Languages

Chapter 2
CSS

This is chapter 2 of the book Cascading Style Sheets, designing for the Web, by Håkon Wium Lie and Bert Bos (2nd edition, 1999, Addison Wesley, ISBN 0-201-59625-3)

As we explained in the previous chapter, HTML elements enable Web page designers to mark up a document as to its structure. The HTML specification lists guidelines on how browsers should display these elements. For example, you can be reasonably sure that the contents of a strong element will be displayed bold-faced. Also, you can pretty much trust that most browsers will display the content of an h1 element using a big font size... at least bigger than the p element and bigger than the h2 element. But beyond trust and hope, you don't have any control over how your text appears.

CSS changes that. CSS puts the designer in the driver's seat. We devote much of the rest of this book to explaining what you can do with CSS. In this chapter, we begin by introducing you to the basics of how to write style sheets and how CSS and HTML work together to describe both the structure and appearance of your document.

Rules and Style Sheets

To start using CSS, you don't even have to write style sheets. Chapter 16 will tell you how to point to existing style sheets on the Web.

There are two ways to create CSSs. You can either use a normal text editor and write the style sheets "by hand," or you can use a dedicated tool - for example a Web page design application - which supports CSS. The dedicated tools allow you to create style sheets without learning the syntax of the CSS language. However, in many cases the designer will want to tweak the style sheet by hand afterwards, so we recommend that you learn to write and edit CSSs by hand. Let's get started!

H1 { color: green }

What you see above is a simple CSS rule that contains one rule. A rule is a statement about one stylistic aspect of one or more elements. A style sheet is a set of one or more rules that apply to an HTML document. The rule above sets the color of all first-level headings (h1). Let's take a quick look at what the visual result of the rule could be:

Figure 2.1

[image]

We will now start dissecting the rule.

Anatomy of a rule

A rule consists of two parts:

  • Selector - the part before the left curly brace
  • Declaration - the part within the curly braces

    [image]

The selector is the link between the HTML document and the style. It specifies what elements are affected by the declaration. The declaration is that part of the rule that sets forth what the effect will be. In the example above, the selector is h1 and the declaration is "color: green." Hence, all h1 elements will be affected by the declaration, that is, they will be turned green. (The color property just affects the foreground text color, there are other properties for background, border, etc.)

The above selector is based on the type of the element: it selects all elements of type "h1." This kind of selector is called type selector. Any HTML element type can be used as a type selector. Type selectors are the simplest kind of selectors. We discuss other kinds of selectors in See CSS selectors. , "CSS selectors."

Anatomy of a declaration

A declaration has two parts separated by a colon:

  • Property - that part before the colon
  • Value - that part after the colon

    [image]

The property is a quality or characteristic that something possesses. In the previous example, it is color. CSS2 (see separate box) defines around 120 properties and we can assign values to all of them.

The value is a precise specification of the property. In the example, it is "green," but it could just as easily be blue, red, yellow, or some other color.

The diagram below shows all ingredients of a rule. The curly braces ({ }) and colon (:) make it possible for the browser to distinguish between the selector, property, and value.

Figure 2.2 Diagram of a rule.

[image]

Grouping selectors and rules

In designing CSS, brevity was a goal. We figured that if we could reduce the size of style sheets, we could enable designers to write and edit style sheets "by hand." Also, short style sheets load faster than longer ones. CSS therefore includes several mechanisms to shorten style sheets by way of grouping selectors and declarations.

For example, consider these three rules:

H1 { font-weight: bold }
H2 { font-weight: bold }
H3 { font-weight: bold }
     

All three rules have exactly the same declaration - they set the font to be bold. (This is done using the font-weight property, which we discuss in See Fonts. .) Since all three declarations are identical, we can group the selectors into a comma-separated list and only list the declaration once, like this:

H1, H2, H3 { font-style: bold }

This rule will produce the same result as the first three.

A selector may have more than one declaration. For example, we could write a style sheet with these two rules:

H1 { color: green }
H1 { text-align: center }

In this case, we set all h1s to be green and to be centered on the canvas. (This is done using the text-align property, discussed in Chapter  5 .)

But we can achieve the same effect faster by grouping the declarations that relate to the same selector into a semicolon-separated list, like this:

H1 {
  color: green;
  text-align: center;
}

All declarations must be contained within the pair of curly braces. A semicolon separates the declarations and may - but doesn't have to - also appear at the end of the last declaration. Also, to make your code easier to read, we suggest you place each declaration on its own line, as we did here. (Browsers won't care, they'll just ignore all the extra whitespace and line breaks.)

Now you have the basics of how to create CSS rules and style sheets. However, you're not done yet. In order for the style sheet to have any effect you have to "glue" your style sheet to your HTML document.

"Gluing" Style Sheets to the Document

For any style sheet to affect the HTML document, it must be "glued" to the document. That is, the style sheet and the HTML document must be combined so that they can work together to present the document. This can be done in any of four ways:

  1. Apply the basic, document-wide style sheet for the document by using the style element.
  2. Apply a style sheet to an individual element using the style attribute.
  3. Link an external style sheet to the document using the link element.
  4. Import a style sheet using the CSS @import notation.

In the next section, we discuss the first method: using the style element. We discuss using the style attribute in Chapter 4 , "CSS selectors," and using the link element and the @import notation in Chapter 16 , "External style sheets."

Gluing by using the STYLE element

You can glue the style sheet and the HTML document together by putting the style sheet inside a style element at the top of your document. The style element was introduced in HTML specifically to allow style sheets to be inserted inside HTML documents. Here's a style sheet (shown in bold) glued to a sample document by using the style element. The result is shown in Figure  2.3 .

<HTML>
  <TITLE>Bach's home page</TITLE>
  <STYLE>
    H1, H2 { color: green }
  </STYLE>
  <BODY>
    <H1>Bach's home page</H1>
    <P>Johann Sebastian Bach was a prolific
        composer. Among his works are:
    <UL>
      <LI>the Goldberg Variations
      <LI>the Brandenburg Concertos
      <LI>the Christmas Oratorio
    </UL>
    <H2>Historical perspective</H2>
    <P>Bach composed in what has been referred to as
      the Baroque period.
  </BODY>
</HTML>

Figure 2.3 The result of adding to a style sheet a rule to turn h1s green and then gluing the style sheet to the document using the style elements. (try it)

[image]

Notice that the style element is placed after the title element and before the body element. The title of a document does not show up on the canvas, so it is not affected by CSS styles.

The content of a style element is a style sheet. However, whereas the content of such elements as h1, p, and ul appears on the canvas, the content of a style element does not show on the canvas. Rather, it is the effect of the content of the style element - the style sheet - that appears on the canvas. So you don't see "{ color: green }" displayed on your screen; you see instead two h1 elements colored green. No rules have been added that affect any of the other elements, so those elements appear in the browser's default color.

Browsers and CSS

For an updated overview of available browsers, see the W3C overview page

For CSS to work as described in this book, you must use a CSS-enhanced browser, that is, a browser that supports CSS. A CSS-enhanced browser will recognize the style element as a container for a style sheet and present the document accordingly. Most browsers that are distributed today support CSS, for example Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 (IE4), Netscape Navigator 4 (NS4) and Opera 3.5 (O3.5). Conservative estimates indicate that more than half the people on the Web use a CSS-enhanced browser, and the figures are steadily rising. Chances are that the people you communicate with have CSS-enhanced browsers. If not, give them a reason to upgrade!

The best source for information on how different browsers support CSS is WebReview's charts

Alas, not all CSS implementations are perfect. When you start experi­menting with style sheets, you will soon notice that each browser comes with a set of bugs and limitations. In general, newer browsers behave better than older ones. IE4 and O3.5 are among the best, and Netscape's next offering - code-named Gecko - also promises much improved support for CSS.

Those who don't use CSS-enhanced browsers can still read pages that use style sheets. CSS was carefully designed so that all content should remain visible even if the browser knows nothing about CSS. Some browsers, such as Netscape's Navigator version 2 and 3 don't support style sheets but they know enough about the style element to fully ignore it. Next to supporting style sheets, this is the correct behavior.

However, other browsers that do not know the style element, such as Netscape's Navigator 1 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 2, will ignore the style tags but display the content of the style element. Thus, the user will end up with the style sheet printed on the top of the canvas. At the time of writing, only a few percent of Web users will experience this problem. To avoid this, you can put your style sheet inside an HTML comment, which we discussed in Chapter  1 . Because comments don't display on the screen, by placing your style sheet inside an HTML comment, you prevent the oldest browsers from displaying the style element's content. CSS-enhanced browsers are aware of this trick, and will treat the content of the style element as a style sheet.

Recall that HTML comments start with <!-- and end with -->. Here's an excerpt from the previous code example that shows how you write a style sheet in an HTML comment. The comment encloses the style element content only:

<HTML>
  <TITLE>Bach's home page</TITLE>
  <STYLE>
    <!--
      H1 { color: green }
    -->
  </STYLE>
  <BODY>
    ..
  </BODY> 
</HTML>

CSS also has its own set of comments that you can use within the style sheet. A CSS comment begins with "/*" and ends with "*/." (Those familiar with the C programming language will recognize these.) CSS rules inside a CSS comment will not have any effect on the presentation of the document.

The browser also needs to be told that you are working with CSS style sheets. CSS is currently the only style sheet language in use with HTML docu­ments and we don't expect this to change. For XML the situation might be different. But just as there is more than one image format (GIF, JPEG and PNG come to mind), there could be more than one style sheet language. So it's a good habit to tell browsers that they are dealing with CSS. (In fact, HTML requires you to.) This is done with the type attribute of the style ­element. The value of type indicates what type of style sheet is being used. For CSS, that value is "text/css." The following is an excerpt from our previous sample document that shows you how you would write this (in combination with the use of the HTML comment):

<HTML>
  <TITLE>Bach's home page</TITLE>
  <STYLE TYPE="text/css">
    <!--
      H1 { color: green }
    -->
  </STYLE>
  <BODY>
    ..
  </BODY>
</HTML> 

When the browser loads a document, it checks to see if it understands the style sheet language. If it does, it will try to read the sheet, otherwise it will ignore it. The type attribute (see Chapter  1 for a discussion on HTML attributes) on the style element is a way to let the browser know which style sheet language is being used. The type attribute must be included.

To make examples easier to read, we have chosen not to wrap style sheets in HTML comments, but we do use the type attribute throughout this book.

Tree structures and inheritance

Recall from Chapter  1 the discussion about HTML representing a document with a tree-like structure and how elements in HTML have children and parents. There are many reasons for having tree-structured documents. For style sheets, there is one very good reason: inheritance. Just as children inherit from their parents, so do HTML elements. Instead of inheriting genes and money, HTML elements inherit stylistic properties.

Let's start by taking a look at the sample document:

<HTML>
  <TITLE>Bach's home page</TITLE>
  <BODY>
    <H1>Bach's home page</H1>
    <P>Johann Sebastian Bach was a 
      <STRONG>prolific</STRONG> composer. Among his
        works are:
    <UL>
      <LI>the Goldberg Variations
      <LI>the Brandenburg Concertos
      <LI>the Christmas Oratorio
    </UL>
  </BODY>
</HTML>

The tree structure of this document is:

[image]

Through inheritance, CSS property values set on one element will be transferred down the tree to its descendants. For example, our examples have up to now set the color to be green for h1 and h2 elements. Now, say, you would like to set the same color on all elements in your document. You could do this by listing all element types in the selector:

<STYLE TYPE="text/css">
  H1, H2, P, LI { color: green }
</STYLE>

However, most HTML documents are more complex than our sample docu­ment, and your style sheet would soon get long. There is a better - and shorter - way. Instead of setting the style on each element type, we set it on their common ancestor, the body element:

<STYLE TYPE="text/css">
  BODY { color: green } 
</STYLE>

Since other elements inherit properties from the body element, they will all inherit the color green (Figure  2.4 ).

Figure 2.4 The result of inheritance. (try it)

[image]

As you have seen above, inheritance is a transport vehicle that will distribute stylistic properties to descendants of an element. Since the body element is a common ancestor for all visible elements, body is a convenient selector when you want to set stylistic rules for the entire document.

Overriding Inheritance

In the previous example, all elements were given the same color through inheritance. Sometimes, however, children don't look like their parents. Not surprisingly, CSS also accounts for this. Say you would like for h1 elements to be blue while the rest should be green. This is easily expressed in CSS:

<STYLE TYPE="text/css">
  BODY { color: green }
  H1 { color: navy }
</STYLE>

Since h1 is a child element of body (and thereby inherits from body), the two rules in the above style sheet are conflicting. The first one sets the color of the body element - and thereby also the color of h1 through inheritance - while the second one sets the color specifically on the h1 element. Which rule will win? Let's find out:

The reason why the second rule wins is that it is more specific than the first. The first rule is very general - it affects all elements on the canvas. The ­second rule only affects h1 elements in the document and is therefore more specific.

If CSS had been a programming language, the order in which the rules were specified would determine which of them would win. CSS is not a programming language, and in the above example, the order is irrelevant. The result is exactly the same if we use this style sheet:

<STYLE TYPE="text/css">
  H1 { color: navy }
  BODY { color: green }
</STYLE>

CSS has been designed to resolve conflicts between style sheet rules like the one above. Specificity is one aspect of that. You can find the details in Chapter  15 , "Cascading and inheritance."

Properties that don't inherit

As a general rule, properties in CSS inherit from parent to child elements as described in the previous examples. Some properties, however, don't inherit and there is always a good reason why. We will use the background property (described in Chapter 11) as an example of a property that doesn't inherit.

Let's say you want to set a background image for a page. This is a common effect on the Web. In CSS, you can write:

<HTML>
  <TITLE>Bach's home page</TITLE>
  <STYLE TYPE="text/css">
    BODY { 
      background: url(texture.gif) white;
      color: black;
    }
  </STYLE>
  <BODY>
    <H1>Bach's <EM>home</EM> page</H1>
    <P>Johann Sebastian Bach was a prolific
      composer.
  </BODY>
</HTML>

The background property has a URL ("texture.gif") that points to a background image as value. When the image is loaded, the canvas looks like:

There are a few noteworthy things in the above example:

So, exactly why doesn't the background property inherit? Visually, the effect of transparency is similar to inheritance: it looks like all elements have the same backgrounds. There are two reasons: first, transparent backgrounds are faster to display (there is nothing to display!) than other ­backgrounds. Second, since background images are aligned relative to the element they belong to, you would otherwise not always end up with a smooth background surface.

Common tasks with CSS

Setting colors and backgrounds - as described above - are among the most common tasks performed by CSS. Other common tasks include setting fonts and white space around elements. This section gives you a guided tour of the most commonly used properties in CSS.

Common tasks: fonts

Let's start with fonts. If you have used desktop publishing applications in the past, you should be able to read this little style sheet:

H1 { font: 36pt serif }

The rule above sets the font for h1 elements. The first part of the value - 36pt - sets the font size to be 36 points. A "point" is an old typographic unit of measurement which has survived into the digital age. In the next chapter we will tell you why you should use the "em" unit instead of "pt" but for now we'll stick to points. The second part of the value - serif - tells the browser to use a font with serifs (the little hooks at the ends of the strokes, Chapter  5 will tell you all about them). The more decorated serif fonts suit Bach's home page well since the modern sans-serif fonts (fonts without serifs) weren't used in his time. Here is the result:

The font property is a shorthand property for setting several other properties at once. By using it, you can shorten your style sheets and set values on all properties it replaces. If you choose to use the expanded version, you would have to set all of these to replace the example above:

H1 {
  font-size: 36pt;
  font-family: serif;
  font-style: normal;
  font-weight: normal;
  font-variant: normal;
  line-height: normal;
}

Sometimes you only want to set one of these. For example, you may want to slant the text in some elements. Here is an example:

UL { font-style: italic }

The font-style property will not change the font size or the font family, it will only slant the existing font. When set on the ul element, the li elements inside will become slanted, since font-style is inherited. Here is the result when applied to the test page you know by now:

Similarly, the font-weight property is used to change the weight - thickness - of the letters. You can further emphasize the list items by setting their ancestor to be bold:

UL { 
  font-style: italic;
  font-weight: bold;
}
     

Which yields:

The last properties, font-variant and line-height, haven't been widely supported in browsers up to now and are therefore not as commonly used yet.

Common tasks: margins

Setting space around elements is a basic tool in typography. The headline above this paragraph has space above it and (slightly less) space below it. This paragraph, as printed in the book, has space on the left and (slightly less) on the right. CSS can be used to express how much space there should be around different kinds of elements.

By default, your browser knows quite a bit about how to display the different kinds of elements in HTML. For example, it knows that lists and blockquote elements should be indented to set them apart from the rest of the text. As a designer, you can build on these settings while at the same time provide your own refinements. Let's use the blockquote element as an example. Here's a test document:

<HTML>
  <TITLE>Fredrick the Great meets Bach</TITLE>
  <BODY>
    <P>One evening, just as Fredrick the Great was 
      getting his flute ready, and his musicians 
      were assembled, an officer brought him a 
      list of the strangers who had arrived. With
      his flute in his hand he ran over the list,
      but immediately turned to the assembled 
      musicians, and said, with a kind of 
      agitation:
    <BLOCKQUOTE>"Gentlemen, old Bach is come."
    </BLOCKQUOTE>
    <P>The flute was now laid aside, and old Bach, who
      had alighted at his son's lodgings, was immediately
      summoned to the Palace.
  </BODY>
</HTML>

The screen-shot below is how a typical HTML browser would display the document:

As you can see, the browser has added space on all sides of the quoted text. In CSS, this space is called "margins" and all elements have margins on all four sides. The properties are called: margin-top, margin-right, margin-bottom, and margin-left. You can change how the blockquote element is displayed by writing a little style sheet:

BLOCKQUOTE {
  margin-top: 1em;
  margin-right: 0em;
  margin-bottom: 1em;
  margin-left: 0em;
  font-style: italic;
}

The "em" unit will be treated in detail in the next chapter, but we can already now reveal its secret: it scales relative to the font size. So, the above example will result in the vertical margins being as high as the font size (1em) of the blockquote, and horizontal margins having zero width. To make sure the quoted text can still be distinguished, it has been given an italic slant. The result is:

Just like font is a shorthand property to set several font-related properties at once, margin is a shorthand property which sets all margin properties. The above example can therefore be written:

BLOCKQUOTE { 
  margin: 1em 0em 1em 0em;
  font-style: italic;
}

The first part of the value - 1em - is assigned to margin-top. From there it's clockwise: 0em is assigned to margin-right, 1em is assigned to margin-bottom, and 0em is assigned to margin-left.

With the left margin set to zero, the quoted text needs more styling to set it apart from the rest of the text. Setting font-style to italic helps, and adding a background color further amplifies the quote:

BLOCKQUOTE { 
  margin: 1em 0em 1em 0em;
  font-style: italic;
  background: #EDB;
}

The result is:

As expected, the background color behind the quote has changed. Unlike previous examples, the color was specified in red/green/blue (RGB) components. RGB colors are described in detail in Chapter  11 .

One stylistic problem in the example above is that the background color barely covers the quoted text. The space around the quote - the margin area - does not use the element's background color. CSS has another kind of space, called padding, which uses the background color of the element. In other respects the padding properties are like the margin properties: they add space around an element. Let's add some padding to the quote:

BLOCKQUOTE { 
  margin: 1em 0em 1em 0em;
  font-style: italic;
  background: #EDB;
  padding: 0.5em;
}

The result of setting the padding is added space between the text and the rectangle that surrounds it:

Notice that the padding property was only given one value (0.5em). Just like the margin property, padding could have taken 4 values which would have been assigned to the top, right, bottom and left padding respectively. However, when the same value is to be set on all sides, listing it once will suffice. This is true both for padding and margin (as well as some other border properties, which are described in See Space around boxes. ).

Common tasks: links

To make it easier for users to browse in hypertext documents, the links should have a style that distinguishes them from normal text. HTML browsers have often underlined hyperlink text. Also, various color schemes have been used to indicate if the user has previously visited the link or not. Since hyperlinks are such a fundamental part of the Web, CSS has special support for styling them. Here's a simple example:

A:link { text-decoration: underline }

The above example specifies that unvisited links should be underlined:

The links are underlined, as we have specified, but they are also blue, which we have not. When authors do not specify all possible styles, browsers use default styles to fill in the gaps. The interaction between author styles, browser default styles and user styles (the user's own preferences) is ­another example of CSS's conflict resolution rules. It is called the cascade (the "C" of CSS). We will discuss the cascade below.

The selector (A:link) deserves special mentioning. You probably ­recognize "A" as being an HTML element, but the last part is new. ":link" is one of several so-called pseudo-classes in CSS. Pseudo-classes are used to give style to elements based on information outside of the document itself. For example, the author of the document can't know if a certain link will be visited or not. Pseudo-classes are described in detail in Chapter  4, and we'll only give a few more examples here:

A:visited { text-decoration: none }

This rule gives style to visited links, just like A:link gave style to unvisited links. Here is a slightly more complex example:

A:link, A:visited { text-decoration: none }
A:hover { background: cyan }

The last rule introduces a new pseudo-class :hover. Assuming the user is moving a pointing device (like a mouse), the specified style will be applied to the element when the user moves the pointer over ("hovers" over) the link. A common effect is to change the background color. Here is what it looks like:

The :hover pseudo-class has an interesting history. It was introduced in CSS2 after the hover effect became popular among JavaScript programmers. The JavaScript solution requires complicated code compared to the CSS pseudo-class and this is an example of CSS picking up effects that have become popular among Web designers.

A word about Cascading

A fundamental feature of CSS is that more than one style sheet can influence the presentation of a document. This feature is known as cascading because the different style sheets are thought of as coming in a series. Cascading is a fundamental feature of CSS, because we realized that any single document could very likely end up with style sheets from multiple sources: the browser, the designer, and possibly the user.

In the last set of examples you saw that the text color of the links turned blue without that being specified in the style sheet. Also, the browser knew how to format blockquote and h1 elements without being told so explicitly. Everything that the browser knows about formatting is stored in the browser's default style sheet and is merged with author and user style sheets when the document is displayed.

We have known for years that designers want to develop their own style sheets. However, we discovered that users, too, want the option of influencing the presentation of their documents. With CSS, they can do this by supplying a personal style sheet that will be merged with the browser's and the designer's style sheets. Any conflicts between the various style sheets are resolved by the browser. Usually, the designer's style sheet will have the strongest claim on the document, followed by the user's, and then the browser's default. However, the user can say that a rule is very import­ant and it will then override any author or browser styles.

We go into details about cascading in Chapter  15, "Cascading and inheritance." Before that, there is much to learn about fonts, space and ­colors.

Languages

About the translations