Tags: styles

7

sparkline

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.

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.

Print styles

I really wanted to make sure that the print styles for Resilient Web Design were pretty good—or at least as good as they could be given the everlasting lack of support for many print properties in browsers.

Here’s the first thing I added:

@media print {
  @page {
    margin: 1in 0.5in 0.5in;
    orphans: 4;
    widows: 3;
  }
}

That sets the margins of printed pages in inches (I could’ve used centimetres but the numbers were nice and round in inches). The orphans: 4 declaration says that if there’s less than 4 lines on a page, shunt the text onto the next page. And widows: 3 declares that there shouldn’t be less than 3 lines left alone on a page (instead more lines will be carried over from the previous page).

I always get widows and orphans confused so I remind myself that orphans are left alone at the start; widows are left alone at the end.

I try to make sure that some elements don’t get their content split up over page breaks:

@media print {
  p, li, pre, figure, blockquote {
    page-break-inside: avoid;
  }
}

I don’t want headings appearing at the end of a page with no content after them:

@media print {
  h1,h2,h3,h4,h5 {
    page-break-after: avoid;
  }
}

But sections should always start with a fresh page:

@media print {
  section {
    page-break-before: always;
  }
}

There are a few other little tweaks to hide some content from printing, but that’s pretty much it. Using print preview in browsers showed some pretty decent formatting. In fact, I used the “Save as PDF” option to create the PDF versions of the book. The portrait version comes from Chrome’s preview. The landscape version comes from Firefox, which offers more options under “Layout”.

For some more print style suggestions, have a look at the article I totally forgot about print style sheets. There’s also tips and tricks for print style sheets on Smashing Magazine. That includes a clever little trick for generating QR codes that only appear when a document is printed. I’ve used that technique for some page types over on The Session.

Whatever works for you

I was one of the panelists on the most recent episode of the Shop Talk Show along with Nicole, Colin Megill, and Jed Schmidt. The topic was inline styles. Well, not quite. That’s not a great term to describe the concept. The idea is that you apply styling directly to DOM nodes using JavaScript, instead of using CSS selectors to match up styles to DOM nodes.

It’s an interesting idea that I could certainly imagine being useful in certain situations such as dynamically updating an interface in real time (it feels a bit more “close to the metal” to reflect the state updates directly rather than doing it via class swapping). But there are many, many other situations where the cascade is very useful indeed.

I expressed concern that styling via JavaScript raises the barrier to styling from a declarative language like CSS to a programming language (although, as they pointed out, it’s more like moving from CSS to JSON). I asked whether it might not be possible to add just one more layer of abstraction so that people could continue to write in CSS—which they’re familiar with—and then do JavaScript magic to match those selectors, extract those styles, and apply them directly to the DOM nodes. Since recording the podcast, I came across Glen Maddern’s proposal to do exactly that. It makes sense to me try to solve the perceived problems with CSS—issues of scope and specificity—without asking everyone to change the way they write.

In short, my response was “hey, like, whatever, it’s cool, each to their own.” There are many, many different kinds of websites and many, many different ways to make them. I like that.

So I was kind of surprised by the bullishness of those who seem to honestly believe that this is the way to build on the web, and that CSS will become a relic. At one point I even asked directly, “Do you really believe that CSS is over? That all styles will be managed through JavaScript from here on?” and received an emphatic “Yes!” in response.

I find that a little disheartening. Chris has written about the confidence of youth:

Discussions are always worth having. Weighing options is always interesting. Demonstrating what has worked (and what hasn’t) for you is always useful. There are ways to communicate that don’t resort to dogmatism.

There are big differences between saying:

  • You can do this,
  • You should do this, and
  • You must do this.

My take on the inline styles discussion was that it fits firmly in the “you can do this” slot. It could be a very handy tool to have in your toolbox for certain situations. But ideally your toolbox should have many other tools. When all you have is a hammer, yadda, yadda, yadda, nail.

I don’t think you do your cause any favours by jumping straight to the “you must do this” stage. I think that people are more amenable to hearing “hey, here’s something that worked for me; maybe it will work for you” rather than “everything you know is wrong and this is the future.” I certainly don’t think that it’s helpful to compare CSS to Neanderthals co-existing with JavaScript Homo Sapiens.

Like I said on the podcast, it’s a big web out there. The idea that there is “one true way” that would work on all possible projects seems unlikely—and undesirable.

“A ha!”, you may be thinking, “But you yourself talk about progressive enhancement as if it’s the one try way to build on the web—hoisted by your own petard.” Actually, I don’t. There are certainly situations where progressive enhancement isn’t workable—although I believe those cases are rarer than you might think. But my over-riding attitude towards any questions of web design and development is:

It depends.

Print stylesheets

CSS Naked Day was fun. It felt almost voyeuristic to peek under the CSS skirts of so many sites. It also made me realise that the browser default styles are what people are going to see if they decide to print out a page from many CSS-based sites.

I’ve had a rudimentary print stylesheet in place for Adactio for a while now, although I should probably revisit it and tweak it some time. But a lot of other sites that I’ve designed have been woefully lacking in print stylesheets.

For instance, the situation with the DOM Scripting site was brought home to me when I received this message from Adam Messinger:

Would it be possible to get a print stylesheet for the errata page that does a better job of preserving the table layout? As it is now, it’s sometimes hard to tell which page numbers match up to what errors. Just some borders on the table would help a lot.

That one made me slap my forehead. Of course! If ever there was a web page that was likely to be printed out, the errata for a printed book would be it.

As well as adding borders to the errata table, I set to work on creating a stylesheet for the whole site. It was fairly quickly and painless. I hid the navigation, let the content flow into one column, set the font sizes in points and used a minimum amount of colour.

DOM Scripting blog on screen DOM Scripting blog in print

I did much the same for Jessica’s site, WordRidden.

WordRidden on screen WordRidden in print

Principia Gastronomica was crying out for a print stylesheet. Half of the entries on that blog are recipes. Most people don’t have computer screens in their kitchens so it’s very likely that the recipes will be printed out.

A lot of the entries on Principia Gastronomica make heavy use of images. Everyone likes pictures of food, after all. I was faced with the question of whether or not to include these images in the printed versions.

In the end, I decided not to include the images. Firstly, it’s a real pain trying to ensure that the images don’t get split over two pages (page-break-before would be a draconian and wasteful solution). Secondly, I bowed to Jessica’s wisdom and experience in this matter. She often prints out recipes from sites like Epicurious and, when she does, she wants just the facts. Also, these are pages that are likely to printed out in the home, probably on a basic inkjet printer, rather than in an office equipped with a nice laser printer.

Principia Gastronomica on screen Principia Gastronomica in print

If you’re implementing a print stylesheet for your site, I highly recommend reading Richard’s guide, The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web. All the advice is good for screen styles, but is especially applicable to print.

These articles on A List Apart are also required reading:

In an interview over on Vitamin, Eric makes the point that context is everything when deciding which stylesheets to serve up. Clearly, articles on a A List Apart are likely to printed out to be read, but the front page is more likely to be printed out to get a hard copy of the design.

For a detailed anatomy of a print stylesheet, be sure to read the latest in Mark’s Five Simple Steps to Typesetting on the web series: Printing the web.

Naked

My site has no stylesheets (“how does it smell?”, etc.) but you probably won’t even notice because chances are your reading this in a feedreader.

In any case, it’s nice just to look at the flow of the document sans styles. Notice the “More information” h2 tag that is normally hidden from view. With styles enabled, the visual layout makes this heading redundant but without styles, or for non-visual user-agents, it’s a useful marker.

The man responsible for this CSS nakedness is Dustin Diaz, himself no stranger to nudity.

I had a pleasant chat with Dustin yesterday which forms the basis for the latest episode of his podcast. It was fun for me. I don’t know how much fun it’ll be to listen back to. I ramble on about JavaScript, comments, food blogging and George Clooney. Listen for yourself.