Rachel Andrew guides us through a tour of the last fifteen years in CSS layout, as manifested in articles here on 24 ways. From the days when Internet Explorer 6 was de rigueur, right up to the modern age of evergreen browsers, the only thing you can be sure of is that the web never stands still for long.
I’ve written nine articles in the 15 years of 24 ways, and all but one of those articles had something to do with CSS. In this last year of the project, I thought I would take a look back at those CSS articles. It’s been an interesting journey, and by reading through my words from the last 15 years I discovered not only how much the web platform has evolved - but how my own thinking has shifted with it.
2005: CSS layout starting points
Latest web browser versions: Internet Explorer 6 (at this point 4 years old), IE5.1 Mac, Netscape 8, Firefox 1.5, Safari 2
Fifteen years ago, my contributions to 24 ways started with a piece about CSS layout. That article explored something I had been using in my own work. In 2005, most of the work I was doing was building websites from Photoshop files delivered to me by my design agency clients. I’d built up a set of robust, tried-and-tested CSS layouts to use to implement these. My starting point when approaching any project was to take a look at the static comps and figure out which layout I would use:
- Liquid, multiple column with no footer
- Liquid, multiple column with footer
- Fixed width, centred
At that point, there were still many sites being shipped with table-based layouts. We had learned how to use floats to create columns some four years earlier, however layout was still a difficult and often fragile thing. By developing patterns that I knew worked, where I had figured out any strange bugs, I saved myself a lot of time.
Of course, I wasn’t the only person thinking in this way. The two sites from which the early CSS for layout enthusiasts took most of their inspiration, had a library of patterns for CSS layout. The Noodle Incident little boxes is still online, glish.com/css is sadly only available at the Internet Archive.
This thinking was taken to a much greater extreme in 2011, when Twitter Bootstrap launched and starting with an entire framework for layout and much more became commonplace across the industry. While I understand the concern many folk have about every website ending up looking the same, back in 2005 I was a pragmatist. That has not changed. I’ve always built websites and run businesses alongside evangelizing web standards and contributing to the platform. I’m all about getting the job done, paying the bills, balancing that with trying to make things better so we don’t need to make as many compromises in the future. If that means picking from one of a number of patterns, that is often a very reasonable approach. Not everything needs to be a creative outpouring.
Today however, CSS Grid Layout and Flexbox mean that we can take a much more fluid approach to developing layouts. This enables the practical and the creative alike. The need for layout starting points - whether simple like mine, or a full framework like Bootstrap - seems to be decreasing, however in their place comes an interest in component libraries. This approach to development partly enabled by the fact that new layout makes it possible to drop a component into the middle of a layout without blowing the whole thing up.
2006: Faster Development with CSS Constants
Latest web browser versions: Internet Explorer 7, Netscape 8.1, Firefox 2, Safari 2
My article in 2006 was once again taken from the work I was doing as a developer. I’ve always been as much, if not more of a backend developer than a frontend one. In 2006, I was working in PHP on custom CMS implementations. These would also usually include the front-end work. Along with several other people in the industry I’d been experimenting with ways to use CSS “constants” as we all seemed to call them, by processing the CSS with our server-side language of choice.
The use case was mostly for development, although as a CMS developer, I could see the potential of allowing these values to be updated via the CMS. Perhaps to allow a content editor to change a color scheme.
Also in 2006, the first version of Sass was released, created by Hampton Catlin and Natalie Weizenbaum. Sass, LESS and other pre-processors began to give us a more streamlined and elegant way to achieve variables in CSS.
In 2009, the need for pre-processors purely for variables is disappearing. CSS now has Custom Properties - something I did not foresee in 2006. These “CSS Variables” are far more powerful than swapping out a value in a build process. They can be changed dynamically, based on something changing in the environment, rather than being statically set at build time.
2009: Cleaner Code with CSS3 Selectors
Latest web browser versions: Internet Explorer 8, Firefox 3.5, Safari 4, Chrome 3
After a break from writing for 24 ways, in 2009 I wrote this piece about CSS3 Selectors, complete with jQuery fallbacks due to the fact that some of these selectors were not usable in Internet Explorer 8.
Today these useful selectors have wide browser support, we also have a large number of new selectors which are part of the Level 4 specification. The changes section of the Level 4 spec gives an excellent rundown of what has been added over the years. Browser support for these newer selectors is more inconsistent, MDN has an excellent list with the page for each selector detailing current browser support and usage examples.
2012: Giving Content Priority with CSS3 Grid Layout
Latest web browser versions: Internet Explorer 10, Firefox 17, Safari 6, Chrome 23
My 2012 piece was at the beginning of my interest in the CSS Grid Layout specification. Earlier in 2012 I had attended a workshop given by Bert Bos, in which he demonstrated some early stage CSS modules, including the CSS Grid Layout specification. I soon discovered that there would be an implementation of Grid in IE10, the new browser shipped in September of 2012 and I set about learning how to use Grid Layout. This article was based on what I had learned.
The problem of source versus visual order
As a CMS developer I immediately linked the ability to lay out items and prioritize content, to the CMS and content editors. I was keen to find ways to allow content editors to prioritize content across breakpoints, and I felt that Grid Layout might allow us to do that. As it turned out, we are still some way away from that goal. While Grid does allow us to separate visual display from source order, it can come at a cost. Non-visual browsers, and the tab order of the document follow the source and not the visual display. This makes it easy to create a disconnected and difficult to use experience if we essentially jumble up the display of elements, moving them away from how they appear in the document. I still think that an issue we need to solve is how to allow developers to indicate that the visual display should be considered the correct order rather than the document order.
The Grid Specification moved on
Some of the issues in this early version of the grid spec were apparent in my article. I needed to use a pre-processor, to calculate the columns an element would span. This was partly due to the fact that the early grid specifications did not have a concept of the
gap property. In addition the initial spec did not include auto-placement and therefore each item had to be explicitly placed onto the grid. The basics of the final specification were there, however over the years that followed the specification was refined and developed. We got gaps, and auto-placement, and the
grid-template-areas property was introduced. By the time Grid shipped in Firefox, Chrome, and Safari many of the sticky things I had encountered when writing this article were resolved.
2015: Grid, Flexbox, Box Alignment: Our New System for Layout
Latest web browser versions: Edge 13, Firefox 43, Safari 9, Chrome 47
Grid still hadn’t shipped in more browsers but the specification had moved on. We had support for gaps, with the
grid-gap properties. My own thinking about the specification, and the related specifications had developed. I had started teaching grid not as a standalone module, but alongside Flexbox and Box Alignment. I was trying to demonstrate how these modules worked together to create a layout system for modern web development.
Another place my thinking had moved on since my initial Grid article in 2012, was in terms of content reordering and accessibility. In July of 2015 I wrote an article entitled, Modern CSS Layout, Power and Responsibility in which I outlined these concerns.
Some things change, and some stay the same. The
grid- prefixed gap properties were ultimately moved into the Box Alignment specification in order that they could be defined for Flex layout and any other layout method which in future required gaps. What I did not expect, was that four years on I would still be being asked about Grid versus Flexbox:
“A question I keep being asked is whether CSS grid layout and flexbox are competing layout systems, as though it might be possible to back the loser in a CSS layout competition. The reality, however, is that these two methods will sit together as one system for doing layout on the web, each method playing to certain strengths and serving particular layout tasks.”
2016: What next for CSS Grid Layout?
Latest web browser versions: Edge 15, Firefox 50, Safari 10, Chrome 55
In 2016, we still didn’t have Grid in browsers, and I was increasingly looking like I was selling CSS vaporware. However, with the spec at Candidate Recommendation, and it looking likely that we would have grid in at least two browsers in the spring, I wrote an article about what might come next for grid.
The main subject was the subgrid feature, which had by that point been removed from the Level 1 specification. The CSS Working Group were still trying to decide whether a version of subgrid locked to both dimensions would be acceptable. In this version we would have declared
display: subgrid on the grid item, after which its rows and columns would be locked to the tracks of the parent. I am very glad that it was ultimately decided to allow for one-dimensional subgrids. This means that you can use the column tracks of the parent, yet have an implicit grid for the rows. This enables patterns such as the one I described in A design pattern solved by subgrid. At the end of 2019, we don’t yet have wide browser support for subgrid, however Firefox has already shipped the value in Firefox 71. Hopefully other browsers will follow suit.
Level 2 of the grid specification ultimately became all about adding support for subgrid, and so we don’t yet have any of the other features I mentioned in that piece. All of those features are detailed in issues in the CSS Working Group Github repo, and aren’t forgotten about. As we come to decide features for Level 3, perhaps some of them will make the cut.
It was worth waiting for subgrid, as the one-dimensional version gives us so much more power, and as I take a look back over these 24 ways articles it really underlines how much of a long game contributing to the platform is. I mentioned in the closing paragraph of my 2016 article that you should not feel ignored if your idea or use case is not immediately discussed and added to a spec, and that is still the case. Those of us involved in specifying CSS, and in implementing CSS in browsers care very much about your feedback. We have to balance that with the need for this stuff to be right.
2017: Christmas Gifts for Your Future Self: Testing the Web Platform
Latest web browser versions: Edge 16, Firefox 57, Safari 11, Chrome 63
In 2017 I stepped away from directly talking about layout, and instead published an article about testing. Not about testing your own code, but about the Web Platform Tests project, and how contributing to the tests which help to ensure interoperability between browsers could benefit the platform - and you.
This article is still relevant today as it was two years ago. I’m often asked by people how they can get involved with CSS, and testing is a great place to start. Specifications need tests in order to progress to become Recommendations, therefore contributing tests can materially help the progress of a spec. You can also help to free up the time of spec editors, to make edits to their specs, by contributing tests they might otherwise need to work on.
The Web Platform Tests project has recently got new and improved documentation. If you have some time to spare and would like to help, take a look and see if you can identify some places that are in need of tests. You will learn a lot about the CSS specs you are testing while doing so, and you can feel that you are making a useful and much-needed contribution to the development of the web platform.
2018: Researching a Property in the CSS Specifications
Latest web browser versions: Edge 17, Firefox 64, Safari 12, Chrome 71
I almost stayed away from layout in my 2018 piece, however I did feature the Grid Layout property
grid-auto-rows in this article. If you want to understand how to dig up all the details of a CSS property, then this article is still useful.
One thing that has changed since I began writing for 24 ways, is the amount of great information available to help you learn CSS. Whether you are someone who prefers to read like me, or a person who learns best from video, or by following along with a tutorial, it’s all out there for you. You don’t have to rely on understanding the specifications, though I would encourage everyone to become familiar with doing so, if just to be able to fact check a tutorial which seems to be doing something other than the resulting code.
2019: And that’s a wrap
Latest web browser versions: Edge 18, Firefox 71, Safari 12, Chrome 79
This year is the final countdown for 24 ways. With so many other publications creating great content, perhaps there is less of a need for an avalanche of writing in the closing days of each year. The archive will stay as a history of what was important, what we were thinking, and the problems of the day - many of which we have now solved in ways that the authors could never have imagined at the time. I can see through my articles how my thinking evolved over the years, and I’m as excited about what comes next as I was back in 2005, wondering how to make CSS layout easier.
About the author
Rachel Andrew is a Director of edgeofmyseat.com, a UK web development consultancy and creators of the small content management system, Perch; a W3C Invited Expert to the CSS Working Group; and Editor in Chief of Smashing Magazine. She is the author of a number of books including The New CSS Layout for A Book Apart and a Google Developer Expert for Web Technologies.
When not writing about business and technology on her blog at rachelandrew.co.uk or speaking at conferences, you will usually find Rachel running up and down one of the giant hills in Bristol, or attempting to land a small aeroplane while training for her Pilot’s license.