Tag: better

Want to get better at code? Teach someone CSS.

A friend of mine recently asked me to teach her to code. She was an absolute beginner, having no idea what coding really involves. I decided to start where I started: HTML and CSS. Using CodePen, we started forking Pens and altering them. Soon, a learning path started to unravel.

The aim of this article is not to teach basic CSS to those who already know it but rather to highlight the things that inspired a newcomer and hopefully inspire you to pass on some knowledge to others if the opportunity arises. It felt good to help someone out and, in turn, I learned some really valuable lessons that have changed the way I think about my code. Win win!

So, here we go: five lessons I learned from teaching someone CSS.

Lesson 1: Don’t start from scratch

When I starting coding for the web 12 years ago, I began with layout — positioning with floats, margins, padding and position declarations. It might seem outdated these days, but still, this is where I went right away with my new coding buddy.

It didn’t go that well.

As you might guess, starting with something like, “Here is how to position an empty box in the middle of the screen,” was a mistake. How uninspiring! And even though I was impressed with my own ability to demonstrate how Flexbox can position an element in the center of the screen (more on that later), I was immediately faced with lots of additional, non-positional questions.

“So how do you change the colors?”

“Can it change shape when hovered over?”

“What fonts can you use on the web?”

I thought we were weeks away from all that.

So, my plans of teaching the 12-column grid went out the window and we pulled up Chris’ named color chart alongside a couple of forked Pens and started playing around. First off, we changed the colors of Cassidy Williams Netflix/Netlify logo. Wow! Instant hit.

<a class="container" href="https://netlify.com" target="_blank">    <div class="logo">     <div class="uno"></div>     <div class="dos"></div>     <div class="tres"></div>   </div>   <div class="name">Prettier</div> </a>

Then a few simple tweaks to the CSS:

body {   background: #F9F2DB;   color: #092935;   font-size: 50px; } 
 a {   color: #092935; } 
 .logo .uno, .dos, .tres {   background: #C61561; }  .logo .dos {   box-shadow: 0 0 20px #F9F2DB; }  .logo::before {   background: #F9F2DB; } 
 .name {   letter-spacing: 8px; }

Within minutes, my friend was hooked! There was no boring positioning to worry about, just a clear example of how a few simple lines of code can change something so familiar into something entirely different.

Then it kicked in that you can change the color of anything! We loaded up a couple of well known sites in the browser and changed the colors of some text and backgrounds with DevTools, all in a couple of minutes. Mission accomplished! My friend was hooked. 

Lesson learned: Don’t worry about trying to build something from scratch. Have a play with what’s already out there! 

Lesson 2: Comments

This isn’t where I had planned to go with my planned class, but the question of why some parts of CSS start with /* and end with */ came up, so we went with it. 

This one really had me thinking about my own work. I really do not comment my code enough. Watching a new coder comment everything (and I mean everything) reminded me just how helpful comments are, not only for yourself, but also to a wider team, or even future you. (Sarah Drasner has a great talk on this topic).

And here is the thing: until then, I thought I was commenting pretty diligently. However, watching someone else do it made me realize how many times I look at a piece of code (particularly JavaScript) and wish I had put a line or two in there to remind myself what I was doing. A ten-second task might have saved me five (or perhaps even more) minutes down the road. That adds up and is now something I am working on.

Lesson learned: Comment more. 

Lesson 3: Positioning

We started with some basic HTML, and honestly, I saw my friend’s eyes glazing over almost immediately. It just looks so dull when you can’t see it doing anything right away (unlike editing pre-written CSS). However, we stuck with it, and got results.

Take my word for it, don’t start by positioning empty <div> elements with 1-pixel borders around them. You’ll lose your audience very quickly. Put a picture of a dog in there — or baby Yoda or a pizza — just as long as it’s anything other than an empty element.

We then turned to Flexbox. We actually found CSS Grid a bit too much at the start. We looked briefly at CSS Grid, but when reading lots of articles about it, it’s clear that many assume the reader already has familiarity with CSS, Flexbox in particular. My friend decided to start with Flexbox.

An admission on my part: I am so used to using UI frameworks (especially Bootstrap) that I very rarely position anything in Flexbox by writing the CSS myself. I know how it works and (most of) the declarations, but I still very rarely write it out myself, even in situations where it would be relatively easy. Teaching made me think about my reliance on UI frameworks as a whole. Yes, they are undoubtedly amazing and save us tons of time on projects, but I recalled using Bootstrap on a recent project that was essentially two pages and probably didn’t need it! 

Lesson learned: If the project is something small with a minimal number of elements to position, then consider ditching the framework and code from scratch! The end result will be lightweight, fast, and way more satisfying!

Lesson 4: Typography

I love typography. I’ve been lucky enough to work with great designers over the past few years and that has really helped me dial in on the nuances of type. It’s amazing how changes to things like line-height and letter-spacing can really help lift a design from average to amazing. This was something I was keen to impress upon my eager new student. Well, I needn’t have bothered, as the only thing of interest (initially) was changing the fonts and then, crucially for me, the sheer number of fonts available for us to use. The choices are almost limitless and the services and foundries offering web fonts have exploded in the past few years to a point where anything is possible, at speed with little impact on load times.

But here is the thing about designers (and front-end developers like myself): we can be a bit narrow-minded in our font choices. Designs tend to stick to the same fonts from the same services (Roboto and Open Sans anyone?) because we know they are easy to implement and that they work. Exploring fonts with someone new to the trade forced me to look beyond the old staples and try a few new things. I’m now looking for new pairings that work together and dialing in on how they work on screen and impact the whole look and feel of a design. In short, teaching someone else about type has improved my own journey with type, which was probably stuck in something like 2017. 

Lesson learned: Keep up to date with type.

Lesson 5. :hover makes everything fun

Things were going OK up to this point, but as you can probably imagine, things were still pretty static. Without really planning, we stumbling into adding a hover effect on on an element and it was an instant hook, just like it was changing colors for the first time!

Hovers add interaction and easily impress, which makes them great for a newcomer to play around with. Scaling objects, changing a box from square to round, hiding content — these are the types of thing that can all be done so easily that hovers are an ideal way for a new coder to get instant results. And here’s the thing: “‘playing” around like this opens other doors. “What if I just do this?” is something many us rarely get to ask ourselves in our day-to-day jobs. With defined designs to work from, there is often little chance to play and equally less chance to experiment.

So, here is the final lesson: Make time to play. Just by being asked, “How do you make this thing do that?” has forced me to learn new things, see what’s new in CSS, and see what I can take back into my day-to-day work. Experimenting (or better yet, playing) has made me a better designer, and I’ll be doing more.

Lesson learned: Make time to play.

Conclusion

If my time teaching CSS to a newbie has taught me anything, it’s that I rarely write code from scratch anymore. Code snippets and autocomplete save me hours, but it’s those same conveniences that let me forget about some really basic stuff. Stuff I should know. By teaching someone else, even if just for 15 minutes now and then, my coding has generally improved and my eyes are open to new ideas and techniques that I may not have otherwise considered.

And as for my friend? Well, she was so taken by CSS in our short time together that she is now doing an online course that includes HTML, which doesn’t seem so dull now that she knows what it is capable of doing!


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Better Form Inputs for Better Mobile User Experiences

Here’s one simple, practical way to make apps perform better on mobile devices: always configure HTML input fields with the correct type, inputmode, and autocomplete attributes. While these three attributes are often discussed in isolation, they make the most sense in the context of mobile user experience when you think of them as a team. 

There’s no question that forms on mobile devices can be time-consuming and tedious to fill in, but by properly configuring inputs, we can ensure that the data entry process is as seamless as possible for our users. Let’s take a look at some examples and best practices we can use to create better user experiences on mobile devices.

Use this demo to experiment on your own, if you’d like.

Using the correct input type

This is the easiest thing to get right. Input types, like email, tel, and url, are well-supported across browsers. While the benefit of using a type, like tel over the more generic text, might be hard to see on desktop browsers, it’s immediately apparent on mobile.

Choosing the appropriate type changes the keyboard that pops up on Android and iOS devices when a user focuses the field. For very little effort, just by using the right type, we will show custom keyboards for email, telephone numbers, URLs, and even search inputs

Text input type on iOS (left) and Android (right)
Email input type on iOS (left) and Android (right)
URL input type on iOS (left) and Android (right)
Search input type on iOS (left) and Android (right)

One thing to note is that both input type="email" and input type="url" come with validation functionality, and modern browsers will show an error tooltip if their values do not match the expected formats when the user submits the form. If you’d rather turn this functionality off, you can simply add the novalidate attribute to the containing form.

A quick detour into date types

HTML inputs comprise far more than specialized text inputs — you also have radio buttons, checkboxes, and so on. For the purposes of this discussion, though, I’m mostly talking about the more text-based inputs

There is a type of input that sits in the liminal space between the more free-form text inputs and input widgets like radio buttons: date. The date input type comes in a variety of flavors that are well-supported on mobile, including date, time, datetime-local, and month. These pop up custom widgets in iOS and Android when they are focused. Instead of triggering a specialized keyboard, they show a select-like interface in iOS, and various different types of widgets on Android (where the date and time selectors are particularly slick). 

I was excited to start using native defaults on mobile, until I looked around and realized that most major apps and mobile websites use custom date pickers rather than native date input types. There could be a couple reasons for this. First, I find the native iOS date selector to be less intuitive than a calendar-type widget. Second, even the beautifully-designed Android implementation is fairly limited compared to custom components — there’s no easy way to input a date range rather than a single date, for instance. 

Still, the date input types are worth checking out if the custom datepicker you’re using doesn’t perform well on mobile. If you’d like to try out the native input widgets on iOS and Android while making sure that desktop users see a custom widget instead of the default dropdown, this snippet of CSS will hide the calendar dropdown for desktop browsers that implement it:

::-webkit-calendar-picker-indicator {   display: none; }
Date input type on iOS (left) and Android (right)
Time input type on iOS (left) and Android (right)

One final thing to note is that date types cannot be overridden by the inputmode attribute, which we’ll discuss next.

Why should I care about inputmode?

The inputmode attribute allows you to override the mobile keyboard specified by the input’s type and directly declare the type of keyboard shown to the user. When I first learned about this attribute, I wasn’t impressed — why not just use the correct type in the first place? But while inputmode is often unnecessary, there are a few places where the attribute can be extremely helpful. The most notable use case that I’ve found for inputmode is building a better number input.

While some HTML5 input types, like url and email, are straightforward, input type="number" is a different matter. It has some accessibility concerns as well as a somewhat awkward UI. For example, desktop browsers, like Chrome, show tiny increment arrows that are easy to trigger accidentally by scrolling.

So here’s a pattern to memorize and use going forwards. For most numeric inputs, instead of using this: 

<input type="number" />

…you actually want to use this:

<input type="text" inputmode="decimal" />

Why not inputmode="numeric" instead of inputmode="decimal"

The numeric and decimal attribute values produce identical keyboards on Android. On iOS, however, numeric displays a keyboard that shows both numbers and punctuation, while decimal shows a focused grid of numbers that almost looks exactly like the tel input type, only without extraneous telephone-number focused options. That’s why it’s my preference for most types of number inputs.

iOS numeric input (left) and decimal input (right)
Android numeric input (left) and decimal input (right)

Christian Oliff has written an excellent article dedicated solely to the inputmode attribute.

Don’t forget autocomplete

Even more important than showing the correct mobile keyboard is showing helpful autocomplete suggestions. That can go a long way towards creating a faster and less frustrating user experience on mobile.

While browsers have heuristics for showing autocomplete fields, you cannot rely on them, and should still be sure to add the correct autocomplete attribute. For instance, in iOS Safari, I found that an input type="tel" would only show autocomplete options if I explicitly added a autocomplete="tel" attribute.

You may think that you are familiar with the basic autocomplete options, such as those that help the user fill in credit card numbers or address form fields, but I’d urge you to review them to make sure that you are aware of all of the options. The spec lists over 50 values! Did you know that autocomplete="one-time-code" can make a phone verification user flow super smooth?

Speaking of autocomplete…

I’d like to mention one final element that allows you to create your own custom autocomplete functionality: datalist. While it creates a serviceable — if somewhat basic — autocomplete experience on desktop Chrome and Safari, it shines on iOS by surfacing suggestions in a convenient row right above the keyboard, where the system autocomplete functionality usually lives. Further, it allows the user to toggle between text and select-style inputs.

On Android, on the other hand, datalist creates a more typical autocomplete dropdown, with the area above the keyboard reserved for the system’s own typeahead functionality. One possible advantage to this style is that the dropdown list is easily scrollable, creating immediate access to all possible options as soon as the field is focused. (In iOS, in order to view more than the top three matches, the user would have to trigger the select picker by pressing the down arrow icon.)

You can use this demo to play around with datalist:

And you can explore all the autocomplete options, as well as input type and inputmode values, using this tool I made to help you quickly preview various input configurations on mobile.

In summary

When I’m building a form, I’m often tempted to focus on perfecting the desktop experience while treating the mobile web as an afterthought. But while it does take a little extra work to ensure forms work well on mobile, it doesn’t have to be too difficult. Hopefully, this article has shown that with a few easy steps, you can make forms much more convenient for your users on mobile devices.

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Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS

(This is a sponsored post.)

Robin recently lamented the common complaint that CSS is frustrating. There are misconceptions about what it is and what it does. There are debates about what kind of language it is. There are even different views on where it should be written.

Rachel Andrew has a new talk from An Event Apart DC 2019 available that walks us back; back to the roots of the issues we used to have with CSS and the “hacks” we used to overcome them. CSS has changed a lot over the past few years and, while those changes have felt complex and confusing at times, they are designed to solve what we have always wanted CSS to do.

The full hour it takes to watch the talk is well worth the time. Here are a few nuggets that stood out. First off, some de-bunking of common CSS complaints:

  • You never know how tall anything is on the web. Floats never solved this because they only bring things next to each other instead of knowing about the items around them. New layout methods, including CSS Grid and Flexbox, actually look at our elements and help them behave consistently.
  • Flexbox is weird and unintuitive. It’s not the layout method you might think it is. If we view it as a way to line things up next to each other, it’s going to feel weird and behavior weirdly as well. But if we see it for what it is – a method that looks at differently sized elements and returns the most logical layout – it starts to make sense. It assigns space, rather than squishing things into a box.

Rachel continues by giving us a peek into the future of what CSS wants to do for us:

  • CSS wants to avoid data loss. New alignment keywords like safe and unsafe will give us extra control to define whether we want CSS to aggressively avoid content that’s unintentionally hidden or allow it to happen.
.container {   display: flex;   flex-direction: column;   /* Please center as long as it doesn't result in overflow */   align-items: safe center; }
  • CSS wants to help us get real with overflow. Themin-content and max-content keywords make it possible to create boxes that are wide enough for the content but not wider, and boxes that are as big as the content can be.
.container {   width: min-content; /* Allow wrapping */ }
  • CSS wants to lay things out logically. The web is not left-to-right. Grid and Flexbox quietly introduced a way of thinking start-to-end that is direction agnostic. That has brought about a new specification for Logical Properties and Values.
  • CSS wants to make content more portable. CSS Regions let us flow content from one element into another. While it’s probably a flawed comparison, it’s sorta like the pipes in old school Mario Bros. games where jumping in one pipe at one location will plop your character out of another pipe in another location… but we get to define those sources ourselves and without angry plants trying to eat us along the way.

Anyway, these are merely scratching the surface of what Rachel covers in her talk. It’s a good reminder that An Event Apart has an entire library of valuable talks from amazing speakers and that attending an AEA event is an invaluable experience worth checking out. Rachel’s talk was from last year’s Washington D.C. event and, as it turns out, the very next event is taking place there this April 13-15. If you can’t make that one, there are several others throughout the year across the United States.

Oh, and of course we have a discount code for you! Use AEACP for $ 100 off any show.

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While You Weren’t Looking, CSS Gradients Got Better

One thing that caught my eye on the list of features for Lea Verou’s conic-gradient() polyfill was the last item:

Supports double position syntax (two positions for the same color stop, as a shortcut for two consecutive color stops with the same color)

Surprisingly, I recently discovered most people aren’t even aware that double position for gradient stops is something that actually exists in the spec, so I decided to write about it.

According to the spec:

Specifying two locations makes it easier to create solid-color “stripes” in a gradient, without having to repeat the color twice.

I completely agree, this was the first thing I thought of when I became aware of this feature.

Let’s say we want to get the following result: a gradient with a bunch of equal width vertical stripes (which I picked up from an earlier post by Chris):

Screenshot. Shows 8 vertical rainbow stripes, from left to right: violet, magenta, red, orange, yellow, yellowish green, teal, blue.
Desired gradient result.

The hex values are: #5461c8, #c724b1, #e4002b, #ff6900, #f6be00, #97d700, #00ab84 and #00a3e0.

Let’s first see how we’d CSS this without using double stop positions!

We have eight stripes, which makes each of them one-eighth of the gradient width. One eighth of 100% is 12.5%, so we go from one to the next at multiples of this value.

This means our linear-gradient() looks as follows:

linear-gradient(90deg,               #5461c8 12.5% /* 1*12.5% */,    #c724b1 0, #c724b1 25%   /* 2*12.5% */,    #e4002b 0, #e4002b 37.5% /* 3*12.5% */,    #ff6900 0, #ff6900 50%   /* 4*12.5% */,    #f6be00 0, #f6be00 62.5% /* 5*12.5% */,    #97d700 0, #97d700 75%   /* 6*12.5% */,    #00ab84 0, #00ab84 87.5% /* 7*12.5% */,    #00a3e0 0)

Note that we don’t need to repeat stop position % values because, whenever a stop position is smaller than a previous one, we automatically have a sharp transition. That’s why it’s always safe to use 0 (which is always going to be smaller than any positive value) and have #c724b1 25%, #e4002b 0 instead of #c724b1 25%, #e4002b 25%, for example. This is something that can make our life easier in the future if, for example, we decide we want to add two more stripes and make the stop positions multiples of 10%.

Not too bad, especially compared to what gradient generators normally spit out. But if we decide one of those stripes in the middle doesn’t quite fit in with the others, then changing it to something else means updating in two places.

Again, not too bad and nothing we can’t get around with a little bit of help from a preprocessor:

$  c: #5461c8 #c724b1 #e4002b #ff6900 #f6be00 #97d700 #00ab84 #00a3e0;  @function get-stops($  c-list) {   $  s-list: ();   $  n: length($  c-list);   $  u: 100%/$  n; 	   @for $  i from 1 to $  n {     $  s-list: $  s-list,               nth($  c-list, $  i) $  i*$  u,               nth($  c-list, $  i + 1) 0   }    @return $  s-list }  .strip {   background: linear-gradient(90deg, get-stops($  c))) }

This generates the exact CSS gradient we saw a bit earlier and now we don’t have to modify anything in two places anymore.

See the Pen by thebabydino (@thebabydino) on CodePen.

However, even if a preprocessor can save us from typing the same thing twice, it doesn’t eliminate repetition from the generated code.

And we may not always want to use a preprocessor. Leaving aside the fact that some people are stubborn or have an irrational fear or hate towards preprocessors, it sometimes feels a bit silly to use a loop.

For example, when we barely have anything to loop over! Let’s say we want to get a much simpler background pattern, such as a diagonal hashes one, which I’d imagine is a much more common use case than an over-the-top rainbow one that’s probably not a good fit on most websites anyway.

Screenshot. Shows a pattern of diagonal light grey hashes on a white background.
Desired hashes result

This requires using repeating-linear-gradient() and this means a bit of repetition, even if we don’t have the same long list of hex values as we did before:

repeating-linear-gradient(-45deg,      #ccc /* can't skip this, repeating gradient won't work */,      #ccc 2px,      transparent 0,      transparent 9px /* can't skip this either, tells where gradient repetition starts */)

Here, we cannot ditch the first and last stops because those are precisely what indicate how the gradient repeats within the rectangle defined by the background-size.

If you want to understand why it’s better to use repeating-linear-gradient() instead of a plain old linear-gradient() combined with the proper background-size in order to create such hashes, check out this other article I wrote a while ago.

This is precisely where such feature comes to the rescue — it allows us to avoid repetition in the final CSS code.

For the rainbow stripes case, our CSS becomes:

linear-gradient(90deg,      #5461c8 12.5%,      #c724b1 0 25%,      #e4002b 0 37.5%,      #ff6900 0 50%,      #f6be00 0 62.5%,      #97d700 0 75%,      #00ab84 0 87.5%,      #00a3e0 0)

And to recreate the hashes, we only need:

repeating-linear-gradient(-45deg,      #ccc 0 2px,      transparent 0 9px)

See the Pen by thebabydino (@thebabydino) on CodePen.

What about support? Well, glad you asked! It actually happens to be pretty good! It works in Safari, Chromium browsers (which now includes Edge as well!) and Firefox. Pre-Chromium Edge and maybe some mobile browsers could still hold you back, but if you don’t have to worry about providing support for every browser under the sun or it’s fine to provide a fallback, go ahead and start using this!

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Is it better to use ems/rems than px for font-size?

The answer used to be absolutely yes because, if you used px units, you prevented the text from being resized by the user at all.

But browser zoom is the default method for making everything bigger (including text) these days and it works great even if you use px.

But… Kathleen McMahon really digs into this and finds that it’s still worth setting all your type (both font-size and line-height) in relative units because:

  1. setting type in px prevents browser settings from making font size adjustments (which some people definitely use) and
  2. setting type in relative units maintains greater design fidelity as users use browser zoom (which a lot of people definitely use).

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Making a Better Custom Select Element

We just covered The Current State of Styling Selects in 2019, but we didn’t get nearly as far and fancy as Julie Grundy gets here. There is a decent chunk of JavaScript that powers it, so I’m still very much eyeballing browsers’ recent interest in giving us more powerful selects in (presumably) just HTML and CSS.

I tossed a fork on CodePen in case you just wanna see the final result.

This is also the first article in the 2019 edition of 24 Ways, the long-running and wonderful annual advent calendar for developers that is worth reading every single year.

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Design Principles for Developers: Processes and CSS Tips for Better Web Design

It is technically true that anyone can cook. But there’s a difference between actually knowing how to prepare a delicious meal and hoping for the best as you throw a few ingredients in a pot. Just like web development, you might know the ingredients—<span>, background-color, .heading-1—but not everyone knows how to turn those ingredients into a beautiful, easy-to-use website.

Whenever you use HTML and CSS, you are designing—giving form and structure to content so it can be understood by someone else. People have been designing for centuries and have developed principles along the way that are applicable to digital interfaces today. These principles manifest in three key areas: how words are displayed (typography), how content is arranged (spacing), and how personalty is added (color). Let’s discover how to use each of these web design ingredients through the mindset of a developer with CSS properties and guidelines to take the guesswork out of web design.

Table of Contents

Typography

Websites that are easy to read don’t happen by mistake. In fact, Taimur Abdaal wrote an entire article on the topic that’s chock-full of advice for developers working with type. We’re going to focus specifically on two fundamental principles of design that can help you display words in a more visually pleasing and easy-to-read way: repetition and hierarchy.

Use repetition for consistency and maintainability

Repetition comes fairly naturally on the web thanks to the importance of reusability in software. For example, CSS classes allow you to define a particular style for text and then reuse that style across the site. This results in repeating, consistent text styles for similar content which helps users navigate the site.

If, for example, you are working on styles for a new paragraph, first consider if there is existing content that has a similar style and try to use the same CSS class. If not, you can create a new class with a generic name that can be repeated elsewhere in your site. Think .paragraph--emphasize as opposed to .footer__paragraph--emphasize or .heading-1 as opposed to .hero__site-title. The first examples can be used across your site as opposed to the second which are scoped to specific components. You can even add a prefix like text- to indicate that the class is used specifically for text styles. This method will reduce the CSS file size and complexity while making it much easier to update global styles in the future.

Left: The black text is similar but uses a slightly different font size and line height. Right: The black text uses the same styles and therefore can use the same CSS class. Reducing the amount of CSS needed and adding repetition and consistency.

In design, there are endless ways to experiment with styles. Designers can sometimes go a little crazy with their font styles by creating numerous slight variations of similar styles. However, in code, it’s valuable to restrict text styles to a minimum. Developers should urge designers to combine similar styles in order to reduce code weight and increase reusability and consistency.

These headings look very similar but are slightly different and would require three separate CSS classes to style them. They could probably be combined into one and styled with a single class.

Hierarchy provides a clear visual order to content

Hierarchy is something you really only notice when it’s not there. In typography, hierarchy refers to the visual difference between various pieces of text. It’s the distinction between headings, paragraphs, links, and other text styles. This distinction is made by choosing different fonts, colors, size, capitalization, and other properties for each type of text content. Good hierarchy makes complex information easier to digest and guides users through your content.

Left: Poor hierarchy. There’s not much differentiation in the size or color of the text to help users digest the content. Right: Better hierarchy that uses more variety in font size, color, and spacing to help users quickly navigate the content.

Out of the box, HTML provides some hierarchy (like how the font size of headings gets smaller as you go from <h1> to <h6>), but CSS opens the door for even more creativity. By giving <h1> tags an even larger font size, you can quickly establish greater difference in size between heading levels—and therefore more hierarchy. To create more variety, you can also change the color, text-align, and text-transform properties.

A comparison of the way HTML headings look without styles versus adding more contrast with CSS.

A note on choosing fonts

With typography, we need to make sure it is as easy to read as possible. The greatest overall factor in readability is the font you choose—which is a huge topic. There are many factors that determine how “readable” a font is. Some fonts are made specifically to be used as headings or short lines of text; these are called “display” fonts, and they often have more personality than fonts designed to be used for text. Unique flourishes and quirks make display fonts harder to read at small sizes and when part of a large paragraph. As a rule of thumb, use a more straightforward font for text and only use display fonts for headings.

Left: Examples of display fonts that work better as headings. Right: Examples of text fonts that are more readable and can be used for headings, paragraphs, and any other text that needs to be easy to read.

If you’re in a pinch and need a readable font, try Google Fonts. Add a paragraph of text to the preview field and size it roughly how it will display on your website. You can then narrow down your results to serif or sans-serif and scan the list of fonts for one that is easy to read. Roboto, Noto Sans, Merriweather, and PT Serif are all very readable options.

CSS properties for better readability

  • The main paragraph font-size should be between 16pxand 18px (1em and 1.25em) depending on the font you choose.
  • Manually set line-height (the vertical space between two lines of text) to make your text less cramped and easier to read. Start with line-height: 1.25 (that is 1.25 times the font-size) for headings and at least 1.5 for paragraphs (but no more than 1.9) and adjust from there. The longer the line of text, the larger the line-height should be. To keep your text flexible, avoid adding a unit to your line-height. Without a unit the line-height you set will be proportional to your font-size. For example, line-height: 1.5 and font-size: 18px would give you a line height of 27 pixels. If you changed your font size to font-size: 16px on smaller screens, the computed line height would then change to 24 pixels automatically.
Left: line-height is 1.1 for the heading and 1.2 for the paragraph, which is roughly the default setting. Right: line-height is 1.25 for the headings and 1.5 for the paragraph.
  • Pay attention to how many characters are in a line of text and aim for 45 and 75 characters long (including punctuation and spaces). Doing so reduces reading fatigue for your users by limiting the eye and head movement needed to follow a line of text. With the variable nature of the web, it’s impossible to completely control line length, but you can use max-width values and breakpoints to prevent lines of text from getting too long. Generally speaking, the shorter the line of text, the faster it will be to scan for quick reading. And don’t worry too much about counting the characters in every line. Once you do it a few times, you’ll develop a sense for what looks right.
Top: line length of around 125 characters. Bottom: line length of around 60 characters.

Spacing

After looking at typography, you can take a step back and examine the layout, or spacing, of your content. Movement and proximity are two design principles that relate to spacing.

Movement is about content flow

Movement refers to how your eye moves through the page or the flow of the page. You can use movement to direct a user’s eye in order to tell a story, point to a main action item, or encourage them to scroll. This is done by structuring the content within individual components and then arranging those components to form the layout of the page. By paying attention to how your eye moves through content, you can help users know where to look as they scan the page.

Unlike books, which tend to have very linear structure, websites can be more creative with their layout—in literally endless ways. It is important to make sure you are intentional with how you layout content and do so in a way which guides users through your content as easily as possible.

Three potential ways to arrange a heading, image, and button.

Consider these three examples above. Which is the easiest to follow? The arrangement on the left draws your eye off the screen to the left due to how the image is positioned which makes it hard to find the button. In the center option, it’s easy to skip over the headline because the image is too large in comparison. On the right, the heading draws your attention first and the image is composed so that it points to the main action item—the button.

White space is a helpful tool for creating strong movement, but it’s easy to use too much or too little. Think about how you are using it to direct the user’s eye and divide your content. When used well, users won’t notice the whitespace itself but will be able to better focus on the content you are presenting. For example, you can use whitespace to separate content (instead of a colored box) which results in a less cluttered layout.

Left: Using a graphic element to separate content and aligning images in the center. Right: Using whitespace to separate content and aligning images on the left to let the whitespace flow better around groups of related content and create a cleaner layout.

Proximity establishes relationships

When objects are closer together, they are perceived as being related. By controlling spacing around elements, you can imply relationships between them. It can be helpful to create a system for spacing to help build consistency through repetition and avoid the use of random numbers. This system is based off the default browser font size (1rem or 16px) and uses distinct values that cover most scenarios:

  • 0.25rem (4px)
  • 0.5rem (8px)
  • 1rem (16px)
  • 2rem (32px)
  • 4rem (64px)

You can use Sass or CSS variables so that the values are kept consistent across the project. A system might look like this—but use whatever you’re comfortable with because naming things is hard:

  • $ space-sm
  • $ space-med
  • $ space-lg
  • $ space-xl
  • $ space-xxl
Left: A component with uneven spacing between elements. Right: A component that uses consistent spacing.

Color conveys personality and calls attention

Color greatly affects a website’s personality. When used well, it gives pages life and emotion; used poorly, it can distract from the content, or worse, make it inaccessible. Color goes hand in hand with most design principles. It can be used to create movement by directing users’ eyes and can be used to create emphasis by calling attention to the most important action items.

A note on choosing colors

With color, it can be hard to know where to start. To help, you can use a four-step process to guide your color choices and build a color palette for the site.

Step 1: Know your mood

You have to know the mood or attitude of your site and brand before choosing colors. Look at your content and decide what you are trying to communicate. Is it funny, informative, retro, loud, somber? Typically, you can boil down the mood of your site to a few adjectives. For example, you might summarize The North Face as adventurous and rugged while Apple would be minimalistic and beautiful.

Step 2: Find your main color

With your mood in mind, try to visualize a color that represents it. Start with the color’s saturation (how intense the color is) and brightness (how close the color is to white or black). If your mood is upbeat or flashy, a lighter (more saturated) color is probably best. If your mood is serious or reserved, a darker (less saturated) color is better.

Next, choose a hue. Hue refers to what most people think of as colors—where does is fall on the rotation of the color wheel? The hue of a color is what gives it the most meaning. People tend to associate hues with certain ideas. For instance, red is often associated with power or danger and green relates to money or nature. It can be helpful to look at similar websites or brands to see what colors they use—although you don’t need to follow their lead. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Color wheel showing saturation and brightness versus hue.
Step 3: Add supporting colors

Sometimes, two or three main colors are needed, but this is not necessary. Think about the colors of different brands. Some use a single color, and others have a main color and one or two that support it. Coca-Cola uses its distinct red. IKEA is mostly blue with some yellow. Tide is orange with some blue and yellow. Depending on your site’s mood, you might need a few colors. Try using a tool like Adobe Color or Coolors), both of which allow you to add a main color and then try different color relationships, like complementary or monochromatic, to quickly see if any work well.

Step 4: Expand your palette

Now that you’ve narrowed things down and found your main color(s), it’s time to expand your scope with a palette that gives your project versatility and constraint—here’s a methodology I’ve found helpful. Tints and shades are the trick here. Tints are made by mixing your main color(s) with white, and shades are made by mixing with black. You can quickly create an organized system with Sass color functions:

$ main-color:          #9AE799;  $ main-color-lightest: lighten($ main-color, 20%); $ main-color-lighter:  lighten($ main-color, 15%); $ main-color-light:    lighten($ main-color, 10%);  $ main-color-dark:     darken($ main-color, 40%); $ main-color-darker:   darken($ main-color, 50%); $ main-color-darkest:  darken($ main-color, 60%);
A palette of color options created with Sass color functions. Make sure to use percent values for the functions that create distinct colors—not too similar to the main color.

To round out your palette, you’ll need a few more colors, like a white and black. Try creating a “rich black” using a dark, almost black shade of your main color and, on the other end of the spectrum, pick a few light grays that are tinted with your main color. Tinting the white and black adds a little more personality to your page and helps create a cohesive look and feel.

Top: Basic white, gray, and black. Bottom: Tinted white, grays, and black to match the main color.

Last but not least, if you are working on an interactive product, you should add colors for success, warning, and error states. Typically a green, yellow, and red work for these but consider how you can adjust the hue to make them fit better with your palette. For example, if your mood is friendly and your base color is green, you might want to desaturate the error state colors to make the red feel less negative.

You can do this with the mix Sass color function by giving it your base color, the default error color, and the percentage of base color that you want to mix in with the error color. Adding desaturate functions helps tone down the colors:

$ success: mix($ base-color, desaturate(green, 50%), 50%); $ warning: mix($ base-color, desaturate(yellow, 30%), 5%); $ error:   mix($ base-color, desaturate(red, 50%), 20%);
Top: Default colors for success, warning, and error states. Bottom: Tinted and desaturated colors for the success, warning and error states.

When it comes to the web, there’s one color principle that you have to pay extra attention to: contrast. That’s what we’ll cover next.

Contrast

Color contrast—the difference in saturation, brightness, and hue between two colors—is an important design principle for ensuring the web is accessible to those with low vision or color blindness. By ensuring there is enough contrast between your text and whatever is behind it on your site will be more accessible for all sighted users. When looking at accessibility, be sure to follow the color contrast guidelines provided by W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). There are many tools that can help you follow these guidelines, including the inspect panel in Chrome’s dev tools.

By clicking on the color property in the Chrome Inspect tool, you can see the contrast ratio and whether it is passing.

Now, it’s time to put these principles to practice! You can use these processes and CSS tips to help take the guesswork out of design and create better solutions. Start with what you are familiar with, and eventually, the design principles mentioned here will become second nature.

If you’re looking for even more practical tips, Adam Wathan and Steve Schoger wrote about some of their favorites.

The post Design Principles for Developers: Processes and CSS Tips for Better Web Design appeared first on CSS-Tricks.

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A Better Approach for Using Purgecss with Tailwind

Greg Kohn looks at how to use Purgecss — a tool that helps remove unused styles — and Tailwind — a utility-based CSS framework — and why we might want to pair these tools together:

Tailwind, by intention, is aiming to equip you with an arsenal of utility classes by generating more than you need. There are some best practices which will help keep this overall build size down, like limiting your colors and breakpoints or turning off the modules by default before adding them as necessary. Still, you’ll inevitably generate classes that go unused. And honestly, approaching your configuration with an unrelenting miserly attitude will slow you down and make development less fun. By leaning on Purgecss, there’s no worry that the CSS your users download will only include classes that are ultimately needed.

I’ve never used Tailwind or Purgecss, but I reckon the latter could be particularly useful if you have a giant old codebase and you don’t have the resources to refactor things just yet. I guess my only concern with introducing a tool like that is it could encourage folks to not refactor large and problematic areas in their styles – taking the safest route with this tool instead.

For more info about Tailwind, though, Ben Tinsley wrote a great post a while back about how to get started and Nick Basile showed us how to style a form with Tailwind.

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Better Than Native

Andy Bell wrote up his thoughts about the whole web versus native app debate which I think is super interesting. It was hard to make it through the post because I was nodding so aggressively as I read:

The whole idea of competing with native apps seems pretty daft to me, too. The web gives us so much for free that app developers could only dream of, like URLs and the ability to publish to the entire world for free, immediately.

[…] I believe in the web and will continue to believe that building Progressive Web Apps that embrace the web platform will be far superior to the non-inclusive walled garden that is native apps and their app stores. I just wish that others thought like that, too.

Andy also quotes Jeremy Keith making a similar claim to bolster the point:

If the goal of the web is just to compete with native, then we’ve set the bar way too low.

I entirely agree with both Andy and Jeremy. The web should not compete with native apps that are locked within a store. The web should be betterin every way — it can be faster and more beautiful, have better interactions, and smoother animations. We just need to get to work.

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Six tips for better web typography

How do we avoid the most common mistakes when it comes to setting type on the web? That’s the question that’s been stuck in my head lately as I’ve noticed a lot of typography that’s lackluster, frustrating, and difficult to read. So, how can we improve interfaces so that our content is easy to read at all times and contexts? How do learn from everyone else’s mistakes, too?

These questions encouraged me to jot down some rules that are easy to apply and have the greatest impact on legibility, based on my own personal experience. And, if you didn’t know, I’m kinda a geek when it comes to typography. So, I thought I’d share the following six rules that I’ve come to adopt to get us started.

Rule #1: Set a good max-width for paragraphs

This is typically referred to as the measure in typographic circles and highly esteemed typographers will recommend that a paragraph have a width of around 75 characters for legibility reasons. Anything longer than that becomes difficult to read and causes unnecessary strain on the eyes because of the distance the eye has to travel left-to-right and back again (assuming ltr that is).

Here’s a quick example of a good max-width setting for a paragraph. Oh, and make sure to check out this demo on larger screen devices.

See the Pen
Typography Example 1
by Robin Rendle (@robinrendle)
on CodePen.

Now, this all depends on a ton of factors that great designers contemplate when setting a paragraph. However, as web designers, the difficulty for us is that we have to make sure that paragraphs feel good in additional contexts, like on mobile devices, too. So, while this rule of ~75 characters is nice to have in our back pocket, it’s most helpful when we’re trying to figure out the maximum width of our text block. More on this in a bit.

Also, I’d recommend setting that width on a container or grid class that wraps the paragraph instead of setting a max-width value on the paragraph element itself.

Kind of like this:

<div class="container">   <p>This is where our text goes.</p> </div>
p {   font-size: 18px;   line-height: 24px; }  .container {   max-width: 600px; }

Otherwise, there may be moments in the future when there’s a need for certain paragraphs to be bigger and have a wider measure (like for introductory paragraphs perhaps). In those situations, making a different container class that just handles the larger width of the elements inside them is a nice and modular approach.

I’ve found that by having a system of classes that just deals with the width of things encourages writing much less code but also much more legible code as well. Although, yes, there is more HTML to write but I’d say that’s preferable to a lot of whacky CSS that has to be refactored in the future.

In short: make sure to set a good max-width for our paragraphs but also ensure that we set the widths on a parent class to keep our code readable.

Rule #2: Make the line height smaller than you think

One problem I often see in the wild is with paragraphs that have a line height that’s just way too big. This makes reading long blocks of text pretty exhausting and cumbersome as each hop from one line to the next feels like an enormous jump.

On mobile devices this is particularly egregious as I tend to see something like this often:

For some reason, a lot of folks tend to think that paragraphs on smaller devices require a larger line-height value — but this isn’t the case! Because the width of paragraphs are smaller, line-height can be even smaller than you might on desktop displays. That’s because on smaller screens, and with smaller paragraphs, the reader’s eye has a much shorter distance to hop from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.

This demo certainly isn’t typographically perfect (there’s no such thing), but it’s much easier to read than the majority of websites I stumble across today. In this example, notice how the line-height is probably much smaller than you’re familiar with and see how it feels as you read it:

See the Pen
Typography Example 1
by Robin Rendle (@robinrendle)
on CodePen.

Rule #3: Make the margins small on mobile, too

Another common mistake I frequently see is the use of very large margins on either side of a paragraph of text, it’s often on mobile devices that make for blocks of text that are difficult to read like this:

Just — yikes! How are we expected to read this?

Instead try using no more than 10-15px of margin on either side of the paragraph because we need to ensure that our paragraphs are as wide as possible on smaller devices.

I even see folks bump the font-size down on mobile to try and have a nice paragraph width but I’d highly recommend to avoid this as well. Think of the context, because mobile devices are often held in front of the user’s face. There’s no need to force the user to bring the device any closer to read a small block of text.

Most of the time, smaller margins are the better solve.

Rule #4: Make sure that the type isn’t too thin

This is perhaps my biggest complaint when it comes to typography on the web because so many websites use extraordinarily thin sans-serif typefaces for paragraph text. This makes reading difficult because it’s harder to see each stroke in a letter when they begin to fade away into the background due to the lack of contrast.

Here’s an example of using a typeface that’s too thin:

See the Pen
Typography Example – Thin
by Robin Rendle (@robinrendle)
on CodePen.

Try and read the text there. Do you notice yourself struggling to read it? Because we’re using the light weight of Open Sans in this example, letterforms start to break apart and fall to bits. More focus is required to read it. Legibility decreases and reading becomes much more annoying than it really has to be.

I recommend picking a regular weight for body text, then trying to read a long string of text with those settings. Thin fonts look cute and pretty at a glance, but reading it in a longer form will reveal the difficulties.

Rule #5: Use bold weights for headings

Clear hierarchy is vital for controlling the focus of the reader, especially in complex applications that show a ton of data. And although it used to be more common a couple of years ago, I still tend to see a lot folks use very thin weights or regular weights for headings on websites. Again, this isn’t necessarily a die-hard rule — it’s a suggestion. That said, how difficult is it to scan this headline:

See the Pen
Typography Example – Heading 1
by Robin Rendle (@robinrendle)
on CodePen.

It’s a little difficult to see in this example but it’s easy to missing the headline altogether in a large application with lots of UI. I’ve often found that inexperienced typographers tend to create hierarchy with font-size whilst experienced typographers will lead with font-weight instead.

Here’s an example of something much easier to scan:

See the Pen
Typography Example – Heading 2
by Robin Rendle (@robinrendle)
on CodePen.

In this example, I’ve set the paragraph text to a dark gray and the heading to a color closer to black while applying a bold weight. It’s not a substantial change in the code but it’s an enormous improvement in terms of hierarchy.

Little improvement like this will quickly add up to a better experience overall when the user is asked to slog through a ton of text.

Rule #6: Don’t use Lorem Ipsum to typeset a page

I think this advice might be the most underrated and I rarely hear it raised in front-end, typography, or design groups. I’ve even noticed seasoned designers struggle to typeset a page because Lorem Ipsum is used for the placeholder content, which makes it impossible for to gauge whether a paragraph of text is easy to read or not.

Setting text in Lorem Ipsum makes good typesetting kind of impossible.

Instead, pick text that you really enjoy reading. Ideally, typesetting would be done with finalized content but that’s often a luxury in front-end development. That’s why I’d recommend picking text that sounds close to the voice and tone of the project if there’s a lack of actual content.

Seriously though, this one change will have an enormous impact on legibility and hierarchy because it encourages reading the text instead of looking at it all aesthetically. I noticed a massive improvement in my own designs when I stopped using undecipherable Lorem Ipsum text and picked content from my favorite novels instead.


And that’s it! There sure are a lot of rules when it comes to typography and these are merely the ones I tend to see broken the most. What kind of typographic issues do you see on the web though? Let us know in the comments!

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