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Grid Inspection

I said yesterday I would write up the process of adding Grid to meyerweb, and I did.  I started it last night and I finished it this morning, and when I was done with the first draft I discovered I’d written almost four thousand words.

So I pitched it to an online magazine, and they accepted, so it should be ready in the next couple of weeks.  Probably not long after Chrome ships its Grid implementation into public release, in fact.  I’ll certainly share the news when it’s available.

In the meantime, you can inspect live grids for yourself, whether here or at Grid by Example or The Experimental Layout Lab of Jen Simmons or wherever else.  All you need is Firefox 52, though Firefox Nightly is recommended for reasons I’ll get to in a bit.

In Firefox 52, if you inspect an element that has display: grid assigned to it, you’ll get a little waffle icon in the inspector, like so:

Mmmmmm, waffles.

Click it, and Firefox will draw the grid lines on the page for you in a lovely shade of purple.  It will even fill in grid gaps (which are a thing) with a crosshatch-y pattern.  It’s a quick way to visualize what the grid’s template values are creating.

If you have Firefox Nightly, there’s an even more powerful tool at your disposal.  First, go into the inspector’s settings, and make sure “Enable layout panel” is checked.  You may or may not have to restart the browser at this point—I did, but YEMV—but once it’s up and running, there will be a “Layout” panel to go with the other panels on the right side of the Inspector.  There you get the box model stuff, as well as a checklist of grids on the current page.

The Layout panel

For each grid on the page—not just the element you’re inspecting—you can set your own color for the gridlines, though those color choices do not currently persist, even across page reloads.  You can also turn on number labels for the grid lines, which are currently tiny and black no matter what you do.  And if you allow grid lines to extend into infinity, you can turn the page into a blizzard of multicolored lines, assuming there are several grids present.

This panel is very much in its infancy, so we can expect future enhancements.  Things like color persistence and better grid line labels are already on the to-do list, I’m told, as well as several more ambitious features.  Even as it is, I find it valuable in constructing new grids and diagnosing the situation when things go sideways.  (Occasionally, literally sideways: I was playing with writing-mode in grid contexts today.)

There’s another, possibly simpler, way to enable the Layout panel, which I learned about courtesy Andrei Petcu.  You type about:config into the URL bar, then enter layoutview into the search field.  Double-click “devtools.layoutview.enabled” to set it to “true”, and it will be ready to go.  Thanks, Andrei!

So go ahead—inspect those grids!

Welcome to the Grid

Grid is public.  It’s live right now in the latest Firefox release, Firefox 52.

It will similarly be live in the next public Chrome release, due in the next week or so.

It’s here.  I almost can’t believe it.

For well more than a decade now, when asked what CSS needs more than anything, I’ve said it needs real, actual layout.  “A layout-shaped hole at its heart” is a phrase I may have used a fair few times.

Rachel Andrew had a great article last week about “Learning CSS Grid Layout”, which charts a sensible course for getting used to grid.  It also busted a few myths about grid.  I recommend it highly.

There’s one more myth I’d like to do my best to bust, which I’ll summarize as a comment I’ve seen many times: “Ugh, tables again?”

The underlying assumption here is: grids are just tables with a new syntaxThis is entirely untrue.

I mean, yes, you can recreate 1990s-era table-based layout techniques with grid, in much the same way you can recreate the submit button with two JS libraries and a complex front-end framework.  The ability to do it doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.

(Though you might, from time to time, find the ability useful.  Here’s what I mean: you can take a bunch of data contained in arbitrary markup someone else is producing, and lay it out in a tabular format.  It would be far preferable to have the data in actual table markup, but if that’s not an option, grid will give you a potential solution.)

I have an example of just one way grids are different than tables.  I just last Friday finished writing the last chapter of CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition, covering filters, blending, clipping, and masking.  (I finished the grid chapter late last year, so it’s already available in the early-access title.)  Almost all the figures in the book were created by building HTML+CSS pages, and taking high-resolution screen captures with Firefox’s screenshot command.  Here’s one.

Compositing masks

The way these are displayed is actually the inverse of their source order.  I wanted them to be in document source such that the compositing steps were in chronological order, so that’s how I wrote them.  Once I laid them out that way in the figure, using grid, I realized it made more sense to arrange them visually, with the bottom layer at the bottom of the figure, the next above that, all leading up to the result at the top.

So I just rearranged them on the grid, by assigning grid row numbers.  The document source wasn’t touched.  A bit simplified, the CSS to do that looked something like this:

ol li:nth-child(1) {grid-row: 4;}
ol li:nth-child(2) {grid-row: 3;}
ol li:nth-child(3) {grid-row: 2;}
ol li:nth-child(4) {grid-row: 1;}

Because the compositing examples (the “columns” in the layout) were represented as ordered lists, with the grid set up to place each image with some captioning, I could just change their order.  So yes, it looks like a table, but the underlying structure is anything but table-like.  Just to get each column of examples grouped together with tables, I’d have to nest tables, or accept a one-row table with each cell containing some other structure.  Rearranging the columns would mean doing markup surgery, instead of just reassigning their layout placement via CSS.

Instead, I was able to represent the content in the best available structure (ordered lists) and then arrange them on a grid in the best way I could visually.  For that matter, I could responsively change the layout from a six-column grid to a three-column grid to un-gridded lists as the viewport got more and more narrow.  As, in fact, I did—check it out.  If you make the window narrow enough, Grid is dropped entirely so you can see the base structure and content.

This ability to place grid items without respect to source order is a powerful tool, and like all powerful tools it can be used for good or ill.  It’s possible to assemble a visually usable layout out of the most inaccessible, horrible markup structures imaginable.  It’s also possible to assemble a visually usable layout from clean, accessible markup in ways we’ve never even dared dream.

Combine grids with other CSS features, and you can really create art.  Jen Simmmons has a layout lab site, and her 2016 main-page design is… well, go see it in a grid-capable browser, like today’s release of Firefox.  Realize it’s all text, no images, no scripting.  Just markup and style.

And the style is remarkably simple for what’s being accomplished.  It’s not too alien a syntax, but it will likely take some time to adjust to using it.  It’s taken me some time, as I’ve experimented and written about it.  Unlearning my float habits has taken some work, and I don’t know that I’m completely done.  I do know that it’s been worth it many times over.

I’ve done a few experiments with the layout of a local copy of meyerweb, and done some frankly goofy things to the design along the way.  I’m hoping to convert what’s up here to a simple grid layout in the next few days, make it a slightly more complex grid shortly after that, and then maybe—maybe—actually do some redesigning for the first time in over a decade, to take advantage of grid more fully.  Jen has a great six-minute video exploring a few features of grid and the grid inspection tool now built into Firefox, which I recommend to anyone curious to know more.

So if you’re thinking of grid as tables 2.0, please, stop.  Table-style layouts are the first one percent of what grid offers.  There are works of art and undiscovered techniques waiting in the other 99 percent.

CSS Grid!

The Grid code is coming!  The Grid code is coming!  It’s really, finally coming to a browser near you!  Woohooooo!

Whoa, there.  What’s all the hubbub, bub?

CSS Grid is going to become supported-by-default in Chrome and Firefox in March of 2017.  Specifically, Mozilla will ship it in Firefox 52, scheduled for March 7th.  Due to the timing of their making Grid enabled-by-default in Chrome Canary, it appears Google will ship it in Chrome 57, scheduled for March 14th.  In each case, once the support is enabled by default in the public-release channels—that is to say, the “evergreen” browser releases that the general public uses—every bit of Grid support now in place in the developer editions of the browsers will become exposed in the public releases.  Anything Grid will Just Start Working™®©.

Are those dates an ironclad guarantee?

Heck no.  Surprise problems could cause a pushback to a later release.  The release schedule could shift.  The sun could explode.  But we know the browsers already have running code for Grid, and when they mark something as ready for public release, it usually gets released to the public on schedule.

So Grid support in March, huh?


How long until I can actually use Grid, then?  Two or three years?

March 2017.  So about four months from now.

But it won’t be universally supported then!

Rounded corners aren’t universally supported even now, but I bet you’ve used them.

Now you’re just being disingenuous.

Look, I get it.  Base layout’s a little different than shaving pixels off corners, it’s true.  If you have a huge IE9 user base, converting everything to Grid, and only Grid, might be a bit much.  But I’m guessing that you do have a layout that functions in older browsers, yes?

Of course.

Then my original answer stands: March 2017.  Because any browsers that understand Grid will also understand @supports(), and you can use that to have a Grid layout for Grid-enabled browsers while still feeding a float-and-inline-block layout to browsers that don’t understand Grid.  Jen Simmons wrote a comprehensive article about @supports(), and I wrote a short article demonstrating its use to add layout enhancements.  The same principles will apply with Grid: you can set up downlevel rules, and then encapsulate the hot new rules in @supports().  You can retroactively enhance the layouts you already have, or take that approach with any new designs.

Writing two different layouts for the same page doesn’t sound like a good use of my time.

I get that too.  Look at it this way: at some point, you’re going to have to learn Grid.  Why not learn it on the job, experimenting with layouts you already understand and know how you want to have behave, instead of having to set aside extra time to learn it in a vacuum using example files that have nothing to do with your work?  You’ll be able to take it at your own pace, build up a new set of instincts, and future-proof your work.

Can’t I just wait until someone creates a framework for me?

You could, except here’s the thing: as Jen Simmons has observed, Grid is a framework.  Using a framework to abstract a framework seems inefficient at best.  I mean, sure, people are going to do it.  There will be Gridstraps and GAMLs and 1280.gses and what have you.  And when those are out, if you decide to use one, you’ll have spend time and energy learning how it works.  I recommend investing that time in learning Grid Actual, so that you can build your own layouts and not be constrained by the assumptions that are inevitably baked into frameworks.

Grid sounds like tables 2.0.  I thought we all agreed tables for layout were a bad idea.

We agreed table markup for layout was a bad idea, particularly because at the time it was popular, it required massive structural hacks just to get borders around boxes, never mind rounded corners.  The objection was that it took 50KB of HTML tags and three server calls just to do anything, and 100 times that to set up a whole page’s layout, plus table markup locked everything into a very precise source order that played merry hell with any concept of accessible, searchable content.  The objection wasn’t to the visual result.  It was to what it took to get those results.

With Grid, you get the ability to take simple, accessible markup, and lay it out pretty much however you want.  You can put the last element in the source first in layout, for example.  You can switch a couple of adjacent bits of the page.  Questions like “how do I order these elements to get them to lay out right?” become a thing of the past.  You order them properly, and then lay them out.  It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a clean separation between structure and presentation.

Not only that, but thanks to CSS transforms, clipping paths, float shapes, and more, you don’t have to make everything into a perfectly-edged grid layout.  There is so much room for visual creativity, you can’t even imagine.  I can’t even imagine.  Nobody can.

So Grid solves every single layout question we’ve ever had, huh?  Layout Nerdvana for all?

Oh, no, there are still things missing.  Subgrid didn’t make it into these releases, so there will still be some gridlike layouts that seem like they should be simple, but will actually be difficult or impossible.  You can’t style a grid cell or area directly; you have to have a markup element of some sort to hang there and style.  All grid areas and cells have to be rectangular—you can’t have an L-shaped area, for example.  Grid gaps (“gutters”) can only be of uniform size on a given axis, very much like border-spacing in table CSS.

You can usually fake your way around these limitations, but they’re still limitations, at least for now.  And yeah, there will probably be bugs found.  If not bugs, probably unexpected use cases that the spec doesn’t adequately cover.  But a lot of people have worked really hard over an extended period of time on stamping out bugs and supporting a variety of use cases.  This is solid work, and it’s going to ship in that state.

What happens if Firefox or Chrome pushes Grid back a release or two, but the other ships on schedule?

In that case, it will take a little longer for your @supports()-encapsulated Grid rules to be recognized by the tardy browser.  No big deal.  The same applies to MS Edge, which hasn’t caught up to the new Grid syntax even though it was the first to ship a Grid implementation—with different rules, all behind prefixes.  Once Edge gets wise to the new syntax and behaviors, your CSS will just start working there, same as it did in Firefox and Chrome and any other browser that adds Grid.

All right, so where can I go to learn how to use it?

There are several good resources, with more coming online even now.  Here are just a few:

  • The Experimental Layout Lab of Jen Simmons — great for seeing layout examples in action using a variety of new technologies.  If you’re laser-focused on just Grid, then start with example #7, “Image Gallery Study”, but the whole site is worth exploring.  Bonus: make sure to responsively test the top of the page, which has some great Grid-driven rearrangements as the page gets more narrow.
  • Rachel Andrews’ Grid By Example — a large and growing collection of examples, resources, tutorials, and more.  There’s a whole section titled “Learn Grid Layout” that’s further broken up into sections like “UI Patterns” and “Video tutorial”.
  • CSS-Tricks’ A Complete Guide to Grid — a boiled-down, pared-down, no-nonsense distillation of Grid properties and values.  It might be a bit bewildering if you’re new to Grid, but it’s the kind of resource you’ll probably come back to again and again as you’re getting familiar with Grid.
  • CSS Grid Layout specification — if all else fails, you can always go to the source, Luke.

But remember!  If you hit these sites before March 2017, you’ll need to make sure you have Grid support enabled in your browser so that you can make sense of the examples (not to mention anything you might create yourself).  Igalia has a brief and handy how-to page at Enable CSS Grid Layout, and Rachel also has a Browsers page with more information.

I’ve been hurt by layout promises before, and I’m afraid to trust.

I feel you.  Oh, do I feel you.  But this really looks like the real thing.  It’s coming.  Get ready.

October 2017