Tags: css

103

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Inlining SVG background images in CSS with custom properties

Here’s a tiny lesson that I picked up from Trys that I’d like to share with you…

I was working on some upcoming changes to the Clearleft site recently. One particular component needed some SVG background images. I decided I’d inline the SVGs in the CSS to avoid extra network requests. It’s pretty straightforward:

.myComponent {
    background-image: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
}

You can basically paste your SVG in there, although you need to a little bit of URL encoding: I found that converting # to %23 to was enough for my needs.

But here’s the thing. My component had some variations. One of the variations had multiple background images. There was a second background image in addition to the first. There’s no way in CSS to add an additional background image without writing a whole background-image declaration:

.myComponent--variant {
    background-image: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>'), url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
}

So now I’ve got the same SVG source inlined in two places. That negates any performance benefits I was getting from inlining in the first place.

That’s where Trys comes in. He shared a nifty technique he uses in this exact situation: put the SVG source into a custom property!

:root {
    --firstSVG: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
    --secondSVG: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
}

Then you can reference those in your background-image declarations:

.myComponent {
    background-image: var(--firstSVG);
}
.myComponent--variant {
    background-image: var(--firstSVG), var(--secondSVG);
}

Brilliant! Not only does this remove any duplication of the SVG source, it also makes your CSS nice and readable: no more big blobs of SVG source code in the middle of your style sheet.

You might be wondering what will happen in older browsers that don’t support CSS custom properties (that would be Internet Explorer 11). Those browsers won’t get any background image. Which is fine. It’s a background image. Therefore it’s decoration. If it were an important image, it wouldn’t be in the background.

Progressive enhancement, innit?

Split

When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.

On the one hand, you’ve got the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is what users will ultimately interact with.

On the other hand, you’ve got all the tools and technologies that help you produce the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: pre-processors, post-processors, transpilers, bundlers, and other build tools.

Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.

I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.

Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.

I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.

Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.

Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.

So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.

Historically, it’s been a similar story with JavaScript libraries. They’re written in JavaScript, and so they’re going to be executed in the browser. If a developer wanted to use jQuery to make their life easier, the user paid the price in downloading the jQuery library.

But I’ve noticed a welcome change with some of the bigger JavaScript frameworks. Whereas the initial messaging around frameworks like React touted the benefits of state management and the virtual DOM, I feel like that’s not as prevalent now. You’re much more likely to hear people—quite rightly—talk about the benefits of modularity and componentisation. If you combine that with the rise of Node—which means that JavaScript is no longer confined to the browser—then these frameworks can move from the front of the front end to the back of the front end.

We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.

For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.

Let me tell you about a Clearleft project that sticks in my mind. We were working with a big international client on a product that was going to be rolled out to students and teachers in developing countries. This was right up my alley! We did plenty of research into network conditions and typical device usage. That then informed a tight performance budget. Every design decision—from web fonts to images—was informed by that performance budget. We were producing lean, mean markup, CSS, and JavaScript. But we weren’t the ones implementing the final site. That was being done by the client’s offshore software team, and they insisted on using React. “That’s okay”, I thought. “React can be used server-side so we can still output just what’s needed, right?” Alas, no. These developers did everything client side. When the final site launched, the log-in screen alone required megabytes of JavaScript just to render a form. It was, in my opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. It still pains me when I think about it.

That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.

It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.

Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.

So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!

With that question answered, I’m cool with whatever they choose to use. In this case, they’re choosing to use CSS-in-JS (although, to be pedantic, there’s no C anymore so technically it’s SS-in-JS). As long as the “JS” part is JavaScript on a server, then it makes no difference to the end user, and therefore no difference to me. Not my circus, not my monkeys. For users, the end result is the same whether styling is applied via a selector in an external stylesheet or, for example, via an inline style declaration (and in some situations, a server-rendered CSS-in-JS solution might be better for performance). And so, as a user-centred developer, this is something that I don’t need to care about.

Except…

I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.

There’s a second-order effect. By making React—or even JavaScript in general—a requirement for styling something on a web page, the barrier to entry is raised.

At least, I think that the barrier to entry is raised. I completely acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement. In fact, the reason why a team might decide to make JavaScript a requirement for participation might well be because they believe it makes it easier for people to participate. Let me explain…

It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.

It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:

Complexity reinforces privilege.

The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.

Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:

If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.

I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:

By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.

This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.

Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:

My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.

I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:

  • Materials vs. tools,
  • Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
  • User experience vs. developer experience,
  • Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
  • Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.

But the split that worries the most is this:

  • The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.

Drag’n’drop revisited

I got a message from a screen-reader user of The Session recently, letting me know of a problem they were having. I love getting any kind of feedback around accessibility, so this was like gold dust to me.

They pointed out that the drag’n’drop interface for rearranging the order of tunes in a set was inaccessible.

Drag and drop

Of course! I slapped my forehead. How could I have missed this?

It had been a while since I had implemented that functionality, so before even looking at the existing code, I started to think about how I could improve the situation. Maybe I could capture keystroke events from the arrow keys and announce changes via ARIA values? That sounded a bit heavy-handed though: mess with people’s native keyboard functionality at your peril.

Then I looked at the code. That was when I realised that the fix was going to be much, much easier than I thought.

I documented my process of adding the drag’n’drop functionality back in 2016. Past me had his progressive enhancement hat on:

One of the interfaces needed for this feature was a form to re-order items in a list. So I thought to myself, “what’s the simplest technology to enable this functionality?” I came up with a series of select elements within a form.

Reordering

The problem was in my feature detection:

There’s a little bit of mustard-cutting going on: does the dragula object exist, and does the browser understand querySelector? If so, the select elements are hidden and the drag’n’drop is enabled.

The logic was fine, but the execution was flawed. I was being lazy and hiding the select elements with display: none. That hides them visually, but it also hides them from screen readers. I swapped out that style declaration for one that visually hides the elements, but keeps them accessible and focusable.

It was a very quick fix. I had the odd sensation of wanting to thank Past Me for making things easy for Present Me. But I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

I pushed the fix, told the screen-reader user who originally contacted me, and got a reply back saying that everything was working great now. Success!

CSS custom properties in generated content

Cassie posted a neat tiny lesson that she’s written a reduced test case for.

Here’s the situation…

CSS custom properties are fantastic. You can drop them in just about anywhere that a property takes a value.

Here’s an example of defining a custom property for a length:

:root {
    --my-value: 1em;
}

Then I can use that anywhere I’d normally give something a length:

.my-element {
    margin-bottom: var(--my-value);
}

I went a bit overboard with custom properties on the new Patterns Day site. I used them for colour values, font stacks, and spacing. Design tokens, I guess. They really come into their own when you combine them with media queries: you can update the values of the custom properties based on screen size …without having to redefine where those properties are applied. Also, they can be updated via JavaScript so they make for a great common language between CSS and JavaScript: you can define where they’re used in your CSS and then update their values in JavaScript, perhaps in response to user interaction.

But there are a few places where you can’t use custom properties. You can’t, for example, use them as part of a media query. This won’t work:

@media all and (min-width: var(--my-value)) {
    ...
}

You also can’t use them in generated content if the value is a number. This won’t work:

:root {
    --number-value: 15;
}
.my-element::before {
    content: var(--number-value);
}

Fair enough. Generated content in CSS is kind of a strange beast. Eric delivered an entire hour-long talk at An Event Apart in Seattle on generated content.

But Cassie found a workaround if the value you want to put into that content property is numeric. The CSS counter value is a kind of generated content—the numbers that appear in front of ordered list items. And you can control the value of those numbers from CSS.

CSS counters work kind of like variables. You name them and assign values to them using the counter-reset property:

.my-element {
    counter-reset: mycounter 15;
}

You can then reference the value of mycounter in a content property using the counter value:

.my-element {
    content: counter(mycounter);
}

Cassie realised that even though you can’t pass in a custom property directly to generated content, you can pass in a custom property to the counter-reset property. So you can do this:

:root {
    --number-value: 15;
}
.my-element {
    counter-reset: mycounter var(--number-value);
    content: counter(mycounter);
}

In a roundabout way, this allows you to use a custom property for generated content!

I realise that the use cases are pretty narrow, but I can’t help but be impressed with the thinking behind this. Personally, I would’ve just read that generated content doesn’t accept custom properties and moved on. I would’ve given up quickly. But Cassie took a step back and found a creative pass-the-parcel solution to the problem.

I feel like this is a hack in the best sense of the word: a creatively improvised solution to a problem or limitation.

I was trying to display the numeric value stored in a CSS variable inside generated content… Turns out you can’t do that. But you can do this… codepen.io/cassie-codes/p… (not saying you should, but you could)

Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl

Scott Jehl is speaking at An Event Apart in Seattle—yay! His talk is called Move Fast and Don’t Break Things:

Performance is a high priority for any site of scale today, but it can be easier to make a site fast than to keep it that way. As a site’s features and design evolves, its performance is often threatened for a number of reasons, making it hard to ensure fast, resilient access to services. In this session, Scott will draw from real-world examples where business goals and other priorities have conflicted with page performance, and share some strategies and practices that have helped major sites overcome those challenges to defend their speed without compromises.

The title is a riff on the “move fast and break things” motto, which comes from a more naive time on the web. But Scott finds part of it relatable. Things break. We want to move fast without breaking things.

This is a performance talk, which is another kind of moving fast. Scott starts with a brief history of not breaking websites. He’s been chipping away at websites for 20 years now. Remember Positioning Is Everything? How about Quirksmode? That one's still around.

In the early days, building a website that was "not broken" was difficult, but it was difficult for different reasons. We were focused on consistency. We had deal with differences between browsers. There were two ways of dealing with browsers: browser detection and feature detection.

The feature-based approach was more sustainable but harder. It fits nicely with the practice of progressive enhancement. It's a good mindset for dealing with the explosion of devices that kicked off later. Touch screens made us rethink our mouse and hover-centric matters. That made us realise how much keyboard-driven access mattered all along.

Browsers exploded too. And our data networks changed. With this explosion of considerations, it was clear that our early ideas of “not broken” didn’t work. Our notion of what constituted “not broken” was itself broken. Consistency just doesn’t cut it.

But there was a comforting part to this too. It turned out that progressive enhancement was there to help …even though we didn’t know what new devices were going to appear. This is a recurring theme throughout Scott’s career. So given all these benefits of progressive enhancement, it shouldn’t be surprising that it turns out to be really good for performance too. If you practice progressive enhancement, you’re kind of a performance expert already.

People started talking about new performance metrics that we should care about. We’ve got new tools, like Page Speed Insights. It gives tangible advice on how to test things. Web Page Test is another great tool. Once you prove you’re a human, Web Page Test will give you loads of details on how a page loaded. And you get this great visual timeline.

This is where we can start to discuss the metrics we want to focus on. Traditionally, we focused on file size, which still matters. But for goal-setting, we want to focus on user-perceived metrics.

First Meaningful Content. It’s about how soon appears to be useful to a user. Progressive enhancement is a perfect match for this! When you first make request to a website, it’s usually for a web page. But to render that page, it might need to request more files like CSS or JavaScript. All of this adds up. From a user perspective, if the HTML is downloaded, but the browser can’t render it, that’s broken.

The average time for this on the web right now is around six seconds. That’s broken. The render blockers are the problem here.

Consider assets like scripts. Can you get the browser to load them without holding up the rendering of the page? If you can add async or defer to a script element in the head, you should do that. Sometimes that’s not an option though.

For CSS, it’s tricky. We’ve delivered the HTML that we need but we’ve got to wait for the CSS before rendering it. So what can you bundle into that initial payload?

You can user server push. This is a new technology that comes with HTTP2. H2, as it’s called, is very performance-focused. Just turning on H2 will probably make your site faster. Server push allows the server to send files to the browser before the browser has even asked for them. You can do this with directives in Apache, for example. You could push CSS whenever an HTML file is requested. But we need to be careful not to go too far. You don’t want to send too much.

Server push is great in moderation. But it is new, and it may not even be supported by your server.

Another option is to inline CSS (well, actually Scott, this is technically embedding CSS). It’s great for first render, but isn’t it wasteful for caching? Scott has a clever pattern that uses the Cache API to grab the contents of the inlined CSS and put a copy of its contents into the cache. Then it’s ready to be served up by a service worker.

By the way, this isn’t just for CSS. You could grab the contents of inlined SVGs and create cached versions for later use.

So inlining CSS is good, but again, in moderation. You don’t want to embed anything bigger than 15 or 20 kilobytes. You might want separate out the critical CSS and only embed that on first render. You don’t need to go through your CSS by hand to figure out what’s critical—there are tools that to do this that integrate with your build process. Embed that critical CSS into the head of your document, and also start preloading the full CSS. Here’s a clever technique that turns a preload link into a stylesheet link:

<link rel="preload" href="site.css" as="style" onload="this.rel='stylesheet'">

Also include this:

<noscript><link rel="stylesheet" href="site.css"></noscript>

You can also optimise for return visits. It’s all about the cache.

In the past, we might’ve used a cookie to distinguish a returning visitor from a first-time visitor. But cookies kind of suck. Here’s something that Scott has been thinking about: service workers can intercept outgoing requests. A service worker could send a header that matches the current build of CSS. On the server, we can check for this header. If it’s not the latest CSS, we can server push the latest version, or inline it.

The neat thing about service workers is that they have to install before they take over. Scott makes use of this install event to put your important assets into a cache. Only once that is done to we start adding that extra header to requests.

Watch out for an article on the Filament Group blog on this technique!

With performance, more weight doesn’t have to mean more wait. You can have a heavy page that still appears to load quickly by altering the prioritisation of what loads first.

Web pages are very heavy now. There’s a real cost to every byte. Tim’s WhatDoesMySiteCost.com shows that the CNN home page costs almost fifty cents to load for someone in America!

Time to interactive. This is is the time before a user can use what’s on the screen. The issue is almost always with JavaScript. The page looks usable, but you can’t use it yet.

Addy Osmani suggests we should get to interactive in under five seconds on a 3G network on a median mobile device. Your iPhone is not a median mobile device. A typical phone takes six seconds to process a megabyte of JavaScript after it has downloaded. So even if the network is fast, the time to interactive can still be very long.

This all comes down to our industry’s increasing reliance on JavaScript just to render content. There seems to be pendulum shifts between client-side and server-side rendering. It’s been great to see libraries like Vue and Ember embrace server-side rendering.

But even with server-side rendering, there’s still usually a rehydration step where all the JavaScript gets parsed and that really affects time to interaction.

Code splitting can help. Webpack can do this. That helps with first-party JavaScript, but what about third-party JavaScript?

Scott believes easier to make a fast website than to keep a fast website. And that’s down to all the third-party scripts that people throw in: analytics, ads, tracking. They can wreak havoc on all your hard work.

These scripts apparently contribute to the business model, so it can be hard for us to make the case for removing them. Tools like SpeedCurve can help people stay informed on the impact of these scripts. It allows you to set up performance budgets and it shows you when pages go over budget. When that happens, we have leverage to step in and push back.

Assuming you lose that battle, what else can we do?

These days, lots of A/B testing and personalisation happens on the client side. The tooling is easy to use. But they are costly!

A typical problematic pattern is this: the server sends one version of the page, and once the page is loaded, the whole page gets replaced with a different layout targeted at the user. This leads to a terrifying new metric that Scott calls Second Meaningful Content.

Assuming we can’t remove the madness, what can we do? We could at least not do this for first-time visits. We could load the scripts asyncronously. We can preload the scripts at the top of the page. But ideally we want to move these things to the server. Server-side A/B testing and personalisation have existed for a while now.

Scott has been experimenting with a middleware solution. There’s this idea of server workers that Cloudflare is offering. You can manipulate the page that gets sent from the server to the browser—all the things you would do for an A/B test. Scott is doing this by using comments in the HTML to demarcate which portions of the page should be filtered for testing. The server worker then deletes a block for some users, and deletes a different block for other users. Scott has written about this approach.

The point here isn’t about using Cloudflare. The broader point is that it’s much faster to do these things on the server. We need to defend our user’s time.

Another issue, other than third-party scripts, is the page weight on home pages and landing pages. Marketing teams love to fill these things with enticing rich imagery and carousels. They’re really difficult to keep performant because they change all the time. Sometimes we’re not even in control of the source code of these pages.

We can advocate for new best practices like responsive images. The srcset attribute on the img element; the picture element for when you need more control. These are great tools. What’s not so great is writing the markup. It’s confusing! Ideally we’d have a CMS drive this, but a lot of the time, landing pages fall outside of the purview of the CMS.

Scott has been using Vue.js to make a responsive image builder—a form that people can paste their URLs into, which spits out the markup to use. Anything we can do by creating tools like these really helps to defend the performance of a site.

Another thing we can do is lazy loading. Focus on the assets. The BBC homepage uses some lazy loading for images—they blink into view as your scroll down the page. They use LazySizes, which you can find on Github. You use data- attributes to list your image sources. Scott realises that LazySizes is not progressive enhancement. He wouldn’t recommend using it on all images, just some images further down the page.

But thankfully, we won’t need these workarounds soon. Soon we’ll have lazy loading in browsers. There’s a lazyload attribute that we’ll be able to set on img and iframe elements:

<img src=".." alt="..." lazyload="on">

It’s not implemented yet, but it’s coming in Chrome. It might be that this behaviour even becomes the default way of loading images in browsers.

If you dig under the hood of the implementation coming in Chrome, it actually loads all the images, but the ones being lazyloaded are only sent partially with a 206 response header. That gives enough information for the browser to lay out the page without loading the whole image initially.

To wrap up, Scott takes comfort from the fact that there are resilient patterns out there to help us. And remember, it is our job to defend the user’s experience.

How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier

Alright! It’s day two of An Event Apart in Seattle. The first speaker of the day is Chris Coyier. His talk is called How to Think Like a Front-End Developer. From the website:

The job title “front-end developer” is very real: job boards around the world confirm that. But what is that job, exactly? What do you need to know to do it? You might think those answers are pretty cut and dried, but they’re anything but; front-end development is going through something of an identity crisis. In this engaging talk, Chris will explore this identity through the lens of someone who has self-identified as a front-end developer for a few decades, but more interestingly, through many conversations he’s had with other successful front-end developers. You’ll see just how differently this job can be done and how differently people and companies can think of this role—not just for the sake of doing so, but because you’ll learn to be better at your own jobs by understanding how other people are good at theirs.

I’m going to see if I can keep up with Chris’s frenetic pace…

Chris has his own thoughts about what front-end dev is but he wants to share other ideas too. First of all, some grammar:

I work as a front-end developer.

I work on the front end.

Those are correct. These are not:

I work as a front end developer.

I work on the front-end.

And this is just not a word:

Frontend.

Lots of people are hiring front-end developers. So it’s definitely a job and a common job title. But what does it mean. Chris and Dave talked to eight different people on their Shop Talk Show podcast. Some highlights:

Eric feels that the term “front-end developer” is newer than the CSS Zen Garden. Everyone was a webmaster, or as we’d say now, a full-stack developer. But if someone back then used the term “front-end developer”, he’d know what it meant.

Mina says it deals with things you can see. If it’s a user-facing interface, that’s front-end development.

Trent says that he thinks of himself as a web designer and web builder. He doesn’t feel he has the deep expertise of a developer, and yet he spends all of his time in the browser.

So our job is in the browser. You deal with the browser (moreso than other roles). And by the way, there are a lot of browsers out there.

Maybe the user is what differentiates front-end work. Monica says that a back-end developer is allowed not to care about the user if their job is putting a database together. It’s totally fine not to call yourself a front-end developer, but if you do, you need to care about the user.

There are tons of different devices and browsers. It’s overwhelming. So we just gave up.

So, a front-end developer:

  • Is a job and a job title.
  • It deals with browsers, devices, and users.
  • But what skills does it involve?

It’s taken for granted that you can use a computer. There’s also the soft skills of interacting with co-workers. Then there are the language-specific core skills. Finally, there are the bonus skills—all the stuff that makes you you.

Core skills

The languages you need to strongly understand to read, write and maintain them.

HTML and CSS. Definitely. You don’t come across front-end developers who don’t do those languages. But what about JavaScript?

Eric says it’s fine if you know lots of JavaScript but it’s also fine if you don’t write everything from scratch. But you can’t be oblivious to it. You need to understand what it can do.

So let’s put JavaScript into the bucket of core skills too.

Peggy believes that as a front-end developer you need to have a basic proficiency in accessibility too. This is, after all, about user-facing interfaces.

Bonus skills

The Figma team have a somewhat over-engineered graphic of all the skillsets that people might have, between “baseline” and “supplementary”.

Perhaps we all share a common trunk of skills, and then we branch in different directions.

Right now though, it feels like front-end development is having an identity crisis. It’s all about JavaScript, which is eating the planet.

JavaScript

JavaScript is crazy popular now. It’s unignorable. Yes, it’s the language in the browser, but now it’s also the language in loads of other places too.

Steven Davis says maybe we need to fork the term front-end development. Maybe we need to have UX engineers and JavaScript engineers. Can one person be great at both? Maybe the trunk of skills forks in two very different directions.

Vernon Joyce called this an identity crisis. The concepts in JavaScript frameworks are very alien to people with a background in HTML, CSS, and basic interactive JavaScript.

You could imagine two people called front-end developers meeting, and having nothing in common to talk about. Maybe sports.

Brad says he doesn’t want to be configuring build tools. He thinks of himself as being at the front of front-end development, whereas other people are at the back of front-end development.

This divide is super frustrating to people right now.

Hiring

Michael Schnarnagl brings up the point about how it’s affecting hiring. Back-end developers are being replaced with JavaScript engineers. Lots of things that used to be back-end tasks are now happening on the client side. Component-driven design, site-level architecture, routing, getting data from the back end, mutating data, talking to APIs, and managing state—all of those things are now largely a front-end concern.

Let’s look at CodePen. There’s a little heart icon on each pen. It’s an icon component. And the combination of the heart and the overall count is also a component. And the bar of items altogether—that’s also a component. And the pen it sits under is a component. And the page it’s in is a component. And the URL for that page is a component. Now the whole site is a front-end developer’s concern.

In the past, a front-end developer would ask a back-end developer for an API endpoint. Now with GraphQL, the front-end developer can craft a query to get exactly what they need. Sure, the GraphQL stuff had to be set up in the first place, but that’s one-time task. Once it’s set up, the front-end developer has everything they need.

All the old work hasn’t gone away either. Semantics, accessibility, styling—that’s still the work of a front-end developer as well as all of the new stuff listed above.

Hiring is a big part of this. Lara Schenk talks about going for an interview where she met 90% of the skills listed. Then in an interview, she was asked to do a fizzbuzz test. That’s not the way that Lara thinks. She would’ve been great for that job, but this single task derailed her. She wrote about it, and got snarky comments from people who thought she should’ve been able to do the task. But Lara’s main point was the mismatch between what was advertised and what was actually being hired for.

You see a job posting for front-end developer. Who is that for? Is it for someone into React, webpack, and GraphQL? Or is it for someone into SVG, interaction design, and accessibility? They’re both front-end developers. And remember, they can learn one another’s skills, but when it comes to hiring, it has to be about the skills people have right now.

Peggy talks about how specialised your work can be. You can specialise in SVG. You can specialise in APIs and data.

We’re probably not going to solve this right now. The hiring part is definitely the worst part right now. One solution is to use plain language in job posts. Make it clear what you’re looking for right now and explain what background you’re coming from. Use words instead of a laundry list of requirements.

Heydon Pickering talks about full-stack developers. Their core skills are hardcore computer science skills.

Brad Frost concurs. It tends not to be the other way around. The output tends to be the badly-sketched front of the horse.

Even if there is a divide, that doesn’t absolve any of us from doing a good job. That’s true whether it’s computer science tasks or markup and CSS.

Despite the divide, performance, accessibility, and user experience are all our jobs.

Maybe this term “front-end developer” needs rethinking.

The brain game

Let’s peak into the minds of very different front-end developers. Chris and Dave went to Dribbble, pulled up a bunch of designs and put them in front of their guests on the Shop Talk Show.

Here’s a design of a page.

  • Brad looks at the design and sees a lot of components of different sizes and complexity.
  • Mina sees a bunch of media objects.
  • Eric sees HTML structures. That’s a heading. That’s a list. Over there is an unordered list.
  • Sam sees a lot of typography. She sees a type system.
  • Trent immediately starts thinking about how the design is supposed to work in different screen sizes.

Here’s a different, more image-heavy design.

  • Mina would love to tackle the animations.
  • Trent sees interesting textures and noise. He wonders how he could achieve those effects without exporting giant image files.
  • Brad, unsurprisingly, sees components, even in a seemingly bespoke layout.
  • Eric immediately sees a lot of SVG.
  • Sam needs to know what the HTML is.

Here’s a more geometric design.

  • Sam is drawn to the typography.
  • Mina sees an opportunity to use writing modes.
  • Trent sees a design that would reflow and reshape itself well.
  • Eric sees something with writing mode, grid, and custom fonts.

Here’s a financial mobile UI.

  • Trent wants to run it through a colour-contrast analyser, and he wants to know if the font size is too small.

Here’s a crazy festival website.

  • Mina wonders if it needs a background video, but worries about the performance.

Here’s an on-trend mobile design.

  • Monica sees something that looks like every other website.
  • Ben wonders whether it will work in other parts of the world. How will the interactions work? Separate pages or transitions? How will it feel?

Here’s an image-heavy design.

  • Monica wonders about the priority of which images to load first.

Here’s an extreme navigation with big images.

  • Ben worries about the performance on slow connections.
  • Monica gets stressed out about how much happens when you just click on a link.
  • Peggy sees something static and imagines using Gatsby for it.

Here’s a design that’s map-based.

  • Ben worries about the size of the touch targets.
  • Monica sees an opportunity to use SVGs.

Here’s a card UI.

  • Ben wonders what the browser support is. Can we use CSS grid or do we have to use something older?
  • Monica worries that this needs drag’n’drop. Now you’ve got a nightmare scenario.

Chris has been thinking about and writing about this topic of what makes someone a front-end developer, and what makes someone a good front-end developer. The debate will continue…

Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons

Alright, it’s time for the final talk of day one of An Event Apart in Seattle. The trifecta of CSS talks is going to finish with Jen Simmons talking about Designing Intrinsic Layouts. Here’s the description:

Twenty-five years after the web began, we finally have a real toolkit for creating layouts. Combining CSS Grid, Flexbox, Multicolumn, Flow layout and Writing Modes gives us the technical ability to build layouts today without the horrible hacks and compromises of the past. But what does this mean for our design medium? How might we better leverage the art of graphic design? How will we create something practical, useable, and realistically doable?

In a talk full of specific examples, Jen will walk you through the thinking process of creating accessible & reusable page and component layouts. For the last four years, Jen’s been getting audiences excited about what, when, and why. Now it’s time for how.

I’m not sure if live-blogging is going to work given the visual nature of this talk, but I’ll give it a try…

How many of us have written CSS using display: grid? Quite a few. How many people feel they have a good grip on it? Not so many.

Jen has spent the last few years encouraging people to really push the boundaries of graphic design on the web now that we have the tools to do so in CSS. But Jen is not here today to talk about amazing new things. Instead she’s going to show the “how?” The code is on labs.jensimmons.com.

Let’s look at laying out a header. You might have a header element with a logo image, the site name in an h1, and a nav element with the navigation. The logo, the site name, and the navigation are direct children of the parent header. By default we get everything stacked vertically.

<header role="banner">
    <img class="logo" src="..." alt="...">
    <h1>Site title</h1>
    <nav>
        <ul>
            <li><a href="...">Home</a></li>
            <li><a href="...">Episodes</a></li>
            <li><a href="...">Guests</a></li>
            <li><a href="...">Subscribe</a></li>
            <li><a href="...">About</a></li>
        </ul>
    </nav>
</header>

Why should we care about starting with semantic HTML? It matters for reusability and accessibility, but also for reader modes in browsers. These tools remove the cruft. If you mark up your content well, it will play nicely with reader modes. Interestingly, there are no metrics around how many people are using reader modes (by design). Mozilla has a product called Pocket that’s a “read later” app. It can also turn saved articles into a podcast for you. Well marked up content matters for audio playback.

Now let’s start applying some CSS. Fonts, colours, stuff like that. Everything is still stacking vertically though. It’s flow content. This can be our fallback layout. Now let’s apply our own layout. We could use float: left on the logo. Now we need some margins. We can try applying widths and floats to the h1 and the nav. Now we need a clearfix to get the parent to stretch to the full height of the content. It’s hacky. floats suck. But it’s all we had until we got flexbox. But even using flexbox for this kind of layout is a hack too. What we really need is CSS grid.

Apply display: grid to the header. Use Firefox’s dev tools to inspect the grid. Seeing the grid helps in understanding what’s going on. We’ve got three grid items in three separate rows. Notice that we don’t have margin collapsing any more. We can get rid of margins and use grid-gap instead. But we want is three columns, not three rows. We’ll try:

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

Looks okay. Not exactly the spacing we want though. We want the logo and the navigation to take up less space than the site name. We could translate our old percentage values into fr equivalents. 8% becomes 8fr. 75% becomes 75fr. 17% becomes 17fr. But the logo and the nav never shrink below their actual size. Layout isn’t working like we’re used to. The content will never get smaller than the minimum content size. So the amount of space assigned to each column is no longer linear.

Let’s change those fr units to percentages. Now we need to get rid of our gaps. But now when the layout gets small, everything squishes up. This is what we need breakpoints for. But now we can do something else. Let’s make the logo max-content. That column will now be the size of the logo. The other columns can remain `fr:

header {
    grid-template columns: max-content 3fr 1fr;
}

Let’s also define the last one—the navigation—as max-content. We can toss auto in for the middle content (the site name):

header {
    grid-template columns: max-content auto max-content;    }

Let’s layout the navigation horizontally. The best tool for this is flexbox. The li elements are the flex items. So the ul needs to be the flex container.

ul {
    display: flex;
}

Looking good. Let’s allow items to wrap onto another line:

ul {
    display: flex;
    flex-wrap: wrap;
}

Let’s change that navigation from max-content to auto so that it doesn’t get too long:

header {
    grid-template columns: max-content auto auto;   }

(How you want the navigation items to wrap determines whether you use flexbox or grid. Both are perfectly valid choices. There’s nothing wrong with using grid for the small stuff.)

Just look at how little code we need for this layout!

Let’s try a different layout. We’ll put the navigation on a new row.

header {
    grid-template-columns: min-content auto;
    grid-template-rows: auto auto
}

Let’s get the logo to span across both rows:

.logo {
    row-span: 2;
}

Need to finesse the alignment of the navigation? No problem. Play with align-self property on the nav element.

Again, look at how little code this is!

But these layouts are safe. We need to break out of our habits. What about disjointed text? Let’s take the h1. Apply some typography and colour. Also apply overflow-wrap: anywhere. Now the text can break within words.

We can take this further. But to do that, we have to wrap all of my letters in separate spans. Yuck!

Apply display: grid to the h1 that contains all those span children. Say grid-template-columns: repeat(8, 1fr) to make an eight-column repeating grid.

Let’s make it more interesting. We can target each individual letter with grid-column and grid-row. There are many ways to tell the browser where to place grid items. We can tell them the start lines. By default it will take up one cell.

Let’s add some images. Let’s rotate items. Place items wherever we want them. Mess around with the units to see what happens. Play with opacity when elements overlap. See the possibilities!

But, people cry, what about Internet Explorer? Use @supports

/* code for every browser */

@supports (display: grid) {
    /* code for modern browsers */
}

Set up a fallback outside the @supports block. Toggle grid on and enough in dev tools to see how the fallback will look. If this kind of thinking is new to you, please watch youtube.com/layoutland where Jen talks about resilient CSS.

Let’s try something else. Jen got an email announcement for an event. It had an interesting bit of layout with some text overlapping an image.

Mark up the content: some headings and images. By default the images are displayed inline. The headings are displayed as blocks.

Think about where your grid lines will need to go. How many lines will you need? How about setting your columns with 1fr 3fr 3fr 1fr? Now how many rows do you need? You define and the grid on the container and tell the items where to go. Again, it’s not much code. Tweak it. How about setting the columns to be 1fr minmax(100px, 400px) min-content? You have to mess around to see what’s possible. You can use all sorts of units for columns: fixed lengths (pixels, ems, rems), min-content, max-content, percentages, fr units, minmax(), and auto. Play around with the combinations.

Jen shows a whole bunch of her demos. Check them out. Use web inspector to play around with them.

And with that, the first day of An Event Apart Seattle is done!

Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew

The CSStastic afternoon of day one of An Event Apart in Seattle continues with Rachel Andrew. Her talk is Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS. The description reads:

For years we’ve explained that the web is not like print; that a particular idea is not how things work on the web; that certain things are simply not possible. Over the last few years, rapid browser implementation of advances in CSS have given us the ability to do many of these previously impossible things. We can use our new powers to build the same designs faster, or we can start to ask ourselves what we might do if we were solving these problems afresh.

In this talk, Rachel will look at the things coming into browsers right now which change the way we see web design. CSS subgrids allowing nested grids to use the track definition of their parent; logical properties and values moving the web away from the physical dimensions of a computer screen; screen experiences which behave more like an app, or even paged media, due to scroll snapping and multidimensional control. By understanding the new medium of web design we can start to imagine the future, and even help to shape it.

I’m not sure if it even makes sense to try to live-blog a code talk, but I’ll give it my best shot…

Rachel has been talking about CSS at An Event Apart for over three years now. Our understanding of the possibilities of CSS has changed a lot in that time. Our use of floats for layout is being consigned to history. It’s no less monumental than the change from tables to CSS. Tableless web design often meant simplifying our designs. We were used to designing in a graphic design tool and then slicing it up into table cells. CSS couldn’t give us the same fine-grained control so we simplified our designs. It got us to start thinking of the web as its own medium. That idea really progressed with responsive web design.

But perhaps us CSS advocates downplayed some of the issues. We weren’t trying to create new CSS, we were just trying to get people to use CSS.

What we term “good web design” is based in the technical limitations of CSS. We say “the web is not print” when we see a design that’s quite print-like. People expect to have to hack at CSS to get it to do what we want. But times have changed. We have solved many of those problems (but that doesn’t mean we got all of them!).

Rachel spends a lot of time telling designers: you never know how tall anything is on the web. It used to be a real challenge to get the top and bottom of boxes to line up. We’d have to fix the height of the boxes. And if too much content goes in, the content overflows. Then we end up limiting the amount of content at the CMS side. We hacked around the problem. A technical limitation influenced our design, and even our content management. Then we got flexbox. Not only did the problem disappear, but the default behaviour is exactly what we struggled with for years: equal height columns.

How big is this box? You’ve seen the “CSS is awesome mug”, right?

Our previous layout systems relied on percentage lengths for widths. Those values had to add up to 100%, and no more. People tried to do the same thing with flexbox. People made “grid systems” with flexbox that gave widths to everything. “Flexbox is weird!”, people said. But the real problem is that flexbox is not the layout method you think it is. It’s for taking a bunch of oddly-sized things and returning the most reasonable layout for those things. It assigns space in a smart way. That solves the problem of needing to give everthing a width. It figures it out for you. If you decide to put widths on everything, you’re kind of working against flexbox.

We’re so used to having to hack everything in CSS, we had to take a step back with flexbox and realise that hacks aren’t necessary.

CSS tries to avoid data loss. That’s why the “CSS is awesome” text overflows the box. You don’t want the text to vanish. Visible overflow is messy, but it’s better than making some content disappear.

In the box alignment specification, there’s the concept of safe and unsafe alignment. Safe:

.container {
    display: flex;
    flex-direction: column;
    align-items: safe center;
}

You give the browser permission to align items to the start if necessary. But you can override that with unsafe:

.container {
    display: flex;
    flex-direction: column;
    align-items: unsafe center;
}

Overflow is going to happen. Now it’s up to you what happens when it does.

The “content honking out of the box” problem described in the “CSS is awesome” meme is now controlled with min-content:

width: min-content;

The box expands to encompass the widest content.

You have many choices. But what if the text isn’t running left to right? It might not be a problem we run into for English text. For years, CSS had that English-centric assumption baked in. Now CSS has been updated to not make that assumption. The web is not left to right. Flexbox and grid take an agnostic approach to the writing mode of the document. There’s no “top”, “bottom”, “left” or “right”. There’s “start”, “end”, “inline” and “block”. Now we have a new spec for logical properties and values. It maps old physical values (top, bottom, etc.) to the newer agnostic values.

So even if you use writing-mode to flip direction, width is still a width. Use inline-size instead of width and everything keeps working: the width maps to height when you apply a different writing-mode value. Eventually we’ll use those flow-relative values more than the old values. Solutions need to include different writing modes.

There is no fold. We’ve said that for years, right? But we know where the fold is. We’ve got viewport units that represent the width and height of the browser viewport. We can start to make designs that make use of the viewport. You can size a screen full of images exactly to fit the visible space. Combine it with scroll-snap to get the page views to snap as the user scrolls. You get paged layout. That’s interesting for Rachel because she’s used to designing for paged layout in print versus continuous layout on the web.

What’s next for CSS grid? Grid layout has been the biggest problem-solver of recent years. But that doesn’t mean it has solved all the layout problems. New problems appear as we start to work with CSS grid. We often end up nesting grids. But the nested grids don’t have any knowledge of one another. We’re back to: you never know how tall things are on the web. We need a way to have a relationship. Some kind of, I don’t know, subgrid.

You could use display: contents. It removes a box from the visual display allowing grandchildren to act like children. The browser support is good, but there’s a stonking accessibility bug so don’t use it in production. Also you can’t apply visual styles to anything that’s got display: contents on it. But grid-template-rows: subgrid will solve this problem. The spec is in a good shape. We’re waiting for the first browser implementations.

You will hit problems. Find new technical limitations. It’s just that we can’t do that stuff yet. We get the new stuff when we create it. Write up the problems you come across.

We’re finding the edges. Rachel is going to share her problems.

Rachel wants to put some text into her image grid. No problem. But then if there’s too much text, it might not fit in a height-restricted row. We can adjust the row to not be height-restricted, but then we lose the nice viewport-fitting layout.

In continuous media—which is what the web is—content inside multicol gets longer and longer. You can fix the height of the container but then the columns get created horizontally. What if you could say, I want my multicol container to be, say 100vh high, but if the content overlows, create a new 100vh high container below. Overflow in the block dimension. Maybe that’ll be in the next version of the multicol spec.

Multicol doesn’t solve Rachel’s image grid situation. What she needs is a way for the text to fill up a box and then flow into another box. The content needs to be semantically marked up—not broken into separate chunks for layout—and we want the browser to figure out where to break that content and fill up available space.

It comes as a surprise to people that a lot of paged media—books, magazines—are laid out with CSS. It’s in the paged media module. Prince is a good example of a user agent that supports paged media. There’s the concept of a page box: a physical page into which content can go. You get to define the boxes with physical dimensions like inches or centimeters. You create a bunch of margin boxes with generated content. Enough pages are created to hold all the content. You create your page model and flow the content through it.

Maybe apps and websites with defined screens are not that different from paged contexts. There have been attempts to create CSS specs that would allow this kind of content-flowing behaviour. CSS regions was one attempt. There was -ms-flow-into and -ms-flow-from in the IE and Edge implementations. You had to apply -ms-flow-into to an iframe element.

Regions needs ready-prepared boxes for the content to flow into. But how can you know how many boxes to prepare in advance? You don’t know how big things will be on the web. Rachel has been told that there’s nothing wrong with the CSS regions spec because you can define a final bucket for all leftover content. That doesn’t seem like a viable solution.

CSS regions predated CSS grid and didn’t take off. Now that we’ve got grid, something like regions makes a lot of sense.

Web design has been involved in a constant battle with overflow. Whether it’s overflowing boxes, or there (not) being a fold, or multicol layout. Rachel thinks we can figure out a way to get regions to work. Perhaps regions paved the way for something better. Maybe it was just ahead of its time. There are a lot of things hidden away in CSS specs that never made it out: things that didn’t make sense until more advanced CSS came along.

Regions—like multicol—relies on fragmentation. Ever tried to stop a heading behind the last thing on a page in a print stylesheet? We need good support for break-inside, break-before, and break-after.

We create new things to solve problems. Maybe you don’t see the value of something like regions, but I bet there’s been something where you thought “I wish CSS could do this!”.

Rob wrote up a problem that he had with trying to have a floated element maintain its floatiness inside a grid. He saw it as a grid problem. Rachel saw it as an exclusions problem. Rob’s write-up was really valuable to demonstrate the need for exclusions. Writing things up is hugely valuable for pushing things forward. Write up your ideas—they’ll show us the use case.

Ask “why can’t I do that?” Let’s not fall into the temptation of making things grid-like just because we have CSS grid now. Keep pushing at the boundaries.

Many of things Rachel has shown—grid, exclusions, regions—were implemented by Microsoft. With Edge moving to a Chromium rendering engine, we must make sure that we maintain diversity of thought in the standards process. Voices other than those of rendering engines need to contribute to the discussion.

At a W3C meeting or standards discussion, the room should not be 60-70% Googlers.

More than ever, the web needs diversity of thought. Rachel isn’t having a dig at Google. This isn’t a fight between good and evil. It’s a fight against any monoculture. So please contribute. Get involved. Together we can work for the future of the web platform.

Generation Style by Eric Meyer

It’s time for the afternoon talks at An Event Apart in Seattle. We’re going to have back-to-back CSS, kicking off with Eric Meyer. His talk is called Generation Style. The blurb says:

Consider, if you will, CSS generated content. We can, and sometimes even do, use it to insert icons before or after pieces of text. Occasionally we even use it add a bit of extra information. And once upon a time, we pressed it into service as a hack to get containers to wrap around their floated children. That’s all fine—but what good is generated content, really? What can we do with it? What are its limitations? And how far can we push content generation in a new landscape full of flexible boxes, grids, and more? Join Eric as he turns a spotlight on generated content and shows how it can be a generator of creativity as well as a powerful, practical tool for everyday use.

Wish me luck, ‘cause I’m going to try to capture the sense of this presentation…

So we had a morning of personas and user journeys. This afternoon: code, baby! Eric is going to dive into a very specific corner of CSS—generated content. For an hour. Let’s do it!

He shows the CSS Generated Content Module Level 3. Eric wants to focus on one bit: the pseudo-elements ::before and ::after. What does pseudo-element mean?

You might have used one of these pseudo-elements for blockquotes. Perhaps you’ve put a great big quotation mark in front of them.

blockquote:: after {
    content: "“";
    font-size: 4em;
    opacity: 0.67;
/* placement styles here */
}

Why is Eric using ::after? Because you can. You can put the ::after content wherever you want. But if your placement styles fail, this isn’t a good place for the generated content. So don’t do this. Use ::before.

Another example of using generated content is putting icons beside certain links:

a[href$=".pdf"]::after {
    content: url(i/icon.png);
    height: 1em;
    margin-right: 0.5em;
    vertical-align: top;
}

But these icons look yucky. But if you use larger images, they will be shown full size. You only have so much control over what happens in there. I mean, that’s true of all CSS: think of CSS as a series of strong suggestions. But here, we have even less control than we’re used to. Why isn’t the image 1em tall like I’ve specified in the CSS? Well, the generated content box is 1em tall but the image is breaking out of this box. How about this:

a[href]::after * {
    max-width: 100%;
    max-height: 100%
}

This doesn’t work. The image isn’t an element so it can’t be selected for.

The way around it is to use background images instead:

a[href$=".pdf"]::after {
    content: '';
    height: 1em; width: 1em;
    margin-right: 0.5em;
    vertical-align: top;
    background: center/contain;
    background-image: url(i/icon.png);
}

Notice there’s a right margin there. That stretches out the width of the whole link. That’s exactly the same as if there were an actual span in there:

a[href$=".pdf"] span {
    height: 1em; width: 1em;
    margin-right: 0.5em;
    vertical-align: top;
    background: center/contain;
    background-image: url(i/icon.png);
}

So why use generated content instead of a span? So that you don’t have to put extra spans in your markup.

Generated content is great for things that work great when they’re there, but still work fine if they’re not. It’s progressive enhancement.

You’ve almost certainly used generated content for the clearfix hack.

.clearfix::after {
    content: '';
    display: table;
    clear: both;
}

Ask your parents. It’s when we wanted to make the containing element for a group of floating elements to encompass the height of those elements. Ancient history, right? Well, Eric is showing an example of a certain large media company today. There are a lot of clearfixes in there.

Eric makes the clearfix visible:

.clearfix::after {
    content: '';
    display: table;
    clear: both;
    border: 10px solid purple;
}

It looks like a span: a 10 pixel wide box. Now change the display property:

.clearfix::after {
    content: '';
    display: block;
    clear: both;
    border: 10px solid purple;
}

Now it behaves more like a div than a span.

The big question here is: who cares?

Let’s say we’re making a site about corduroy pillows (I hear they’re really making headlines).

<header>
<h1>Corduroy pillows</h1>
<p>Lorum ipsum...</p>
</header>

We can add a box under the header:

header::after {
    content: " ";
    display: block;
    height: 1em;
}

You can do stuff with that extra content, like using a linear gradient:

header::after {
    content: " ";
    display: block;
    height: 1em;
    background: linear-gradient(to right, #DDD, #000, #DDD) center / 100% 1px no-repeat;
}

The colour stops are #DDD, #000, and #DDD. You get this nice gradiated line under the header. You can chain a bunch of of radial gradients together to get some nice effects. You could mix in some background images too. Now you’ve got some on-brand separators. You could use generated content to add some “under construction” separators.

By the way, ever struggled to keep track of the order of backgrounds? Think about how you would order layers in Photoshop.

How about if we could use generated content to make design tools?

div[id]::before {
    content: attr(id);
}

Now the generated content is taken from the id attribute. You can make it look like Firebug:

div[id]::before {
    content: '#' attr(id);
    font: 0.75rem monospace;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
    border: 1px dashed red;
    padding: 0 0.25em;
    background: #FFD;
}

You can even make the content cover the whole box with bottom and right values too:

div[id]::before {
    content: '#' attr(id);
    font: 0.75rem monospace;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    right: 0;
    border: 1px dashed red;
    padding: 0 0.25em;
    background: #FFD8;
}

(And yes, that is a hex value with opacity.)

Let’s make it less code-y:

div[id]::before {
    content: attr(id);
    font: bold 1.5rem Georgia serif;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    right: 0;
    border: 1px dashed red;
    padding: 0 0.25em;  
    background: #FFD8;
}

Throw in some text-shadow. Maybe some radial gradients. We’re at the wireframe stage. Let’s drop in some SVG images to show lines across the boxes.

How about automating design touches?

pre {
    padding: 0.75em 1.5em;
    background: #EEE;
    font: medium Consolas, monospace;
    position: relative;
}

Let’s say that applies to:

<pre class="css">
...
</pre>

You can generate labels with that class attribute:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Let’s align it to the top of it’s parent with negative margins:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    margin: -0.75em -1.5em 1em;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Or you can use absolute positioning:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    right: 0;
    left: 0;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Now let’s change the writing mode:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    right: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    writing-mode: vertical-rl;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Now the text is running down the side, but it’s turned on its side. You can transform it:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    right: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    writing-mode: vertical-rl;
    transform: rotate(180deg);
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

But if you this, be careful. Your left margin is no longer on the left. Everything’s flipped around.

You could also update the generated content according to the value of the class attribute:

pre.css:: before {
    content: '{ CSS }';
}

pre.html::before {
    content: '< HTML >';
}

pre.js::before,
pre.javascript::before {
    content: '({ JS })();';
}

It’s presentational, so CSS feels like the right place to do this. But you can’t generate markup—just text. Angle brackets will be displayed in their raw form.

But positioning is so old-school. Let’s use CSS grid:

pre {
    display: grid;
    grid-template-columns: min-content 1fr;
    grid-gap: 0.75em;
}

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    margin: -1em 0;
    padding: 0.25em 0.1em 0.25em 0;
    writing-mode: vertical-rl;
    transform: rotate(180deg);
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Heck, you could get rid of the negative margins by putting the code content inside a code element and giving that a margin of 1em.

You can see generated content in action on the website of An Event Apart:

li.news::before {
    content: attr(data-cat);
    background-color: orange;
    color: white;
}

The data-cat attribute (which contains a category value) is displayed in the generated content.

Cool. That’s all stuff we can do now. What about next?

Well, suppose you had to put some legalese on your website. You could generate the numbers of nested sections:

h1 { counter-reset: section; }
h2 { counter-reset: subsection; }

Increment the numbers each time:

h2 { counter-increment: section; }
h3 { counter-increment: subsection; }

And display those values:

h2::before {
    content: counter(section) ".";
}
h2::before {
    content: counter(section) counter ":" (subsection, upper-roman);
}

Soon you’ll be able to cycle through a list of counter styles of your own creation with a @counter-style block.

But remember, if you really need that content to be visible for everyone, don’t rely on generated content: put it in your markup. It’s for styles.

So, generated content. It’s pretty cool. You can do some surprising things with it. Maybe ::before this talk, you didn’t think about generated content much, but ::after this talk ,you will.

Timelines of the web

Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in HTUtils.h:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff—who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee—told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.

Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with A tags.

So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014—a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.

The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web—Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems—including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s—were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.

Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.

The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website—and first web server—went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.

So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959 – 1989 and 1989 – 2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.

I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.

Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:

<li class="h-event y1968">
  <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
    <time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
    <abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
  </a>
</li>

With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic—just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.

The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using calc(). I wanted to use translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’ left and right:

.y1968 {
  left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:

.y2014 {
  right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

(Each h-event has a width of 5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)

I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.

As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.

Et voilà!

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:

1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.

1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.

1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times

I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.

The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.

Hello WorldWideWeb.

Code print

You know what I like? Print stylesheets!

I mean, I’m not a huge fan of trying to get the damn things to work consistently—thanks, browsers—but I love the fact that they exist (athough I’ve come across a worrying number of web developers who weren’t aware of their existence). Print stylesheets are one more example of the assumption-puncturing nature of the web: don’t assume that everyone will be reading your content on a screen. News articles, blog posts, recipes, lyrics …there are many situations where a well-considered print stylesheet can make all the difference to the overall experience.

You know what I don’t like? QR codes!

It’s not because they’re ugly, or because they’ve been over-used by the advertising industry in completely inapropriate ways. No, I don’t like QR codes because they aren’t an open standard. Still, I must grudgingly admit that they’re a convenient way of providing a shortcut to a URL (albeit a completely opaque one—you never know if it’s actually going to take you to the URL it promises or to a Rick Astley video). And now that the parsing of QR codes is built into iOS without the need for any additional application, the barrier to usage is lower than ever.

So much as I might grit my teeth, QR codes and print stylesheets make for good bedfellows.

I picked up a handy tip from a Smashing Magazine article about print stylesheets a few years back. You can the combination of a @media print and generated content to provide a QR code for the URL of the page being printed out. Google’s Chart API provides a really handy shortcut for generating QR codes:

https://chart.googleapis.com/chart?cht=qr&chs=150x150&chl=http://example.com

Except that there’s no telling how long that will continue to work. Google being Google, they’ve deprecated the simple image chart API in favour of the over-engineered JavaScript alternative. So just as I recently had to migrate all my maps over to Leaflet when Google changed their Maps API from under the feet of developers, the clock is ticking on when I’ll have to find an alternative to the Image Charts API.

For now, I’ve got the QR code generation happening on The Session for individual discussions, events, recordings, sessions, and tunes. For the tunes, there’s also a separate URL for each setting of a tune, specifically for printing out. I’ve added a QR code there too.

Experimenting with print stylesheets and QR codes.

I’ve been thinking about another potential use for QR codes. I’m preparing a new talk for An Event Apart Seattle. The talk is going to be quite practical—for a change—and I’m going to be encouraging people to visit some URLs. It might be fun to include the biggest possible QR code on a slide.

I’d better generate the images before Google shuts down that API.

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.