I'm often amazed by people who defend CSS as an amazing technology for layout. I get where they're coming from - I mean it is a pretty reasonable way to handle styles (font stuff, mainly), and it has a laudable goal - namely to separate content from the layout. But as a technology for marking up layout? It's about the lousiest thing I can think of. It's painful. it's a chore.
CSS3.0 is starting to address some of these issues (border layout handling, for example, is something that we should have had since the start - and by start, I mean since Netscape 1.0), but it still needs to be backwards compatible with the older CSS functionality, which sucks.
The CSS system is just too programmer-oriented. And I’m a programmer. (Programmer as in MSCS from Stanford, the Nagle algorithm in TCP, inventor of ragdoll technology, real-time robot vehicle control, not programmer as in “writes some Perl”. And my first web site went up in 1995.) It’s not that CSS is hard; it’s that CSS is bad.
CSS is, simply, a badly designed layout system. Even the rather simple system in Tk which lays out dialog boxes and windows is better. Tk is a nested-box system, but both “pack” (like CSS “float”) and “grid” (like tables) layouts are available in the same system. This is enough to handle most cases. Which “float” and “clear” are not. Page layout is forced to fall back on absolute positioning far too often.
The clever way to do layout would have been with a constraint system. Each box has four edges and four corners, and it would be possible to bind corners and edges to create any desired relationship between boxes. This is something one could express easily in a click and drag graphical tool. Want three columns the same height? Tie their adjacent bottom corners together.
Want to fill the page? Tie the outside corners to a page edge. Ten minutes to explain to an artist. Advanced use would involve priorities on constraints, so if something had to give in “fluid design” as the page size or type size changed, you could pick what gave first. (This could be extended to allow curved boundaries, even splines, but that might be overdoing it.)
The browser would have to have a constraint engine to resolve all the constraints, but there are known solutions to that problem.
Too many people drank the Kool-Aid on CSS. It’s just not that good a technology.
The worst problem with DIV-based layout is that the layout system is too weak. There’s no form of “grid” layout. There’s no way to relate a DIV to anything but its predecessor, its parent, or an absolute position. The system is just too dumb. That’s why people have to stand on their head just to get three columns to work.Tables actually are a better designed layout system. Table layouts allow table cells which span multiple rows and columns. If all tables could do were simple grids of cells, the CSS approach might make sense, but tables are more general than that. And they’re well supported in Dreamweaver.
If CSS had a grid capability, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it doesn’t.
So there you have it. CSS sucks.
I'm thinking about an alternative solution for some of the problems... If I get time I'll post it up.
Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.
The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).