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CSS3 Feedback: Layout

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

In this round, layout.  Not all of it, but the bits that struck me as either really useful or really, really way too long overdue.

Float containment yes, we need a property that does just that.  As long as we’re tied to floats for layout—and I plan to rant about that soon—there should be a clear, unambiguous, intentionally defined property that tells elements to wrap themselves around floated descendant elements.  overflow works in most cases but can fall down in unusual circumstances (I’ve seen scrollbars appear where none were actually needed) and anyway, it wasn’t intended to provide the wrapping effect in the first place.  That it does so is a happy side effect, but it’s still a side effect.  The rest of the float-wrapping techniques are even more convoluted.  “There are already ways to do that so we don’t need a property” is rather like saying “we can already do layout with tables so why do we need CSS layout?”.

Positioning by center yes, please.  The way to center an absolutely positioned element within its containing block is to set the top and left to 50% each and then define negative top and left margins that are half the positioned element’s height and width.  That’s just awful, and requires at least an explicit width, if not an explicit height.  When I did the structured timeline, here’s how I got the version numbers to center below the dots:

#timeline tbody td p {
	position: absolute;
	top: 50%;
	width: 2.1em;
	margin: -5px 0 0 -1em;
}

See that -1em left margin, and the 2.1em width?  Just to get the center of positioned elements’ boxes sit on top of a certain left offset (defined elsewhere in the CSS).  Ditto the negative top margin, to pull it upward just enough so that the elements’ boxes would have the point five pixels down from their tops line up with the vertical midpoint of their containing blocks.

I wanted to do something like this:

#timeline tbody td p {
	position: absolute;
	top: 50%;
	position-anchor: 50% 5px;
}

That would have said that the point in the center of the absolutely positioned element should be placed at the point in the containing block 21.7% down from the top and 44% of the way across from the left.  That would hang the positioned element’s center on that point, regardless of the size of the positioned element—note that I took out the width.  I could stop defining explicit sizes and just let the elements be the size they want to be to show their content.

The problem is that approach doesn’t fit at all well with the way positioning layout is defined.  Suppose I said this:

#timeline tbody td p {
	position: absolute;
	top: 50%; bottom: 0;
	left: 50%; right: 25%;
	position-anchor: 50% 5px;
}

Now what?  I’m not even sure myself.  Maybe define rename it to position-offset and define percentages to be relative to the height and width of the positioned element (not its containing block), so that it doesn’t interact directly with the offset properties like top and right?

All I want is a way to hang elements off of offset points, and not be restricted to the corners of the elements, and have the solution work even when the elements have automatic height and width, and not require extra markup to make it happen.  Oh, and a ponycar.

Box sizing what in the nine hells of Valeria is taking so long?  We needed that one ten years ago.  I no longer care if it’s done as its own property or as new keywords on height and width.  I just want it.  Someone will make it happen, with or without the WG or implementors—mark my words.

Same-height elements yes, a way to tie element heights (whether they’re siblings or not) together would be welcome, although I can see how specifying it in an implementable would be tricky; no, display: table-cell  is not the answer.  Soon I will rant about this.  Soon.

CSS3 Feedback: Selector Blocks

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

Out of all the selector feedback, selector blocks was the part that really caught my attention.  I also see the usefulness of a parent selector, but that one has come up many times before, and it’s always died at the doorstep of implementors, who point out that it’s far too difficult to implement without serious performance penalties and even risk of browser lockup.  See, for example, the comment left by David Hyatt on Shaun Inman’s post on the idea.  Similarly, I think constants (or macros or whatever they’re called) are a great idea and would be very helpful, especially if you’re coding up a Jason Special.  Both are loaded with use cases, so I don’t feel like I can add a lot; besides, constants are already in the WG charter, so there’s once more hope in the land.

So anyway, selector blocks.  To pick one recent example, while working on a project that should very soon see the light of day, I had a situation involving the following chunk of rules.

h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6, table {
   font: 1em Arial, "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, sans-serif;}
h1 {font-size: 275%;}
h3:first-child {margin-top: 1em;}
p.tagline {margin: -0.25em 0 1.25em;
   font-size: 125%;
   color: #7B7960;}
h3 {margin: 1.5em 0 0.25em; font-size: 125%;}
h3:before {font-size: 75%; counter-increment: subhead;}
h4 {margin: 2.5em 0 0.75em;
   text-transform: uppercase; font-size: 125%;
   color: #928F59;}
p {margin: 0 0 1em;}
ul {padding-left: 1.5em;}
ul li {list-style: disc; margin: 0.5em 0;}

Nothing unusual about them, of course, unless you count my use of counters.  These rules had been written early on in development, and the design had evolved around that part of the document.  As more page components were added, I realized that I needed to scope all these rules to one section of the document: specifically, a div with a class of main.  So here’s what I had to do.

.main h1, .main h2, .main h3, .main h4, 
.main h5, .main h6, .main table {
   font: 1em Arial, "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, sans-serif;}
.main h1 {font-size: 275%;}
.main h3:first-child {margin-top: 1em;}
.main p.tagline {margin: -0.25em 0 1.25em;
   font-size: 125%;
   color: #7B7960;}
.main h3 {margin: 1.5em 0 0.25em; font-size: 125%;}
.main h3:before {font-size: 75%; counter-increment: subhead;}
.main h4 {margin: 2.5em 0 0.75em;
   text-transform: uppercase; font-size: 125%;
   color: #928F59;}
.main p {margin: 0 0 1em;}
.main ul {padding-left: 1.5em;}
.main ul li {list-style: disc; margin: 0.5em 0;}

This, on the other hand, is what I really wanted to do:

.main {
   h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6, table {
      font: 1em Arial, "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, sans-serif;}
   h1 {font-size: 275%;}
   h3:first-child {margin-top: 1em;}
   p.tagline {margin: -0.25em 0 1.25em;
      font-size: 125%;
      color: #7B7960;}
   h3 {margin: 1.5em 0 0.25em; font-size: 125%;}
   h3:before {font-size: 75%; counter-increment: subhead;}
   h4 {margin: 2.5em 0 0.75em;
      text-transform: uppercase; font-size: 125%;
      color: #928F59;}
   p {margin: 1em 0;}
   ul {padding-left: 1.5em;}
   ul li {list-style: disc; margin: 0.5em 0;}
}

Or, if necessary, to put the whole original chunk into its own style sheet and then do one of the following:

div.main {@import url(main-style.css);}

<div class="main" style="@import url(main-style.css);">

Interestingly, the latter is theoretically possible, thanks to the more advanced profiles in the CSS module “Syntax of CSS rules in HTML’s ‘style’ attribute“.  I’m not aware of the former having been seriously considered (despite my best efforts, once upon a time), though it’s always possible I missed something.

But either one of those approaches would be a last resort, in my opinion.  I’d much rather just wrap the whole chunk in .main { }, like I showed previously, and be done with it.  That capability would also simplify certain annoyingly repetitive patterns, like the very first of those rules.  I think it’s pretty obvious which of the following is easier to write and maintain:

body.home #content .entry h2, 
body.home #content .entry h3, 
body.home #content .entry h4, 
body.home #content .entry h5, 
body.home #content .entry h6 {...}

body.home #content .entry {
   h2, h3, h4, h5, h6 {...}
}

I mean, just look at the former, and imagine what one goes through to write it in the first place.  Copy, paste, paste, paste, paste, paste… maddening.  And that’s just for a small block of CSS like this one.  Imagine the tedium of doing this for a block of 50 rules, or 150.  (Also, this is the the same thing that was requested in the feedback as “Grouped Alternates“, albeit with a different syntax.)

One objection to this sort of pattern is that it increases dependence on descendant selectors, which are computationally inefficient.  But it doesn’t: I had to create a whole bunch of descendant selectors as it was, and did so far more clumsily.  And had I missed a command-V somewhere, I’d have had styles that applied outside their intended subtree.  Introducing a way to nest blocks like this doesn’t change anything except make it easier and more maintainable to do what we already do.  Honestly, it’s pretty much impossible to increase dependence on descendant selectors.  The best we can do now is make them less difficult to write.

I realize that the syntax I depict would cause backwards-compatibility problems, as in older browsers would not behave as intended when exposed to this sort of thing, but I’ve also stopped being concerned about that.  We can’t keep holding ourselves hostage to decisions made a decade or more back.  Provide the capability and authors will use it when they can.  Over time, its use will become more prevalent—kind of the same way authors adopted CSS in the first place.

I also realize that this case has been made time and again by many, many other people.  This isn’t even the first time I’ve made this case, though I think the other times were within the WG and therefore off the public record.  The fact that it keeps being made is a strong indicator that the need exists, and dismissing the idea because the same end effect can be achieved with existing selector syntax (as shown above) isn’t acceptable.  That’s like saying that complex selection effects can be achieved with JavaScript or XPath, so there’s no need for advanced CSS selectors.

So that’s my use case.  I actually have a bunch more, but they all follow the same basic pattern: the desire to group rules together into subsections of a document, or to otherwise simplify the writing of CSS.

Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′

Back before holiday season hit, Elika Etemad—better known as Fantasai—published WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008.  I gave it a read and came away with a number of things I wanted to say.  So many things, in fact, that I’ll need to split them up into a series of posts.  This here post will serve as introduction and hub, with links to the follow-on entries added as they’re published.  All very Bray-ny, no?  (Go ahead, groan.  It only encourages me.)

Here you go:

  1. Selector blocks
  2. Layout
  3. Wanted: Layout System
  4. Animated Shapes
  5. Graphical Thoughts

I want to make clear up front that I’m not going to address every single point in the feedback document: it’s just too incredibly huge.  I did think about making my own copy and then just filling in my reactions to each point, but that didn’t scale very well.  Not only did it seem really overbearing and maybe just a touch egotistical, but some of my reactions were based on related topics in separate areas of the original.  Besides, I know what it’s like trying to read a really, really long article, so breaking it up and just focusing on the parts that got me fired up made way more sense.

There is one thing I want to address before I start serving up the follow-on installments.  At the end of Fantasai’s post, there’s a link to my 2006 post about the benefit of having a community liaison, someone who bridges the gap between the WG and the public.  She then asks if anyone is interested in volunteering, but personally, I don’t see the need.  The WG already has a community liaison:  it’s you, Fantasai.  It has been for some time now, thanks to your regular and informative CSS WG blog posts and other outreach work such as “WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008″.  The job is being done, and being done very well, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Working Group is much, much better for it.

Shock and Awe

I almost feel like the Presidential election didn’t happen.

You see, for the entire second half of Election Day, from almost noon until after midnight, Eastern time, I was aboard a Continental flight to Tokyo.  We had video-on-demand systems but not live satellite television, so as we arced over Canada, Alaska, and the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, we flew in ignorance.  As Jeremy Keith put it regarding his own flight to Japan, we were aboard Schrödinger‘s Airplane.

For me, the wave collapsed as we began the initial descent toward Narita.  One of the flight attendants, having announced that they were starting the initial-descent procedures and would like us to check around our seats for any personal items we might like to start stowing, added:  “And for those of you interested in the results of the election, we have a new President: Barack Obama.”

There was a burst of applause from the economy section of the plane.  In business class, there was silence.

Well, not quite.  I was myself sitting in business class, thanks to a great big pile of reward miles and some lucky timing in calling the airline.  As I heard her say Obama’s name, I let out an involuntary “Wow“.  Because until that moment, deep down I had believed, truly believed, that Mr. Obama would not win the Presidency.  That was not the outcome I desired, but it was the outcome I expected.

I am in many ways ashamed of my doubts and fears, because I had thought less of my fellow Americans than they deserved.

Since then, from here in Tokyo, I’ve felt weirdly disconnected from what’s happened.  In time zone terms, I’m fourteen hours in my home’s future, half a day ahead of everyone back home.  But because I received word after it was all over and soon after slept through America’s Wednesday daylight hours, I feel like I’m a day behind.  Time and distance combine to create a feeling of disconnectedness from the end result, as though I’m getting word of election results in Germany or India or Australia: interesting, but something seen at a remove.

It’s odd.  I’m used to being an observer, but this is something else entirely.  I think it’s pure astonishment.

People and Places

I don’t know about you, but I find the results of the People magazine cover Ericsperiment (thanks for the term, Bob!) to be quite interesting.  The boiled-down version of the results is: just about everyone saw what I did, but nearly everyone drew the wrong conclusions about what I was saying.  (What?  I’ll explain.)

First, I want to address a couple of objections that were raised.  The first was: “It’s just a family photograph”.  No, it’s not.  It’s a magazine cover shoot.  Those things are planned, directed, and executed down to the tiniest detail.  If you think it’s just a family portrait, you’re either being willfully obdurate or else completely ignoring the context.  That’s a mistake, because context is everything.  I’ve been involved in a few portrait sessions of no public reach whatsoever, and the photographer is always telling people where to stand or sit, adjusting the angle of people’s arms, getting them to fractionally tilt heads one way or the other, shifting people an inch or two, and so on.  “Just a family photo” is when the magazine gets a real family photo, taken by an amateur using a consumer-grade camera during a vacation, and puts it on the cover in a white Polaroid-esque frame at a 15-degree angle.

The second was that the image is a Photoshop job, created either by assembling individual shots or altering a group photo.  Maybe, maybe not; either way, Photoshopping or a lack thereof is completely irrelevant to my point.  If it wasn’t Photoshopped, then the photographer is responsible for the arrangement of the shot; if it was, then it’s the Photoshopper who bears responsibility.  Either way, someone arranged the shot, and did so very badly.

So here’s what I saw: “large group” and “outsider”.  That was the immediate message.  Look at the cover again, paying attention to where the faces are.  There’s a blob of faces above the headline text, which is the group.  Then there’s a face to the left of the headline text, which is the outsider.

This is completely independent of the race, color, gender, creed, etc. of the people in the photo.  The visual message is “here’s a bunch of people, plus a hanger-on”.  Not because of color, which is what most people assumed I was talking about (and more on that in a minute).  Because of placement.

Though I think this unlikely, you may not quite be seeing it.  In that case, imagine a cover image with nine faces in the same places, only they’re of religious deities.  Or pop stars.  Or CEOs.  Or heads of state.  Or conference speakers.  Or browser-team leads; heck, even browser logos.  Whichever it is, imagine your favorite of each group is in the lower-left position, with all the others up above.  Feel good about that?  Even neutral?  Still think there’s no message being conveyed by that placement?

(And if you still aren’t seeing it, maybe a comparative example, courtesy George Butler, will provide some insight.)

Now, given that one of the people has been placed as an outsider, the natural next step is to wonder why they’ve been so placed.  And here, there are obvious visual differences that jump right out:  like being female, having darker skin, and being younger.  Already primed to ask “Why is this person an outsider?” we can find apparent reasons, and in this case they’re touchy ones.  If you know the background story of the family, then there’s a non-visual one as well: that she’s adopted.

But remember, I’m not saying Bridget (the young lady in that position) has been excluded for any of those reasons.  I’m saying that having been given a visual cue that she is excluded, we look for reasons to explain that exclusion.  That’s exactly what most of the people who responded to my post about the cover did.  All those people saw it, consciously or otherwise, and responded to the message… and then took that next step, trying to find reasons to explain the message.  Then, as per each individual’s feelings and experiences, they reacted, either accepting or rejecting what they thought I was saying.  Interesting, though, that so many people came to the same conclusion about what they thought I was saying.  That’s evidence of a strong message, whether or not said message was intended.

And that is the failure that occurred, one which I lay squarely at the doorstep of the magazine.  I might also toss in a head-slap to the campaign, if they saw the image and gave approval to use it—such pre-approval is sometimes, but not always, an option.  The problem with that composition should have been obvious from the outset, and avoided.  That it wasn’t makes me wonder a number of things about the magazine.  Taking a teenaged girl and putting her in the outsider spot?  Seriously?  How callous do you have to be to do that?

Oh, and special postscript to all the people who took the time to share their pitying sorrow over how “you Americans” are so race-aware:  I know it’s a tragedy, but remember, we’re still a young country and have not had the same lengthy maturation time you’ve enjoyed.  So please, try to remain patient with us while segregation, anti-immigrant violence, race riots, tribal warfare, and ethnic cleansing uniquely wrack our poor, blighted country, and continue to hope that one day we’ll join the rest of the world in the tranquil harmony that so characterizes your enlightened societies.

Crafting Ourselves

My referrers lit up recently due to Jonathan Snook’s article about CSS resets and how he doesn’t use them.  To Jonathan and all the doubters and nay-sayers out there, I have only one thing to say:

Good for you.

Seriously; no sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness intended.  If I thought my reset styles, or really anything I’ve ever published or advocated, was a be-all end-all ultimate solution for every designer and design that’s ever been and could ever be, I’d be long past due for six rounds on the receiving end of a clue-by-four.

Reset styles clearly work for a lot of people, whether as-is or in a modified form.  As I say on the reset page, those styles aren’t supposed to be left alone by anyone.  They’re a starting point.  If a thousand people took them and created a thousand different personalized style sheets, that would be right on the money.  But there’s also nothing wrong with taking them and writing your own overrides.  If that works for you, then awesome.

For others, reset styles are more of an impediment.  That’s only to be expected; we all work in different ways.  The key here, and the reason I made the approving comment above, is that you evaluate various tools by thinking about how they relate to the ways you do what you do—and then choose what tools to use, and how, and when.  That’s the mark of someone who thinks seriously about their craft and strives to do it better.

I’m not saying that craftsmen/craftswomen are those people who reject the use of common tools, of course.  I’m saying that they use the tools that fit them best and modify (or create) tools to best fit them, applying their skills and knowledge of their craft to make those decisions.  It’s much the same in the world of programming.  You can’t identify a code craftsman by whether or not they use this framework or that language.  You can identify them by how they decide which framework or language to use, or not use, in a given situation.

Craftsmanship is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently, as has Joshua Porter.  I delivered a keynote address on that very topic just a few days ago in Minneapolis, and my thinking infuses both of the talks I’m giving next week at An Event Apart New Orleans.  I’ve started looking harder for evidence of it, both in myself and in what I see online, and I believe striving toward being a craftsman/craftswoman is an important process for anyone who chooses to work in this field.

Because this isn’t a field of straightforward answers and universal solutions.  We are often faced with problems that have multiple solutions, none of them perfect.  To understand what makes each solution imperfect and to know which of them is the best choice in the situation—that’s knowing your craft.  That’s being a craftsman/craftswoman.  It’s a never-ending process that is all the more critical precisely because it is never-ending.

So it’s no surprise that we, as a community, keep building and sharing solutions to problems we encounter.  Discussions about the merits of those solutions in various situations are also no surprise.  Indeed, they’re exactly the opposite: the surest and, to me, most hopeful sign that web design/development continues to mature as a profession, a discipline, and a craft.  It’s evidence that we continue to challenge ourselves and each other to advance our skills, to keep learning better and better how better to do what we love so much.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

May 2015
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