CSS: Head First or Feet First?

Many web designers are struggling with the question of how to use Cascading
Style Sheets (CSS) properly. Going all out using CSS for text formatting,
layouts, and other features is tempting at times. There are a lot of savings
in time and effort when updating a site that has single style sheet and savings
in bandwidth with the new leaner <font> and <table> free pages. One quick
update can move around elements on a page and change the color scheme. Some
designers are hesitant to invest the time in learning how to create style
sheets and apply them to their work, especially since some old browsers still
struggle to render CSS. But not using CSS at all leaves you behind the times
and missing out on the many benefits of CSS.

However, the real problem is not with learning to use the style sheets but
how, when, and where to use CSS. With the huge variety in browsers out there,
every one of them rendering CSS differently it can be very tricky to create
pages that show how you want them to, despite the lofty promises of CSS advocates.
One must make pages that "degrade gracefully" in older browsers. This is
just a variation on the old problem that web designers have been facing since
the advent of browsers. So the question is what should we do right now?

I advocate the use of CSS for formatting of text and the limited use of
tables for laying out pages on most sites. This is the feet first approach
to using CSS, just dangling your feet in the water until everything is acclimated.
It will be a few years before we can start to forget about Netscape 4.0 and
IE 5. Once we are a few more versions into browsers built for to meet the
W3C CSS guidelines we can start to consider using tables for displaying data in a table rather than for hacking complex layouts together. This approach is good for taking advantage of many of the benefits of CSS without having the majority of visitors see our sites rendered like a Picasso.

Now a word on the future. I don’t believe it is unreasonable to ask most
users to get a new, FREE, browser or plug-in every few years. There are a
number of browsers to choose from and it doesn’t take that much effort to
get them. Especially as high-speed internet connections become prevalent
there are fewer and fewer reasons not to stay reasonably up to date. It is
part of the job of those of us in the know to drag everyone else kicking
and screaming into the future even if they don’t know what a style sheet
or even HTML is. So, I expect that in a few years time we should start moving
away from these hybrid type CSS and table layouts and move to CSS-P for more
precise and flexible layouts that will render beautifully in new standard-compliant
browsers. But for the time being we will often find that a mix of light table
use and CSS leaves the most people with the best experience at our web sites.

Kevin Hall
Latest posts by Kevin Hall (see all)