My latest project at work is a bit confidential, but I can say that it has me designing a webpage. I grew up on this stuff and I’ve almost entirely self-taught myself it. This time, I was given the design prototype, and didn’t have to worry about the actual design of the document.

But it was still a huge bitch. I began by reading up on some extra CSS articles. Maybe this time I’ll try absolute positioning instead of floating divs. It has its own issues. Creating web pages is fun for me … up until I run into the issues. I seems the W3C specs aren’t designed to make things easy for web designers. Some of the most common practices in web design are using CSS specs that aren’t designed specifically for layouts. Absolute positioning is generic – it’s useful for positioning arbitrary elements, which has a lot of use in layout design, but it has limitations and problems. Using floating divs and wrappers and margins to create a particular layout is using these tools for something other than what they are design for.

Take float – it’s a property to make text flow around an object. It wasn’t designed to create columns on a webpage. And there’s no CSS property that creates columns, or a header. In simple cases and the beginnings of large projects, working with a web layout seems simpler than a desktop application layout. All you need are some elements and style rules – no worry about creating objects and adding them and listening for events.

But I’m beginning to wish we had a better approach to creating webpage layouts. Something that’s actually designed to create web forms and two-column pages. The SWING library for Java is a good example. It was designed to create layouts for people to use an application. CSS is designed to style documents. It does have its uses, and that is styling documents. But there are a lot of cases where that doesn’t apply. I would guess that the majority of uses of CSS are either web applications or websites (with columns, headings, footers, and the whole bit) I have no clue what the actual distribution is, or if even the majority of cases are that way, actually, but you can’t argue that there’s a lot of cases like that. And CSS simply doesn’t lend itself well to that.

I’m not saying to abolish CSS. It needs to be improved though, perhaps split into separate specifications. Give me something where I can layout a page as easily and reliably as I could with a table, without the actual horrible atrocities of table design. I’d like something where I can say “this element is going to be a left column that spans from below the header to the bottom of the document” and “the element is going to be a horizontal menu whose items are centered and spaced evenly”. I’m sure some would say that was too specific. Rules that would be used to do that simply would be very narrow-focused. But there are so many cases where this could be used.

CSS is about separating the content from the design. But we should be able to separate parts of a CSS document: style and layout. Fonts, colours, paragraph spacing, etc, are all design properties. Floating divs and absolutely positioned footers are all things that make up a layout. I haven’t looked into to HTML5 much, so maybe there’s a step in the right direction, but what about something like this?

<html>
<head>
	<title>FGC Sample</title>
	<style>
		page {
			width: 800px;
			horizontal-position: center;
		}

		header {
			width: page-width;
			height: 100px;
			color: white;
			background-color: black;
		}

		navigation {
			nav-style: horizontal;
			item-spacing: equal;
			item-position: center;
			background-color: blue;
		}

		item {
			color: white;
		}

		item:hover {
			font-weight: bold;
			background-color: green;
		}

		content#aside {
			type: column;
			top: auto;
			bottom: document-bottom;
			width: 300px;
			position: left;
		}

		content#aside h1 {
			text-transform: uppercase;
		}

		content#main {
			type: column;
			width: auto;
			position: center;
			height: auto;

			color: black;
			background-color: blue;
		}

		content#main #execphoto {
			float: left;
			margin: 5px;
		}

		footer {
			width: page-width;
			font-size: 0.8em;
			font-style: italic;
			color: grey;
			background-colour: black;
		}
	</style>
</head>
<body>
	<page>
		<header><img src="header.png" /></header>
		<navigation>
			<item href="#">Home</item>
			<item href="#">Products</item>
			<item href="#">About</item>
			<item href="#">Contact</item>
		</navigation>
		<content id="aside">
			<h1>New product launched!</h1>
			<p>We have launched a new product XXBBYY</p>
			<p>Herp derp derp</p>
			<p>FARBLE GARBLE FBRARFGARFGB</p>
		</content>
		<content id="main">
			<h1>Welcome to FarbleGarb CO</h1>
			<img id="execphoto" src="mrfarble.png" />
			<p>At FGC we have pride and garbs to make you garble in pride.</p>
			<p>These paragraphs will float around that image like in regular CSS</p>
		</content>
		<footer>Copyright &copy; FarbleGarb 2009</footer>
	</page>
</body>
</html>

I don’t even have to tell you what it would look like, really, because the CSS explains it. Not perfectly, perhaps, but that’s why I’m not working with the W3C to design the next specs. I’m not even that great of a web designer. But I do know what problems I run into when I’m working on a website, and all the articles across the web that take a genius to get a properly flowing 3-column layout with variable length columns and a footer.

I doubt there’s going to be anything like this soon, or even not soon. CSS3 is barely implemented, and IE still has troubles with most of CSS2 and some of CSS1. But I can dream (and rant), right? One day I’m going back to party like its ‘99 and make a table-based layout. Yes, <font> tags and all.

(I’m extremely interested in other folk’s opinions. I know there are a lot better web designers out there, and I know they don’t read this blog. But if there’s any post that I think deserves commentary and discussion, it’s this one.)

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At work I’ve been developing a inital draft for the new company website. Based on some browser statistics, Firefox holds 41% of the browser market, with IE6 and 7 close at 26.5% and 27%, respectively. However, I’m willing to bet a good 30% of the people using Firefox (a statistic pulled out of my ass, of course) are geeks and/or in the IT profession (including web designers). The company I work for is a manufacturing company, who sells machines that make gel capsules. So I have to assume the a larger percentage of the audience will be using IE7 and 6 (IE6 is still out there – there’s a lot of companies still using Win2000).

That about puts them all on the same plate, which means I have to develop for three different browsers, all with their own little perkiness. Of course, I could just use tables – hell, tables work anywhere. Or I could make a navigation bar with images only. But as a geek and supporter of standards, I of course have to use CSS only. And the navigation menu isn’t in a line of text. No, it’s an actual list element. And it’s floated and horizontal, with no bullets.

And the best part – it’s a rollover, drop-down menu. Without Javascript. Of course, that was the point, except in order for IE to accept rollovers properly, I had to use some Suckerfish javascript. Well – at least it was tidy, and worked. Sprinkled throughout the code are little hacks and tricks to make everything fit in place, like !important flags and .margin-top: -2px tricks. In my quest to achieve standards compliance and full accessibility, I have broken my core religious believes and broken my balls over gettings everyone to play nicely. Isn’t it just easier to say eff that browser I don’t care about you? Well, certainly. But then I’d be a rational, productive person.

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