May 24, 2020
These past few weeks, I took part in Smashing Magazine’s first-ever online workshops. I’ve been a Smashing fan for a while, and thanks to my agency, I attended Resilient Web Systems with CSS & Sass led by Miriam Suzanne.
Miriam is a core contributor/expert on tools I use daily (Sass and W3C CSS working group). The workshop was a deep-dive into CSS and covered advanced topics such as core fundamentals of CSS, modern and intrinsic web layout, CSS architecture, maintainable design systems, new tools in CSS and Sass, and more.
The experience was truly fantastic and outdid my learning expectations. Attendees were invited to chat and ask questions, slides were well-presented, and the environment was refreshingly friendly and intimate given the virtual format. I found myself many times during the workshop amazed at how useful and applicable the information was. For my professional goals this year, both the technical details and takeaways from this workshop will undoubtedly come in handy.
I want to share just a selection of takeaways from Miriam’s workshop. I took many pages of detailed notes, but these high-level concepts will surely stick with me. I’m also looking forward to SmashingConf Live in a few weeks!
CSS is about context and relationships
On the first day of the workshop, Miriam covered the history and theory behind CSS as well as core concepts like the cascade. Since I only briefly learned this information in school and on the job, it was fascinating to hear in depth.
CSS was designed around accessibility and user control, which makes it radically different from other programming languages or design tools. It relies on meaning and intent (semantic markup and purposeful declarations) and the language is contextual, adapting to change.
Designing for the browser takes a different approach
Pixel-perfect web design isn’t attainable, nor is it worth aiming for. Many times during the workshop, this idea was brought up, and it’s important for everyone who works with the web to understand.
Because the web is a flexible, resilient medium compared to print, the best we can do as programmers is describe intent—providing hints & suggestions for things like sizes, flow, typography, and color. The browser will interpret our intent across different canvases, for unknown content.
This unpredictability is a fact—it’s the reality and power of the web. When we let go of trying to make the web experience match Photoshop comps perfectly, we leverage the medium in exciting ways.
And instead of limiting ourselves with the 12-column grid system which is everywhere these days, we can be inspired by graphic design history, which has always used interesting and different types of grids.
We need to redefine what browser support means
Browser support is a common thing we face when developing websites, with feature support always in flux. The current mindset in our industry of supporting a certain percentage or set of browsers is frustrating—and it just doesn’t work.
Instead of re-writing code for each instance, progressive enhancement should be used to build from basic to advanced implementations. If the content is there in an accessible manner, it’s good. We can support everyone possible by supporting more browsers with lower standards.
Moving forward, we’ll be able to use features as they are available without concern for legacy browsers like IE 11. This idea of evergreen browsers exists today, and through practices like progressive enhancement, we can take advantage of it.
Cascade-aligned programming makes work easier
Working with built-in tools like the cascade in CSS, we can stop programming against the grain and begin working in harmony with our platform. Whether we’re using new techniques like custom properties or managing design systems, we should consider fundamental CSS principles along every step of the process.
Automation helps us focus on the more important details
The best tools are ones that encourage you to use best practices and consistency, and get out of your way to focus on what matters. Automating parts of our system or using integrated documentation is smart in this respect. And when we have time to do the important work, that’s always a great situation to be in!
Tools and processes are people-dependent
It’s important to find or build tools that fit to you, not just what’s working for someone else. We’re all dealing with similar problems, but we all have unique constraints.
And if design systems are not communicated, they don’t exist. At the end of the day, it’s about communication between people & teams.
Continuous integration: accurate and maintained over complete
Design systems can be complex endeavors, sometimes spanning huge teams, applications, and platforms. By starting small with what we know and what has the most reach, we can aim for accurate and maintained over complete. Getting one piece right is the important step.
Continuous integration means it’s fine to go back and adapt—it’s an iterative process and it will take time to figure it out.
Start with meaningful and structured code, readable by humans & machines
Clear semantics is the basis for everything on the web. This helps browsers, users, and other developers because it makes code intuitive to read, understand, and maintain. For users, well-written code forms accessibility, which is a human right.