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How to make web site design by planning your CSS in advance?

A web site is like a building. Over time it gets lived in. And, regardless of the initial intentions of the designer for how everything within it should be arranged, things get moved around, stuff gets added, some things get taken away, more stuff gets added, the occasional renovation takes place, and yet more stuff gets added.

Many web sites are not really designed to be ‘lived in’ — i.e. to support all these changes by different owners with various intentions. After a while they bear little resemblance to any sort of coherent design and are likely to become increasingly hard to manage.

Of course, it’s impossible to plan for all the ‘home improvements’ that will happen to a web site between major redesigns.

However, it is possible to be prepared so that the addition of something new to a page doesn’t break its design.

A good way to future-proof a web site is to create styles in advance for the most common page elements, even if they are not yet being used. This is called ‘planning ahead’ 😉 and is an activity often overlooked by web designers.

Using the ‘planning ahead’ method, if a content author wants to add something to a page — say, a definition list — you’ve already planned how it will look so that it fits within the overall page design and will coexist with the other elements that may be present.

Let’s take a look at the more common page elements a future-proofed site should plan for.

Headings

Even though you may only be using H1s and H2s, it’s worth creating styles for H1 down to H4.

I’d question whether you need to go further than that (perhaps just make H4, H5 and H6 look the same). If a content author feels the need to use heading levels all the way down to H5 or H6 the structure of their content may be in question.

You might also want to create a style for a byline or a page summary as it’s not uncommon for these to be used below the main page heading.

Lists

Lists can be quite tricky from a layout perspective, especially when you take cross-browser display issues into account.

Therefore, it’s essential to plan for different implementations of lists in advance.

Of course, you’ll create styles for the standard ordered and unordered list. But, what about nested lists? I would at least plan for the following variations:

Unordered list with a nested unordered list

Unordered list with a nested ordered list

Ordered list with a nested ordered list

Ordered list with a nested unordered list

I wouldn’t worry about more than one level of nesting. If the content requires this, from a web readability standpoint it should more than likely be rewritten.

Definition lists are a great way to display lists of resources. You’ll often have a link to a resource (such as a PDF) and a summary sentence below it. Take the time to set this style up and you’ll stop users from littering your ‘resources’ pages with <br /> tags.

Web pages often start with a list of jump links to the various sections on the page. It’s worth considering a style for this type of link list, to visually separate it from the regular content on the page.

A list of links with thumbnails plus a summary is quite a popular approach for gallery pages, so you may want to create such a style in advance.

Tables

Tables can be very time-consuming to build and style. However, with a little forethought at least the styling part can be made easier.

Be sure to plan for types of data other than numerical that tables can contain — such as text and images.

Here are the common table elements that you should consider:

Table headings along the top row

Table headings along the top row and left column

Table cell containing text (multiple paragraphs) / list / image

Caption

Footnotes

It’s also worth adding in advance any table-related functionality (often JavaScript-based) that you will likely be using. This can include:

Displaying table row backgrounds in alternating colors

Highlighting the row and/or column being moused over

Sorting a table by a column

If you’re managing a corporate web site it’s a good idea to also think about financial data such as that in an annual report might be displayed.

Images

There aren’t too many variations on how images are placed within content, so they’re pretty easy to plan for. Try incorporating options for the following:

Image floated to the left or right

Image with a caption

Image with a caption that contains a link

Image that is a link

Image that displays a larger version on being clicked

Multi-image slideshow

Image with a photography credit

Links

As well as the standard link states, consider whether links to external sites and to downloadable files should be treated differently (i.e. indicating the target of the link).

It may also be worth planning for how to style an A to Z index.

Forms

It’s impossible to plan for all the layout complexities that forms can require.

However, do plan for all the standard form elements — for example, that are present in a registration form — as well as how error messages will be presented.

JavaScript

I’m no JavaScript expert, but I do know that it’s often a good idea to choose a JavaScript library upfront rather than cherry pick individual scripts and hope they all work well together.

Doing this will help you to avoid functionality clashes and bloat that can come from using scripts from a variety of sources. I’ve used jQuery in the past, which is well established and has a good selection of plugins.

Pull Quotes

Pull quotes are a great way to call out important information or lines from quotations. I’d highly recommend creating styles for these common pull quote variants:

Floated to the left and right

Within a paragraph and at the start of a paragraph

Without a citation

With a citation

Other Things to Consider

If you’re not already using Flash, plan for how you will embed it into your site. Also, consider creating styles for displaying sidebar content such as boxes of related links or featured resources.

Don’t forget to create a print style sheet and maybe even a mobile style sheet (and remember to keep them updated).

How Does Everything Fit Together?

Lastly, it’s important to test the interaction of different combinations of page elements.

It’s simple enough to separate headings and paragraphs appropriately. But what about a heading followed by a table? Or, a heading preceded by a list? Or an H2 followed by an H3?

The same is true for other page elements — for example, lists followed by tables.

It’s worth taking the time to try out these different page layouts (including the more unlikely ones) to make sure that your spacing is set up correctly.

It’s much easier to do this in advance than to incrementally tweak your CSS as content gets moved around and added.