Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
The CSStastic afternoon of day one of An Event Apart in Seattle continues with Rachel Andrew. Her talk is Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS. The description reads:
For years we’ve explained that the web is not like print; that a particular idea is not how things work on the web; that certain things are simply not possible. Over the last few years, rapid browser implementation of advances in CSS have given us the ability to do many of these previously impossible things. We can use our new powers to build the same designs faster, or we can start to ask ourselves what we might do if we were solving these problems afresh.
In this talk, Rachel will look at the things coming into browsers right now which change the way we see web design. CSS subgrids allowing nested grids to use the track definition of their parent; logical properties and values moving the web away from the physical dimensions of a computer screen; screen experiences which behave more like an app, or even paged media, due to scroll snapping and multidimensional control. By understanding the new medium of web design we can start to imagine the future, and even help to shape it.
I’m not sure if it even makes sense to try to live-blog a code talk, but I’ll give it my best shot…
Rachel has been talking about CSS at An Event Apart for over three years now. Our understanding of the possibilities of CSS has changed a lot in that time. Our use of
floats for layout is being consigned to history. It’s no less monumental than the change from
tables to CSS. Tableless web design often meant simplifying our designs. We were used to designing in a graphic design tool and then slicing it up into table cells. CSS couldn’t give us the same fine-grained control so we simplified our designs. It got us to start thinking of the web as its own medium. That idea really progressed with responsive web design.
But perhaps us CSS advocates downplayed some of the issues. We weren’t trying to create new CSS, we were just trying to get people to use CSS.
What we term “good web design” is based in the technical limitations of CSS. We say “the web is not print” when we see a design that’s quite print-like. People expect to have to hack at CSS to get it to do what we want. But times have changed. We have solved many of those problems (but that doesn’t mean we got all of them!).
Rachel spends a lot of time telling designers: you never know how tall anything is on the web. It used to be a real challenge to get the top and bottom of boxes to line up. We’d have to fix the height of the boxes. And if too much content goes in, the content overflows. Then we end up limiting the amount of content at the CMS side. We hacked around the problem. A technical limitation influenced our design, and even our content management. Then we got flexbox. Not only did the problem disappear, but the default behaviour is exactly what we struggled with for years: equal height columns.
How big is this box? You’ve seen the “CSS is awesome mug”, right?
Our previous layout systems relied on percentage lengths for widths. Those values had to add up to 100%, and no more. People tried to do the same thing with flexbox. People made “grid systems” with flexbox that gave widths to everything. “Flexbox is weird!”, people said. But the real problem is that flexbox is not the layout method you think it is. It’s for taking a bunch of oddly-sized things and returning the most reasonable layout for those things. It assigns space in a smart way. That solves the problem of needing to give everthing a width. It figures it out for you. If you decide to put widths on everything, you’re kind of working against flexbox.
We’re so used to having to hack everything in CSS, we had to take a step back with flexbox and realise that hacks aren’t necessary.
CSS tries to avoid data loss. That’s why the “CSS is awesome” text overflows the box. You don’t want the text to vanish. Visible overflow is messy, but it’s better than making some content disappear.
In the box alignment specification, there’s the concept of safe and unsafe alignment. Safe:
align-items: safe center;
You give the browser permission to align items to the start if necessary. But you can override that with
align-items: unsafe center;
Overflow is going to happen. Now it’s up to you what happens when it does.
The “content honking out of the box” problem described in the “CSS is awesome” meme is now controlled with
The box expands to encompass the widest content.
You have many choices. But what if the text isn’t running left to right? It might not be a problem we run into for English text. For years, CSS had that English-centric assumption baked in. Now CSS has been updated to not make that assumption. The web is not left to right. Flexbox and grid take an agnostic approach to the writing mode of the document. There’s no “top”, “bottom”, “left” or “right”. There’s “start”, “end”, “inline” and “block”. Now we have a new spec for logical properties and values. It maps old physical values (top, bottom, etc.) to the newer agnostic values.
So even if you use
writing-mode to flip direction,
width is still a width. Use
inline-size instead of
width and everything keeps working: the width maps to height when you apply a different
writing-mode value. Eventually we’ll use those flow-relative values more than the old values. Solutions need to include different writing modes.
There is no fold. We’ve said that for years, right? But we know where the fold is. We’ve got viewport units that represent the width and height of the browser viewport. We can start to make designs that make use of the viewport. You can size a screen full of images exactly to fit the visible space. Combine it with
scroll-snap to get the page views to snap as the user scrolls. You get paged layout. That’s interesting for Rachel because she’s used to designing for paged layout in print versus continuous layout on the web.
What’s next for CSS grid? Grid layout has been the biggest problem-solver of recent years. But that doesn’t mean it has solved all the layout problems. New problems appear as we start to work with CSS grid. We often end up nesting grids. But the nested grids don’t have any knowledge of one another. We’re back to: you never know how tall things are on the web. We need a way to have a relationship. Some kind of, I don’t know, subgrid.
You could use
display: contents. It removes a box from the visual display allowing grandchildren to act like children. The browser support is good, but there’s a stonking accessibility bug so don’t use it in production. Also you can’t apply visual styles to anything that’s got
display: contents on it. But
grid-template-rows: subgrid will solve this problem. The spec is in a good shape. We’re waiting for the first browser implementations.
You will hit problems. Find new technical limitations. It’s just that we can’t do that stuff yet. We get the new stuff when we create it. Write up the problems you come across.
We’re finding the edges. Rachel is going to share her problems.
Rachel wants to put some text into her image grid. No problem. But then if there’s too much text, it might not fit in a height-restricted row. We can adjust the row to not be height-restricted, but then we lose the nice viewport-fitting layout.
In continuous media — which is what the web is — content inside multicol gets longer and longer. You can fix the height of the container but then the columns get created horizontally. What if you could say, I want my multicol container to be, say
100vh high, but if the content overlows, create a new
100vh high container below. Overflow in the block dimension. Maybe that’ll be in the next version of the multicol spec.
Multicol doesn’t solve Rachel’s image grid situation. What she needs is a way for the text to fill up a box and then flow into another box. The content needs to be semantically marked up — not broken into separate chunks for layout — and we want the browser to figure out where to break that content and fill up available space.
It comes as a surprise to people that a lot of paged media — books, magazines — are laid out with CSS. It’s in the paged media module. Prince is a good example of a user agent that supports paged media. There’s the concept of a page box: a physical page into which content can go. You get to define the boxes with physical dimensions like inches or centimeters. You create a bunch of margin boxes with generated content. Enough pages are created to hold all the content. You create your page model and flow the content through it.
Maybe apps and websites with defined screens are not that different from paged contexts. There have been attempts to create CSS specs that would allow this kind of content-flowing behaviour. CSS regions was one attempt. There was
-ms-flow-from in the IE and Edge implementations. You had to apply
-ms-flow-into to an
Regions needs ready-prepared boxes for the content to flow into. But how can you know how many boxes to prepare in advance? You don’t know how big things will be on the web. Rachel has been told that there’s nothing wrong with the CSS regions spec because you can define a final bucket for all leftover content. That doesn’t seem like a viable solution.
CSS regions predated CSS grid and didn’t take off. Now that we’ve got grid, something like regions makes a lot of sense.
Web design has been involved in a constant battle with overflow. Whether it’s overflowing boxes, or there (not) being a fold, or multicol layout. Rachel thinks we can figure out a way to get regions to work. Perhaps regions paved the way for something better. Maybe it was just ahead of its time. There are a lot of things hidden away in CSS specs that never made it out: things that didn’t make sense until more advanced CSS came along.
Regions — like multicol — relies on fragmentation. Ever tried to stop a heading behind the last thing on a page in a print stylesheet? We need good support for
We create new things to solve problems. Maybe you don’t see the value of something like regions, but I bet there’s been something where you thought “I wish CSS could do this!”.
Rob wrote up a problem that he had with trying to have a floated element maintain its floatiness inside a grid. He saw it as a grid problem. Rachel saw it as an exclusions problem. Rob’s write-up was really valuable to demonstrate the need for exclusions. Writing things up is hugely valuable for pushing things forward. Write up your ideas — they’ll show us the use case.
Ask “why can’t I do that?” Let’s not fall into the temptation of making things grid-like just because we have CSS grid now. Keep pushing at the boundaries.
Many of things Rachel has shown — grid, exclusions, regions — were implemented by Microsoft. With Edge moving to a Chromium rendering engine, we must make sure that we maintain diversity of thought in the standards process. Voices other than those of rendering engines need to contribute to the discussion.
At a W3C meeting or standards discussion, the room should not be 60–70% Googlers.
More than ever, the web needs diversity of thought. Rachel isn’t having a dig at Google. This isn’t a fight between good and evil. It’s a fight against any monoculture. So please contribute. Get involved. Together we can work for the future of the web platform.
This was originally posted on my own site.