Modern CSS on DanQ.me

The current iteration of my blog diverges from an architectural principle common to most of previous versions of the last 20 years. While each previous change in design and layout was intended to provide a single monolithic upgrade, this version tries to provide me with a platform for continuous ongoing experimentation and change.

Debug console on DanQ.me showing Dan's head and a speech bubble.
Earlier this year I added experimental console art, for example. Click through for more details.

I’ve been trying to make better use of my blog as a vehicle for experimenting with web technologies, as I used to with personal sites back in the 1990s and early 2000s; to see a vanity site like this one as a living playground rather than something that – like most of the sites I’m paid to work on – something whose design is, for the most part, static for long periods of time.

"Blog" dropdown menu on DanQ.me.
The “popular” flag and associated background colour in the “Blog” top-level menu became permanent after a period of A/B testing. Thanks, unwitting testers!

Among the things I’ve added prior to the initial launch of this version of the design are gracefully-degrading grids, reduced-motion support, and dark-mode support – three CSS features of increasing levels of “cutting edge”-ness but each of which is capable of being implemented in a way that does not break the site’s compatibility. This site’s pages are readable using (simulations of) ancient rendering engines or even in completely text-based browsers, and that’s just great.

Here’s how I’ve implemented those three features:

Gracefully-degrading grids

Grid of recent notes and shares on DanQ.me
I’m not entirely happy with the design of these boxes, but that’s a job for another day.

The grid of recent notes, shares, checkins and videos on my homepage is powered by the display: grid; CSS directive. The number of columns varies by screen width from six on the widest screens down to three or just one on increasingly small screens. Crucially, grid-auto-flow: dense; is used to ensure an even left-to-right filling of the available space even if one of the “larger” blocks (with grid-column: span 2; grid-row: span 2;) is forced for space reasons to run onto the next line. This means that content might occasionally be displayed in a different order from that in which it is written in the HTML (which is reverse order of publication), but in exchange the items are flush with both sides.

Grid sample showing impact of dense flow.
The large “5 Feb” item in this illustration should, reverse-chronologically, appear before the “3 Feb” item, but there isn’t room for it on the previous line. grid-auto-flow: dense; means that the “3 Feb” item is allowed to bubble-up and fill the gap, appearing out-of-order but flush with the edge.

Not all web browsers support display: grid; and while that’s often only one of design and not of readability because these browsers will fall back to usually-very-safe default display modes like block and inline, as appropriate, sometimes there are bigger problems. In Internet Explorer 11, for example, I found (with thanks to @_ignatg) a problem with my directives specifying the size of these cells (which are actually <li> elements because, well, semantics matter). Because it understood the directives that ought to impact the sizing of the list items but not the one that redeclared its display type, IE made… a bit of a mess of things…

Internet Explorer scrambles a list/grid combination.
Thanks, Internet Explorer. That’s totally what I was looking for.

Do websites need to look the same in every browser? No. But the content should be readable regardless, and here my CSS was rendering my content unreadable. Given that Internet Explorer users represent a little under 0.1% of visitors to my site I don’t feel the need to hack it to have the same look-and-feel: I just need it to have the same content readability. CSS Feature Queries to the rescue!

CSS Feature Queries – the @supports selector – make it possible to apply parts of your stylesheet if and only if the browser supports specific CSS features, for example grids. Better yet, using it in a positive manner (i.e. “apply these rules only if the browser supports this feature”) is progressive enhancement, because browsers that don’t understand the  @supports selector act in the same way as those that understand it but don’t support the specified feature. Fencing off the relevant parts of my stylesheet in a @supports (display: grid) { ... } block instructed IE to fall back to displaying that content as a boring old list: exactly what I needed.

Internet Explorer's view of the "grid" on the DanQ.me homepage.
It isn’t pretty, but it’s pretty usable!

Reduced-motion support

I like to put a few “fun” features into each design for my blog, and while it’s nowhere near as quirky as having my head play peek-a-boo when you hover your cursor over it, the current header’s animations are in the same ballpark: hover over or click on some of the items in the header menu to see for yourself..

Main menu with "Dan Q" title in it's "bounced" position.
I’m most-pleased with the playful “bounce” of the letter Q when you hover over my name.

These kinds of animations are fun, but they can also be problematic. People with inner ear disorders (as well as people who’re just trying to maximise the battery life on their portable devices!) might prefer not to see them, and web designers ought to respect that choice where possible. Luckily, there’s an emerging standard to acknowledge that: prefers-reduced-motion. Alongside its cousins inverted-colors, prefers-reduced-transparency, prefers-contrast and prefers-color-scheme (see below for that last one!), these new CSS tools allow developers to optimise based on the accessibility features activated by the user within their operating system.

Motion-reducing controls in Windows 10 and MacOS X.
In Windows you turn off animations while in MacOS you turn on not-having animations, but the principle’s the same.

If you’ve tweaked your accessibility settings to reduce the amount of animation your operating system shows you, this website will respect that choice as well by not animating the contents of the title, menu, or the homepage “tiles” any more than is absolutely necessary… so long as you’re using a supported browser, which right now means Safari or Firefox (or the “next” version of Chrome). Making the change itself is pretty simple: I just added a @media screen and (prefers-reduced-motion: reduce) { ... } block to disable or otherwise cut-down on the relevant animations.

Dark-mode support

DanQ.me in dark mode.

Similarly, operating systems are beginning to support “dark mode”, designed for people trying to avoid eyestrain when using their computer at night. It’s possible for your browser to respect this and try to “fix” web pages for you, of course, but it’s better still if the developer of those pages has anticipated your need and designed them to acknowledge your choice for you. It’s only supported in Firefox and Safari so far and only on recent versions of Windows and MacOS, but it’s a start and a helpful touch for those nocturnal websurfers out there.

Enabling Dark Mode on Windows 10 and MacOS X
Come to the dark side, Luke. Or just get f.lux, I suppose.

It’s pretty simple to implement. In my case, I just stacked some overrides into a @media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) { ... } block, inverting the background and primary foreground colours, softening the contrast, removing a few “bright” borders, and darkening rather than lightening background images used on homepage tiles. And again, it’s an example of progressive enhancement: the (majority!) of users whose operating systems and/or browsers don’t yet support this feature won’t be impacted by its inclusion in my stylesheet, but those who can make use of it can appreciate its benefits.

This isn’t the end of the story of CSS experimentation on my blog, but it’s a part of the it that I hope you’ve enjoyed.

CSS-driven console graphics

If you’re reading this post via my blog and using a desktop computer, try opening your browser’s debug console (don’t worry; I’ll wait). If you don’t know how, here’s instructions for Firefox and instructions for Chrome. Other browsers may vary. You ought to see something like this in your debugger:

Debug console on DanQ.me showing Dan's head and a speech bubble.
I’m in your console, eating your commands!

What sorcery is this?

The debug console is designed to be used by web developers so that they can write Javascript code right in their browser as well as to investigate any problems with the code run by a web page. The web page itself can also output to the console, which is usually used for what I call “hello-based debugging”: printing out messages throughout a process so that the flow and progress can be monitored by the developer without having to do “proper” debugging. And it gets used by some web pages to deliver secret messages to any of the site users who open their debugger.

Facebook console messaging advising against the use of the console.
Facebook writes to the console a “stop” message, advising against using the console unless you know what you’re doing in an attempt to stop people making themselves victims of console-based social engineering attacks.

Principally, though, the console is designed for textual content and nothing else. That said, both Firefox and Chrome’s consoles permit the use of CSS to style blocks of debug output by using the %c escape sequence. For example, I could style some of a message with italic text:

>> console.log('I have some %citalic %ctext', 'font-style: italic;', '');
   I have some italic text

Using CSS directives like background, then, it’s easy to see how one could embed an image into the console, and that’s been done before. Instead, though, I wanted to use the lessons I’d learned developing PicInHTML 8¾ years ago to use text and CSS (only) to render a colour picture to the console. First, I created my template image – a hackergotchi of me and an accompanying speech bubble, shrunk to a tiny size and posterised to reduce the number of colours used and saved as a PNG.

Hackergotchi of Dan with a speech bubble, "squashed".
The image appears “squashed” to compensate for console monospace letters not being “square”.

Next, I wrote a quick Ruby program, consolepic.rb, to do the hard work. It analyses each pixel of the image and for each distinct colour assigns to a variable the CSS code used to set the background colour to that colour. It looks for “strings” of like pixels and combines them into one, and then outputs the Javascript necessary to write out all of the above. Finally, I made a few hand-tweaks to insert the text into the speech bubble.

The resulting output weighs in at 31.6kB – about a quarter of the size of the custom Javascript on the frontend of my site and so quite a bit larger than I’d have liked and significantly less-efficient than the image itself, even base64-encoded for embedding directly into the code, but that really wasn’t the point of the exercise, was it? (I’m pretty sure there’s significant room for improvement from a performance perspective…)

Scatmania.org in 2012
I’ll be first to admit it’s not as cool as the “pop-up Dan” in the corner of my 2012 design. You might enjoy my blog post about my 20 years of blogging or the one about how “pop-up Dan” worked.

What it achieved was an interesting experiment into what can be achieved with Javascript, CSS, the browser console, and a little imagination. An experiment that can live here on my site, for anybody who looks in the direction of their debugger, for the foreseeable future (or until I get bored of it). Anybody with any more-exotic/silly ideas about what this technique could be used for is welcome to let me know!

Update: 17 April 2019 – fun though this was, it wasn’t worth continuing to deliver an additional 25% Javascript payload to every visitor just for this, so I’ve stopped it for now. You can still read the source code (and even manually run it in the console) if you like. And I have other ideas for fun things to do with the console, so keep an eye out for that…

Making single color SVG icons work in dark mode

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

In a project I work on, we had a couple of buttons that consisted of just icons (with visually hidden help text). The awesome QA engineer I worked with, found some of those did not show up in dark mode, which rendered the buttons unusable for users of that mode. Using inline SVGs with currentColor fixed the issue.

This is neat. I’m not yet convinced of how wise it is for an operating system preference (dark mode) to be exposed via its browser, but I can see the logic. And I approve of the fact that CSS can be used to interrogate it. But really what I like about this article is the demonstration of how currentColor propogates even into inline SVGs: that’s neat, and a good observation by the author of the linked article.

When to use CSS vs. JavaScript

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

CSS before JS #

My general rule of thumb is…

If something I want to do with JavaScript can be done with CSS instead, use CSS.

CSS parses and renders faster.

For things like animations, it more easily hooks into the browser’s refresh rate cycle to provide silky smooth animations (this can be done in JS, too, but CSS just makes it so damn easy).

And it fails gracefully.

A JavaScript error can bring all of the JS on a page to screeching halt. Mistype a CSS property or miss a semicolon? The browser just skips the property and moves on. Use an unsupported feature? Same thing.

This exactly! If you want progressive enhancement (and you should), performance, and the cleanest separation of behaviour and presentation, the pages you deliver to your users (regardless of what technology you use on your server) should consist of:

  • HTML, written in such a way that that they’re complete and comprehensible alone – from an information science perspective, your pages shouldn’t “need” any more than this (although it’s okay if they’re pretty ugly without any more)
  • CSS, adding design, theme, look-and-feel to your web page
  • Javascript, using progressive enhancement to add functionality in-the-browser (e.g. validation on the client-side in addition to the server side validation, for speed and ease of user experience) and, where absolutely necessary, to add functionality not possible any other way (e.g. if you’re looking to tap into the geolocation API, you’re going to need Javascript… but it’s still desirable to provide as much of the experience as possible without)

Developers failing to follow this principle is making the Web more fragile and harder to archive. It’s not hard to do things “right”: we just need to make sure that developers learn what “right” is and why it’s important.

Incidentally, I just some enhancements to the header of this site, including some CSS animations on the logo and menu (none of them necessary, but all useful) and some Javascript to help ensure that users of touch-capable devices have an easier time. Note that neither Javascript nor CSS are required to use this site; they just add value… just the way the Web ought to be (where possible).

The CSS Working Group At TPAC: What’s New In CSS?

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Last week, I attended W3C TPAC as well as the CSS Working Group meeting there. Various changes were made to specifications, and discussions had which I feel are of interest to web designers and developers. In this article, I’ll explain a little bit about what happens at TPAC, and show some examples and demos of the things we discussed at TPAC for CSS in particular.

This article describes proposals for the future of CSS, some of which are really interesting. It includes mention of:

  • CSS scrollbars – defining the look and feel of scrollbars. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s not actually new: Internet Explorer 5.5 (and contemporaneous version of Opera) supported a proprietary CSS extension that did the same thing back in 2000!
  • Aspect ratio units – this long-needed feature would make it possible to e.g. state that a box is square (or 4:3, or whatever), which has huge value for CSS grid layouts: I’m excited by this one.
  • :where() – although I’ll be steering clear until they decide whether the related :matches() becomes :is(), I can see a million uses for this (and its widespread existence would dramatically reduce the amount that I feel the need to use a preprocessor!).

CSS Border-Radius Can Do That? | IO 9elements

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

TL/DR: When you use eight values specifying border-radius in CSS, you can create organic looking shapes. WOW. No time to read it all ?— we made a visual tool for you. Find it here.

Border Radius tool

Introduction

During this year’s Frontend Conference Zurich Rachel Andrew talked about Unlocking the Power of CSS Grid Layout. At the end of her talk, she mentioned something about an old CSS property that got stuck in my head:

“The Image is set round just by using the well-supported border-radius. Don’t forget that old CSS still exists and is useful. You don’t need to use something fancy for every effect.” — Rachel Andrew

Shortly after I heard this talk, I thought that you certainly could create more than just circles and started to dig deeper into what can be done using border-radius.

That’s really cool. I had a quick play and made this gold ‘shield’ award:

You Win A Prize!

Sub-Pixel Problems in CSS

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Something that jumped at me, recently, was a rendering dilemma that browsers have to encounter, and gracefully handle, on a day-by-day basis with little, to no, standardization.

Take the following page for example. You have 4 floated divs, each with a width of 25%, contained within a parent div of width 50px. Here’s the question: How wide are each of the divs?

The problem lies in the fact that each div should be, approximately, 12.5px wide and since technology isn’t at a level where we can start rendering at the sub-pixel level we tend to have to round off the number. The problem then becomes: Which way do you round the number? Up, down, or a mixture of the two? I think the results will surprise you, as they did me…

DRY: Do Repeat Yourself

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

I am increasingly of the opinion that the general software engineering adage “Don’t Repeat Yourself” does not always apply to web development. Also, I found that web development classes in CS academia are not very realistic. These two problems turn out to have the same root cause: a lack of appreciation of what browsers do…

Moving Things Around With CSS Transitions

As I indicated in my last blog post, my new blog theme has a “pop up” Dan in the upper-left corner. Assuming that you’re not using Internet Explorer, then when you move your mouse cursor over it, my head will “duck” back behind the bar below it.

My head "pops up" in the top-left hand corner of the site, and hides when you hover your mouse cursor over it.
My head "pops up" in the top-left hand corner of the site, and hides when you hover your mouse cursor over it.

This is all done without any Javascript whatsoever: it’s pure CSS. Here’s how it’s done:

<div class="sixteen columns">
  <div id="dans-creepy-head"></div>
  <h1 id="site-title" class="graphic">
    <a href="https://danq.me/" title="Scatmania">Scatmania</a>
  </h1>
  <span class="site-desc graphic">
    The adventures and thoughts of &quot;Scatman&quot; Dan Q
  </span>
</div>

The HTML for the header itself is pretty simple: there’s a container (the big blue bar) which contains, among other things, a <div> with the id "dans-creepy-head". That’s what we’ll be working with. Here’s the main CSS:

#dans-creepy-head {
  position: absolute;
  top: -24px;
  left: 15px;
  width: 123px;
  height: 133px;
  background: url(/dans-creepy-head.png) top left no-repeat;
  transition: all 800ms;
  -o-transition: all 800ms;
  -webkit-transition: all 800ms;
  -moz-transition: all 800ms;
}
#dans-creepy-head:hover {
  top: 100px;
  height: 60px;
}

The CSS sets a size, position, and background image to the <div>, in what is probably a familiar way. A :hover selector changes the style to increase the distance from the top of the container (from -24px to 100px) and to decrease the height, cropping the image (from 133px to 60px – this was necessary in this case to prevent the bottom of the image from escaping out from underneath the masking bar that it’s supposed to be “hiding behind”). With just that code, you’d have a perfectly workable “duck”, but with a jerky, one-step animation.

The transition directive (and browser-specific prefix versions -o-transition, -webkit-transition, and -moz-transition, for compatability) are what makes the magic happen. This element specifies that any ("all") style is changed on this element (whether via CSS directives, as in this case, or by a change of class or properties by a Javascript function), that a transition effect will be applied to those changes. My use of  "all" is a lazy catch-all – I could have specified the individual properties ( top and  height) that I was interested in changing, and even put different periods on each, but I’ll leave it to you to learn about CSS3 transition options for yourself. The  800ms is the duration of the transition: in my case, 0.8 seconds.

html.ie #dans-creepy-head:hover {
  top: -24px;
  height: 133px;
}
@media (max-width: 780px) {
  #dans-creepy-head {
    display: none;
  }
}

I apply some CSS to prevent the :hover effect from taking place in Internet Explorer, which doesn’t support transitions. The "ie" class is applied to the  <html> tag using Paul Irish’s technique, so it’s easy to detect and handle IE users without loading separate stylesheet files for them. And finally, in order to fit with my newly-responsive design, I make the pop-up head disappear when the window is under 780px wide (at which point there’d be a risk of it colliding with the title).

That’s all there is to it! A few lines of CSS, and you’ve got an animation that degrades gracefully. You could equally-well apply transformations to links (how about making them fade in or out, or change the position of their background image?) or, with a little Javascript, to your tabstrips and drop-down menus.

A New Look

Well, it’s been over a year since I last updated the look-and-feel of my blog, so it felt like it was time for a redesign. The last theme was made during a period that I was just recovering from a gloomy patch, and that was reflected the design: full of heavy, dark reds, blacks, and greys, and it’s well-overdue a new look!

The old Scatmania design: very serious-looking, and with dark, moody colours.
The old Scatmania design: very serious-looking, and with dark, moody colours.

I was also keen to update the site to in line with the ideas and technologies that are becoming more commonplace in web design, nowadays… as well as using it as a playground for some of the more-interesting CSS3 features!

The theme before last, with which this new design has elements in common: a big blue header, an off-white background, and sans-serif faces.
The theme before last, with which this new design has elements in common: a big blue header, an off-white background, and sans-serif faces.

Key features of the new look include:

  • A theme that uses strong colours in the footer and header, to “frame” the rest of the page content.
  • A responsive design that rescales dynamically all the way from a mobile phone screen through tablets, small 4:3 monitors, and widescreen ratios (try resizing your browser window!).
  • CSS transitions to produce Javascript-less dynamic effects: hover your cursor over the picture of me in the header to make me “hide”.
  • CSS “spriting” to reduce the number of concurrent downloads your browser has to make in order to see the content. All of the social media icons, for example, are one file, split back up again using background positioning. They’re like image maps, but a million times less 1990s.
  • Front page “feature” blocks to direct people to particular (tagged) areas of the site, dynamically-generated (from pre-made templates) based on what’s popular at any given time.
  • A re-arrangement of the controls and sections based on the most-popular use-cases of the site, according to visitor usage trends. For example, search has been made more-prominent, especially on the front page, the “next post”/”previous post” controls have been removed, and the “AddToAny” sharing tool has been tucked away at the very bottom.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Note that some of these features will only work in modern browsers, so Internet Explorer users might be out of luck![/spb_message]

As always, I’m keen to hear your feedback (yes, even from those of you who subscribe by RSS). So let me know what you think!

Roman Typesetters

When ancient Roman typesetters or web designers were showcasing a design, and didn’t want the content of the (dummy) text on their mock-ups to distract the client… what did they use for their lorem ipsum text?

These are the kinds of things that bother me most when I’m doing typographic layout. That, and Internet Explorer’s consistently fucked-up interpretation of CSS.