Free For All

If you haven’t already, I highly suggest taking a look over at Open Source Web Design (OSWD) where you will find a ton of free layouts for your use.

I see a lot of table-less layouts on there. I also see a lot of layouts that have the one thing my layouts lack: simplicity. I’m an instant fan of Blue Leaves which is both table-less and very clean in design. And most important of all (to me) the author has very clean HTML with heavy use of indenting (a practice I very much encourage).

I like Libra for it’s use of color to separate content areas. Although I might rethink how I’d handle the “quick hit” information boxes at the bottom of the layout. On a long content page those won’t be seen until the reader finishes through the content. That might be desirable as it gives the reader immediate options on other areas within the site to visit. But you couldn’t use those boxes for important information that you wanted to get out right away. They’re more along the lines of an “after dinner mint” for web pages. I think some sites could really benefit from a little minty flavor. I might have to steal that idea for some future design. :)

The most downloaded template on the site is autonomous. It uses tables heavily, but it’s a very clean, very simple (visually) layout. I like it. I imagine creating the drop-shadow effect in CSS would be relatively easy. It would only require an extra, wrapping block element (such as a DIV) around the content box. Then use negative margins to pull the content box up and to the left (or whatever direction you want) to create the effect. The only problem I have with it is the colors are very low contrast. Such that even a “regular” guy like me has some trouble picking up the bright orange text on the light grey background. But the lighter colors are much easier on the eyes. It’s a careful balance that must be found between usability and “prettyness”.

I like Gazetteer as well. It’s three columns, fluid, and tableless. The only thing I might change with this layout is work on how the tab area breaks as you narrow the viewport. It breaks because there’s no min-width and that date line on the right gets in the way. The tabs are LI elements, so I’d set them inline and set the white-space on the parent UL element to no-wrap. That’ll force them to stay on a single line and the day will be what wraps around. But be careful! The date line should come first in the source, otherwise when the date line wraps, it’ll stick itself between the tabs and the content area.


Siri Amrit directed me towards OSWD. He also directed me towards a developer he comissioned, Pat Heard at FullAhead. While browsing the portfolio, I came across the softonic layout which got me thinking about a feature that layout has.

The feature is the assumed or perceived boundaries between content elements and between columns. One thing you’ll notice right off the bat is that there are three columns. What you might not immediately notice is the lack of an obvious line or border separating the columns from one another. Another thing you might notice is the lack of bottom borders between content sections in the main column. Just one (of a possible 4) border being defined to provide separation of these content elements. You don’t need all those extra lines. They just busy up your layout. When you take them away you get a layout that’s much softer and much more pleasant to rest your eyes upon. The boundaries are all there; you’ll pick them up instantly. But they aren’t made obvious and thrown in your face. It’s a really nice touch that everyone might consider when developing their next layout (myself included!)

Right-Aligned Horizontal Menus

This is something that came up in my development of Tank! which I wanted to touch upon.

Forced To Float

The horizontal menu had to be put together using floated list elements. In previous horizontal menus I stayed away from using floats. This allowed for some easier alignment management (center-aligned horizontal menus). But because of the drop-down menus, I had to switch over to floated elements.

Why? Because there were a lot of inconsistencies across all browsers with respect to how child elements are placed in relation to inline elements. This is because inline elements must follow the inline formatting spec, which is a little confusing. It says padding, borders, and margin values of inline should be respected. But if we dig deeper and look at the Computing Heights and Margins section of the spec, we see vertical values for padding, margins and borders are not included when calculating the height of an inline box. This is why in previous attempts at horizontal lists based on unordered lists I would wrap the list in a DIV block and mimic the vertical padding on each list item in that DIV block.

So the height of these line boxes is based on the font metrics for that inline element. So say a line box, with padding, is 2em tall. But the line-box is only 1em tall. Where is the top and bottom of that line-box? On some browsers, the top of the line-box begins at the top where the padding begins. Meaning the bottom of that box is somewhere in the middle of where the actual text is. Other browsers have the line box directly over the text.

So the problem becomes, how do I line up a child element (the list for the drop-down menu) with the bottom of not the line-box, but the imaginary box that includes the vertical padding and border of the element?

Short answer is you can’t.

Long answer is this: It’s difficult. If you’ve got a 1px border and .5em bottom padding, you need to move your element .5em + 1px down. Well you can’t really combine the two units. You could maybe do a top:.5em;margin-top:1px; but now you run into issues with relative positioning. Some browsers, even with position: relative; set on the line element (the list item), will not recognize that item as controling the location of root point (0,0 – the top-left corner) that the relative positioning will be based on. Rather, the browser will use the first parent block element (UL). Other’s will use the line box, but set 0,0 to the top-left not of the line-box but of the imaginary box which includes padding, border and margin values. There are a few other odd interpretations/implementations that browsers emply that I won’t get into. Suffice it to say that relative positioning child elements of an inline element is not an easy thing to do.

So we go with pixels! 10px bottom padding + 1px border = 11px. So we can set a top margin of 11px to get that element down below it’s parent inline element.

Not so fast.

Where does a block element that is the child of an inline element get placed by default (without any positioning or margins or whatever)? The answer is important because we base the positioning of the drop-down menu off its initial position. Problem is, the answer varies between browsers. Some recognize the containing block (the official CSS term for that “imaginary box” I talked about earlier) while some go off the line box. Those that go off the line box can have that line box’s root (0,0) at the root of the containing block, meaning the bottom of the line box is going to be somewhere in the vertical middle of the text.

.. Okay I’m getting off-target here.

Cliff Notes To Everything Above

Long story short: dont’ do this. It sucks. You can fudge it to work with a 1-level drop-down menu. But if that drop-down has even more drop-down menus, you’re screwed.

The Point Of This Post

(This is where the fun is!)

What I want to point out here to everyone is the effect of being forced to go with floated elements and delve into some design philosophy; that’s where the fun stuff is.

I want a right-aligned horizontal menu because I’ve moved the typical vertical navigation menu to the right side of the layout. I want all navigational elements to be close together so the user doesn’t have to move the mouse far to access these elements.

The first thing I do is create a typical unordered list, placing what I think is the more relevant/importan parts of the list first. When I’m done, the top-level of this list is in this order: Layouts, Labs, Blog, Contact. This is the order I want for my horizontal list, when reading left to right.

But I can’t do that!

I’m using floated elements and I don’t know the width of each element because that value is based on font-size. I’m at the mercy of the user’s browser perferences. Because I don’t know the width of these elements I can do any positioning tricks to keep this horizontal list in the order I want.

Just reverse the list.

Indeed! Simple solution, isn’t it? But then I run into some philosophical design problems (let the fun begin).

First thing is, I have an implied priority in my list. There is nothing in the actual HTML to indicate this priority except the order in which these elements appear in the source. So your first exercise is: do you believe it is okay to assume priority of a list based on position in the source of an HTML document? If you say yes, how does that answer apply to other (non-list) elements? If I create a source-ordered layout, my left-hand nagivation menu will apear second, possibly third in the source, ahead of the middle and possibly right columns. Does that mean the content is more important than the navigation? What about “toolbar” like elements that you stick at the top of the page to provide some sort of global navigation across your site (like the horizontal lists in many of my layouts). Are they be more important than the content?

You might run into spots where your answer to one question will contradict your beliefs in design on another question. And again, this comes down to whether or not you believe order in the HTML source should affect the weight or importance of the content.

My answer is yes, position in the source does give an implied order of importance. This isn’t something documented in the HTML spec. This isn’t some design law. This is simply an assumption that we are trained to believe through everyday activities. Lists always put #1 at the top. Newspapers are read top to bottom, with the most important headlines up top. In HTML design we are taught to put the most important stuff up where a user will see it on page load and not down below where a (lazy) user might not see it because it’s below the area viewable on page load. You get the idea (and probably have a vew of your own examples).

(( I also have it in my head to re-use this drop-down menu on several different layouts, some of which will have a left-aligned menu that might be inline based and not floated. In those cases, my reversed list wouldn’t work the way I want it to. And this retains my originally intended order for non-CSS browsers like Lynx or old Netscape/IE, etc…))

So when I first put that list in as right-floated elements, I left the original order in the HTML source and sucked it up that the right-aligned menu wouldn’t read the way I thought it should (left-to-right order of importance).

But then I got to thinking about the situation.

The reversed order works for a right-aligned horizontal menu. The most important items are going to remain closer to the mouse than the less important items. If the theory is the first item in your list will be clicked the most, then the most clicked item will be closest to the focus of page nagivation, which is the right side in Tank!.

So maybe reversed order horizontal lists work better when right-aligned next to a right-sided navigation menu versus a left-to-right order for that same horizontal list.

And you’re still retaining your order of importance in the HTML source too.

And when you go for a left-aligned menu, the same HTML will work, meaning you can make that HTML a template that you pull into other pages, regardless of what side the main navigation menu is on.

Random thoughts for the day.

Introducing: Tank!


Because I wanted an exclamation point in a URL.

No not really.

But sort of, yeah, really.

Tank! is the latest layout from me. *fanfare*

It’s not finished, but I wanted to at least get it out the door on this day of days, the release of the DVD Gargoyles – Season 2, Vol. 1.

The layout features CSS-based drop-down menus. The drop-downs intentionally drop down and to the left, which is not how normal menus work. That will probably annoy some people. If you sift through the new CSS you’ll find the dropmenu.css stylesheet and might notice that there are ways to change the direction of the drop. Use at your own risk, as that stylesheet is not finished. But there are lots and lots of notes within that and other stylesheets, as usual, and definately worth taking a look through.

I’m not linking to this layout from anwhere else but here for the time being while I finish this layout up. It’s a secret between you and me, right?

Drop menus are by far the biggest problem with the layout. Every browser has small, but importan differences in how they implement the CSS-2 spec making compatibility across the board very difficult.

The initial work on drop-downs comes from Son of Suckerfish. But I took a lot of that, changed it around and reworked it a bit to get more out of it. They work pretty well, even in IE/Win 5.0. iCab and Safari seem to do okay, as well as Opera. IE/Mac 5.0 is probably the worst off right now. I need to do a lot more research in IE 5.0 with this layout.

Netscape 7.0 doesn’t pull the drop-downs out of the flow of the document. I think I found out why a while back but I’ve sine forgotten. I’ll need to spend time with that as well, but the content is at least visible, whereas IE 5.0 isn’t showing content!

Single-level drop-downs are, by comparison, very very easy. There are ways to pull them off that work very well across the board. But when you go for multiple levels, you have to do things that start to break some browsers.

IE/Mac was particularly problematic. IE/Mac needed whitespace between list elements to work properly. Also IE/Mac was not applying certain class rules when the class attribute of a given element had more than 1 class listed. But if I shifted the order of the list around, IE/Mac worked fine and would apply all the rules.

There might be a new hide CSS hack for IE/Mac in that somewhere, but I’m not terribly motivated to go hunting it down right now.


There you go. There’s the next layout. Hope you like it. Hope it’s not a total let-down.