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Learning Lab

Introduction to CSS Layout
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

The relevant CSS

body {
  font-family: verdana, sans-serif;

#leftcontent {
  position: absolute;

#centercontent {
  margin-left: 190px;

#rightcontent {
  position: absolute;

#banner {

Now, if you're not using Internet Explorer 5+, Opera 5+, or a browser based on Mozilla, such as NS6+, then those two pages (table layout and CSS layout) probably look quite different. In fact, although the table layout page will look nearly identical in all browsers dating back to Netscape 1.1, only the most recent browsers (such as those listed in this paragraph) will properly display the CSS layout. According to recent browser usage stats, those most recent browsers make up of roughly 75% of the browsing audience.

Related Reading

Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide
By Eric A. Meyer

Make no mistake: pages laid out with CSS will NOT look the same in newer and older browsers. Beginning with 5th generation browsers (including the most excellent IE5/Mac, Netscape 6 on all platforms, and Opera 5) CSS support for layout reached an acceptable level. Nearly identical CSS layouts are possible in this browser set. Older browsers, including the tenacious NS4, and even the ahead-of-its-time IE4, are lacking in their support of even the CSS1 recommendation from 1996. Consequently, CSS layout is for the most part impossible in these browsers, with the exception of non-liquid, pixel-specific layouts such as those used in games.

But don't despair. As you will see, CSS pages are degradable, and CSS will create a useable page for any and all browsers. CSS layout will be used only by those browsers which support those features, but those using older browsers will still be able to see your content. What you give up in absolute control over layout in every browser you gain back in increased accessibility and more useful documents.

But given that roughly 25% of your site visitors will not be able to see your layout (although everyone will have access to your content), the natural question is "Why use CSS for layout?"

Why Use CSS for Layout

I've already mentioned a few of the negatives of CSS layout and hinted at some of the benefits. Let's take a look in more detail at the pros and cons of CSS layout. In the end, I think you'll agree with me that the benefits far outweigh the problems.

Benefits of CSS layout

CSS allows you to separate the structure and presentation of documents. The separation of structure and presentation (often incorrectly referred to as the separation of style and content) is a principle that governs (or should govern) all markup languages, such as HTML. HTML is intended to structurally organize the content of a document so that it's clear what the conceptual relationship is between various portions of a document. The markup language is NOT intended to define the display of the document, although display and structure are often tightly connected.

Related articles:

A Primer for Accessible Web Pages -- A look at the history of Section 508, which enforces accessibility for government web sites, followed by a discussion about how to prepare pages for those who cannot effectively use a graphical user interface.

Modifying Styles -- Although browser support for Cascading Style Sheets has improved, modifying styles on the fly can still be painful at best. Fortunately, Steve Champeon provides a script to read and change an element's styles--regardless of where they were originally defined.

DOCTYPE Explained -- The DOCTYPE element, in the head of your document, tells the browser what kind of HTML is used to describe the file. The better you match the DOCTYPE to your code, the more accurate your work will be rendered. Here's an introduction.

Working with Fonts and CSS -- Changing fonts on web pages is anything but intuitive and easy. Fortunately, CSS can help.

As web developers we have been trained to see an <h1> tag as a way to make something bold and large, not as a way of marking it as a section header. The introduction of physical tags, such as <b>, <i>, <font> and the abominable <blink>, all of which specify display qualities of document elements and not structural qualities, have only made things more confusing for the developer. And this confusion is unfortunately reinforced by the behavior of web browsers, which apply styles to section headers and indeed make them large and bold. But it is wrong to think that the markup is what specified the style; in fact, the browser decides how to display a section header according to internal logic given to it by its programmers. Had they wanted, they might have specified that section headers be displayed italicized, or with an underline. And that is where CSS comes in to the picture. CSS allows you to override the browser's plans for displaying any particular page element or group of elements.

The separation of structure and presentation results in the following benefits:

  • A semantic web: You may have heard of the semantic web before; it is a vision for the future of the internet where the millions and millions and documents available on the web are well-structured documents with markup that accurately describes their contents. In such a world, documents become much more accessible and understandable to computers, which makes it possible for computers to better act as a person's agent. For instance, search engines would function more effectively, as document indexers could take advantage of the markup of documents to organize results. More exciting possibilities include programmable bots which could scour the reaches of the web for the best price on buffalo milk mozzarella or for the latest interview with Britney Spears. If a document's markup describes the content, then computers are better able to understand the content.

  • Ease of redesign: Once we have removed layout instructions from the markup of our documents, redesign becomes a relatively simple task. Instead of cutting and pasting content out of tables, we simply write a new style sheet and apply it to our document. A whole site can be given a new look in seconds. Many sites already take advantage of this benefit of CSS layout, enabling site visitors to pick a "skin" for the site and applying different style sheets on the fly.

  • Degradable code: Some people feel that if you want cross-browser, backwards-compatible code, you have to use tables. Of course such thinking is a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of HTML, which as I've said is intended to carry structural information about a document. The most backwards-compatible (and forwards-compatible) code is that which is free from all bad HTML, such as physical tags and tables used for layout. These tags are nothing more than a wrench in the works, keeping more primitive devices such as text-only browsers and phone-based web interfaces from getting what they came for: the content.

Yes, by eschewing tables for layout and ridding your HTML of physical tags your page may not look as nice in NN4, but your content will be 100% accessible. Muck your pages up with tables and your site may look better in NN4, but you also interfere with other less capable browsers and internet devices from retrieving your content. In nearly all situations, I'll choose 100% accessibility. In some cases, of course, the design must win. Some content is only intended to be seen by 4+ browser users, and you could justify the use of table-based layout in such situations. In other situations it is worth the investment of time and money to create server-side solutions to provide content to devices with different capabilities. Doing so, you can feed table-based layouts to 4+ browsers, and feed clean and simple markup to older and less-capable devices, but most of us only want to maintain a single document, not a server application. Valid structural markup and CSS provide us with the opportunity to offer a single document that works in all Internet devices and has a complex page layout in the 5+ browser set.

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

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