools.

You could argue that this is what happened with Flash. It certainly happened with jQuery and Sass. I’m pretty sure we’ll see the same cycle play out with frameworks like React.

Oh, embed!

I wrote yesterday about how messing about on your own website can be a welcome distraction. I did some tinkering with adactio.com on the weekend that you might be interested in.

Let me set the scene…

I’ve started recording and publishing a tune a day. I grab my mandolin, open up Quicktime and make a movie of me playing a jig, a reel, or some other type of Irish tune. I include a link to that tune on The Session and a screenshot of the sheet music for anyone who wants to play along. And I embed the short movie clip that I’ve uploaded to YouTube.

Now it’s not the first time I’ve embedded YouTube videos into my site. But with the increased frequency of posting a tune a day, the front page of adactio.com ended up with multiple embeds. That is not good for performance—my Lighthouse score took quite a hit. Worst of all, if a visitor doesn’t end up playing an embedded video, all of the markup, CSS, and JavaScript in the embedded iframe has been delivered for nothing.

Meanwhile over on The Session, I’ve got a strategy for embedding YouTube videos that’s better for performance. Whenever somebody posts a link to a video on YouTube, the thumbnail of the video is embedded. Only when you click the thumbnail does that image get swapped out for the iframe with the video.

That’s what I needed to do here on adactio.com.

First off, I should explain how I’m embedding things generally ‘round here. Whenever I post a link or a note that has a URL in it, I run that URL through a little PHP script called getEmbedCode.php.

That code checks to see if the URL is from a service that provides an oEmbed endpoint. A what-Embed? oEmbed!

oEmbed is like a minimum viable read-only API. It was specced out by Leah and friends years back. You ping a URL like this:

http://example.com/oembed?url=https://example.com/thing

In this case http://example.com/oembed is the endpoint and url is the value of a URL from that provider. Here’s a real life example from YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/oembed?url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eiqhVmSPcs

So https://www.youtube.com/oembed is the endpoint and url is the address of any video on YouTube.

You get back some JSON with a pre-defined list of values like title and html. That html payload is the markup for your embed code.

By default, YouTube sends back markup like this:

<iframe
width="480"
height="270"
src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs?feature=oembed"
frameborder="0
allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture"
allowfullscreen>
</iframe>

But now I want to use an img instead of an iframe. One of the other values returned is thumbnail_url. That’s the URL of a thumbnail image that looks something like this:

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/hqdefault.jpg

In fact, once you know the ID of a YouTube video (the ?v= bit in a YouTube URL), you can figure out the path to multiple images of different sizes:

(Although that last one—maxresdefault.jpg—might not work for older videos.)

Okay, so I need to extract the ID from the YouTube URL. Here’s the PHP I use to do that:

parse_str(parse_url($url, PHP_URL_QUERY), $arguments);
$id = $arguments['v'];

Then I can put together some HTML like this:

<div>
<a class="videoimglink" href="'.$url.'">
<img width="100%" loading="lazy"
src="https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/default.jpg"
alt="'.$response['title'].'"
srcset="
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/mqdefault.jpg 320w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/hqdefault.jpg 480w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/maxresdefault.jpg 1280w
">
</a>
</div>

Now I’ve got a clickable responsive image that links through to the video on YouTube. Time to enhance. I’m going to add a smidgen of JavaScript to listen for a click on that link.

Over on The Session, I’m using addEventListener but here on adactio.com I’m going to be dirty and listen for the event directly in the markup using the onclick attribute.

When the link is clicked, I nuke the link and the image using innerHTML. This injects an iframe where the link used to be (by updating the innerHTML value of the link’s parentNode).

onclick="event.preventDefault();
this.parentNode.innerHTML='<iframe src=https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/'.$id.'?autoplay=1></iframe>'"

But notice that I’m not using the default YouTube URL for the iframe. That would be:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs

Instead I’m swapping out the domain youtube.com for youtube-nocookie.com:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs

I can’t remember where I first came across this undocumented parallel version of YouTube that has, yes, you guessed it, no cookies. It turns out that, not only is the default YouTube embed code bad for performance, it is—unsurprisingly—bad for privacy too. So the youtube-nocookie.com domain can protect your site’s visitors from intrusive tracking. Pass it on.

Anyway, I’ve got the markup I want now:

<div>
<a class="videoimglink" href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eiqhVmSPcs"
onclick="event.preventDefault();
this.parentNode.innerHTML='<iframe src=https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs?autoplay=1></iframe>'">
<img width="100%" loading="lazy"
src="https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/default.jpg"
alt="The Banks Of Lough Gowna (jig) on mandolin"
srcset="
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/mqdefault.jpg 320w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/hqdefault.jpg 480w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/maxresdefault.jpg 1280w
">
</a>
</div>

The functionality is all there. But I want to style the embedded images to look more like playable videos. Time to break out some CSS (this is why I added the videoimglink class to the YouTube link).

.videoimglink {
    display: block;
    position: relative;
}

I’m going to use generated content to create a play button icon. Because I can’t use generated content on an img element, I’m applying these styles to the containing .videoimglink a element.

.videoimglink::before {
    content: '▶';
}

I was going to make an SVG but then I realised I could just be lazy and use the unicode character instead.

Right. Time to draw the rest of the fucking owl:

.videoimglink::before {
    content: '▶';
    display: inline-block;
    position: absolute;
    background-color: var(--background-color);
    color: var(--link-color);
    border-radius: 50%;
    width: 10vmax;
    height: 10vmax;
    top: calc(50% - 5vmax);
    left: calc(50% - 5vmax);
    font-size: 6vmax;
    text-align: center;
    text-indent: 1vmax;
    opacity: 0.5;
}

That’s a bunch of instructions for sizing and positioning. I’d explain it, but that would require me to understand it and frankly, I’m not entirely sure I do. But it works. I think.

With a translucent play icon positioned over the thumbnail, all that’s left is to add a :hover style to adjust the opacity:

.videoimglink:hover::before,
.videoimglink:focus::before {
    opacity: 0.75;
}

Wheresoever thou useth :hover, thou shalt also useth :focus.

Okay. It’s good enough. Ship it!

The Banks Of Lough Gowna (jig) on mandolin

If you embed YouTube videos on your site, and you’d like to make them more performant, check out this custom element that Paul made: Lite YouTube Embed. And here’s a clever technique that uses the srcdoc attribute to get a similar result (but don’t forget to use the youtube-nocookie.com domain).

Utopia

Trys and James recently unveiled their Utopia project. They’ve been tinkering away at it behind the scenes for quite a while now.

You can check out the website and read the blog to get the details of how it accomplishes its goal:

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

I may well be biased, but I really like this project. I’ve been asking myself why I find it so appealing. Here are a few of the attributes of Utopia that strike a chord with me…

It’s collaborative

Collaboration is at the heart of Clearleft’s work. I know everyone says that, but we’ve definitely seen a direct correlation: projects with high levels of collaboration are invariably more successful than projects where people are siloed.

The genesis for Utopia came about after Trys and James worked together on a few different projects. It’s all too easy to let design and development splinter off into their own caves, but on these projects, Trys and James were working (literally) side by side. This meant that they could easily articulate frustrations to one another, and more important, they could easily share their excitement.

The end result of their collaboration is some very clever code. There’s an irony here. This code could be used to discourage collaboration! After all, why would designers and developers sit down together if they can just pass these numbers back and forth?

But I don’t think that Utopia will appeal to designers and developers who work in that way. Born in the spirit of collaboration, I suspect that it will mostly benefit people who value collaboration.

It’s intrinsic

If you’re a control freak, you may not like Utopia. The idea is that you specify the boundaries of what you’re trying to accomplish—minimum/maximum font sizes, minumum/maximum screen sizes, and some modular scales. Then you let the code—and the browser—do all the work.

On the one hand, this feels like surrending control. But on the other hand, because the underlying system is so robust, it’s a way of guaranteeing quality, even in situations you haven’t accounted for.

If someone asks you, “What size will the body copy be when the viewport is 850 pixels wide?”, your answer would have to be “I don’t know …but I do know that it will be appropriate.”

This feels like a very declarative way of designing. It reminds me of the ethos behind Andy and Heydon’s site, Every Layout. They call it algorithmic layout design:

Employing algorithmic layout design means doing away with @media breakpoints, “magic numbers”, and other hacks, to create context-independent layout components. Your future design systems will be more consistent, terser in code, and more malleable in the hands of your users and their devices.

See how breakpoints are mentioned as being a very top-down approach to layout? Remember the tagline for Utopia, which aims for fluid responsive design?

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

Unsurprisingly, Andy really likes Utopia:

As the co-author of Every Layout, my head nearly fell off from all of the nodding when reading this because this is the exact sort of approach that we preach: setting some rules and letting the browser do the rest.

Heydon describes this mindset as automating intent. I really like that. I think that’s what Utopia does too.

As Heydon said at Patterns Day:

Be your browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

The idea is that you give it rules, you give it axioms or principles to work on, and you let it do the calculation. You work with the in-built algorithms of the browser and of CSS itself.

This is all possible thanks to improvements to CSS like calc, flexbox and grid. Jen calls this approach intrinsic web design. Last year, I liveblogged her excellent talk at An Event Apart called Designing Intrinsic Layouts.

Utopia feels like it has the same mindset as algorithmic layout design and intrinsic web design. Trys and James are building on the great work already out there, which brings me to the final property of Utopia that appeals to me…

It’s iterative

There isn’t actually much that’s new in Utopia. It’s a combination of existing techniques. I like that. As I said recently:

I’m a great believer in the HTML design principle, Evolution Not Revolution:

It is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away.

First of all, Utopia uses the idea of modular scales in typography. Tim Brown has been championing this idea for years.

Then there’s the idea of typography being fluid and responsive—just like Jason Pamental has been speaking and writing about.

On the code side, Utopia wouldn’t be possible without the work of Mike Reithmuller and his breakthroughs on responsive and fluid typography, which led to Tim’s work on CSS locks.

Utopia takes these building blocks and combines them. So if you’re wondering if it would be a good tool for one of your projects, you can take an equally iterative approach by asking some questions…

Are you using fluid type?

Do your font-sizes increase in proportion to the width of the viewport? I don’t mean in sudden jumps with @media breakpoints—I mean some kind of relationship between font size and the vw (viewport width) unit. If so, you’re probably using some kind of mechanism to cap the minimum and maximum font sizes—CSS locks.

I’m using that technique on Resilient Web Design. But I’m not changing the relative difference between different sized elements—body copy, headings, etc.—as the screen size changes.

Are you using modular scales?

Does your type system have some kind of ratio that describes the increase in type sizes? You probably have more than one ratio (unlike Resilient Web Design). The ratio for small screens should probably be smaller than the ratio for big screens. But rather than jump from one ratio to another at an arbitrary breakpoint, Utopia allows the ratio to be fluid.

So it’s not just that font sizes are increasing as the screen gets larger; the comparative difference is also subtly changing. That means there’s never a sudden jump in font size at any time.

Are you using custom properties?

A technical detail this, but the magic of Utopia relies on two powerful CSS features: calc() and custom properties. These two workhorses are used by Utopia to generate some CSS that you can stick at the start of your stylesheet. If you ever need to make changes, all the parameters are defined at the top of the code block. Tweak those numbers and watch everything cascade.

You’ll see that there’s one—and only one—media query in there. This is quite clever. Usually with CSS locks, you’d need to have a media query for every different font size in order to cap its growth at the maximum screen size. With Utopia, the maximum screen size—100vw—is abstracted into a variable (a custom property). The media query then changes its value to be the upper end of your CSS lock. So it doesn’t matter how many different font sizes you’re setting: because they all use that custom property, one single media query takes care of capping the growth of every font size declaration.

If you’re already using CSS locks, modular scales, and custom properties, Utopia is almost certainly going to be a good fit for you.

If you’re not yet using those techniques, but you’d like to, I highly recommend using Utopia on your next project.

CSS for all

There have been some great new CSS properties and values shipping in Firefox recently.

Miriam Suzanne explains the difference between the newer revert value and the older inherit, initial and unset values in a video on the Mozilla Developer channel:

display: revert;

In another video, Jen describes some new properties for styling underlines (on links, for example):

text-decoration-thickness:  0.1em;
text-decoration-color: red;
text-underline-offset: 0.2em;
text-decoration-skip-ink: auto;

Great stuff!

As far as I can tell, all of these properties are available to you regardless of whether you are serving your website over HTTP or over HTTPS. That may seem like an odd observation to make, but I invite you to cast your mind back to January 2018. That’s when the Mozilla Security Blog posted about moving to secure contexts everywhere:

Effective immediately, all new features that are web-exposed are to be restricted to secure contexts. Web-exposed means that the feature is observable from a web page or server, whether through JavaScript, CSS, HTTP, media formats, etc. A feature can be anything from an extension of an existing IDL-defined object, a new CSS property, a new HTTP response header, to bigger features such as WebVR.

(emphasis mine)

Buzz Lightyear says to Woody: Secure contexts …secure contexts everywhere!

Despite that “effective immediately” clause, I haven’t observed any of the new CSS properties added in the past two years to be restricted to HTTPS. I’m glad about that. I wrote about this announcement at the time:

I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.

If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement.

There’s no official word from the Mozilla Security Blog about any change to their two-year old “effective immediately” policy, and the original blog post hasn’t been updated. Maybe we can all just pretend it never happened.

Dark mode

I had a very productive time at Indie Web Camp Amsterdam. The format really lends itself to getting the most of a weekend—one day of discussions followed by one day of hands-on making and doing. You should definitely come along to Indie Web Camp Brighton on October 19th and 20th to experience it for yourself.

By the end of the “doing” day, I had something fun to demo—a dark mode for my website.

Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.

Applying the dark mode styles is pretty straightforward in theory. You put the styles inside this media query:

@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) {
...
}

Rather than over-riding every instance of a colour in my style sheet, I decided I’d do a little bit of refactoring first and switch to using CSS custom properties (or variables, if you will).

:root {
  --background-color: #fff;
  --text-color: #333;
  --link-color: #b52;
}
body {
  background-color: var(--background-color);
  color: var(--text-color);
}
a {
  color: var(--link-color);
}

Then I can over-ride the custom properties without having to touch the already-declared styles:

@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) {
  :root {
    --background-color: #111416
    --text-color: #ccc;
    --link-color: #f96;
  }
}

All in all, I have about a dozen custom properties for colours—variations for text, backgrounds, and interface elements like links and buttons.

By using custom properties and the prefers-color-scheme media query, I was 90% of the way there. But the devil is in the details.

I have SVGs of sparklines on my homepage. The SVG has a hard-coded colour value in the stroke attribute of the path element that draws the sparkline. Fortunately, this can be over-ridden in the style sheet:

svg.activity-sparkline path {
  stroke: var(--text-color);
}

The real challenge came with the images I use in the headers of my pages. They’re JPEGs with white corners on one side and white gradients on the other.

header images

I could make them PNGs to get transparency, but the file size would shoot up—they’re photographic images (with a little bit of scan-line treatment) so JPEGs (or WEBPs) are the better format. Then I realised I could use CSS to recreate the two effects:

  1. For the cut-out triangle in the top corner, there’s clip-path.
  2. For the gradient, there’s …gradients!
background-image: linear-gradient(
  to right,
  transparent 50%,
  var(—background-color) 100%
);

Oh, and I noticed that when I applied the clip-path for the corners, it had no effect in Safari. It turns out that after half a decade of support, it still only exists with -webkit prefix. That’s just ridiculous. At this point we should be burning vendor prefixes with fire. I can’t believe that Apple still ships standardised CSS properties that only work with a prefix.

In order to apply the CSS clip-path and gradient, I needed to save out the images again, this time without the effects baked in. I found the original Photoshop file I used to export the images. But I don’t have a copy of Photoshop any more. I haven’t had a copy of Photoshop since Adobe switched to their Mafia model of pricing. A quick bit of searching turned up Photopea, which is pretty much an entire recreation of Photoshop in the browser. I was able to open my old PSD file and re-export my images.

LEGO clone trooper Brighton bandstand Scaffolding Tokyo Florence

Let’s just take a moment here to pause and reflect on the fact that we can now use CSS to create all sorts of effects that previously required a graphic design tool like Photoshop. I could probably do those raster scan lines with CSS if I were smart enough.

dark mode

This is what I demo’d at the end of Indie Web Camp Amsterdam, and I was pleased with the results. But fate had an extra bit of good timing in store for me.

The very next day at the View Source conference, Melanie Richards gave a fantastic talk called The Tailored Web: Effectively Honoring Visual Preferences (seriously, conference organisers, you want this talk on your line-up). It was packed with great insights and advice on impementing dark mode, like this little gem for adjusting images:

@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) {
  img {
    filter: brightness(.8) contrast(1.2);
  }
}

Melanie also pointed out that you can indicate the presence of dark mode styles to browsers, although the mechanism is yet to shake out. You can do it in CSS:

:root {
  color-scheme: light dark;
}

But you can also do it in HTML:

That allows browsers to swap out replaced content; interface elements like form fields and dropdowns.

Oh, and one other addition I added after the fact was swapping out map imagery by using the picture element to point to darker map tiles:

<picture>
<source media="(prefers-color-scheme: dark)" srcset="https://api.mapbox.com/styles/v1/mapbox/dark-v10/static...">
<img src="https://api.mapbox.com/styles/v1/mapbox/outdoors-v10/static..." alt="map">
</picture>

light map dark map

So now I’ve got a dark mode for my website. Admittedly, it’s for just one of the eight style sheets. I’ve decided that, while I’ll update my default styles at every opportunity, I’m going to preservethe other skins as they are, like the historical museum pieces they are.

If you’re on the latest version of iOS, go ahead and toggle the light and dark options in your system preferences to flip between this site’s colour schemes.

Getting started

I got an email recently from a young person looking to get into web development. They wanted to know what languages they should start with, whether they should a Mac or a Windows PC, and what some places to learn from.

I wrote back, saying this about languages:

For web development, start with HTML, then CSS, then JavaScript (and don’t move on to JavaScript too quickly—really get to grips with HTML and CSS first).

And this is what I said about hardware and software:

It doesn’t matter whether you use a Mac or a Windows PC, as long as you’ve got an internet connection, some web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, for example) and a text editor. There are some very good free text editors available for Mac and PC:

For resources, I had a trawl through links I’ve tagged with “learning” and “html” and sent along some links to free online tutorials:

After sending that email, I figured that this list might be useful to anyone else looking to start out in web development. If you know of anyone in that situation, I hope this list might help.

Principle

I like good design principles. I collect design principles—of varying quality—at principles.adactio.com. Ben Brignell also has a (much larger) collection at principles.design.

You can spot the less useful design principles after a while. They tend to be wishy-washy; more like empty aspirational exhortations than genuinely useful guidelines for alignment. I’ve written about what makes for good design principles before. Matthew Ström also asked—and answered—What makes a good design principle?

  • Good design principles are memorable.
  • Good design principles help you say no.
  • Good design principles aren’t truisms.
  • Good design principles are applicable.

I like those. They’re like design principles for design principles.

One set of design principles that I’ve included in my collection is from gov.uk: government design principles . I think they’re very well thought-through (although I’m always suspicious when I see a nice even number like 10 for the amount of items in the list). There’s a great line in design principle number two—Do less:

Government should only do what only government can do.

This wasn’t a theoretical issue. The multiple departmental websites that preceded gov.uk were notorious for having too much irrelevant content—content that was readily available elsewhere. It was downright wasteful to duplicate that content on a government site. It wasn’t appropriate.

Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand. Whether it’s task runners or JavaScript frameworks, appropriateness feels like it should be the deciding factor.

I think that the design principle from GDS could be abstracted into a general technology principle:

Any particular technology should only do what only that particular technology can do.

Take JavaScript, for example. It feels “wrong” when a powerful client-side JavaScript framework is applied to something that could be accomplished using HTML. Making a blog that’s a single page app is over-engineering. It violates this principle:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

Need to manage state or immediately update the interface in response to user action? Only JavaScript can do that. But if you need to present the user with some static content, JavaScript can do that …but it’s not the only technology that can do that. HTML would be more appropriate.

I realise that this is basically a reformulation of one of my favourite design principles, the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Or, as Derek put it:

In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

ARIA should only do what only ARIA can do.

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

CSS should only do what only CSS can do.

HTML should only do what only HTML can do.