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The Power of HTML 5 and CSS 3

[ Electrical Surge ]

Web designers can do some pretty cool stuff with HTML 4 and CSS 2.1. We can structure our documents logically and create information-rich sites without relying on archaic, table-based layouts. We can style our web pages with beauty and detail without resorting to inline <font> and <br> tags. Indeed, our current design methods have taken us far beyond the hellish era of browser wars, proprietary protocols, and those hideous flashing, scrolling, and blinking web pages. Thankfully, those days are over.

As far as we’ve come using HTML 4 and CSS 2.1, however, we can do better. We can refine the structure of our documents and increase their semantic precision. We can sharpen the presentation of our stylesheets and advance their stylistic flexibility. As we continue to push the boundaries of existing languages, HTML 5 and CSS 3 are quickly gaining popularity, revealing their collective power with some exciting new design possibilities.

Goodbye <div> soup, hello semantic markup

In the past, designers wrestled with semantically incorrect table-based layouts. Eventually, thanks to revolutionary thinking from the likes of Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer, savvy designers embraced more semantically correct layout methods, structuring their pages with <div> elements instead of tables, and using external stylesheets for presentation. Unfortunately, complex designs require significant differentiation of underlying structural elements, which commonly results in the “<div>-soup” syndrome. Perhaps this looks familiar:

<div id="news">
   <div class="section">
      <div class="article">
         <div class="header">
            <h1>Div Soup Demonstration</h1>
            <p>Posted on July 11th, 2009</p>
         </div>
         <div class="content">
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
         </div>
         <div class="footer">
            <p>Tags: HMTL, code, demo</p>
         </div>
      </div>
      <div class="aside">
         <div class="header">
            <h1>Tangential Information</h1>
         </div>
         <div class="content">
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
         </div>
         <div class="footer">
            <p>Tags: HMTL, code, demo</p>
         </div>
      </div>
   </div>
</div>

While slightly contrived, this example serves to illustrate the structural redundancy of designing complex layouts with HTML 4 (as well as XHTML 1.1 et al). Fortunately, HTML 5 alleviates <div>-soup syndrome by giving us a new set of structural elements. These new HTML 5 elements replace meaningless <div>s with more semantically accurate definitions, and in doing so provide more “natural” CSS hooks with which to style the document. With HTML 5, our example evolves:

<section>
   <section>
      <article>
         <header>
            <h1>Div Soup Demonstration</h1>
            <p>Posted on July 11th, 2009</p>
         </header>
         <section>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
         </section>
         <footer>
            <p>Tags: HMTL, code, demo</p>
         </footer>
      </article>
      <aside>
         <header>
            <h1>Tangential Information</h1>
         </header>
         <section>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
            <p>Lorem ipsum text blah blah blah.</p>
         </section>
         <footer>
            <p>Tags: HMTL, code, demo</p>
         </footer>
      </aside>
   </section>
</section>

As you can see, HTML 5 enables us to replace our multitude of <div>s with semantically meaningful structural elements. This semantic specificity not only improves the underlying quality and meaningfulness of our web pages, but also enables us to remove many of the class and id attributes that were previously required for targeting our CSS. In fact, CSS 3 makes it possible to eliminate virtually all class and id attributes.

Goodbye class attributes, hello clean markup

When combined with the new semantic elements of HTML 5, CSS 3 provides web designers with god-like powers over their web pages. With the power of HTML 5, we obtain significantly more control over the structure of our documents, and with the power of CSS 3, our control over the presentation of our documents tends toward infinity.

Even without some of the advanced CSS selectors available to us, the new variety of specific HTML 5 elements enable us to apply styles across similar sections without the need for defining class and id attributes. To style our previous <div>-soup example, we would target the multitude of attributes via the following CSS:

div#news    {}
div.section {}
div.article {}
div.header  {}
div.content {}
div.footer  {}
div.aside   {}

On the other hand, to style our HTML 5 example, we may target the various documents regions directly with this CSS:

section {}
article {}
header  {}
footer  {}
aside   {}

This is an improvement, but there are several issues that need addressed. With the <div> example, we target each area specifically through use of class and id attributes. Using this logic allows us to apply styles to each region of the document, either collectively or individually. For example, in the <div> case, .section and .content divisions are easily distinguished; however, in the HTML 5 case, the section element is used for both of these areas and others as well. This is easily resolved by adding specific attribute selectors to the different section elements, but thankfully, we instead may use a few advanced CSS selectors to target the different section elements in obtrusive fashion.

Targeting HTML-5 elements without classes or ids

Rounding out the article, let’s look at some practical examples of targeting HTML-5 elements without classes or ids. There are three types of CSS selectors that will enable us to target and differentiate the elements in our example. They are as follows:

  • The descendant selector [CSS 2.1]: E F
  • The adjacent selector [CSS 2.1]: E + F
  • The child selector [CSS 2.1]: E > F

Let’s have a look at how these selectors enable us to target each of our document sections without the need for classes or ids.

Targeting the outermost <section> element

Due to the incompleteness of our example, we will assume that the outermost <section> element is adjacent to a <nav> element which itself is a direct descendant of the <body> element. In this case, we may target the outermost <section> as follows:

body nav + section {}

Targeting the next <section> element

As the only direct descendant of the outer <section>, the next <section> element may be specifically targeted with the following selector:

section > section {}

Targeting the <article> element

There are several ways to target the <article> element specifically, but the easiest is to use a simple descendant selector:

section section article {}

Targeting the <header>, <section>, and <footer> elements

In our example, each of these three elements exists in two locations: once inside the <article> element and once inside the <aside> element. This distinction makes it easy to target each element individually:

article header {}
article section {}
article footer {}

..or collectively:

section section header {}
section section section {}
section section footer {}

So far, we have managed to eliminate all classes and ids using only CSS 2.1. So why do we even need anything from CSS 3? I’m glad you asked..

Advanced targeting of HTML 5 with CSS 3

While we have managed to target every element in our example using only valid CSS 2.1, there are obviously more complicated situations where the more advanced selective power of CSS 3 is required. Let’s wrap things up with a few specific examples showing how CSS 3 enables us to style any element without extraneous class or id attributes.

Targeting all posts with a unique post ID

WordPress provides us a way of including the ID of each post in the source-code output. This information is generally used for navigational and/or informational purposes, but with CSS 3 we can use these existing yet unique ID attributes as a way to select the posts for styling. Sure, you could always just add a class="post" attribute to every post, but that would defeat the point of this exercise (plus it’s no fun). By using the “substring matching attribute selector,” we can target all posts and their various elements like this:

article[id*=post-] {}           /* target all posts */
article[id*=post-] header h1 {} /* target all post h1 tags */
article[id*=post-] section p {} /* target all post p tags */

Now that’s just sick, and we can do the same thing for numerically identified comments, enabling us to apply targeted styles to associated constructs:

article[id*=comment-] {}           /* target all comments */
article[id*=comment-] header h1 {} /* target all comment h1 tags */
article[id*=comment-] section p {} /* target all comment p tags */

Target any specific section or article

Many sites display numerous of posts and comments. With HTML 5, the markup for these items consists of repetitive series of <section> or <article> elements. To target specific <section> or <article> elements, we turn to the incredible power of the “:nth-child” selector:

section:nth-child(1) {} /* select the first <section> */
article:nth-child(1) {} /* select the first <article> */

section:nth-child(2) {} /* select the second <section> */
article:nth-child(2) {} /* select the second <article> */

In a similar manner, we may also target specific elements in reverse order via the “:nth-last-child” selector:

section:nth-last-child(1) {} /* select the last <section> */
article:nth-last-child(1) {} /* select the last <article> */

section:nth-last-child(2) {} /* select the penultimate <section> */
article:nth-last-child(2) {} /* select the penultimate <article> */

More ways to select specific elements

Another way to select specific instances of HTML-5 elements such as <header>, <section>, and <footer>, is to take advantage of the “:only-of-type” selector. With these HTML-5 elements appearing in multiple locations in the web document, it may be useful to target elements that appear only once within a particular parent element. For example, to select only <section> elements that are the only <section> elements within another <section> element (insane, I know), as in the following markup:

<section>
   <section></section>
   <section>
      <section>Target this section</section>
   </section>
   <section>
      <section>Target this section</section>
   </section>
   <section>
      <section>But not this section</section>
      <section>And not this section</section>
   </section>
   <section></section>
</section>

..we could simply use the following selector:

section>section:only-of-type {}

Again, you could always add an id to the target element, but you would lose the increased scalability, maintainablity, and clarity made possible with an absolute separation of structure and presentation.

The take-home message for these examples is that CSS 3 makes it possible to target virtually any HTML-5 element without littering the document with superfluous presentational attributes.

Much more to come

With the inevitable, exponential rise in popularity of both HTML 5 and CSS 3, designers can look forward to many new and exciting possibilities for their web pages, applications, and scripts. Combined, these two emerging languages provide designers with immense power over the structure and presentation of their web documents. In my next article on this topic, we will explore some of the controversial aspects of HTML 5 and also examine some of the finer nuances of CSS 3. Stay tuned!

Note to WordPress users

You can start using HTML 5 right now. To see a live, working example of a WordPress theme built entirely with HTML 5, CSS, and of course PHP, drop by the Digging into WordPress site and visit our newly revamped Theme Clubhouse. There you will find my recently released H5 WordPress Theme Template available for immediate download. And while you’re there, be sure to secure your copy of Digging into WordPress, coming this Fall.

Jeff Starr
About the Author Jeff Starr = Creative thinker. Passionate about free and open Web.
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46 responses
  1. Andrew Shooner July 20, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    In your substring example, you’re adding what is essentially class assignment (‘post-‘) into the element’s id. Doesn’t this decrease the semantic meaning? The increased semantic meaning in HTML5 is only going to be useful if it is used in the same way by all producers of html5 markup; I forsee plenty of debate about the intended meaning of all these that will approach religious exegesis. This could make writing markup as chaotic and vague as SEO is today.

  2. Hey Jeff. Great article. The only thing I’d have to be wary of is current compatibility. Which browsers support HTML5/CSS3? I assume firefox already does, but you know how IE likes to be a few years behind its competitors. I *still* have PNG transparency issues with some viewers. I doubt HTML5 and CSS3 will have any sort of defense against non-compatibility for current browsers.

    To be honest, I haven’t really looked into HTML5/CSS3 much past this article, so I ask you this: When will it be compatible (as in, is all of this released yet?)/Which browsers -already- support it? Since you linked to a wordpress page completely in HTML 5, its obviously already been released :)

    Great article though – I must admit I still use Tables for layout purposes (however, I’m considering moving completely to AS3), but when I do use Tables, I always put them in DIV’s ;) Getting the best of both worlds…

    Cheers!

  3. Wow, I had no idea HTML 5/CSS 3 would be so versatile. I can’t wait to dive in. I hope I don’t drown in the semantic sea. It’s a lot bigger than the div soup bowl.

  4. There are some good CSS3 articles around, I have used a couple of the tricks like rounded corners on DIVs and @font-face. But some of it puts you right back in the soup with the browser specific commands for certain things. Simple rounded corners:

    .border_rounded {
    	-moz-border-radius: 10px;
    	-webkit-border-radius: 10px;
    	border: 0px solid black;
    	}

    Only good in Safari and Foxfire. Explorer supports little of CSS3 at this time. Am I mistaken or is HTML5 leaning towards xml somewhat?

  5. “I’ll be sticking with XHTML for a while if this is the future.”

    Agreed.

  6. Sunny Singh July 20, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    I love how semantic HTML5 is and how well you can indicate selectors through CSS3. I will however probably not replace the way I’m coding right now (XHTML being my markup of choice) but use CSS3 and a bit of HTML5 to further improve on it. For example, I love the new tags but ID’s are something that will just be used a bit less, but I’m not going to go into an id/class less design. My most favorite is the nth-child thing and such that when you want to target some divs or paragraphs within a section that will most likely have an id to define its purpose.

    I just hope we don’t see further errors with HTML5 as we did with HTML4 and even XHTML.

  7. Sunny Singh July 20, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    Oh one more thing, did Brad (comment 16) call Firefox “Foxfire?” :l

  8. I would like to say that was a test but I cant.

  9. Jeff, I enjoyed reading your article.

    But I still think that the best we can do for now is preparing for HTML5 with semantic class names (http://jontangerine.com/log/2008/03/preparing-for-html5-with-semantic-class-names)

  10. Jonny Haynes July 21, 2009 @ 5:25 am

    A great article demonstrating the power of HTML5 and CSS3.

  11. I like semantic HTML and all, but I honestly don’t see how “section” has appreciably more meaning than “division”. They’re basically synonyms. And it isn’t as if we refer to areas on a page exclusively as “sections” — in point of fact, a “section” more often means a collection of related content on a website.

    Having “header” and “footer” tags is nice, and I like “article” and “figure”. I agree that these elements in particular will convey more meaning on the machine level than “div id=’header'” does, though I do have some reservations about the specifics of the spec.

    As Andrew pointed out, however, the inherent meaning of a tag does “mean more” when there is consensus. You may have seen the posts on Zeldman’s blog recently about the “nav” element (when I was reading through the working spec I had the same questions).

    One good thing is that the spec does attempt to define in detail and portray appropriate and inappropriate useage scenarios — at least if you view it on whatwg. But we know if common useage and understanding does not follow the spec, the common understanding will be the reality rather than the theoretical documentation.

    Terrific article as an overview, but it’s important to me to note that more advanced CSS 2 and CSS 2.1 selectors still don’t work in IE — use of CSS 3 selectors will require workarounds in browsers for years to come. I know I sound like a naysayer, but I’ve been disappointed by new techniques too many times. ;-)

  12. Sean Tubridy July 21, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    The lightning makes me think of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.

    “Now, witness the power of this fully semantic and controllable markup language!”

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