For the love of CSS


Within the past few months.. well, really, since I announced that I would be writing WordPress for Dummies – my site, my work…I have recieved a bit more attention than I usually do. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m a pretty private individual…I’m not used to the spotlight — I can function in it, but don’t have a comfort level there. A little extra attention due to the release of my book is to be expected though, hey? Though, I simply do what I do.. my work makes me happy, but I’m not all that unique, in the grand scheme of things. There are just GOBS of designers out there who do what I do – everyone has a unique style and brings a different level of experience and knowledge to the table – but the mechanics are the same. Graphics. CSS. Code. And not necessarily in that order.

As a designer, it is what YOU bring to the table that really matters.

In recent weeks, I’ve received a fair number of emails from people who are just starting out in design. Trying to understand it, work with the different challenges designers face on the web today, trying to figure out how to get started and if there is space for them in a, seemingly, oversaturated market of designers.

That last question is one of the top questions I’m asked and I am of the mind that there is room – – more than enough room. The web needs good design – and don’t underestimate the massive size of the web. Break out of your circle…and open your mind to the absolute vastness of the internet, find a corner of it and carve out a space. Every single designer I know is absolutely slammed with work – many of us not able to take on new projects while we work on the active project in our current queue. My point here is this – – there is room for more… there will always be room for more. Don’t let numbers intimidate you or allow it to mold your perception of what is possible.

Another popular question is what is the ONE important thing a designer today needs to know?

Wow – narrow it down to one singular thing? That’s tough. As a designer, you need to be able to bring the whole package to the table. Graphic design is not more important than the CSS which isn’t more important than the code which isn’t more important than successful cross-browser rendering….get where I’m going? Bringing every element together in a package that it all works together is the tough part.

During my years working as an RN, it was understood that every nurse has a weakness. Some couldn’t stomach the sight of a lot of blood, another couldn’t take the sound of someone vomitting – – we’re only human after all. We had to mask those weaknesses in order to do the job at hand. My personal weakness? Mucus. A little is ok — a LOT caused a bit of queasyness.

Likewise, all designers have weaknesses… that certain part of their job that requires a bit more concentration and determination in order to make it through. For me? It’s CSS.

Don’t get me wrong.. these days, I can weild a pretty fierce stylesheet – but it wasn’t always that way, and it didn’t always come easy. I started designing in 1993 — back then, tables and inline styles were IT. I adored tables! I was a whiz at creating graphics and then doing a bit of slicing and dicing and inserting them into tables..rows..columns…repeating backgrounds..absolute positioning!

By the time I had tables mastered – I visited the site of a designer who is, sadly, no longer on the web today. Her name was Myra – and that is all I can remember of her, except for the fact that she created the most beautiful web sites I’d ever seen, using techniques that were beyond my capabilities, at the time. I studied her designs – – poured over her code, trying to figure out how she did what she did. In my attempts to emmulate some of her techniques – – I failed miserably… it was during that process that I discovered the wonder and beauty of CSS.

CSS opened up a new world for me – but at the same time, scared the crap out of me because I did not understand it. And that is where my advice for new designers comes into play. Understanding CSS is extremely important to the success of your designs. Using CSS and understanding CSS are two different things altogether.

Show me a designer who has not seen a design on the web and said, “Hmm..that is pretty cool” and then took a peek at the CSS to see how it was done. We’ve all done it – and continue to do it. If any designer denies that they’ve done it — they’re lying to you. Small disclaimer – I am NOT in any way advocating the direct copying of another designers work. However, peeking at different techniques is a great way to learn the language, and a good step towards understanding the different properties and elements involved in writing a good stylesheet.

But please don’t stop there! Anyone can cut and paste the CSS code and work of another — that’s easy. That does not make you a web designer. That makes you a hack – – because, when something breaks…do you know how to fix it?

Can you look at the CSS line by line and understand how every single float, margin, padding and property relates to the next? Do you know, and understand, why you would use a div ID here, but a div CLASS there? What about those SPAN tags — are they there just because the designer got tired of using the P or DIV tag..or do they have an actual purpose? What IS that purpose?

Unlock the mystery of CSS for your own sake – and ultimately, for the sake of the clients you design for. When something goes wrong – – and something will, inevitably, go wrong.. you are the one they will turn to for the answer. If you have copied the stylesheet from another designer without understanding what the CSS contained within actually MEANS — then when the client approaches you and says the design isn’t working in the Opera browser … you’re not going to know where to begin in order to troubleshoot it.

I made the move from table based designs to CSS based designs kicking and screaming the entire way. I did NOT want to give up my beloved tables….mostly because I did not feel like I had the time to invest into learning CSS. When my design business became somewhat active, I was still working full time as a nurse…so my time for design was limited. I was still doing table based designs back then…. even when I began doing blog design – I did Movable Type layouts in tables, if you can imagine! My older designs really reflect my lack of understanding of CSS, at the time.

Chris, that sexy hubby of mine, was patient. He’s not a designer, nor does he know or understand CSS, except for the very basics – but he bore the brunt of my kicking and screaming..and he would always say “Baby, pickup a book“. To which my response was “But, but – – I don’t have TIME! I have to get this done NOW and that damned footer won’t stay where it’s supposed to. CSS SUCKS!

Eventually, I picked up a book. Then I picked up another, then another. When the CSS lightbulb finally went off in my head, I began to realize the limitless possibilities in design. It was amazing! I began doing stuff I could never do before — and it WORKED! I was so excited — I would show Chris every single success..and to this day, he takes credit for those successes because he pushed me to open a book and read…. to understand, pick it apart and figure out what is what.

CSS is comprehensive and there is more to learn every single day. Its what I find exciting about it, though.

CSS was my mucus. My weakness….the one element of my job that made me queasy. In order to get the job done – you face your fears and conquer it, instead of letting it conquer you.

My advice is this: whatever it is that is kicking your ass – – invest the time to kick it back.

10 thoughts on “For the love of CSS”

  1. CSS Level 1 (which I know to be for control of text formatting) is not too bad, but once I got beyond that, it’s all Chinese. There don’t seem to be too many good tutorials on layout and positioning with CSS. I’m dying to make a theme (for WordPress) or template (for Mambo/Joomla), but I simply lack the skills to do so. How did you become familiar with CSS?

  2. Why haven’t I found your site sooner? I am also a designer who “grew” up on tables and has been slowly making the transition to CSS over the past few years. I can work with CSS but I certainly don’t consider myself a master of it yet. Any book recommendations?

  3. Leanne, I did! 🙂 I’m your Myra?? awww – that’s so sweet. Though, if I could find Myras site (if it even exists any more) you might change your mind! 😉

  4. Char – thanks for stopping by. Giving up tables requires extensive rehab! 😉

    I have three books listed at the very bottom of this site that I would recommend to anyone – – they are books that I keep at an arms reach at all times and use regularly while I work:

    CSS Mastery
    CSS Cookbook
    The CSS Anthology

    Each of them are excellent resources. Of course, there are limitless resources on the web – – but I’m just the type who likes to crack open a book. I’m old school, that way lol

  5. I think CSS is initially the bane of every designer who intitially started out with tables. Though I now use CSS, I’m far from a master and I learn a lot everyday. The best way to learn CSS I’ve found is just to jump into it. Create a design and try to bend it to your will with css from scratch. That’s the way I’m learning “Kicking and Screaming” all the way 😉

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