Posted Monday, November 29, 2004
How would you like to have a tool that could make your web site load faster? What if it could also allow you to make changes across you entire site with just a few keystrokes? And while we're at it, let's make it the standard for new browsers, so that your site will still work properly in the future.
Well, that tool is here now and it's called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). CSS is the part of the code that defines the appearance of a web site.
HTML 4 is the current version of the markup language that is used to control the structure of a web page. It was created by the World Wide Web Consortium several years ago, and one of the main goals of this version was to separate the structure of a web page from its presentation. This means that HTML is used only to create the overall structure of a web page, which includes things like headlines and paragraphs. This leaves CSS to describe what different size headlines should look like, and how paragraphs will appear on the screen.
The problem with many sites today is that they were constructed before HTML 4 had been released, or by designers who hadn't yet made the transition. These sites are more difficult to debug or update because the HTML was used i many creative way to do define the presentation as well as the structure, and it wasn't designed to do that. They also contain a lot more code, since each headline, paragraph and other text had to have its font, font size and color defined. This extra code adds to the time it takes to download a web page into someone's browser.
These sites are time-consuming to update, as well. If you decide to make all your largest headlines red instead of blue, each one has to be changed one at a time. If enough changes need to be made, there's always the chance one will be missed, or perhaps changed incorrectly.
CSS to the Rescue!
The CSS for your web site is in a text document separate from the rest of the HTML code. In the head, or invisible, part of the page code, is a line that links that web page to the style sheet. When a browser reads the code, it uses the information in the CSS to define the way the page looks.
So for instance you might write your CSS to make your largest headlines with a size of 20 pixels, in blue, using the Verdana font. The CSS code to create this looks like this:
(The pound signs are only used in these examples so you can see the code.)
Remember, this will be just part of the CSS code that is in a text document that might have been typed up using Notepad, or any other word processor. The reason several fonts are listed is because HTML can only use fonts that are already on the visitor's computer, and since we can't know for sure what everyone has, we give the browser choices. If the browser has Verdana, that's the font this headline will use. If it doesn't have Verdana, it checks for Helvetica, and so on. If the computer doesn't have any of the first three, it will use whatever default san serif font is on that machine.
When a headline is created for a web page, the code might look like this:
If the page with this code is linked to the style sheet with the code we showed previously, this headline will be in 20 pixel blue Verdana on every computer that views the page. Without using CSS, this code will look different in different browsers, depending on what defaults have been set. On my computer, this would be in 24 pixel New Times Roman, and it would be black.
In the days before CSS, in order to get this headline the way we wanted it, we'd have to specifically spell out every feature, and the HTML code, which we saw a moment ago was so short, now would look like this:
Make Things Simple with CSS
That's quite a bit of extra unnecessary code, especially when you multiply it by the number of headlines, paragraphs, lists, captions and links that also need this treatment. It's so much easier to define each type of text in CSS once and let all the pages linked to it use those settings.
You can now see why modifying a site would be so much easier with CSS. Without it, if you wanted the headlines changed from blue to navy, and the text in each paragraph made slightly larger, every headline and paragraph in the entire site would have to be changed individually.
With CSS, you make a small change to the headline code, another small change to the paragraph code, and your whole site is quickly and uniformly changed! This is just one simple example of the many ways CSS can be used in a web site.
Older browsers don't recognize all the current CSS standards, so many of its most powerful features don't work in them. As newer browsers are developed they are including more and more support for CSS standards, so in the future we can look forward to having more control over the layout and appearance of our web pages.
About the Author
Les Goss is President of ZebraMoon Design, Inc. To see a partial list of high-ranking web sites we've created for our clients, please visit our web site at (http://www.zmoon.com). Sign up for our free newsletter at (http://www.zmoon.com/webdesigntips.html). You'll receive two issues a month on topics that should help you stay a step ahead of your competition.