Tags: layout

14

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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.

Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed by Jen Simmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are four stages of squishiness:

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

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

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

We can have nested contexts now:

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

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

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

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

So intrinsic web design is:

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

Feature queries

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

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

@supports (--css: variables)

Here’s a gotcha:

@supports (clip-path: polygon())

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s functionally equivalent to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flexbox

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

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

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

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

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

Grid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The feature queries for that looked like:

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Graduating to Grid by Rachel Andrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That will make everything squished down.

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

That one will probably cause an overflow.

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

That one will make 15 characters an upper limit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Styling the Patterns Day site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting griddy with it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The CSS Squad.

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

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

Vertical limit

When I was first styling Resilient Web Design, I made heavy use of vh units. The vertical spacing between elements—headings, paragraphs, images—was all proportional to the overall viewport height. It looked great!

Then I tested it on real devices.

Here’s the problem: when a page loads up in a mobile browser—like, say, Chrome on an Android device—the URL bar is at the top of the screen. The height of that piece of the browser interface isn’t taken into account for the viewport height. That makes sense: the viewport height is the amount of screen real estate available for the content. The content doesn’t extend into the URL bar, therefore the height of the URL bar shouldn’t be part of the viewport height.

But then if you start scrolling down, the URL bar scrolls away off the top of the screen. So now it’s behaving as though it is part of the content rather than part of the browser interface. At this point, the value of the viewport height changes: now it’s the previous value plus the height of the URL bar that was previously there but which has now disappeared.

I totally understand why the URL bar is squirrelled away once the user starts scrolling—it frees up some valuable vertical space. But because that necessarily means recalculating the viewport height, it effectively makes the vh unit in CSS very, very limited in scope.

In my initial implementation of Resilient Web Design, the one where I was styling almost everything with vh, the site was unusable. Every time you started scrolling, things would jump around. I had to go back to the drawing board and remove almost all instances of vh from the styles.

I’ve left it in for one use case and I think it’s the most common use of vh: making an element take up exactly the height of the viewport. The front page of the web book uses min-height: 100vh for the title.

Scrolling.

But as soon as you scroll down from there, that element changes height. The content below it suddenly moves.

Let’s say the overall height of the browser window is 600 pixels, of which 50 pixels are taken up by the URL bar. When the page loads, 100vh is 550 pixels. But as soon as you scroll down and the URL bar floats away, the value of 100vh becomes 600 pixels.

(This also causes problems if you’re using vertical media queries. If you choose the wrong vertical breakpoint, then the media query won’t kick in when the page loads but will kick in once the user starts scrolling …or vice-versa.)

There’s a mixed message here. On the one hand, the browser is declaring that the URL bar is part of its interface; that the space is off-limits for content. But then, once scrolling starts, that is invalidated. Now the URL bar is behaving as though it is part of the content scrolling off the top of the viewport.

The result of this messiness is that the vh unit is practically useless for real-world situations with real-world devices. It works great for desktop browsers if you’re grabbing the browser window and resizing, but that’s not exactly a common scenario for anyone other than web developers.

I’m sure there’s a way of solving it with JavaScript but that feels like using an atomic bomb to crack a walnut—the whole point of having this in CSS is that we don’t need to use JavaScript for something related to styling.

It’s such a shame. A piece of CSS that’s great in theory, and is really well supported, just falls apart where it matters most.

Update: There’s a two-year old bug report on this for Chrome, and it looks like it might actually get fixed in February.

Strong Layout Systems by Eric Meyer

Eric is at An Event Apart in Atlanta talking about Strong Layout Systems. Following on from Brother Jeffrey’s presentation, he begins with a reading…

In the beginning Sir Tim created the server and the browser. And the web was without form. And the face of Tim moved over the web. Tim said “Let there be markup.” And there was markup. And he saw that it was good. And he divided structure from appearance.

That decision is quite striking. Think about other mediums. The structure of a book is bound to its appearance.

Here’s a screenshot, courtesy of Grant Hutchinson, of the preferences in the original Mosaic browser. You could define the appearance of any HTML element …as a user. As an author, you couldn’t do that. HTML didn’t support that: it created structure.

As with all creations, there was a fall. As usual, a reptile was involved. In this case it was Mozilla, known by its ancient name of Netscape. They added presentational elements like prompt and presentational attributes e.g. on the hr element. And then there was the table element. Inevitably, it was used for layout. David Siegel wrote the book on this, Creating Killer Websites. It was tables all the way down: tables inside of tables inside of tables, all to create visual appearance.

The backlash came from the Web Standards Project. It got dogmatic there for a while. But we got past that, and we started using CSS. The promise of CSS was visual presentation, for authors and users. We talk about “controlling” presentation with CSS, but remember that theoretically that can be over-ridden by user styles.

But CSS was an appearance system; not a layout system. It wasn’t that complex. You could print out all of CSS1. The only thing in it in any way suited for layout was floats …and that’s not what they were created for: it was basically the CSS equivalent of the align attribute that Netscape had introduced to HTML. So we used floats because that’s all we had. It wasn’t a layout system but we made it one anyway. There were a lot of bugs, but we dealt them in clever—sometimes deranged—ways.

For CSS2, they realised that designers really liked to lay things out (who knew?) so they introduced positioning. But you have to be careful with positioning. It was great …sort of. You can indeed position an element wherever you want …and overlap them.

The first major site to launch with CSS for positioning was Doug’s redesign of Wired.com (it didn’t use floats). The limitations of positioning forced us into certain design patterns. Note the footer on the old Wired site: it sits at the bottom of the central column, not the whole page. That was to avoid overlap. But Eric remembers talking to Doug and it turns out they actually wanted a full-width footer, but they had to work with the tools they had. Positioning lacked the equivalent of clear that you get with floats.

These were hacks. Hacks aren’t a bad thing; they’re often very clever. But hacks limit us. Neither floats nor positioning had the concept of equal height (but tables did).

We’re now getting to the point where can start to revisit our assumptions about what is and isn’t possible with CSS.

We’ve got viewport units: vh and vw—viewport height and viewport width (in percentages relative to the viewport, not the parent element). This is really useful for handheld devices. There’s also the vmin unit that you can use on font sizes so that text scales in relation to viewport size.

Flexible boxes is more commonly called flexbox. Take a horizontal navigation (in an unordered list) and declare it as a flexible box. Then declare that the elements within should “flex” to each use an equal amount of space. There’s a variant justify-content: space-around which will share out the space between the elements equally.

Flexbox comes out of XUL, Gecko’s layout language for browser chrome. This is real layout. It’s not a hack. As an author, you’re declaring how you want things to be laid out, and the browser does it. It’s a good feeling.

You can also use flexbox to make sure that elements within a shared parent have the same height. In fact, that’s the default behaviour. You can also get your flexible boxes to reflow instead of being trapped on the same line. The new “line” will also share out space for the elements equally.

You can set your flexible boxes with whatever units you want, and mix and match them: percentages and ems, for example. You can have flexible and fixed elements together.

Remember The Holy Grail of Layout on A List Apart? It followed soon after the One True Layout. Now you could do it with just a few quick flexbox declarations.

<header></header>
<main>
 <nav></nav>
 <article></article>
 <aside></aside>
</main>
<footer></footer>

main { display: flex; }
nav { width: 13em; flex: none; }
article { width: auto; flex: none; }
aside { width: 20%; flex: none; }

You can also rearrange the visual ordering (using order). You could make the article appear as the third column within main even though it appears second in the markup. The structure is truly separated from the layout.

Flexbox alignments are really interesting, especially baseline, which will vertically align columns according to the first baseline in each column — very handy.

You aren’t restricted to horizontal layout: you can arrange things vertically. We finally get vertical centring.

Beyond flexbox, we have grids. They’re not quite as stable right now, but the basic idea is that you can set up grid lines to “control” page elements and the space between them: grid-definition-columns: (4em) gives you a repeating grid with a grid unit of four ems.

You can have flexbox inside grids and visa-versa: within a grid unit, you can still display: flex. Within a flexible box, you can define grid lines.

But please don’t go and read the grids specification right now. It’s an amalgamation of three different authors’ texts, one of whom has never written a spec before, and one of the examples is completely misleading about how grids work.

There’s a fraction unit—fr—that you can use to define widths, but you can also use it in combination with min-content which is based on the longest piece of content in a unit. This is complicated stuff and even Eric doesn’t quite get it completely. Maybe min-content is better for non-text content.

And remember you can mix and match these modules. Same with CSS regions. Regions aren’t here yet, but they will completely up-end the way we think about document structure: you put all of your content in one element, and you have some empty elements as well. Then you use CSS regions to define how the content from the first element flows into the others. Effectively your document has a structural portion and a skeleton layout portion.

These layout modules are truly new. You might think that we’re familiar with using CSS for layout, but that was always hacking: using tools for a purpose other than that for which they were created. This new modules were created specifically to allow us to create layouts. That really is new. And Eric can’t wait to see what we do with these new tools.

Tweakpoints

Mark has written down some thoughts on breakpoints in responsive designs. I share his concern that by settling on just a few breakpoints, there’s a danger of returning to the process of simply designing for some set canvases: here’s my “mobile” layout, here’s my “tablet” layout, here’s my “desktop” layout.

In my experience, not all breakpoints are created equal. Sure, there are the points at which the layout needs to change drastically in order for the content not to look like crap—those media queries can legitimately be called breakpoints. But then there are the media queries that are used to finesse page elements without making any major changes to the layout.

When I was working on Matter, for example, there was really only one major breakpoint, where the layout shifts from one column to two. That’s the kind of breakpoint that you can figure out pretty easily from the flow of your content; just resizing your browser window is usually enough to settle on the point that feels right. But there are lots of other media queries in the Matter stylesheet. Those are there to make smaller adjustments to margins, font sizes …the kind of changes that came about from testing on phones and tablets in the device lab.

It feels a bit odd to call them breakpoints, as though the layout would “break” without them. Those media queries are there to tweak the layout. They’re not breakpoints; they’re tweakpoints.

Media queries and multiple columns

By far the most common use of media queries is to execute CSS based on viewport width (using min-width or max-width). Lately there’s been more talk about using media queries based on height as well.

Paul talked about using min-height media queries to adjust content appearing above the fold. Owen Gregory wrote his superb 24 Ways article on using viewport proportions and device-aspect-ratio for media queries. Trent has documented his use of horizontal and vertical media queries to bump up the font size for wide and tall viewports.

One of the areas where I’ve found height-based media queries to be quite handy is in combination with another CSS3 module: multiple columns.

Splitting text over multiple columns is not something to be done lightly on a screen-based display. If the columns drop below the viewport then the user has to scroll down, scroll back up, scroll down again …you get the picture. It works fine in print but it’s not something that should be attempted on the web unless the entire text is visible at one time.

Well, with media queries we can get a pretty good idea of whether the text will fit on the viewport …assuming we know the length of the text.

Here’s an example (thanks to Space Ipsum for supplying the text). It splits the text into two columns if the viewport has enough width and height:

@media all and (min-width: 40em) and (min-height: 36em) {
    [role="main"] {
        column-count: 2;
        column-gap: 2em;
    }
}

If the viewport is wider still, the text can be split over three columns. In this case, the test for height can actually smaller because the text is spreading over a wider area, meaning the overall height of the text is shorter:

@media all and (min-width: 65em) and (min-height: 25em) {
    [role="main"] {
        column-count: 3;
        column-gap: 2em;
    }
}

The actual CSS is more verbose than that: vendor prefixes are still required. You can grab the example from Github if you want to have a play around with it.

Re-tabulate

Right after I wrote about combining flexbox with responsive design—to switch the display of content and navigation based on browser size—I received an email from Raphaël Goetter. He pointed out a really elegant solution to the same use-case that makes use of display:table.

Let’s take the same markup as before:

<body>
<div role="main">
<p>This is the main content.</p>
</div>
<nav role="navigation">
<p>This is the navigation.</p>
<ol>
<li><a href="#">foo</a></li>
<li><a href="#">bar</a></li>
<li><a href="#">baz</a></li>
</ol>
</nav>
</body>

The source order reflects the order I want on small-screen devices (feature phones, smart phones, etc.). Once the viewport allows it, I’d like to put that navigation at the top. I can do this by wrapping some display declarations in a media query:

@media screen and (min-width: 30em) {
    body {
        display: table;
        caption-side: top;
    }
    [role="navigation"] {
        display: table-caption;
    }
}

That’s it. It works much like box-orient:vertical with box-direction:reverse but because this is good ol’ CSS 2.1, it’s very well supported.

We can solve the other issue too: making those list items display horizontally on larger screens:

[role="navigation"] ol {
    display: table-row;
}
[role="navigation"] ol li {
    display: table-cell;
}

Once again, I’ve put a gist up on Github (get me! I’m like a proper computer nerd).

Update: And Remy has put it on JSbin so you can see it in action (resize the live preview pane).

So there you go: we’ve at least two different mechanisms in CSS to re-order the display of content and navigation in response to screen real-estate. The default is content first, navigation second—a pattern that Luke talked about in this interview with Jared:

Yeah, one of the design principles that I’ll be talking on the tour about, for mobile, is content first, navigation second; which is just really putting something up right away that somebody can engage with, and saving the pivoting and the navigating for later.

There’s, basically, UI patterns that you can use to make that happen. I’m still surprised at how many, both mobile websites and applications, the first thing they give you is a menu of choices, instead of content.

Don’t get me wrong, the menu’s important, and you can get to it, but it’s actually the content that the immediacy of mobile, and the fact that you’re probably on a slower network, and in some cases you’re even paying for your data transfers, right? Giving you a list of choices as your first time experience tends not to work so well.

Luke Wroblewski — Designing Mobile Web Experiences » UIE Brain Sparks on Huffduffer

Re-flex

I was in Minnesota last week for An Event Apart Minneapolis. A great time was had by all. Not only were the locals living up to their reputation with Amy and Kasia demonstrating that Kristina isn’t an outlier in the super-nice, super-smart Minnesotan data sample, but the conference itself was top-notch too. It even featured some impromptu on-stage acrobatics by Stan.

A recurring theme of the conference—right from Zeldman’s opening talk—was Content First. In Luke’s talk it was more than a rallying cry; it was a design pattern he recommends for mobile: content first, navigation second. It makes a lot of sense when your screen real estate is at a premium. You can see this pattern in action on the Bagcheck mobile site (a button at the top of screen is simply a link that leads to the fragment identifier for the navigation at the bottom).

Later on, Eric was diving deep into the guts of the CSS3 flexible box layout module and I saw an opportunity to join some dots.

Let’s say I’ve got a document like this with the content first and the navigation second:

<body>
<div role="main">
<p>This is the main content</p>
</div>
<nav role="navigation">
<p>This is the navigation</p>
</nav>
</body>

Using box-orient:vertical and box-direction:reverse on the body element, I can invert the display of those two children from the order they appear in the source:

body {
    display: box;
    box-orient: vertical;
    box-direction: reverse;
}

If I wrap that in a media query, I can get the best of both worlds: content first, navigation second on small screens; navigation first, content second on larger viewports:

@media screen and (min-width: 30em) {
    body {
        display: box;
        box-orient: vertical;
        box-direction: reverse;
    }
}

Works a treat (once you include the necessary -webkit and -moz prefixes).

I thought I’d take it a bit further. Suppose the navigation has a list of links:

<nav role="navigation">
<p>This is the navigation.</p>
<ol>
<li><a href="#">foo</a></li>
<li><a href="#">bar</a></li>
<li><a href="#">baz</a></li>
</ol>
</nav>

I could use flexbox to lay those items out horizontally instead of vertically once the viewport is large enough:

@media screen and (min-width: 30em) {
    [role="navigation"] ol {
        display: box;
        box-orient: horizontal;
    }
    [role="navigation"] li {
        box-flex: 1;
    }
}

Here’s the weird thing: in Webkit—Safari and Chrome—the list items reverse their direction: “baz, bar, foo” instead of “foo, bar, baz.” It seems that the box-direction value of reverse is being inherited from the body element, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the right behaviour. But it can be easily counteracted by explicitly declaring box-direction: normal on the navigation.

What’s a little trickier to figure out is why Firefox is refusing to space the list items equally. I’ve put a gist on Github if you want to take a look for yourself and see if you can figure out what’s going on.

Update: You can see it in action on JSbin (resize the view panel).

The new CSS3 layout modules and responsive design could potentially be a match made in heaven …something that Stephen has been going on about for a while now. Check out his talk at Mobilism earlier this year.

You’ll notice that he’s using a different syntax in his presentation; that’s because the spec has changed. In my example, I’m using the syntax that’s currently supported in Webkit, Gecko and Internet Explorer. And, as Eric pointed out in his talk, even when the newer syntax is supported, the older vendor-prefixed syntax won’t be going anywhere.

New Year’s Resolution

In a comment on Roger’s post about fixed and liquid layouts, Cameron wrote:

This issue seems to generate a heated debate every time it’s mentioned. I imagine one could pen an article with the headline “Fluid or fixed?” and nothing else, and yet dozens of comments would inevitably appear.

But rather than use that title, I couldn’t resist borrowing a pun from Andy, prompted by a post from Scrivs called What Resolution Will You Design for in 2007? (a classic example of the fallacy of many questions).

Now, firstly, we need to draw a distinction between monitor size and browser size. In other words, the difference between screen resolution and the viewport size:

There’s a real danger in thinking that “the numbers speak for themselves.” Numbers don’t speak for themselves; numbers need to be interpreted.

The numbers clearly show that monitor sizes and resolutions are getting bigger. The most common interpretation of that is more and more people have bigger displays. But an equally valid interpretation of the numbers is the range of displays is bigger than ever. It’s a subtle but important distinction. One interpretation focuses solely on the size of the highest numbers; the other interpretation focuses on the range of all the numbers.

The way I see it, the range is growing at both ends of the spectrum. Yes, desktop monitors are getting wider (though that doesn’t mean that viewports get any wider above a certain size) but handheld and gaming devices are likely to remain at the lower end of the scale. The Wii, for example, has a resolution of 640 x 480.

Mind you, the iPhone turns the whole question on its head with its scalable browsing. At MacWorld, Steve Jobs demonstrated this by visiting the New York Times, an unashamedly wide fixed-width website. On the Apple site, Wikipedia—a liquid layout— is shown fitting nicely on the display. The iPhone deals with both. Still, rather than letting my liquid layouts scale down to the iPhone’s width, I should probably start putting a min-width value on the body element.

Speaking of which…

A common argument against using liquid layouts is the issue of line lengths. On the face of it, this seems like a valid argument. Readability is supremely important and nobody likes over-long line lengths. But it’s not quite as simple as that when it comes to readability on screen compared to print, as Richard noted:

Surprisingly, I find short line lengths tiresome on screen; I don’t really subscribe to the empirical prescription of 7–10 words per line for comfortable reading. Most novels have 10–15 words per line and I think the upper region of that range is more appropriate for screen.

In any case, the idea that liquid layouts automatically means long line lengths on large screens is, I feel, a misconception. The problem is that a lot of the examples of liquid layouts aren’t very good and line lengths do expand without limit. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In my opinion, the most important addition to Internet Explorer 7 is the max-width property. It means that we can now really start to look at creating fluid layouts within defined parameters, as demonstrated by Cameron in Andy’s book. In fact, I think we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in creating seamless adaptive layouts (and, more importantly, seamless adaptive page elements) using the dual power of max-width and min-width.

That still leaves Internet Explorer 6 and below. Should they get unbounded fluid layouts or should they get a fixed width fallback? The second is certainly an option using conditional comments, which is the Microsoft-approved way of dealing with rendering inconsistencies. I think that the lack of support for max-width certainly falls into that category. Call it transcending CSS if you will; I call it routing around damage on the designer’s network.

I want to hear what you have to say… if you’ve got something new to say. Let’s not just rehash the same old arguments that would inevitably appear had I simply asked “Fluid or fixed?”

Fixtorati

Technorati has been redesigned, or realigned if you prefer. It’s gone a bit gradient happy but overall, it’s quite a pleasing visual aesthetic.

For some reason though, they’ve chosen to lock the pages into a fixed width of 1024 pixels.

Now, I understand the reasoning behind fixed-width layouts. I can see the justification for wide fixed-width layouts on content-heavy sites like A List Apart (even if I disagree with it). But forcing users of what is fundamentally a web app to set their browser to a certain width seems counterproductive to me.

The content on Technorati is user-generated. Usually, that user is me. It has my favourites, my watchlist, and my search terms. I should be able to interact with that content in my way.

This is something that, as with so many things, del.icio.us gets just right. Upcoming is on the right track too. These sites allow me to interact with my data without putting me in a straitjacket.

Flickr is still avowedly fixed but the image-based, rather than text-based, nature of the data I store there makes this somewhat understandable.

Now, don’t misconstrue this as a tirade against 1024 pixel wide layouts. The problem would still exist in an 800 pixel wide design. Choosing an arbitrary number of pixels in which to serve up user-generated content is the issue here. On the one hand, Technorati is a very Web 2.0 sort of site, based on user-generated distributed content and collective wisdom. On the other hand, its visual design is grounded in a very Web 1.0 idea of top-down control and inflexibility.

I like Technorati a lot. It’s come on in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years. I’d like to use it every day. I’m even willing to put up with the oversize ads. But I resent the feeling that I should adjust my browsing environment to the needs of the site, rather than the other way around.