Tags: css

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Programming CSS

There’s a worrying tendency for “real” programmers look down their noses at CSS. It’s just a declarative language, they point out, not a fully-featured programming language. Heck, it isn’t even a scripting language.

That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that CSS isn’t powerful. It’s just powerful in different ways to traditional languages.

Take CSS selectors, for example. At the most basic level, they work like conditional statments. Here’s a standard if statement:

if (condition) {
// code here
}

The condition needs to evaluate to true in order for the code in the curly braces to be executed. Sound familiar?

condition {
// styles here
}

That’s a very simple mapping, but what if the conditional statement is more complicated?

if (condition1 && condition2) {
// code here
}

Well, that’s what the decendant selector does:

condition1 condition2 {
// styles here
}

In fact, we can get even more specific than that by using the child combinator, the sibling combinator, and the adjacent sibling combinator:

  • condition1 > condition2
  • condition1 ~ condition2
  • condition2 + condition2

AND is just one part of Boolean logic. There’s also OR:

if (condition1 || condition2) {
// code here
}

In CSS, we use commas:

condition1, condition2 {
// styles here
}

We’ve even got the :not() pseudo-class to complete the set of Boolean possibilities. Once you add quantity queries into the mix, made possible by :nth-child and its ilk, CSS starts to look Turing complete. I’ve seen people build state machines using the adjacent sibling combinator and the :checked pseudo-class.

Anyway, my point here is that CSS selectors are really powerful. And yet, quite often we deliberately choose not to use that power. The entire raison d’être for OOCSS, BEM, and Smacss is to deliberately limit the power of selectors, restricting them to class selectors only.

On the face of it, this might seem like an odd choice. After all, we wouldn’t deliberately limit ourselves to a subset of a programming language, would we?

We would and we do. That’s what templating languages are for. Whether it’s PHP’s Smarty or Twig, or JavaScript’s Mustache, Nunjucks, or Handlebars, they all work by providing a deliberately small subset of features. Some pride themselves on being logic-less. If you find yourself trying to do something that the templating language doesn’t provide, that’s a good sign that you shouldn’t be trying to do it in the template at all; it should be in the controller.

So templating languages exist to enforce simplicity and ensure that the complexity happens somewhere else. It’s a similar story with BEM et al. If you find you can’t select something in the CSS, that’s a sign that you probably need to add another class name to the HTML. The complexity is confined to the markup in order to keep the CSS more straightforward, modular, and maintainable.

But let’s not forget that that’s a choice. It’s not that CSS in inherently incapable of executing complex conditions. Quite the opposite. It’s precisely because CSS selectors (and the cascade) are so powerful that we choose to put guard rails in place.

An nth-letter selector in CSS

Variable fonts are a very exciting and powerful new addition to the toolbox of web design. They was very much at the centre of discussion at this year’s Ampersand conference.

A lot of the demonstrations of the power of variable fonts are showing how it can be used to make letter-by-letter adjustments. The Ampersand website itself does this with the logo. See also: the brilliant demos by Mandy. It’s getting to the point where logotypes can be sculpted and adjusted just-so using CSS and raw text—no images required.

I find this to be thrilling, but there’s a fly in the ointment. In order to style something in CSS, you need a selector to target it. If you’re going to style individual letters, you need to wrap each one in an HTML element so that you can then select it in CSS.

For the Ampersand logo, we had to wrap each letter in a span (and then, becuase that might cause each letter to be read out individually instead of all of them as a single word, we applied some ARIA shenanigans to the containing element). There’s even a JavaScript library—Splitting.js—that will do this for you.

But if the whole point of using HTML is that the content is accessible, copyable, and pastable, isn’t a bit of a shame that we then compromise the markup—and the accessibility—by wrapping individual letters in presentational tags?

What if there were an ::nth-letter selector in CSS?

There’s some prior art here. We’ve already got ::first-letter (and now the initial-letter property or whatever it ends up being called). If we can target the first letter in a piece of text, why not the second, or third, or nth?

It raises some questions. What constitutes a letter? Would it be better if we talked about ::first-character, ::initial-character, ::nth-character, and so on?

Even then, there are some tricksy things to figure out. What’s the third character in this piece of markup?

<p>AB<span>CD</span>EF</p>

Is it “C”, becuase that’s the third character regardless of nesting? Or is it “E”, becuase techically that’s the third character token that’s a direct child of the parent element?

I imagine that implementing ::nth-letter (or ::nth-character) would be quite complex so there would probably be very little appetite for it from browser makers. But it doesn’t seem as problematic as some selectors we’ve already got.

Take ::first-line, for example. That violates one of the biggest issues in adding new CSS selectors: it’s a selector that depends on layout.

Think about it. The browser has to first calculate how many characters are in the first line of an element (like, say, a paragraph). Having figured that out, the browser can then apply the styles declared in the ::first-line selector. But those styles may involve font sizing updates that changes the number of characters in the first line. Paradox!

(Technically, only a subset of CSS of properties can be applied to ::first-line, but that subset includes font-size so the paradox remains.)

I checked to see if ::first-line was included in one of my favourite documents: Incomplete List of Mistakes in the Design of CSS. It isn’t.

So compared to the logic-bending paradoxes of ::first-line, an ::nth-letter selector would be relatively straightforward. But that in itself isn’t a good enough reason for it to exist. As the CSS Working Group FAQs say:

The fact that we’ve made one mistake isn’t an argument for repeating the mistake.

A new selector needs to solve specific use cases. I would argue that all the letter-by-letter uses of variable fonts that we’re seeing demonstrate the use cases, and the number of these examples is only going to increase. The very fact that JavaScript libraries exist to solve this problem shows that there’s a need here (and we’ve seen the pattern of common JavaScript use-cases ending up in CSS before—rollovers, animation, etc.).

Now, I know that browser makers would like us to figure out how proposed CSS features should work by polyfilling a solution with Houdini. But would that work for a selector? I don’t know much about Houdini so I asked Una. She pointed me to a proposal by Greg and Tab for a full-on parser in Houdini. But that’s a loooong way off. Until then, we must petition our case to the browser gods.

This is not a new suggestion.

Anne Van Kesteren proposed ::nth-letter way back in 2003:

While I’m talking about CSS, I would also like to have ::nth-line(n), ::nth-letter(n) and ::nth-word(n), any thoughts?

Trent called for ::nth-letter in January 2011:

I think this would be the ideal solution from a web designer’s perspective. No javascript would be required, and 100% of the styling would be handled right where it should be—in the CSS.

Chris repeated the call in October of 2011:

Of all of these “new” selectors, ::nth-letter is likely the most useful.

In 2012, Bram linked to a blog post (now unavailable) from Adobe indicating that they were working on ::nth-letter for Webkit. That was the last anyone’s seen of this elusive pseudo-element.

In 2013, Chris (again) included ::nth-letter in his wishlist for CSS. So say we all.

Declaration

I like the robustness that comes with declarative languages. I also like the power that comes with imperative languages. Best of all, I like having the choice.

Take the video and audio elements, for example. If you want, you can embed a video or audio file into a web page using a straightforward declaration in HTML.

<audio src="..." controls><!-- fallback goes here --></audio>

Straightaway, that covers 80%-90% of use cases. But if you need to do more—like, provide your own custom controls—there’s a corresponding API that’s exposed in JavaScript. Using that API, you can do everything that you can do with the HTML element, and a whole lot more besides.

It’s a similar story with animation. CSS provides plenty of animation power, but it’s limited in the events that can trigger the animations. That’s okay. There’s a corresponding JavaScript API that gives you more power. Again, the CSS declarations cover 80%-90% of use cases, but for anyone in that 10%-20%, the web animation API is there to help.

Client-side form validation is another good example. For most us, the HTML attributes—required, type, etc.—are probably enough most of the time.

<input type="email" required />

When we need more fine-grained control, there’s a validation API available in JavaScript (yes, yes, I know that the API itself is problematic, but you get the point).

I really like this design pattern. Cover 80% of the use cases with a declarative solution in HTML, but also provide an imperative alternative in JavaScript that gives more power. HTML5 has plenty of examples of this pattern. But I feel like the history of web standards has a few missed opportunities too.

Geolocation is a good example of an unbalanced feature. If you want to use it, you must use JavaScript. There is no declarative alternative. This doesn’t exist:

<input type="geolocation" />

That’s a shame. Anyone writing a form that asks for the user’s location—in order to submit that information to a server for processing—must write some JavaScript. That’s okay, I guess, but it’s always going to be that bit more fragile and error-prone compared to markup.

(And just in case you’re thinking of the fallback—which would be for the input element to be rendered as though its type value were text—and you think it’s ludicrous to expect users with non-supporting browsers to enter latitude and longitude coordinates by hand, I direct your attention to input type="color": in non-supporting browsers, it’s rendered as input type="text" and users are expected to enter colour values by hand.)

Geolocation is an interesting use case because it only works on HTTPS. There are quite a few JavaScript APIs that quite rightly require a secure context—like service workers—but I can’t think of a single HTML element or attribute that requires HTTPS (although that will soon change if we don’t act to stop plans to create a two-tier web). But that can’t have been the thinking behind geolocation being JavaScript only; when geolocation first shipped, it was available over HTTP connections too.

Anyway, that’s just one example. Like I said, it’s not that I’m in favour of declarative solutions instead of imperative ones; I strongly favour the choice offered by providing declarative solutions as well as imperative ones.

In recent years there’s been a push to expose low-level browser features to developers. They’re inevitably exposed as JavaScript APIs. In most cases, that makes total sense. I can’t really imagine a declarative way of accessing the fetch or cache APIs, for example. But I think we should be careful that it doesn’t become the only way of exposing new browser features. I think that, wherever possible, the design pattern of exposing new features declaratively and imperatively offers the best of the both worlds—ease of use for the simple use cases, and power for the more complex use cases.

Previously, it was up to browser makers to think about these things. But now, with the advent of web components, we developers are gaining that same level of power and responsibility. So if you’re making a web component that you’re hoping other people will also use, maybe it’s worth keeping this design pattern in mind: allow authors to configure the functionality of the component using HTML attributes and JavaScript methods.

Robustness and least power

There’s a great article by Steven Garrity over on A List Apart called Design with Difficult Data. It runs through the advantages of using unusual content to stress-test interfaces, referencing Postel’s Law, AKA the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

Even though the robustness principle was formulated for packet-switching, I see it at work in all sorts of disciplines, including design. A good example is in best practices for designing forms:

Every field you ask users to fill out requires some effort. The more effort is needed to fill out a form, the less likely users will complete the form. That’s why the foundational rule of form design is shorter is better — get rid of all inessential fields.

In other words, be conservative in the number of form fields you send to users. But then, when it comes to users filling in those fields:

It’s very common for a few variations of an answer to a question to be possible; for example, when a form asks users to provide information about their state, and a user responds by typing their state’s abbreviation instead of the full name (for example, CA instead of California). The form should accept both formats, and it’s the developer job to convert the data into a consistent format.

In other words, be liberal in what you accept from users.

I find the robustness principle to be an immensely powerful way of figuring out how to approach many design problems. When it comes to figuring out what specific tools or technologies to use, there’s an equally useful principle: the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

On the face of it, this sounds counter-intuitive; why forego a powerful technology in favour of something less powerful?

Well, power comes with a price. Powerful technologies tend to be more complex, which means they can be trickier to use and trickier to swap out later.

Take the front-end stack, for example: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. HTML and CSS are declarative, so you don’t get as much precise control as you get with an imperative language like JavaScript. But JavaScript comes with a steeper learning curve and a stricter error-handling model than HTML or CSS.

As a general rule, it’s always worth asking if you can accomplish something with a less powerful technology:

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.

  • Instead of using JavaScript to do animation, see if you can do it in CSS instead.
  • Instead of using JavaScript to do simple client-side form validation, try to use HTML input types and attributes like required.
  • Instead of using ARIA to give a certain role value to a div or span, try to use a more suitable HTML element instead.

It sounds a lot like the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But whereas the KISS principle can be applied within a specific technology—like keeping your CSS manageable—the rule of least power is all about evaluating technology; choosing the most appropriate technology for the task at hand.

There are some associated principles, like YAGNI: You Ain’t Gonna Need It. That helps you avoid picking a technology that’s too powerful for your current needs, but which might be suitable in the future: premature optimisation. Or, as Rachel put it, stop solving problems you don’t yet have:

So make sure every bit of code added to your project is there for a reason you can explain, not just because it is part of some standard toolkit or boilerplate.

There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.

After all, if they’re good enough for Tim Berners-Lee…

CSS grid in Internet Explorer 11

When I was in Boston, speaking on a lunchtime panel with Rachel at An Event Apart, we took some questions from the audience about CSS grid. Inevitably, a question about browser support came up—specifically about support in Internet Explorer 11.

(Technically, you can use CSS grid in IE11—in fact it was the first browser to ship a version of grid—but the prefixed syntax is different to the standard and certain features are missing.)

Rachel gave a great balanced response, saying that you need to look at your site’s stats to determine whether it’s worth the investment of your time trying to make a grid work in IE11.

My response was blunter. I said I just don’t consider IE11 as a browser that supports grid.

Now, that might sound harsh, but what I meant was: you’re already dividing your visitors into browsers that support grid, and browsers that don’t …and you’re giving something to those browsers that don’t support grid. So I’m suggesting that IE11 falls into that category and should receive the layout you’re giving to browsers that don’t support grid …because really, IE11 doesn’t support grid: that’s the whole reason why the syntax is namespaced by -ms.

You could jump through hoops to try to get your grid layout working in IE11, as detailed in a three-part series on CSS Tricks, but at that point, the amount of effort you’re putting in negates the time-saving benefits of using CSS grid in the first place.

Frankly, the whole point of prefixed CSS is that is not used after a reasonable amount of time (originally, the idea was that it would not be used in production, but that didn’t last long). As we’ve moved away from prefixes to flags in browsers, I’m seeing the amount of prefixed properties dropping, and that’s very, very good. I’ve stopped using autoprefixer on new projects, and I’ve been able to remove it from some existing ones—please consider doing the same.

And when it comes to IE11, I’ll continue to categorise it as a browser that doesn’t support CSS grid. That doesn’t mean I’m abandoning users of IE11—far from it. It means I’m giving them the layout that’s appropriate for the browser they’re using.

Remember, websites do not need to look exactly the same in every browser.

Components and concerns

We tend to like false dichotomies in the world of web design and web development. I’ve noticed one recently that keeps coming up in the realm of design systems and components.

It’s about separation of concerns. The web has a long history of separating structure, presentation, and behaviour through HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It has served us very well. If you build in that order, ensuring that something works (to some extent) before adding the next layer, the result will be robust and resilient.

But in this age of components, many people are pointing out that it makes sense to separate things according to their function. Here’s the Diana Mounter in her excellent article about design systems at Github:

Rather than separating concerns by languages (such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), we’re are working towards a model of separating concerns at the component level.

This echoes a point made previously in a slidedeck by Cristiano Rastelli.

Separating interfaces according to the purpose of each component makes total sense …but that doesn’t mean we have to stop separating structure, presentation, and behaviour! Why not do both?

There’s nothing in the “traditonal” separation of concerns on the web (HTML/CSS/JavaScript) that restricts it only to pages. In fact, I would say it works best when it’s applied on smaller scales.

In her article, Pattern Library First: An Approach For Managing CSS, Rachel advises starting every component with good markup:

Your starting point should always be well-structured markup.

This ensures that your content is accessible at a very basic level, but it also means you can take advantage of normal flow.

That’s basically an application of starting with the rule of least power.

In chapter 6 of Resilient Web Design, I outline the three-step process I use to build on the web:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

That chapter is filled with examples of applying those steps at the level of an entire site or product, but it doesn’t need to end there:

We can apply the three‐step process at the scale of individual components within a page. “What is the core functionality of this component? How can I make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology? Now how can I enhance it?”

There’s another shared benefit to separating concerns when building pages and building components. In the case of pages, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good URL. With components, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good name …something that’s at the heart of a good design system. In her brilliant Design Systems book, Alla advocates asking “what is its purpose?” in order to get a good shared language for components.

My point is this:

  • Separating structure, presentation, and behaviour is a good idea.
  • Separating an interface into components is a good idea.

Those two good ideas are not in conflict. Presenting them as though they were binary choices is like saying “I used to eat Italian food, but now I drink Italian wine.” They work best when they’re done in combination.

Speaking my brains in Boston

I was in Boston last week to give a talk. I ended up giving four.

I was there for An Event Apart which was, as always, excellent. I opened up day two with my talk, The Way Of The Web.

This was my second time giving this talk at An Event Apart—the first time was in Seattle a few months back. It was also my last time giving this talk at An Event Apart—I shan’t be speaking at any of the other AEAs this year, alas. The talk wasn’t recorded either so I’m afraid you kind of had to be there (unless you know of another conference that might like to have me give that talk, in which case, hit me up).

After giving my talk in the morning, I wasn’t quite done. I was on a panel discussion with Rachel about CSS grid. It turned out to be a pretty good format: have one person who’s a complete authority on a topic (Rachel), and another person who’s barely starting out and knows just enough to be dangerous (me). I really enjoyed it, and the questions from the audience prompted some ideas to form in my head that I should really note down in a blog post before they evaporate.

The next day, I went over to MIT to speak at Design 4 Drupal. So, y’know, technically I’ve lectured at MIT now.

I wasn’t going to do the same talk as I gave at An Event Apart, obviously. Instead, I reprised the talk I gave earlier this at Webstock: Taking Back The Web. I thought it was fitting given how much Drupal’s glorious leader, Dries, has been thinking about, writing about, and building with the indie web.

I really enjoyed giving this talk. The audience were great, and they had lots of good questions afterwards. There’s a video, which is basically my voice dubbed over the slides, followed by a good half of questions afterwards.

When I was done there, after a brief excursion to the MIT bookstore, I went back across the river from Cambridge to Boston just in time for that evening’s Boston CSS meetup.

Lea had been in touch to ask if I would speak at this meet-up, and I was only too happy to oblige. I tried doing something I’ve never done before: a book reading!

No, not reading from Going Offline, my current book which I should encouraging people to buy. Instead I read from Resilient Web Design, the free online book that people literally couldn’t buy if they wanted to. But I figured reading the philosophical ramblings in Resilient Web Design would go over better than trying to do an oral version of the service worker code in Going Offline.

I read from chapters two (Materials), three (Visions), and five (Layers) and I really, really liked doing it! People seemed to enjoy it too—we had questions throughout.

And with that, my time in Boston was at an end. I was up at the crack of dawn the next morning to get the plane back to England where Ampersand awaited. I wasn’t speaking there though. I thoroughly enjoyed being an attendee and absorbing the knowledge bombs from the brilliant speakers that Rich assembled.

The next place I’m speaking will much closer to home than Boston: I’ll be giving a short talk at Oxford Geek Nights on Wednesday. Come on by if you’re in the neighbourhood.

New tools for art direction on the web

I’m in Boston right now, getting ready to speak at An Event Apart. This will be my second (and last) Event Apart of the year—the other time was in Seattle back in April. After that event, I wrote about how inspired I was:

It was interesting to see repeating, overlapping themes. From a purely technical perspective, three technologies that were front and centre were:

  • CSS grid,
  • variable fonts, and
  • service workers.

From listening to other attendees, the overwhelming message received was “These technologies are here—they’ve arrived.”

I was itching to combine those technologies on a project. Coincidentally, it was around that time that I started planning to publish The Gęsiówka Story. I figured I could use that as an opportunity to tinker with those front-end technologies that I was so excited about.

But I was cautious. I didn’t want to use the latest exciting technology just for the sake of it. I was very aware of the gravity of the material I was dealing with. Documenting the story of Gęsiówka was what mattered. Any front-end technologies I used had to be in support of that.

First of all, there was the typesetting. I don’t know about you, but I find choosing the right typefaces to be overwhelming. Despite all the great tips and techniques out there for choosing and pairing typefaces, I still find myself agonising over the choice—what if there’s a better choice that I’m missing?

In this case, because I wanted to use a variable font, I had a constraint that helped reduce the possibility space. I started to comb through v-fonts.com to find a suitable typeface—I was fairly sure I wanted a serious serif.

I had one other constraint. The font file had to include English, Polish, and German glyphs. That pretty much sealed the deal for Source Serif. That only has one variable axis—weight—but I decided that this could also be an interesting constraint: how much could I wrangle out of a single typeface just using various weights?

I ended up using font weights of 75, 250, 315, 325, 340, 350, 400, and 525. Most of them were for headings or one-off uses, with a font-weight of 315 for the body copy.

(And can I just say once again how impressed I am that the founding fathers of CSS were far-sighted enough to keep those font weight ranges free for future use?)

Getting the typography right posed an interesting challenge. This was a fairly long piece of writing, so it really needed to be readable without getting tiring. But at the same time, I didn’t want it to be exactly pleasant to read—that wouldn’t do the subject matter justice. I wanted the reader to feel the seriousness of the story they were reading, without being fatigued by its weight.

Colour and type went a long way to communicating that feeling. The grid sealed the deal.

The Gęsiówka Story is mostly one single column of text, so on the face of it, there isn’t much opportunity to go crazy with CSS Grid. But I realised I could use a grid to create a winding effect for the text. I had to be careful though: I didn’t want it to become uncomfortable to read. I wanted to create a slightly unsettling effect.

Every section element is turned into a seven-column grid container:

section {
    display: grid;
    grid-column-gap: 2em;
    grid-template-columns: 2em repeat(5, 1fr) 2em;
}

The first and last columns are the same width as the gutters (2em), effectively creating “outer” gutters for the grid. Each paragraph within the section takes up six of the seven columns. I use nth-of-type to alternate which six columns are used (the first six or the last six). That creates the staggered indendation:

section > p {
    grid-column: 1/7;
}
section > p:nth-of-type(even) {
    grid-column: 2/8;
}

Staggered grid.

That might seem like overkill just to indent every second paragraph by 4em, but I then used the same grid dimensions to layout figure elements with images and captions.

section > figure {
    display: grid;
    grid-column-gap: 2em;
    grid-template-columns: 2em repeat(5, 1fr) 2em;
}

Then I can lay out differently proportioned images across different ranges of the grid:

section > figure.landscape > img {
    grid-column: 1/5;
}
section > figure.landscape > figcaption {
    grid-column: 5/8;
}
section > figure.portrait > img {
    grid-column: 1/4;
}
section > figure.portrait > figcaption {
    grid-column: 4/8;
}

Because they’re positioned on the same grid as the paragraphs, everything lines up nicely (and yes, if subgrid existed, I wouldn’t have to redeclare the grid dimensions for the figures).

Finally, I wanted to make sure that the whole thing could be read offline. After all, once you’ve visited the URL once, there’s really no reason to make any more requests to the server. Static documents—and books—are the perfect candidates for an “offline first” approach: always look in the cache, and only go to the network as a last resort.

In this case I used a variation of my minimal viable service worker script, and the result is a very short set of instructions. There’s a little bit of pre-caching going on: I grab the variable font and the HTML page itself (which includes the CSS inlined).

So there you have it: variable fonts, CSS grid, and service workers: three exciting front-end technologies, all of which can be applied as progressive enhancements on top of the core content.

Once again, I find that it’s personal projects that offer the most opportunities to try out new or interesting techniques. And The Gęsiówka Story is a very personal project indeed.

Good griddance

I’m not great at estimation, but I still try to do it on any project I’m working, even if it’s just for my own benefit. I break down different bits of the work, and ask myself two questions:

  1. How important is this?
  2. How long will it take?

If I were smart, I’d plot the answers on a graph. I start doing the important stuff, beginning with whatever won’t take too long. Then I’ve got a choice: either do the stuff that’s not all that important, but won’t take long—or do the stuff that will take quite a while, but is quite important. Finally, there’s stuff that’s not important and will take quite a while to do. I leave that to the end. If it never ends up getting done, it’s not the end of the world.

I guess it’s not really about estimation; it’s more about prioritisation.

Anyway, I’m working on a fun little project right now—the website for one of Clearleft’s many excellent events. There was one particular part of the design that I had estimated would take quite a while to do, so I didn’t get around to it until today. It was a layout that I figured would take maybe half a day of wrangling CSS.

I used CSS grid and I was done in five minutes. That’s not an exaggeration. It was literally five minutes.

I thought to myself, “Well, I want these elements to be arranged in two rows of three columns, but I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.”

Normally my next step would be to figure out how to translate those wishes into floats and clears, or maybe flexbox. But this time, there was almost no translation. I could more or less write the CSS like I would write English.

I want these elements to be arranged in rows of three columns.

display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr fr

I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.

grid-row: 1;
grid-column: 3;

That was it. I was done.

I think I may need to recalibrate the estimation part of my brain to account for just how powerful CSS grid is.

Understandable excitement

An Event Apart Seattle just wrapped. It was a three-day special edition and it was really rather good. Lots of the speakers (myself included) were unveiling brand new talks, so there was a real frisson of excitement.

It was interesting to see repeating, overlapping themes. From a purely technical perspective, three technologies that were front and centre were:

  • CSS grid,
  • variable fonts, and
  • service workers.

From listening to other attendees, the overwhelming message received was “These technologies are here—they’ve arrived.” Now, depending on your mindset, that understanding can be expressed as “Oh shit! These technologies are here!” or “Yay! Finally! These technologies are here!”

My reaction is very firmly the latter. That in itself is an interesting data-point, because (as discussed in my talk) my reaction towards new technological advances isn’t always one of excitement—quite often it’s one of apprehension, even fear.

I’ve been trying to self-analyse to figure out which kinds of technologies trigger which kind of reaction. I don’t have any firm answers yet, but it’s interesting to note that the three technologies mentioned above (CSS grid, variable fonts, and service workers) are all additions to the core languages of the web—the materials we use to build the web. Frameworks, libraries, build tools, and other such technologies are more like tools than materials. I tend to get less excited about advances in those areas. Sometimes advances in those areas not only fail to trigger excitement, they make me feel overwhelmed and worried about falling behind.

Since figuring out this split between materials and tools, it has helped me come to terms with my gut emotional reaction to the latest technological advances on the web. I think it’s okay that I don’t get excited about everything. And given the choice, I think maybe it’s healthier to be more excited about advances in the materials—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript APIs—than advances in tooling …although, it is, of course, perfectly possible to get equally excited about both (that’s just not something I seem to be able to do).

Another split I’ve noticed is between technologies that directly benefit users, and technologies that directly benefit developers. I think there was a bit of a meta-thread running through the talks at An Event Apart about CSS grid, variable fonts, and service workers: all of those advances allow us developers to accomplish more with less. They’re good for performance, in other words. I get much more nervous about CSS frameworks and JavaScript libraries that allow us to accomplish more, but require the user to download the framework or library first. It feels different when something is baked into browsers—support for CSS features, or JavaScript APIs. Then it feels like much more of a win-win situation for users and developers. If anything, the onus is on developers to take the time and do the work and get to grips with these browser-native technologies. I’m okay with that.

Anyway, all of this helps me understand my feelings at the end of An Event Apart Seattle. I’m fired up and eager to make something with CSS grid, variable fonts, and—of course—service workers.

Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed by Jen Simmons

Alright! It’s time for the final talk of the day at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jen is wrapping up a CSStastic afternoon with her talk Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed. These are my notes…

Ready for another hour of layout in CSS? Well, Jen will be showing no code in this talk. She’s actually nervous about this particular talk. Is she really planning to say “Everything about web design just changed”? That sounds so clickbaity! But she really believes we’re at an inflection point. This may be the sixth such point in the history of the web. One of those points where everything changes and we swap out our techniques.

For the last few years, we’ve been saying that everything changed when mobile came along. But actually, the real fight has been going on for longer than that. It’s the battle between wanting art and dealing with how the web works.

There’s a seminal book called Creating Killer Websites by David Siegel from 1996. In it, he describes the first time he saw the same site in two different browsers. His reaction was panic. The web gave control to the user. David Siegel wanted more control. And that’s how we got spacer gifs and tables for layout.

What are the five major changes in the history of web design?

  1. Simple HTML. There was only one kind of layout: flow layout. There’s no CSS, but the browser is still thinking of everything has having a box. Text takes up as much space as it needs. Images take up as much space as their size. This is flow. There wasn’t much you could do until tables came along. They were created for tabular content but abused for layouts. The “We need art!” crowd used what was available to them at the time. Lots of slicing and dicing.
  2. Flash. It was hard to get HTML tables to work in multiple browsers. Flash seemed like an amazing chance to start over. And we could do things that were previously only possible in CD-ROMs. As a designer, you take an element and place it where you want to go on the stage (the UI tradition that goes all the way back to Xerox PARC). We made some crazy sites, explored a lot of possibilities, and got a lot of control. But the downside was the lack of accessibility. We went back to getting to grips with the web as its own medium. Jeffrey’s book, Designing With Web Standards, was a rallying cry to allow HTML to return to doing what it was meant to.
  3. Fluid Layouts. This was a return to the way the web always behaved—content takes up as much room as it needs to. But this time there’s a certain amount of control over how things are laid out. Still, we pretended that nobody has screens smaller than 640 pixels or bigger than 1024 pixels. We still live with the idea of fluid columns today.
  4. Fixed-Width Layouts. The “We need art!” crowd wanted more control than fluid layouts offered. We pretended that everyone’s screen was at least 640 pixels, or later 800 pixels, or later 1024 pixels.
  5. Responsive Web Design. Unveiled by Ethan at An Event Apart Seattle in 2011: flexible grid; flexible images; media queries. It’s a return to fluid layouts, but the addition of media queries gives us more control. The idea of fluid image was a bit radical. Up until that point, we thought of images as always being their intrinsic size. But something Ethan said that day was “It’s not just about layout.” And it’s true. For the last eight years, it’s been about more than layout. You set out to redesign your website and end up redesigning your whole business. Responsive web design is, frankly, what the web is now.

But let’s talk about layout. What’s next? Intrinsic Web Design.

Why a new name? Why bother? Well, it was helpful to debate fluid vs. fixed, or table-based layouts: having words really helps. Over the past few years, Jen has needed a term for “responsive web design +”.

Responsive web design has flexible images. Intrinsic web design has flexible images …or fixed images. Whichever you want.

Responsive web design has a fluid columns. Intrinsic web design has fluid columns and rows.

Responsive web design uses media queries. Intrinsic web design doesn’t necessarily need them.

The name comes from words that have been floating in the ether. In Rachel’s talk, the words “sizing” and “intrinsic” came up a lot. This is about the nature of the web.

Let’s look at images specifically. Before responsive web design, images overflow their container if they are bigger than the container. Fluid images (as used in responsive web design) shrink and grow depending on the size of their container. You can also make images fluid in a vertical direction. If we make the image fluid vertically and horizontally, the image looks distorted. But now if we use object-fit: cover we can specify how we want the image to react.

Fixed or fluid? With grid layout, you can mix fixed and fluid. You can make a layout fluid until it hits a minimum size, at which point it stays fixed.

There are four stages of squishiness:

  1. fixed
  2. fr units (fluid)
  3. minmax()(fluid until fixed)
  4. auto (a return to flow)

That’s a powerful set of tools that may take us years to explore.

We can do truly two-dimensional layouts: rows and columns. Every one of those four stages of squishiness works for rows as well as columns. This means we can create intentional white space. Jen made a video about this and got the response that this was always possible, but it’s different now: it’s more intentional. You can set heights and widths.

We can have nested contexts now:

  1. Flow
  2. Flexbox (formatting context)
  3. Grid (formatting context)
  4. Multicolumn (formatting context)

Floats never created a new formatting context, which is why used clearfix. Now we don’t need hacks. You can mix and match, choosing the best layout tool for the job at hand. You can have a grid layout that has flexbox items within it. The Firefox dev tools allow you to inspect each layout type separately. You can use the nightly build to get the latest tools.

Then we’ve got ways to contract and expand content. We have more options now. For a while, we’ve had the option to squish and grow (e.g. with fluid images). Another is wrapping and reflowing (like we can do with text). Another option now is to add and remove whitespace. Maybe the content size doesn’t need to change; the whitespace shrinks and grows instead. An even more radical option now is to have things slide behind one another and overlap deliberately.

Sometimes you don’t even need to use media queries (meaning we’ve effectively got container queries). But we can still use media queries, as needed, to tweak the details.

So intrinsic web design is:

  1. Fluid and fixed
  2. Stages of squishiness
  3. Truly two-dimensional layouts
  4. Nested contexts
  5. Expand and contract content
  6. Media queries, as needed

We have a whole new sandbox that we can play in. You can find examples at labs.jensimmons.com.

See also:

Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS by Eric Meyer

Time for even more CSS goodness at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Eric’s talk is called Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS. Here are my notes…

Eric isn’t going to dive quite as deeply as Rachel, but he is going to share some patterns he has used.

Feature queries

First up: feature queries! Or @supports, if you prefer. You can ask a browser “do you support this feature?” If you haven’t used feature queries, you might be wondering why you have to say the property and the value. Well, think about it. If you asked a browser “do you support display?”, it’s not very useful. So you have to say “do you support display: grid?”

Here’s a nice pattern from Lea Verou for detecting support for custom properties:

@supports (--css: variables)

Here’s a gotcha:

@supports (clip-path: polygon())

That won’t work because polygon() is invalid. This will work:

@supports (clip-path: polygon(0 0))

So to use feature queries, you need to understand valid values for properties.

You can chain feature queries together, or just pick the least-supported thing you’re testing for and test just for that.

Here’s a pattern Eric used when he only wanted to make text sideways, but only if grid is supported:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
        ...
    }
}

That’s functionally equivalent to:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
}
@supports (display:grid) and (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
    ...
}

Choose whichever pattern makes sense to you. More to the point, choose the pattern that makes sense to your future self when you revisit your code.

Feature queries need to work together with media queries. Sometimes there are effects that you only want to apply on larger viewports. Do you put your feature queries inside your media queries? Or do you put your media queries inside your feature queries?

  • MOSS: Media Outside Support Statements
  • MISO: Media Inside Supports Object

Use MOSS when you have more media switches than support blocks. Use MISO when you only have a few breakpoints but lots of feature queries.

That’s one idea that Eric has. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

And remember, CSS is still CSS. Sometimes you don’t need a feature query at all. You could just use hanging-punctuation without testing for it. Browsers that don’t understand it will just ignore it. CSS has implicit feature queries built in. You don’t have to put your grid layout in a feature query, but you might want to put grid-specific margins and widths inside a feature query for display: grid.

Feature queries really help us get from now to the future.

Flexbox

Let’s move on to flexbox. Flexbox is great for things in a line.

On the An Event Apart site, the profile pictures have social media icons lined up at the bottom. Sometimes there are just a few. Sometimes there are a lot more. This is using flexbox. Why? Because it’s cool. Also, because it’s flexbox, you can create rules about how the icons should behave if one of the icons is taller than the others. (It’s gotten to the point that Eric has forgotten that vertically-centring things in CSS is supposed to be hard. The jokes aren’t funny any more.) Also, what if there’s no photo? Using flexbox, you can say “if there’s no photo, change the direction of the icons to be vertical.” Once again, it’s all about writing less CSS.

Also, note that the profile picture is being floated. That’s the right tool for the job. It feels almost transgressive to use float for exactly the purpose for which it was intended.

On the An Event Apart site, the header is currently using absolute positioning to pull the navigation from the bottom of the page source to the top of the viewport. But now you get overlap at some screen sizes. Flexbox would make it much more robust. (Eric uses the flexbox inspector in Firefox Nightly to demonstrate.)

With flexbox, what works horizontally works vertically. Flexbox allows you to align things, as long as you’re aligning in one direction. Flexbox makes things springy. Everything’s related and pushing against each other in a way that makes sense for this medium. It’s intuitive, even though it takes a bit of getting used to …because we’ve picked up some bad habits. To quote Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” A lot of the barrier is getting over what we’ve internalised. Eric envies the people starting out now. They get to start fresh. It’s like when people who never had to table layouts see code from that time period: it (quite rightly) doesn’t make any sense. That’s what it’s going to be like when people starting out today see the float-based layouts from Bootstrap and the like.

Grid

That’s going to happen with grid too. We must unlearn what we have learned from twenty years of floats and positioning. What makes it worth is:

  1. Flexbox and grid are pretty easy to get used to, and
  2. It’s amazing what you can do!

Eric quotes from an article called How We adopted CSS Grid at Scale:

…we agreed to use CSS Grid at the layout level and Flexbox at the component level (arranging child items of components). Although there’s some overlap and in some cases both could be used interchangeably, abiding by this rule helped us avoid any confusion in gray areas.

Don’t be afraid to set these kind of arbitrary limits that aren’t technological, but are necessary for the team to work well together.

Eric hacked his Wordpress admin interface to use grid instead of floats for an activity component (a list of dates and titles). He initially turned each list item into a separate grid. The overall list didn’t look right. What Eric really needed was a subgrid capability, so that the mini grids (the list items) would relate to one another within the larger grid (the list). But subgrid doesn’t exist yet.

In this case, there’s a way to fake it using display: contents. Eric made the list a grid and used display: contents on the list items. It’s as though you’re saying that the contents of the li are really the contents of the ul. That works in this particular case.

The feature queries for that looked like:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (display: contents) {
        ...
    }
}

Eric is also using the grid “ASCII art” (named areas) technique on his personal site. This works independent of source order. For that reason, make sure your source order makes sense.

Using media queries, Eric defines entirely different layouts simply by using different ASCII art. He’s switching templates.

For a proposed redesign of the An Event Apart site, Eric used CSS grid as a prototyping tool. He took a PDF, sliced it up, exported JPGs, and then used grid to lay out those images in a flexible grid. Rapid prototyping! The Firefox grid inspector really helps here. In less than an hour, he had a working layout. He could test whether the layout was sensible and robust. Then he swapped out the sliced images for real content. That took maybe another hour (mostly because it was faster to re-type the text than try to copy and paste from a PDF). CSS makes it that damn easy now!

So even if you’re not going to put things like grid into production, they can still be enormously useful as design tools (and you’re getting to grips with this new stuff).

See also:

Graduating to Grid by Rachel Andrew

It’s time for a gridtastic afternoon at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Kicking it off is Rachel with her talk Graduating to Grid. Here are my notes…

When Rachel spoke at An Event Apart last year, grid layout was still on the horizon. Then in March 2017, Chrome, Safari, and Firefox all shipped within weeks of one another. Then at An Event Apart Seattle last year, Edge announced that they were shipping too. So within a very short time, CSS grid got really good browser support.

What’s it like being in the middle of a launch of a big new CSS feature? Very quickly, we had 90% browser support. Suddenly it wasn’t just Jen and Rachel talking about grid—everyone was talking about grid. It involved a lot of email. Alas, Rachel couldn’t answer all those questions (she has a job, after all) but she did start collecting those questions. She found that people were excited, confused, and scared. So much to learn!

Rachel put out a survey and asked “How do you feel when a new CSS feature is announced?” Responses included “Oh, no!” and “Tired.” Some of us in the audience can, no doubt, identify with that.

People started emailing Rachel asking for her blessing. Were they doing the right thing? But Rachel can’t tell you what to do. She’s not in your situation. But she can help you develop the skills to make those decisions yourself. She can offer you confidence. She wants everyone to be the amazing CSS layout person on their team. That’s what this talk is for.

First of all, you need to understand CSS. There’s no shortcut here. But that doesn’t mean you need to learn every single property and value by heart. That’s not what CSS is about. That’s like learning phrases in a foreign language—knowing the words for “coffee” or “beer” doesn’t help you grok the language. It’s the same for CSS. There are some core ideas that help CSS layout make sense. You probably have an understanding of them already, but maybe you don’t have the right words for them.

At the heart of this is the first word in the language we’re talking about: cascading. You need to understand the (much-maligned) cascade. And you can’t talk about the cascade without encountering specificity. The MDN page on the cascade and specificity is a good explanation.

Then there’s dimensions. In any language with a horizontal writing mode, the inline dimension runs left to right or right to left, and the block dimension runs down the page from top to bottom. In vertical writing mode, it’s different.

In grid, we talk about the inline axis as rows, and the block axis as columns.

Sizing matters. It has become obvious that no one understands how big anything is. We’re living in a world where you don’t control the size of things.

In older float-based systems, everything is given a percentage. As long as our percentages don’t exceed 100%, everything’s okay. And we’ve got wrappers to keep things within rows. We end up with something that looks like a grid. It involves us doing a lot of calculating. You can do this with flexbox too, but it’s much the same—figuring out percentages. These past layout methods create the appearance of a grid by lining things up.

With the new layout, we don’t have to do the calculations. We need to understand CSS intrinsic sizing and extrinsic sizing (say that ten times fast).

With a regular div, you’ve got a block-level element. The box will stretch as far as it will go, to the viewport width by default. You can specify an intrinsic size by saying, say, width: 500px. That makes 500 pixels wide in the inline direction.

However the content of the box has a size. The maximum size of a string of text is how much space it would take up if it never wrapped. The minimum size is the space it would take up if everything wrapped. Now in CSS we can say width: min-content or width: max-content.

Let’s say our div was in a container that had a width of 20em. The max-content of the contents of the div (which is more than 20 ems) is wider than the width of the div and so the content overflows.

In flexbox, let’s say we’ve got a flex container with four items and we’ve declared that each one should take up max-content. Each item takes up as much space as it needs. Each one uses max-content as its starting point, and then width is removed to make all four items fit in the container. flex: 1 1 auto will distribute space according to the content. flex: 1 1 0 will distribute the space equally (you’re effectively saying that the max-content is zero).

It’s similar with grid layout but with slight differences. Flexbox is starting from max-content and taking space away. Grid is starting from min-content and adding space.

Those content keywords aren’t well supported outside grid layout. They’re safe to use for track sizing.

grid-template-columns: repeat(4, min-content);

That will make everything squished down.

grid-template-columns: repeat(4, max-content);

That one will probably cause an overflow.

grid-template-columns: repeat(4, fit-content(15ch));

That one will make 15 characters an upper limit!

You can make a grid layout using fr units and grid-gap. No need for figuring out percentages. You can use percentages if you like though. You can use percentages for gaps, for example.

Remember, you don’t have to stick with a twelve column grid. Slack started with that because it was what they were used to. Then they realised they didn’t have to.

Imagine a media object pattern, where you don’t want the image to ever be bigger than 300 pixels.

grid-template-columns: fit-content(300px) 1fr

As Rachel creates more layouts with grid, she finds she’s using less and less CSS, which is great. The browser is doing the work. That matches the reality of the situation where you don’t know the size of your content in advance—long titles, and so on.

This is not exciting. But it will let you do exciting things. Learning about sizing is the CSS equivalent of eating your vegetables or getting enough sleep.

“Why is all of this so complicated?”, is something Rachel hears a lot. It’s like all software. People want all the features, and they also want it to be easy to use.

More capability and flexibility means more to learn. But it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to learn everything at once. Once you switch your mindset to the grid way of thinking (where you define things on the layout) it gets easier. It’s all just lines.

If you name your grid lines, e.g. “content-start” and “content-end”, you automatically get a named area called “content.”

It works the other way around too. If you create an area called “content”, you automatically get lines named “content-start” and “content-end”.

You don’t have to use any of that. You have real choice for the first time.

A lot of the assumptions we’ve had in the past about what isn’t possible don’t hold up any more. You can now ask, “what’s the best way to do this?” instead of asking “which patterns does our framework give us?”

Well, that’s fine, you might be thinking, for shiny new things. But what if you’re building things that have an old codebase? Rachel asked “How old is the oldest CSS in your project?” in her survey. People have code that’s over ten years old. But old CSS in your codebase doesn’t mean you can’t use new CSS. You can design components or a section of a page using a new technique. This is where understanding CSS comes in really useful—the cascade, especially.

Rachel shows an example of a page made with Bootstrap. She drops a grid component into that layout. It works fine. Nothing explodes. They coexist side by side.

You can create systems with new layout. You’ve got a lot of choice. You can start to make decisions about which layout method works best for different situation. Other layout methods still exist. Don’t try to recreate floats within grid—just use floats. It’s like when we moved from tables for layout, some people went too far and stopped using tables for tabular data. If you need content to flow around an element, float that element. Likewise, if you’re doing layout in just one dimension, you don’t have to use grid; use flexbox.

Off-the-shelf frameworks are designed to solve generic problems. We end up solving problems we don’t have. Do you want your project to inherit the CSS problems of the rest of the world? Solving your specific problems only will result in lighter, easier to understand code.

You don’t need to lean on somebody else’s framework to get reusable code for your project and your team.

What about working with less capable browsers? (these may not always be old browsers). Let’s go back to 2006 and Yahoo’s graded browser support matrix. It was updated quarterly. It was useful. A lot of discussion around browser support was happening with a lack of understanding on one side (bosses, clients) meeting a lack of confidence on the other (developers). Yahoo’s browser support matrix gave us ammunition. If it was okay for Yahoo to say that it was okay for certain browsers to not receive certain features, then that argument was easier to make.

A lot of the discussion now is about older Internet Explorer—IE11 comes up a lot. If IE10 and 11 are your oldest supported versions, you can use the ms- prefixed grid layout.

Some people are using devices that aren’t updating to new browsers. UC browser for Android is used a lot. It’s very popular in India (35% usage). Many browsers without grid support are mobile browsers, popular in areas where data is expensive.

People want a magical grid polyfill that will make grid work in non-supporting browsers. Please stop asking for that! Why, oh, why would you send more JavaScript to less-capable devices!

You can use feature queries to ask if a browser supports a feature before using it. The great thing about doing this is that you are future-proofing: as browsers get support for features, your code works automatically.

You can create complex layouts for browsers that support them with a few lines of CSS. Being able to do new cool stuff is great. Saving developer time is great. But making the web available to everyone …that’s exciting!

To wrap up, Rachel recounts some of the other responses to her survey. People said they were “Excited!”

See also:

Ends and means

The latest edition of the excellent History Of The Web newsletter is called The Day(s) The Web Fought Back. It recounts the first time that websites stood up against bad legislation in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and goes to recount the even more effective use of blackout protests against SOPA and PIPA.

I remember feeling very heartened to see WikiPedia, Google and others take a stand on January 18th, 2012. But I also remember feeling uneasy. In this particular case, companies were lobbying for a cause I agreed with. But what if they were lobbying for a cause I didn’t agree with? Large corporations using their power to influence politics seems like a very bad idea. Isn’t it still a bad idea, even if I happen to agree with the cause?

Cloudflare quite rightly kicked The Daily Stormer off their roster of customers. Then the CEO of Cloudflare quite rightly wrote this in a company-wide memo:

Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

There’s an uncomfortable tension here. When do the ends justify the means? Isn’t the whole point of having principles that they hold true even in the direst circumstances? Why even claim that corporations shouldn’t influence politics if you’re going to make an exception for net neutrality? Why even claim that free speech is sacrosanct if you make an exception for nazi scum?

Those two examples are pretty extreme and I can easily justify the exceptions to myself. Net neutrality is too important. Stopping fascism is too important. But where do I draw the line? At what point does something become “too important?”

There are more subtle examples of corporations wielding their power. Google are constantly using their monopoly position in search and browser marketshare to exert influence over website-builders. In theory, that’s bad. But in practice, I find myself agreeing with specific instances. Prioritising mobile-friendly sites? Sounds good to me. Penalising intrusive ads? Again, that seems okey-dokey to me. But surely that’s not the point. So what if I happen to agree with the ends being pursued? The fact that a company the size and power of Google is using their monopoly for any influence is worrying, regardless of whether I agree with the specific instances. But I kept my mouth shut.

Now I see Google abusing their monopoly again, this time with AMP. They may call the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP-formatted pages a “carrot”, but let’s be honest, it’s an abuse of power, plain and simple.

By the way, I have no doubt that the engineers working on AMP have the best of intentions. We are all pursuing the same ends. We all want a faster web. But we disagree on the means. If Google search results gave preferential treatment to any fast web pages, that would be fine. But by only giving preferential treatment to pages written in a format that they created, and hosted on their own servers, they are effectively forcing everyone to use AMP. I know for a fact that there are plenty of publications who are producing AMP content, not because they are sold on the benefits of the technology, but because they feel strong-armed into doing it in order to compete.

If the ends justify the means, then it’s easy to write off Google’s abuse of power. Those well-intentioned AMP engineers honestly think that they have the best interests of the web at heart:

We were worried about the web not existing anymore due to native apps and walled gardens killing it off. We wanted to make the web competitive. We saw a sense of urgency and thus we decided to build on the extensible web to build AMP instead of waiting for standard and browsers and websites to catch up. I stand behind this process. I’m a practical guy.

There’s real hubris and audacity in thinking that one company should be able to tackle fixing the whole web. I think the AMP team are genuinely upset and hurt that people aren’t cheering them on. Perhaps they will dismiss the criticisms as outpourings of “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But that would be a mistake. The many thoughtful people who are extremely critical of AMP are on the same side as the AMP team when it comes the end-goal of better, faster websites. But burning the web to save it? No thanks.

Ben Thompson goes into more detail on the tension between the ends and the means in The Aggregator Paradox:

The problem with Google’s actions should be obvious: the company is leveraging its monopoly in search to push the AMP format, and the company is leveraging its dominant position in browsers to punish sites with bad ads. That seems bad!

And yet, from a user perspective, the options I presented at the beginning — fast loading web pages with responsive designs that look great on mobile and the elimination of pop-up ads, ad overlays, and autoplaying videos with sounds — sounds pretty appealing!

From that perspective, there’s a moral argument to be made for wielding monopoly power like Google is doing. No doubt the AMP team feel it would be morally wrong for Google not to use its influence in search to give preferential treatment to AMP pages.

Going back to the opening examples of online blackouts, was it morally wrong for companies to use their power to influence politics? Or would it have been morally wrong for them not to have used their influence?

When do the ends justify the means?

Here’s a more subtle example than Google AMP, but one which has me just as worried for the future of the web. Mozilla announced that any new web features they add to their browser will require HTTPS.

The end-goal here is one I agree with: HTTPS everywhere. On the face of it, the means of reaching that goal seem reasonable. After all, we already require HTTPS for sensitive JavaScript APIs like geolocation or service workers. But the devil is in the details:

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.

This is a step too far. Again, 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. In some ways, I think it might actually be worse.

There’s an assumption in this decision that websites are being made by professionals who will know how to switch to HTTPS. But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.

One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.

I’m trying to imagine future Codebar evenings, helping people to make their first websites, but now having to tell them that some CSS will be off-limits until they meet the entry requirements of HTTPS …even though CSS and HTTPS have literally nothing to do with one another. (And yes, there will be an exception for localhost and I really hope there’ll be an exception for file: as well, but that’s simply postponing the disappointment.)

No doubt Mozilla (and the W3C Technical Architecture Group) believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps they think it would be morally wrong if browsers didn’t enforce HTTPS even for unrelated features like new CSS properties. They believe that, in this particular case, the ends justify the means.

I strongly disagree. If you also disagree, I encourage you to make your voice heard. Remember, this isn’t about whether you think that we should all switch to HTTPS—we’re all in agreement on that. This is about whether it’s okay to create collateral damage by deliberately denying people access to web features in order to further a completely separate agenda.

This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.

Ubiquity and consistency

I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.

Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:

  1. Use the HTML select element.
  2. Create your own dropdown widget using JavaScript (working with divs and spans).

The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.

But…

You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.

That’s where the second option comes in. By scripting your own dropdown, you get complete control over the appearance and behaviour of the widget. The disadvantage is that, because you’re now doing all the work instead of the browser, it’s up to you to do all the work—that means lots of JavaScript, thinking about edge cases, and making the whole thing accessible.

This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

It is impossible to style select option. But is that really necessary? Is it worth abandoning the native browser behavior for a complete rewrite in JavaScript of the functionality?

The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.

But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:

The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.

So far I’ve only been looking at the micro scale of a single interface element, but this tension between ubiquity and consistency plays out at larger scales too. Take page navigations. That’s literally what browsers do. Click on a link, and the browser fetches that URL, displaying progress at it goes. The alternative, as exemplified by single page apps, is to do all of that for yourself using JavaScript: figure out the routing, show some kind of progress, load some JSON, parse it, convert it into HTML, and update the DOM.

Personally, I tend to go for the first option. Partly that’s because I like to apply the rule of least power, but mostly it’s because I’m very lazy (I also have qualms about sending a whole lotta JavaScript down the wire just so the end user gets to do something that their browser would do for them anyway). But I get it. I understand why others might wish for greater control, even if it comes with a price tag of fragility.

I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.

That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.

Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

Like, say…

  1. The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
  2. Use a select element.
  3. Use JavaScript to replace that native element with a widget of your own devising.

Or…

  1. The user needs to navigate to another page.
  2. Use an a element with an href attribute.
  3. Use JavaScript to intercept that click, add a nice transition, and pull in the content using Ajax.

The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.

Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:

  1. Start with user needs.
  2. Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
  3. Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.

Ubiquity, then consistency.

Problem space

Adam Wathan wrote an article recently called CSS Utility Classes and “Separation of Concerns”. In it, he documents his journey through different ways of thinking about CSS. A lot of it is really familiar.

Phase 1: “Semantic” CSS

Ah, yes! If you’ve been in the game for a while then this will be familiar to you. The days when we used to strive to keep our class names to a minimum and use names that described the content. But, as Adam points out:

My markup wasn’t concerned with styling decisions, but my CSS was very concerned with my markup structure.

Phase 2: Decoupling styles from structure

This is the work pioneered by Nicole with OOCSS, and followed later by methodologies like BEM and SMACSS.

This felt like a huge improvement to me. My markup was still “semantic” and didn’t contain any styling decisions, and now my CSS felt decoupled from my markup structure, with the added bonus of avoiding unnecessary selector specificity.

Amen!

But then Adam talks about the issues when you have two visually similar components that are semantically very different. He shows a few possible solutions and asks this excellent question:

For the project you’re working on, what would be more valuable: restyleable HTML, or reusable CSS?

For many projects reusable CSS is the goal. But not all projects. On the Code For America project, the HTML needed to be as clean as possible, even if that meant more brittle CSS.

Phase 3: Content-agnostic CSS components

Naming things is hard:

The more a component does, or the more specific a component is, the harder it is to reuse.

Adam offers some good advice on naming things for maximum reusability. It’s all good stuff, and this would be the point at which I would stop. At this point there’s a nice balance between reusability, readability, and semantic meaning.

But Adam goes further…

Phase 4: Content-agnostic components + utility classes

Okay. The occasional utility class (for alignment and clearing) can be very handy. This is definitely the point to stop though, right?

Phase 5: Utility-first CSS

Oh God, no!

Once this clicked for me, it wasn’t long before I had built out a whole suite of utility classes for common visual tweaks I needed, things like:

  • Text sizes, colors, and weights
  • Border colors, widths, and positions
  • Background colors
  • Flexbox utilities
  • Padding and margin helpers

If one drink feels good, then ten drinks must be better, right?

At this point there is no benefit to even having an external stylesheet. You may as well use inline styles. Ah, but Adam has anticipated this and counters with this difference between inline styles and having utility classes for everything:

You can’t just pick any value want; you have to choose from a curated list.

Right. But that isn’t a technical solution, it’s a cultural one. You could just as easily have a curated list of allowed inline style properties and values. If you are in an environment where people won’t simply create a new utility class every time they want to style something, then you are also in an environment where people won’t create new inline style combinations every time they want to style something.

I think Adam has hit on something important here, but it’s not about utility classes. His suggestion of “utility-first CSS” will only work if the vocabulary is strictly adhered to. For that to work, everyone touching the code needs to understand the system and respect the boundaries of it. That understanding and respect is far, far more important than any particular way of structuring HTML and CSS. No technical solution can replace that sort of agreement …not even slapping !important on every declaration to make them immutable.

I very much appreciate the efforts that people have put into coming up with great naming systems and methodologies, even the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. They’re all aiming to make that overlap of HTML and CSS less painful. But the really hard problem is where people overlap.

Container queries

Every single browser maker has the same stance when it comes to features—they want to hear from developers at the coalface.

“Tell us what you want! We’re listening. We want to know which features to prioritise based on real-world feedback from developers like you.”

“How about container quer—”

“Not that.”

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that literally every web developer I know would love to have container queries. If you’ve worked on any responsive project of any size, you’re bound to have bumped up against the problem of only being able to respond to viewport size, rather than the size of the containing element. Without container queries, our design systems can never be truly modular.

But there’s a divide growing between what our responsive designs need to do, and the tools CSS gives us to meet those needs. We’re making design decisions at smaller and smaller levels, but our code asks us to bind those decisions to a larger, often-irrelevant abstraction of a “page.”

But the message from browser makers has consistently been “it’s simply too hard.”

At the Frontend United conference in Athens a little while back, Jonathan gave a whole talk on the need for container queries. At the same event, Serg gave a talk on Houdini.

Now, as I understand it, Houdini is the CSS arm of the extensible web. Just as web components will allow us to create powerful new HTML without lobbying browser makers, Houdini will allow us to create powerful new CSS features without going cap-in-hand to standards bodies.

At this year’s CSS Day there were two Houdini talks. Tab gave a deep dive, and Philip talked specifically about Houdini as a breakthrough for polyfilling.

During the talks, you could send questions over Twitter that the speaker could be quizzed on afterwards. As Philip was talking, I began to tap out a question: “Could this be used to polyfill container queries?” My thumb was hovering over the tweet button at the very moment that Philip said in his talk, “This could be used to polyfill container queries.”

For that happen, browsers need to implement the layout API for Houdini. But I’m betting that browser makers will be far more receptive to calls to implement the layout API than calls for container queries directly.

Once we have that, there are two possible outcomes:

  1. We try to polyfill container queries and find out that the browser makers were right—it’s simply too hard. This certainty is itself a useful outcome.
  2. We successfully polyfill container queries, and then instead of asking browser makers to figure out implementation, we can hand it to them for standardisation.

But, as Eric Portis points out in his talk on container queries, Houdini is still a ways off (by the way, browser makers, that’s two different conference talks I’ve mentioned about container queries, just in case you were keeping track of how much developers want this).

Still, there are some CSS features that are Houdini-like in their extensibility. Custom properties feel like they could be wrangled to help with the container query problem. While it’s easy to think of custom properties as being like Sass variables, they’re much more powerful than that—the fact they can be a real-time bridge between JavaScript and CSS makes them scriptable. Alas, custom properties can’t be used in media queries but maybe some clever person can figure out a way to get the effect of container queries without a query-like syntax.

However it happens, I’d just love to see some movement on container queries. I’m not alone.

I know container queries would revolutionize my design practice, and better prepare responsive design for mobile, desktop, tablet—and whatever’s coming next.

CSS

Last month I went to CSS Day in Amsterdam, as an attendee this year, not a speaker. It was an excellent conference comprising the titular CSS day and a Browser API Special the day before.

By the end of CSS Day, my brain was full. Experiencing the depth of knowledge that’s contained in CSS now made me appreciate how powerful a language it is. I mean, the basics of CSS—selectors, properties, and values—can be grasped in a day. But you can spend a lifetime trying to master the details. Heck, you could spend a lifetime trying to master just one part of CSS, like layout, or text. And there would always be more to learn.

Unlike a programming language that requires knowledge of loops, variables, and other concepts, CSS is pretty easy to pick up. Maybe it’s because of this that it has gained the reputation of being simple. It is simple in the sense of “not complex”, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Mistaking “simple” for “easy” will only lead to heartache.

I think that’s what’s happened with some programmers coming to CSS for the first time. They’ve heard it’s simple, so they assume it’s easy. But then when they try to use it, it doesn’t work. It must be the fault of the language, because they know that they are smart, and this is supposed to be easy. So they blame the language. They say it’s broken. And so they try to “fix” it by making it conform to a more programmatic way of thinking.

I can’t help but think that they would be less frustrated if they would accept that CSS is not easy. Simple, yes, but not easy. Using CSS at scale has a learning curve, just like any powerful technology. The way to deal with that is not to hammer the technology into a different shape, but to get to know it, understand it, and respect it.

Styling the Patterns Day site

Once I had a design direction for the Patterns Day site, I started combining my marked-up content with some CSS. Ironically for an event that’s all about maintainability and reusability, I wrote the styles for this one-page site with no mind for future use. I treated the page as a one-shot document. I even used ID selectors—gasp! (the IDs were in the HTML anyway as fragment identifiers).

The truth is I didn’t have much of a plan. I just started hacking away in a style element in the head of the document, playing around with colour, typography, and layout.

I started with the small-screen styles. That wasn’t a conscious decision so much as just the way I do things automatically now. When it came time to add some layout for wider viewports, I used a sprinkling of old-fashioned display: inline-block so that things looked so-so. I knew I wanted to play around with Grid layout so the inline-block styles were there as fallback for non-supporting browsers. Once things looked good enough, the fun really started.

I was building the site while I was in Seattle for An Event Apart. CSS Grid layout was definitely a hot topic there. Best of all, I was surrounded by experts: Jen, Rachel, and Eric. It was the perfect environment for me to dip my toes into the waters of grid.

Jen was very patient in talking me through the concepts, syntax, and tools for using CSS grids. Top tip: open Firefox’s inspector, select the element with the display:grid declaration, and click the “waffle” icon—instant grid overlay!

For the header of the Patterns Day site, I started by using named areas. That’s the ASCII-art approach. I got my head around it and it worked okay, but it didn’t give me quite the precision I wanted. I switched over to using explicit grid-row and grid-column declarations.

It’s definitely a new way of thinking about layout: first you define the grid, then you place the items on it (rather than previous CSS layout systems where each element interacted with the elements before and after). It was fun to move things around and not have to worry about the source order of the elements …as long as they were direct children of the element with display:grid applied.

Without any support for sub-grids, I ended up having to nest two separate grids within one another. The logo is a grid parent, which is inside the header, also a grid parent. I managed to get things to line up okay, but I think this might be a good use case for sub-grids.

The logo grid threw up some interesting challenges. I wanted each letter of the words “Patterns Day” to be styleable, but CSS doesn’t give us any way to target individual letters other than :first-letter. I wrapped each letter in a b element, made sure that they were all wrapped in an element with an aria-hidden attribute (so that the letters wouldn’t be spelled out), and then wrapped that in an element with an aria-label of “Patterns Day.” Now I could target those b elements.

For a while, I also had a br element (between “Patterns” and “Day”). That created some interesting side effects. If a br element becomes a grid item, it starts to behave very oddly: you can apply certain styles but not others. Jen and Eric then started to test other interesting elements, like hr. There was much funkiness and gnashing of specs.

It was a total nerdfest, and I loved every minute of it. This is definitely the most excitement I’ve felt around CSS for a while. It feels like a renaissance of zen gardens and layout reservoirs (kids, ask your parents).

After a couple of days playing around with grid, I had the Patterns Day site looking decent enough to launch. I dabbled with some other fun CSS stuff in there too, like gratuitous clip paths and filters when hovering over the speaker images, and applying shape-outside with an image mask.

Go ahead and view source on the Patterns Day page if you want—I ended up keeping all the CSS in the head of the document. That turned out to be pretty good for performance …for first-time visits anyway. But after launching the site, I couldn’t resist applying some more performance tweaks.

Getting griddy with it

I had the great pleasure of attending An Event Apart Seattle last week. It was, as always, excellent.

It’s always interesting to see themes emerge during an event, especially when those thematic overlaps haven’t been planned in advance. Jen noticed this one:

I remember that being a theme at An Event Apart San Francisco too, when it seemed like every speaker had words to say about ill-judged use of Bootstrap. That theme was certainly in my presentation when I talked about “the fallacy of assumed competency”:

  1. large company X uses technology Y,
  2. company X must know what they are doing because they are large,
  3. therefore technology Y must be good.

Perhaps “the fallacy of assumed suitability” would be a better term. Heydon calls it “the ‘made at Facebook’ fallacy.” But I also made sure to contrast it with the opposite extreme: “Not Invented Here syndrome”.

As well as over-arching themes, it was also interesting to see which technologies were hot topics at An Event Apart. There was one clear winner here—CSS Grid Layout.

Microsoft—a sponsor of the event—used An Event Apart as the place to announce that Grid is officially moving into development for Edge. Jen talked about Grid (of course). Rachel talked about Grid (of course). And while Eric and Una didn’t talk about it on stage, they’ve both been writing about the fun they’ve been having having with Grid. Una wrote about 3 CSS Grid Features That Make My Heart Flutter. Eric is documenting the overall of his site with Grid. So when we were all gathered together, that’s what we were nerding out about.

The CSS Squad.

There are some great resources out there for levelling up in Grid-fu:

With Jen’s help, I’ve been playing with CSS Grid on a little site that I’m planning to launch tomorrow (he said, foreshadowingly). I took me a while to get my head around it, but once it clicked I started to have a lot of fun. “Fun” seems to be the overall feeling around this technology. There’s something infectious about the excitement and enthusiasm that’s returning to the world of layout on the web. And now that the browser support is great pretty much across the board, we can start putting that fun into production.