Posts from “Thoughts From Eric”

Headings and Labels

Published 1 day ago

Following on my last two posts about accessibility improvements to meyerweb, I’ve made two more adjustments: better heading levels and added ARIA labels.

For the heading levels, the problem I face is one familiar to many authors: what makes sense as an <h1> in some situations needs to be an <h2> in others.  The most common example is the titles of blog posts like this one.  On its permalink page, the title of the page is the title of the post.  There, it should be an <h1>.  On archive pages, including the home page of meyerweb, there are a number of posts shown one after the other.  In those situations, each post title should be an <h2>.

Part of the redesign’s changes were to write a single PHP routine that generated posts and their markup, which I could then simply call from wherever.  So I added an optional function parameter that allowed me to indicate the context in which a post was being placed.  It goes something like this:

<?php blogpostMarkup("archive"); ?>
function blogpostMarkup($type = "standalone") {
    if ($type == "archive") $titletag = "h2"; else $titletag = "h1";
    // …markup is all generated here…
    echo $output;
}

Or code to that effect.  (I did not go copy-paste from my actual code base.)

So now, heading levels are what they should be, at least on most pages (I may have missed updating some of my old static HTML pages; feel free to point them out in the comments if you find one).  As a part of that effort, I removed the <h1> from the masthead except on the home page, being the one place it makes sense to be an <h1>.

As for ARIA labels, that came about due to a comment from Phil Kragnes on my last post, where he observed that pages often have multiple elements with a role of navigation.  In order to make things more clear to ARIA users, I took Phil’s suggestion to add aria-label attributes with clarifying values.  So for the page-top skiplinks, I have:

<nav role="navigation" aria-label="page" id="skiplinks">

Similarly, for the site-navigation bar, I have:

<nav role="navigation" aria-label="site" id="navigate">

The idea is that screen readers will say “Page navigation region” and “Site navigation region” rather than just repeating “Navigation region” over and over.

Other than cleaning up individual pages’ heading levels and the occasional custom layout fix (e.g., the Color Equivalents Table needed a local widening of the content column’s maximum size), I think the redesign has settled into the “occasional tinkering” phase.  I may do something to spruce up my old Web Review articles (like the very first, written when HTML tags were still uppercase!) and I’m thinking about adding subnavigation in certain sections, but otherwise I think this is about it.  Unless I decide to go really over the top and model my Tools page after Simon St. Laurent’s lovely new Grid design, that is…

Of course, if you see something I overlooked, don’t hesitate to let me know!  I can’t guarantee fast response, but I can always guarantee careful consideration.


Increasing Accessibility

Published 1 week, 2 days ago

Thanks to the fantastic comments on my previous post, I’ve made some accessibility improvements.  Chief among them: adding WAI-ARIA role values to various parts of the structure.  These include:

  • role="banner" for the site’s masthead
  • role="navigation" added to the navigation links, including subnavigation links like previous/next posts
  • role="main" for the main portion of a page
  • role="complementary" for sidebars in the blog archives
  • role="article" for any blog post, whether there are several on a page or just one

In addition, I restored skip links to the masthead of most pages (the rest will get them soon).  The links are revealed on keyboard focus, which I’m not sure I like.  I feel like these aren’t quite where they need to be.  A big limitation is the lack of :matches() (or similar) support in browsers, since I’d love to have any keyboard focus in the masthead or navigation links bring up the skip links, which requires some sort of parent selection.  I may end up using a tiny bit of enhancing Javascript to make the links’ UX more robust in JS situations, but still obviously available if JS fails.  And I may replicate them in the footer, as a way to quickly jump back up the page, especially to the navigation.

Speaking of the navigation links, they’ve been moved in the source order to match their place in the visual layout.  My instincts with regard to source order and layout placement were confirmed to be woefully out of date: the best advice now is to put the markup where the layout calls for the content to be.  If you’re putting navigation links just under the masthead, then put their markup right after the masthead’s markup.  So I did that.

The one thing I didn’t change is heading levels, which suffer all the usual problems.  Right now, the masthead’s “meyerweb.com” is always an <h1> and the page title (or blog post titles) are all <h2>.  If I demoted the masthead content to, say, a plain old <div>, and promoted the post headings, then on pages like the home page, there’d be a whole bunch of <h1>s.  I’ve been told that’s a no-no.  If I’m wrong about that, let me know!

There’s still more to do, but I was able to put these into place with no more than a few minutes’ work, and going by what commenters told me, these will help quite a bit.  My thanks to everyone who contributed their insights and expertise!


How Do I Increase Accessibility?

Published 1 week, 3 days ago

I have an accessibility question.  Okay, it’s a set of questions, but they’re really all facets of the same question:

How do I make my site’s structure the most accessible to the most people?

Which sounds a bit broad.  Let me narrow it down.  Here’s the basic layout order of most pages on meyerweb:

  1. Masthead
  2. Navigation (in a <nav> element)
  3. Main page content (in a <main> element), occasionally with a sidebar
  4. Footer (in a <footer> element)

But this is, at the moment, the source order of those pieces:

  1. Masthead
  2. Main page content (in a <main> element), occasionally with a sidebar
  3. Navigation (in a <nav> element)
  4. Footer (in a <footer> element)

The difference is the navigation.  I put it later in the source order because I want those using speaking browsers to be able to get the content quickly, without having to tab through the navigation on every page.

But is that actually a concern, given my use of a <main> element for the main content of the page?  And the <nav> and <footer> elements, do those also help with jumping around the page?  If not, what’s the best-practice structural order for those pieces?

If so, does that mean it’s okay to put the navigation back up there in the source order, and stop doing wacky things with the order element to place it visually where it isn’t, structurally?

I have the same questions for those who use keyboard tabbing of the visual layout, not speaking browsers.  What’s the best way to help them?  If it’s tabindex, how should I order the tabbing index?

And in either case, do I need skip links to get people around quickly?  Do I want skip links?  Do my assistive-technology users want skip links?

Maybe the real question is “Given this layout, and my desire to make getting to main content and other pieces of the page as easy as possible for those who rely on assistive technology, how should I structure and annotate the content to raise the fewest barriers for the fewest people?”

Unless, of course, the real question is one I don’t know enough to ask.

Can you help me out, accessibility hivemind?  I’d really appreciate some expert insight.  All my instincts are more than a decade out of date.


The Newwwyear Design

Published 2 weeks, 2 days ago

Well, here it is—the first new design for meyerweb since February 2005 (yes, almost 13 years).  It isn’t 100% complete, since I still want to tweak the navigation and pieces of the footer, but it’s well past the minimum-viable threshold.

My core goal was to make the site, particularly blog posts, more readable and inviting.  I think I achieved that, and I hope you agree.  The design should be more responsive-friendly than before, and I think all my flex and grid uses are progressively enhanced.  I do still need to better optimize my use of images, something I hope to start working on this week.

Things I particularly like about the design, in no particular order:

  • The viewport-height-scaled masthead, using a minimum height of 20vh.  Makes it beautifully responsive, always allowing at least 80% of the viewport’s height to be given over to content, without requiring media queries.
  • The “CSS” and “HTML” side labels I added to properly classed pre elements.  (For an example, see this recent post.)
  • The fading horizontal separators I created with sized linear gradients, to stand in for horizontal rules.  See, for example, between post content and metadata, or underneath the navlinks up top of the page.  I first did this over at An Event Apart last year, and liked them a lot.  I may start decorating them further, which multiple backgrounds make easy, but for now I’m sticking with the simple separators.
  • Using string-based grid-template-areas values to rearrange the footer at mobile sizes, and also to make the rare sidebar-bearing pages (such as those relating to S5) more robust.

There are (many) other touches throughout, but those are some high points.

As promised, I did livestream most of the process, and archived copies of those streams are available as a YouTube playlist for those who might be interested.  I absolutely acknowledge that for most people, nine hours of screencasting overlaid with rambling monologue would be very much like watching paint dry in a hothouse, but as Abraham Lincoln once said: for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.

I was surprised to discover how darned easy it is to livestream.  I know we live in an age of digital wonders, but I had somehow gotten it into my head that streaming required dedicated hardware and gigabit upstream connections.  Nope: my five megabit upstream was sufficient to stream my desktop in HD (or close to it) and all I needed to broadcast was encoding software (I used OBS) and a private key from YouTube, which was trivial to obtain.  The only hardware I needed was the laptop itself.  Having a Røde Podcaster for a microphone was certainly helpful, but I could’ve managed without it.

(I did have a bit of weirdness where OBS stopped recognizing my laptop’s camera after my initial tests, but before I went live, so I wasn’t able to put up a window showing me while I typed.  Not exactly a big loss there.  Otherwise, everything seemed to go just fine.)

My thanks to everyone who hung out in the chat room as I livestreamed.  I loved all the questions and suggestions—some of which made their way into the final design.  And extra thanks to Jen Simmons, who lit the fire that got me moving on this.  I enjoyed the whole process, and it felt like a great way to close the books on 2017.


A Newwwyear Livestream

Published 3 weeks, 3 days ago

After I announced my newwwyear plans, a couple of people pinged me to ask if I’d do a Google Hangout or some such so that people could follow along as I live-redesign meyerweb in production.  And I thought, that sounds like the nerdiest Twitch stream ever, but what the heck, why not?

So!  I’m going to livestream at least part of my process over on YouTube Live, spread over a few days.  I picked YTL over Twitch because YouTube will archive the streams to my channel, whereas Twitch only holds onto them for 14 days, and one of my weaknesses is that I’m a data hoarder—I hate to throw away anything digital.  So I’ll keep copies on someone else’s computer.

During the stream, I’ll keep up a running commentary on what I’m doing and why.  This sounds artificial, but honestly, I talk to myself a lot as I work anyway.  I’ll also have the YouTube Live chat window open so people can ask questions about why I do what I do, and I’ll do my best to answer.  Or, you know, we can talk about the latest Star Wars movie or whatever.  I’m not going to put too many limits on it other than A) keep the language professional, since kids starting out in web design might join in; and B) treat everyone in the chat with respect.

My guess is any given stream session will be two hours, tops.  My tentative schedule is:

  1. December 26th (today!) starting around 2000 UTC (3:00pm EST, 12:00n PST)
  2. December 27th, 1830 UTC (1:30pm EST, 10:30am PST)
  3. December 28th, 1900 UTC (2:00pm EST, 11:00am PST)1500 UTC (10:00am EST, 7:00am PST)
  4. December 29th, 1500 UTC (10:00am EST, 7:00am PST)

I don’t have a specific structure for how I’m going to approach this, other than: first I turn off all site-wide styling and put up a note about it, maybe add a few very minimal styles, rework the page structures to be sane without CSS, then start building up a new design.  I have no idea how long each part of that sequence will take (except the “remove site-wide styles” part, that’ll take a few seconds).  But there isn’t a scheduled “Typography Day” or what-have-you: I’ll probably go wandering off on tangents, riffing on happy accidents, fiddling with stuff as I notice it and it bugs me, etc., etc.  In other words, how I normally work.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, please join in!  I’ll do my best to announce start times with an hour or so lead over on Twitter, and as comments on this post.


A Meyerweb Makeover

Published 3 weeks, 6 days ago

This coming week, I’m going to redesign meyerweb.com—which will be its first redesign in twelve and a half years.

I’m doing this as part of Jen Simmons’ #newwwyear initiative.  As Jen put it:

Ok, here’s the deal. Tweet your personal website plan with the hashtag #newwwyear (thanks @jamiemchale!): 1) When will you start? 2) What will you try to accomplish? 3) When is your deadline? Improve an existing site. Start a new one. Burn one down & start over. It’s up to you.

Many of us feel bad about our personal websites. Me included. We keep meaning to make one, improve what’s there, or burn it down and start over. We are busy. Afraid. Overwhelmed. Well, let’s do it. Maybe over the holidays. Maybe after, in the New Year. #newwwyear

On Friday, I announced my plan:

  1. I’ll start Wednesday, December 27th.
  2. I’ll redesign http://meyerweb.com  for the first time in a dozen years, and I’ll do it live on the production site.
  3. My deadline is Wednesday, January 3rd, so I’ll have a week.

I won’t be redesigning all day every day—I still have paying work to do, after all—but I’ll do my best to put in a couple of hours each weekday.

When say I’ll do it live, I mean I’ll be making all my changes here on the production site, with minimal or no testing beforehand—literally opening the style sheet(s) into BBEdit via Transmit, and saving changes up to the server to see what happens.  Stuff will break, and then I’ll fix it, live in the public eye.  It’s possible I’ll try out new ideas and then junk them before moving on to others.  I’m hoping that accidents spark inspiration, as they often do.

(There will be a local copy of the site in case things go so badly that I need to reset to the starting point.  I’m not completely insane, after all.)

I have a vague plan with all this, which is: realign the site’s appearance to be more inviting, more readable, and more visually engaging.  I do have a few past experiments that I’ll fold in, like using relative times (e.g., “Two months ago”) on posts, but a lot of this will be me doing free-association design.  And hopefully a little markup cleanup and enhancement as well.

I’m sticking with WordPress to drive the blog, given that it contains close to two decades of posts and makes it easy to allow comments, a feature I still value; and my hand-built old-school-standards-punk mostly-static templating system for the rest of the site, which let the site be static(ish) way before static was cool.  (No, I will not consider migrating to other CMSes or template systems: with a week set aside for this, I won’t have the time.)

So, that’s the plan: a week for a meyerweb makeover.  I don’t know if I’ll keep up a running commentary on Twitter while I do, or if I’ll take breaks and blog short entries chronicling my progress, or what.  If someone sets up a #newwwyear Slack team, I’ll probably join in.  If the #newwwyear idea excites you, I hope you’ll join in too!


Book Review: “Create with Code: Build Your Own Website”

Published 1 month, 2 weeks ago

A thing people ask me with some regularity is, “What’s a good book for someone who wants to get started in web design?”  I’m here to review a book that’s one of the best I’ve seen, Create with Code: Build Your Own Website, written by Clyde Hatter of CoderDojo’s Dojo Bray in Ireland.  I got my copy at my son’s elementary school Scholastic Book Fair earlier this year; it’s available from online booksellers and probably through local bookstores as well.

I’ll go into some details of what’s in it and what I think, and there will be some complaints.  So I want to stress up front: this is an excellent book for people who want to learn web design, with the modifier if you’re available to help them out when they hit stumbling blocks.  You aren’t going to have to hold their hands through the whole thing by any stretch, but there are moments where, for example, the filenames used in the text will mislead.  (More on that anon.)  For all that, it’s still an excellent book, and I recommend it.

The book is 94 pages, of which 88 pages are instructional, and none of it is filler—Mr. Hatter packs a surprising amount of good web design practice into those 88 pages.  The pages themselves are filled with colorful design, and the text is easily readable.  It’s aimed squarely at elementary-school readers, and it shows.  That’s a good thing, I hasten to add.  The tone is simple, uncomplicated, and stripped to the essentials.  At no point does it condescend.  It works well for any age, not just the suggested range of 7-17.  I enjoyed reading it, even though I knew literally everything the book covers.

The organizing idea of the book is creating a small web site for a ninja band (!!!) called The Nanonauts.  In the course of the book, the reader sets up a home page, an About Us page, a page listing upcoming concerts, and a couple more.  Everything makes sense and interrelates, even if a couple of things feel ever so slightly forced.

Here’s a page-number timeline of concepts’ first introductions:

p. 6
Brainstorming site content and sketching a site map.  Bear in mind here that the actual instructional text starts on page 6.
p. 10
Adding a style sheet to an HTML document via a link element.
p. 14
A nice breakdown of how images are loaded into the page, what the various (common) image attributes are and mean, and the importance of good alt text.  On page 14.
p. 17
The concept of an empty element and how it differs from other elements.
pp. 20-24
An extended discussion of proper structure and good content for the web.  It shows how using headings and paragraphs breaks up large text walls, makes the distinction between ordered and unordered lists, and demonstrates the importance of proper element nesting.
p. 25
Diving into CSS.  A style sheet was added to the document back on page 10, but this is where CSS starts to be discussed in detail.
p. 28
Radial gradients!  They went there!  The syntax isn’t dissected and explained, but just showing working gradients clues readers in to their existence.  There’s also an example of styling html separately from body, without making a super big deal out of it.  This is a pattern throughout the rest of the book: many things are used without massively explaining them.  The author relies on the reader to repeat the example and see what happens.
pp. 30-32
A really great explanation of hexadecimal color values.  I’ve never seen better, to be honest.  That’s followed by a similarly great breakdown of the uses for, and differences between, px, em, and % values for sizing.
p. 36
The first of several really lovely step-by-step explanations of style blocks.  In this case, it’s styling a nav element with an unordered list of links, explaining the effects of each rule as it’s added.
pp. 50-52
An example of properly structuring and styling tabular data (in this case, a list of upcoming concerts).
p. 59
The box model and inline elements explained in sparing but useful detail.  This includes a brief look at inline elements and the baseline, and vertical alignment thereof.
p. 74
Responsive web design!  A nice introduction to media queries, and a quick primer on what responsive means and why it’s important.
p. 78
Floating images to wrap text around them. That segues into layout, using floats for the boxes enclosing the bits of content.
p. 88
Using web fonts (basically Google fonts).
p. 90
Putting your site online.

That isn’t everything that’s touched on in the book by a long shot—max-width and min-width show up early, as do :last-child, border-radius, and several more CSS features.  As I said above, these are generally introduced without much detailed explanation.  It’s a bold approach, but one that I think pays off handsomely.  Trusting the reader to become interested enough to track down the details on their own leaves room to include more things to spark interest.

A screenshot of two pages of the book.
Pages 10 and 11.  Not all pages are this text-heavy.

That said, there are some aspects that may—probably will—cause confusion.  The biggest of these has to do with images.  There are several instances of using img to add images to pages, as you’d expect.  The author does provide a downloadable archive of assets, which is a little difficult to actually find (here’s a direct link), but the real problem is that once you extract the files, the filenames don’t match the filenames in print.  For example, in the book there’s a reference to nanonauts.jpg.  The corresponding file in the archive is NINJA_FACE_FORWARD.png.  At another point, DSC03730.png turns out to actually be NINJA_GUITAR.png.  There’s no indication of this whatsoever in the book.

I get it: mistakes happen, and sometimes digital assets get out of step with print.  Nevertheless, I fear this could prove a major stumbling block for some readers.  They see one filename in the book, and that filename doesn’t exist in the assets.  Maybe they open up the asset images until they find the right one, and then maybe they figure out to replace the filename in the book with the one they found, and move on from there… but maybe they don’t.  I’d be a lot happier if there were an errata note and mapping table on the download page, or the online archive’s assets were corrected.

Something similar happens on page 19, where the reader is directed to create a navigation link to songs.html when the page they’ve already created is called our-songs.html.  This one is a lot more forgivable, since the filenames are at least close to each other.  But again, it’s a place the reader might get lost and frustrated.  The painful irony is that this error appears in a “NINJA TIP” box that starts out, “Be careful when you’re typing links. You have to get them exactly right!”

Another error of this kind happens in the section on adding a video to a page (p.45).  All the markup is there, and the URL they supply in great big text loads a video just fine.  The problem is that the video it loads is an ad for Scholastic, not the ninja-playing-a-guitar video the text very heavily implies it will be.  I don’t know if it used to be a rock ninja shredding power chords and Scholastic replaced it or what, but it almost feels like a bait and switch.  It was a little disheartening.

There’s one aspect I can’t quite make up my mind about, which is that just about everything in the book—text, design elements, media query breakpoints—is done using pixels.  A couple of percentage widths show up near the very end, but not much is said about them.  There is a very nice comparison of pixels, ems, and percentages on page 32, but with ems never being used (despite a claim to the contrary), readers are unlikely to use or understand them.

Now, I don’t style this way, and my every instinct rebels against it.  But given that pixels really don’t mean what they used to, and that all modern browsers will scale pages up and down pretty seamlessly, is this a major problem?  I’m not sure that it is.  Either way, this does set readers on a specific initial path, and if that path bothers you, it’s worth knowing about so you can give them extra advice.

The third thing I found weird was the two pages devoted to embedding a live Google Map into one of the pages (showing the location of the Nanonauts’ next show).  On the one hand, it’s cool in that it shows how some HTML elements (i.e., iframe) can serve as containers for external assets more complicated than images and videos, and having a live map show up in the page you’re building is probably pretty mind-blowing for someone just starting out.  On the other, it’s kind of a fiddly and unusual use case: not many novice sites need an embedded widget calling an API.

I had less of a problem with the author showing a simple image-swapping-on-hover JavaScript solution, later in the book (even though my hindbrain kept chanting, “do that with CSS!”).  It’s a simple example of scripting pieces of the page, and lets Mr. Hatter talk about the DOM and DOM scripting without getting super crazy about it.

The last thing I found a bit lacking was the closing two pages, which cover putting the site online.  The author does their best with the two pages, and what’s there is correct, but it’s just not enough to help everyone get the results of their work online.  I’m not sure two pages ever could be enough to help the novice audience.  I’d have liked to see this get four pages, so there was room for more detail and more options.  If you’re giving this book to someone to help them learn, my advice is to tell them up front that you’ll help them get their work online once they’ve finished the book.

Okay, all that said?  I still absolutely recommend this as a beginners’ book.  Nearly every topic the text introduces, and there are many I didn’t mention here, is covered just the right amount and in just the right way to get readers where they need to be, excited about what they’ve accomplished, and ready to learn more on their own.  It’s pretty well up to date, at least as I write this, and isn’t likely to fall badly out of date any time soon.  Approachable, accessible, and instructive.

Final grade: I give it a solid B+, only falling short of A level due to the filename mismatches.

Note: All images in this review are copyright The CoderDojo Foundation.  Some were taken from the book’s asset files.


Generating Wireframe Boxes with CSS and HTML5

Published 1 month, 3 weeks ago

I was recently noodling around with some new layout ideas for An Event Apart’s speaker pages (e.g., Chris Coyier’s or Jen Simmons’) and wanted to share the ideas with other members of the team.  But what I really wanted to show was wireframes to convey basic arrangement of the pieces, since I hadn’t yet done any time polishing details.

I thought about taking screenshots and Photoshopping wireframe boxes over the various layout pieces, but then I wondered: could I overlay boxes on the live page with CSS?  Or perhaps even create and overlay them with nothing but some declarations and a wanton disregard for the sensibilities of god or man?

And that’s when I realized…I could.

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.” —Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jurassic Park, 1993)

Now I’m going to share my discovery with you.

Before I get started, I want to make one thing clear: this isn’t backward compatible.  I don’t care.  It doesn’t need to be.  It does work in the latest versions of Firefox and Chrome, within reasonable tolerances—Chrome falls a bit short on one aspect, which I’ll point out when we get there.

All good?  Then let’s go.

The goal was creating X-filled boxes that wireframers love so very, very much.  I figured, any container element that needs to have a box stuck over it gets a class of wireframe.

<div class="wireframe">…(content goes here)…</div>

(Don’t get too attached to that class, by the way: it doesn’t survive the article.  Foreshadowing!)

The easy part was drawing a box around any element with that class.  I decided to use outlines, because they’re rarely employed for box edging and they don’t affect the layout even if your box-sizing is set to content-box.  (Mine usually is, by dint of not setting box-sizing at all.  But, you know, you do you.)

.wireframe {outline: 2px solid gray;}
Adding simple boxes (to a redesigned local copy of Rachel Andrew’s speaker page)

The boxes overlap each other because the layout pieces on the right are, at least for the moment, floated.  They’re laid out that way so that if the right-hand content is short and the bio and articles run long, they can wrap around below the ‘sidebar’.  It’s generally useful to have the outlines showing the actual limits of the element boxes to which they’re attached.

There is a potential drawback here: if your layout involves using negative margins to pull some elements out of their parents, and those parent elements are designated as wireframe boxes, outlines will stretch around the outhanging elements in Firefox, though not in Chrome.  Borders do not act the same way in Firefox.  I can’t rightly call this a bug, because I’m honestly not sure what outlines should do here.  Just be aware of it, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, drawing rectangles with outlines, that’s the easy part.  Now I needed two diagonal lines, going from corner to corner.  But how?

Linear gradients, that’s how.  See, if you use quadrant-based directions for your gradients, special magic math happens under the hood such that at the exact midpoint of the gradient, the color-line that extends perpendicularly off the gradient ray shoots precisely into the corners of the two quadrants adjacent to the quadrant into which the gradient ray is pointing.  Okay, that was probably hard to follow.  For example, set the gradient direction as to top right and the 50% color line of the gradient will run into the top left to the bottom right corners.

That’s exactly what I needed!  Thus:

.wireframe {outline: 2px solid gray;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent 49.9%, gray 49.9%,
         gray 50.1%, transparent 50.1%);
}

Okay, that’s one diagonal line.  The other is literally a copy of the first, except for having it go toward a different quadrant.

.wireframe {outline: 2px solid gray;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent 49.9%, gray 49.9%,
         gray 50.1%, transparent 50.1%),
      linear-gradient(to bottom right,
         transparent 49.9%, gray 49.9%,
         gray 50.1%, transparent 50.1%);
}
Diagonal lines!

Bingo: an X.  But not one that scales terribly well.  Using percentages there means that the gray lines will be as thick as 0.2% the total length of the gradient ray.  Small boxes get thin, sometimes broken diagonals.  Great big boxes get thick honkin’ lines.

So I fixed it with calc().

.wireframe {outline: 2px solid gray;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      linear-gradient(to bottom right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px));
}
Properly sized diagonal lines!

And there you go: two-pixel-thick diagonal lines.

There are two things to note here, before we move on.  First is that the spaces around the operators in the calc() values are intentional and, more to the point, necessary.  If you remove one or both of those spaces, calc() will simply fail to work.  In other words, calc(50%-1px) will fail—no background for you!  This is as designed, and there are reasons for it I don’t want to go into here, but suffice to say they exist and are arguably sensible.  calc(50% - 1px), on the other hand, works as intended.

Well, mostly: this is where Chrome comes up a bit short.  In large boxes, Chrome creates fuzzy lines thicker than 2 pixels.  I’m not sure what it’s doing to fudge the numbers here, but it sure seems like it’s fudging something.  The lines also don’t go into the corners quite as precisely as they should.  Firefox’s lines, on the other hand, come out correctly sized no matter what box size I set up, even if they are a bit jagged at times, and they go exactly into the corners of all the boxes I tested.  Chrome’s sloppiness here isn’t a deal-breaker, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s there and you should know about it.

So that’s an element with an outer edge and two diagonal lines.  This is great as long as the box contains no actual content, which will sit on top of the diagonals, as you can see with the “hero image” in the top right.  Maybe that’s what you want, in which case great, but I specifically wanted overlays.  That way I could stick them on a live page and sort of fade out the contents while sticking wireframe boxes on top, to make the boxes the focus while still showing the stuff inside them.

Enter generated content.  If I create a pseudo-element and attach the diagonal background gradients to that, they can sit on top of all the content.  That’ll also let me throw in a translucent background color to fill the box and fade out the contents.  Like so:

.wireframe {outline: 2px solid gray;
   position: relative; z-index: 1;}
.wireframe::before {
   position: absolute; z-index: 8675309;
   top: 0; bottom: 0; right: 0; left: 0;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      linear-gradient(to bottom right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      #FFF9;
      content: "";
}
Placing the diagonals, and a translucent color, over the elements

I used ::before mostly because hey, why not, but also because clearfix is usually an ::after and I hear people are still using clearfix, more’s the pity.  So this avoids it.  If you’ve moved beyond the need for clearfix, then you can use ::after just as easily.  Whatever floats your fancy.  (Get it?  Floats?  Yeah?  Clearfix?  Floats?  Ah, I kill me.)

The stupidly large z-index on the ::before is there to put the box overlay above any gridded, flexed, or positioned content that has an automatic z-index, or at least a sensible one.  You can raise it as high as you’d like (and your browser’s bit-depth will allow).  The small z-index on the elements themselves, on the other hand, makes sure they get an explicit stacking placement instead of an automatically-assigned place on the Z axis.  I find this generally settles a number of odd behaviors in various browsers.  Your experience may vary.

It was at this point that I realized there was a whole other level here.  I mean, wireframe boxes stretched over content is pretty nifty all by itself.  That could have been enough.  But it wasn’t.

Because what I realized was that I didn’t just want wireframe boxes, I wanted labeled wireframe boxes.  If a box was being applied to a list of articles, then I wanted a great big “Articles” label sitting in the middle of it, to make it obvious what was being placed there.

Well, there was already a content property just sitting there, waiting to throw in actual content instead of an empty string, but how to fill it?  And that’s when I knew that .wireframe’s days were numbered.

That’s because the easiest way to label each box was to use an HTML data attribute to attach the label I wanted to display.  And once that attribute was there, why not apply the wireframe styles based on the presence of the attribute, instead of adding class names that might get in the way of some unexpected DOM script?  So I changed the markup and CSS like this:

<div data-wf="Articles">…(content goes here)…</div>
[data-wf] {outline: 2px solid gray;
   position: relative; z-index: 1;}
[data-wf]::before {
   position: absolute; z-index: 8675309;
   top: 0; bottom: 0; right: 0; left: 0;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      linear-gradient(to bottom right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      #FFF9;
      content: "";
}

(True story: I almost called it data-wtf instead.  Almost.)

Having done that, I could modify the CSS to insert the attribute value, style the inserted text to look nice, and use flexbox properties to center it in the box.  So I did.

[data-wf] {outline: 2px solid gray;
   position: relative; z-index: 1;}
[data-wf]::before {
   position: absolute; z-index: 8675309;
   top: 0; bottom: 0; right: 0; left: 0;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      linear-gradient(to bottom right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      #FFF9;
      content: attr(data-wf);
      font: bold 2em Jubilat, Georgia, serif;
      color: gray;
      display: flex; justify-content: center; align-items: center;
}
Adding centered labels

That yielded big beautiful bold Jubilat labels (Jubilat is one of AEA’s brand font faces), sitting right on top of the center of the box, the crossing of the two diagonal lines behind them.

Which actually turned out to be a small problem for me.  That text is certainly readable, but I wanted it to stand out a bit more from the diagonals.  I decided to stack text shadows in order to semi-simulate outside text stroking.

[data-wf] {outline: 2px solid gray;
   position: relative; z-index: 1;}
[data-wf]::before {
   position: absolute; z-index: 8675309;
   top: 0; bottom: 0; right: 0; left: 0;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      linear-gradient(to bottom right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), gray calc(50% - 1px),
         gray calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      #FFF9;
      content: attr(data-wf);
      font: bold 2em Jubilat, Georgia, serif;
      color: gray;
      text-shadow:
         0 0 0.25em #FFF9, 0 0 0.25em #FFF9,
         0 0 0.25em #FFF9, 0 0 0.25em #FFF9,
         0 0 0.25em #FFF9;
      display: flex; justify-content: center; align-items: center;
}
“Stroking” the box labels

It’s possible to use just four offset shadows with minimal or zero blur, but I find it sometimes creates weird jags on serif fonts, so I like stacking blurred shadows better.  But, again, you do you.

As I looked over the results, it slowly dawned on me that the white-on-gray box scheme works well enough for a starting wireframe setup with no branding applied, but I was planning to drop these on pages with actual design and colors and that sort of thing.  I didn’t want the boxes to fill with translucent white; I wanted them to be translucent versions of the page background color.  And, furthermore, I wanted a way to be able to easily alter that color, when applied to different designs.

Custom properties to the rescue!  Which is to say, native CSS variables to the rescue!

Our page background color at An Event Apart is #F7F6F1, a combo I actually have memorized at this point.  Since I wanted to fill the boxes with a roughly three-quarters-opaque variant, I settled on #F7F6F1BB.  (Actual 75% is BF, if you care.)  So I defined a custom property for it:

html {
   --fill: #F7F6F1BB;
}

I could have assigned the variable to the [data-wf] rule instead of html, but I felt like setting them globally.  Because that’s how I roll, yo—Wulf & Shaw have no strings on me.  If you want to bring the variables in closer, go for it.

While I was there, I figured, why not, let’s also define a variable for the shared color of the outlines, diagonals, and label text.

html {
   --fill: #F7F6F1BB;
   --wire: gray;
}

Then all I needed was to sprinkle variable calls where the colors were sitting.  I ended up here:

html {
   --fill: #F7F6F1BB;
   --wire: gray;
}
[data-wf] {outline: 2px solid var(--wire);
   position: relative; z-index: 1;}
[data-wf]::before {
   position: absolute; z-index: 8675309;
   top: 0; bottom: 0; right: 0; left: 0;
   background:
      linear-gradient(to top right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), var(--wire) calc(50% - 1px),
         var(--wire) calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      linear-gradient(to bottom right,
         transparent calc(50% - 1px), var(--wire) calc(50% - 1px),
         var(--wire) calc(50% + 1px), transparent calc(50% + 1px)),
      var(--fill);
      content: attr(data-wf);
      font: bold 2em Jubilat, Georgia, serif;
      color: var(--wire);
      text-shadow:
         0 0 0.25em var(--fill), 0 0 0.25em var(--fill),
         0 0 0.25em var(--fill), 0 0 0.25em var(--fill),
         0 0 0.25em var(--fill);
      display: flex; justify-content: center; align-items: center;
}
The final product, with color themes and everything

The label could be broken out to use its own variable (e.g., --text or --label) easily enough, but I wanted a minimum of things to change.  I know myself too well to set up a bunch of controls to fiddle with, especially where color is concerned.

And with that, I had a ready-to-hand, easily theme-able wireframing style block that I can drop into any development page and invoke simply by adding a few data attributes to the markup.  Data attributes, I might add, that would be trivially easy to later find and remove with regular expressions.  It’s a quick way to make it clear to stakeholders that a work in progress is, in fact, in progress, as well as a handy way to visualize which pieces of a prototype layout are going where.

Now that we’ve come to the end and you’re still hanging in there with me, let me just say that I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip through various parts of CSS.  If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below.  I’ll do my best to respond in reasonable amounts of time, travel and such permitting.


P.S. And one final note, as Kai Ryssdal would say: every bit of CSS I used here is covered in CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition.  I turned to my print copy twice in the process of working all this out, as it happens, to remind myself of specific syntax (for custom properties) and whitespace requirements (for calc() operators).  It really feels good to have a thing I made be useful to me!