I think that the above additions could help to educate developers about CSS tremendously. The only downside I can think of is that additional information might overwhelm developers, but I would take that risk in favor of more people learning CSS properly.
I’d be for it. The crossed-off UI for the “losing” selectors is attempting to teach this, but without actually teaching it. I wouldn’t be that worried about the information being overwhelming. I think if they are considerate about the design, it can be done tastefully. DevTools is a very information-dense place anyway.
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 It might seem outdated these days, but still, this is where I went right away with my new coding buddy.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.
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).
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.
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!