Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3

This is the third installment of a blog series about web development. You can find other blogs here:

  1. Web development #1: Internet and the World Wide Web
  2. Web development #2: Our first website using HTML
  3. Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3
  4. Web development #4: PHP in the back
  5. Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms
  6. Web development #6: Getting interactive with JavaScript
  7. Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX
  8. Web development #8: Where to go from here

In this part of the ongoing series on web development we’re going to apply some style to the web page we created in the previous blog post. So if you haven’t read that one please do, or at least get the page’s HTML at the bottom of that post.

About CSS

CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet and is used to apply styles to your web page (for example setting backgrounds or changing fonts) and create a layout (position elements relative to each other). CSS, like HTML, has a history of incompatibilities and non-supportive browsers too. While CSS 1 (actually level 1) has been around since 1996 it wasn’t until 2010 that most browsers fully (and more or less correctly) supported CSS. Again, each browser renders web pages differently, making it important to test your CSS in different browsers.

We’re currently at CSS (level) 3. What’s different from CSS 3 compared to it’s predecessors (CSS 1, CSS 2 and CSS 2.1) is that it’s divided into modules like Color, Font and Animations (there’s actually over fifty modules *gasp!*). This allows for various styling options to be developed independently. As a result various modules have various statuses and only a few are actual recommendations (as opposed to draft or work in progress).

Now why is CSS so important? It clearly seperates your content from your visuals. It’s basically what do you want to convey vs. how do you want to convey it. The ‘what’ goes into your HTML and the ‘how’ goes into your CSS. And having seperated this it’s easy to create a new page for your website without having to worry about styling. Or you may want to give your website a cosmetical make-over without having to change it’s contents. As a bonus both your HTML and your CSS documents will look cleaner and be easier to read!

Syntax of CSS

So enough with all those history lessons already! Let’s look at some CSS. There are actually three ways to apply CSS to your HTML. The first is inline, meaning you’re defining it in your HTML elements with a style attribute, which we just said we don’t want to do. The second way is to embed your CSS into your HTML’s head section. That already sounds better than inline, but it’s still not good enough (we’d still have to edit our HTML file for style changes). The third method, and the one we will use, is to define your styling in a seperate file.

So simply start up your text editor (again Notepad or Notepad++) and save it as “mystyle.css” (where “mystyle” is a name of your choosing). The first thing you need to do when applying a style is thinking to what you want to apply the style. Let’s say we want our headers (more specifically our h1 elements) to have a red text color. You’d start by writing a selector. In this case the selector is simply h1. Notice that a comment (for human readers) is started with /* and ended with */.

h1 {
    /* Your style here... */

Easy as that. Now inside the curly braces (you know them from C, C++, C#, Java, etc.) we’re going to define the style, which will be applied to our h1 elements. This looks like “property: value;”. So let’s define the red color.

h1 {
 color: red;

That’s deceptively easy. Yes, CSS can be that easy, but once your layout gets a bit more complicated… So does your CSS. You can put multiple properties in a single selector too. So save your document (for now preferably in the same folder as your HTML document, or you’ll have to change the path in the href attribute below). We’re going to apply this style to our HTML document (the one from the previous blog). Open up the HTML and add the following line of code to your header (for example at the bottom, just above your </head> closing tag):

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="mystyle.css">

I’m not going to elaborate on the link element any further. We’ll see it again when we’re going to use JavaScript. Now open your HTML document and you’ll notice that your header is actually colored red! Pretty awesome.


So we just started by writing a selector, in our case the selector for h1. Selectors can be pretty tricky though. Remember that HTML elements can be nested? In our page we have an aside element containing an h2 element and some p(aragraph) elements. Let’s say way want to target that h2 element and make it blue. If we used h2 as our selector all h2 elements would be blue (go on, try it out). We can target elements within elements by combining them in the selector.

aside h2 {
    color: blue;

This will make all our h2 elements within aside elements blue. And you can keep combining this. I should mention that any h2 element within the aside element, even when it’s nested into other elements, is now blue. But suppose you only want the h2 elements that are directly parented to the aside element. You can now use a context selector by using the > symbol.

aside > h2 {
    color: blue;

Now what if you had two aside elements, both containing a h2 element, and you only wanted one of the two to be blue. For this we have two choices and both requires us to go back to our HTML. The first is working with IDs and the second is working with classes. We’ll look at them both.

Every HTML element can have at least the following two attributes: id and class. We can use them in our CSS (and later JavaScript) to group and/or identify specific elements on our page. In the next example I have modified a piece of our page so it contains some IDs and classes.

<h1 id="title">Our first webpage!</h1>
    <p><abbr class="info" title="HyperText Markup Language">HTML</abbr> stands for <b id="HTMLfull" class="info">HyperText Markup Language</b>.</p>
    <p>The language consists of <i class="info">tags</i> that describe the content of a document.
 For example, a tag can indicate that a certain text belongs to a single paragrah,
 that certain text is more important, less important, that an image should be displayed, or that a new line must be inserted.</p>

As you can see the h1 element has the ID “title” and the b element has ID “HTMLfull”. Furthermore I’ve added the “info” class to the abbr, b and i elements. Now let’s style them in our CSS. Let’s say we want everything that’s “info” to be light blue and we want the text HyperText Markup Language to be bigger too.

.info {
    color: lightblue;

#HTMLfull {
    font-size: 150%;

Give your IDs and elements a descriptive name, for example “info”, instead of “lightblue”, “lightblue” says something about your style, while “info” says something about your meaning. So in this example I’ve shown you how you can use IDs and classes and even combine them (in case of the b element which is now lightblue and big). Another tip, keep your IDs unique, even though HTML and CSS don’t enforce it.

Now let’s say you want all i elements of class “info” to be purple. No problem!

.info {
    color: lightblue;

i.info {
    color: purple;

But in this case we have a conflict! The i element should be lightblue, because it has the info class. However, it should also be purple, because it is an i element with the info class. As you can see CSS applies some rules of precedence. As a rule of thumb the most specific selector take precedence over less specific selectors. In this case an i element with class info is more specific than every element with class info, so the i element gets a purple color.

Last, but not least, you can use a * as a wildcard to specify any element. For example, you want every element in an element (let’s say an aside) to have a specific style, but exclude the aside itself. You can use the following.

aside * {
    /* Your style here... */


Now let’s make our page more fancy. Let’s add some layout. First we want our page to only cover a part of the screen, let’s say 50%. We also want to center it in the middle of the screen. That’s a bit tricky, but we’ll have to work with margins (the area around an element). So we’ll define a margin of 0 and let our browser figure it out. We’re also going to put some background picture on our page. I’ve taken a picture from Google and decided to use it as a background (be sure you’re not using any copyrighted stuff!). So we’re going to apply this style to our entire page, which is the body element.

body {
    background-image: url(http://p1.pichost.me/i/24/1475865.jpg);
    width: 50%;
    margin: 0 auto;

Wow! Our page is already beginning to look quite nice! Now remember that aside element we had? I want it to stand out a bit. Let’s put a (solid 1 pixel) border around it. I also want it to have a sort of semi-transparent white-y background, if you know what I mean (and if you don’t you’ll see for yourself). Here’s the CSS for our aside element.

aside {
    border: 1px solid black;
    background-color: rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.6);
    padding: 3px;

I put the padding there to create some distance between the border and the text. The padding is like the margin we used earlier, but where margin defines the space outside the element padding defines the space inside the element. 3 pixels proved to be enough space (found through a little experimenting).

I’m also still not satisfied with the h2 element within the aside element. I’ve added some extra styling.

aside h2 {
    color: blue;
    border: 2px solid black;
    width: 25%;


As a finishing touch I want our image to be centered horizontally. Unfortunately that’s not as easy as it sounds. I haven’t mentioned this before, mainly because this is where it matters most, but HTML has two kinds of elements: block elements and inline elements. Basically, block elements represent a significant item that represents a rectangular block of space on a page. Examples of such elements are the p elements, h* elements and ul and ol elements (unordered list and ordered list respectively). Inline elements are smaller items on a page that reside within block elements. Examples are the a, u, em and strong elements.

So far, when we wanted to change the position of an element, they were block elements (the body and h2 elements). The img element, however, is an inline element. That means browsers usually just render them on the same line as their surrounding content and inline position jumps are just a bit weird. So we’ll have to let CSS know to treat the img as a block element before we can reposition it. Luckily that’s pretty easy! We can reposition the image the same way we repositioned the body, using the margin.

img {
    display: block;
    margin: 0 auto;

Now look what happens when you alter your paragraph as follows (remember that HTML actually ignores line breaks, so the below example shows the text and image on the same line by default).

<p>HTML 5 is awesome!<br>
Text before the image! 
<img src="http://www.w3.org/html/logo/downloads/HTML5_Logo_128.png" alt="The HTML 5 Logo" title="The HTML 5 Logo">
Text after the image!</p>

Now try turning display: block; on and off (by removing the CSS). See the difference? Also notice that the margin does nothing for the image when it’s not treated as a block element. Now suppose we really need that text on the same line as the image, but we want the image in the center. In this case we can use float to lift up the image and take it out of the normal content flow. You can do this for all block elements and it’s specifically handy to create a menubar on the left or right side of the screen.

img {
    display: block;
    float: right;
    margin-right: 50%;

Notice that I float to the right side of the screen and then use the right margin. I do this because if I floated to the left the text would be placed behind the image instead of at the beginning of the line. The float property can also mess up your layout, try using the clear property on adjacent blocks to fix this.

We’ve just seen a small part of CSS. There’s many more properties that you can use to create awesome styles and layouts. Like with HTML CSS is pretty forgiving, meaning that if you made a type your browser will probably figure out what you meant and display your page correctly. Again I advise you to follow the standards and validate your CSS against the W3C CSS Validation Service. Try experimenting with HTML and CSS to get the hang of it and learn new things. Also, don’t miss the next blog!

Stay tuned!


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