Two Game Changing CSS 3 Features

HTML and CSS has always been filled with frustration when it comes to being able to intuitively create layouts and designs. Web developers have long since sacrificed ease of implementation for accessibility and semantic purity. Basic layouts and simple aesthetics frequently require very non-trivial implementations. This is especially apparent to developers who have tasted the forbidden fruit of other platforms such as Flex, Android, et al.

Until the near future. Two CSS 3 features in particular are finally solving this in a major way, making web design palatable to the code minimalist in all of us.

Flexible Box Layouts

The CSS 3 spec has introduced a new module which is supported by all major non-IE browsers as well as the IE 10 preview. This module is the Flexible Box Layout.

Gone are the days of forcing a layout into a float-based implementation. No more negative margins, excessive floating, and clear fixes. This also eliminates the added complexity of having to take into account margins, padding, and border when creating layout styling.

Anyone coming from a Flex or Android background will immediately see the value of this. In Flex and Android, vertical and horizontal box layouts are the backbone of any application. For layouts which aren't flow based, this is much more intuitive.

For example, consider the following layout:

Child One
Child Two
Child Three
Child Four

With the associated markup (styling and browser-specific markup removed):

<div style="display:box;">
  <div>Child One</div>
  <div style="box-flex: 1;">Child Two</div>
  <div>Child Three</div>
  <div>Child Four</div>

I'm not going to go into detail as to what the code for this layout would look like today, but suffice it to say that any web developer should be intimately acquainted with such code.

There are other new layout modules as well (such as Grid Layout), but none that will play as big of a role in the micro-layout of small items on any website as the flexible box layout.

Nine Grid Backgrounds

I had previously created a jQuery plugin which enables 9-grid scaling support for javascript/css. This plugin has been made obsolete by the border-image style that is finally gaining widespread browser support. Similarly, 9-grid backgrounds have also been supported by frameworks such as Flex and Android for years.

Consider the following image:

Aqua Background

Using the border-image style, the following background can be created:

With the associated markup:

<div style="border-width: 25px; border-image: url('/old/uploads/2011/11/aqua_bg.png') 25 25 25 25 repeat;
  width: 500px;
  height: 100px;">

This allows for beautiful raster based backgrounds to be easily applied to fluid width elements. The one caveat here is that additional calculations will be required to take into account the additional border widths (which will be eventually mitigated by the border-image-outset property). In fact, the grid background (only visible on higher resolution screens) on the current theme for this blog is styled using border-image.

Game Changing

Having developed on platforms where these two features are standard, I can say that having these available as tools for web design will enable a new class of beautiful designs. Although nothing here was previously unrealizable with a lot of complex markup and styling, this will go a long way towards HTML becoming a much richer language for user interface.

Having lived through the era of table-based layouts, the era of accessibility driven div hell, and now the onset of CSS 3, I envy the next generation of programmers who take these types of tools for granted.

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