Posted yesterday and well worth contemplating if you write HTML: a Smashing Magazine article on HTML/CSS philosophy. Author Heydon Pickering briefly touches on one of the main issues that drove me to develop TypeMetal and make snippets-as-first-class-completions a key feature — the difficulty of remembering and consistently applying one’s own CSS “class” names — even as he proposes a strongly “class”-averse approach to markup and styling. Pickering’s objection to use or overuse of class attributes is a philosophical one, that’s well worth giving some thought to. My interest has been in solving the practical problem of how one can apply class-element pairings more easily and consistently, in cases where they’re an appropriate tool for the job.
I find a lot to recommend in Pickering’s discussion, actually, even though I take a less strict approach to coinage and use of “class” attributes. I agree substantially with the general premise — it makes a great deal of sense to leverage HTML’s existing semantics, in preference to reinventing the wheel, wherever a suitable element exists for a given purpose. (Among other significant benefits, doing so tends to make your content more intelligible to screen readers.) And Pickering’s article does a great job showing just how far one can get, styling-wise, using CSS descendant and attribute selectors alone. I tend to favor that approach whenever it seems reasonable, but there are cases where I think it’s useful and appropriate to leverage the extensibility that HTML provides for, by developing and applying a consistent vocabulary of “class” names. The best approach to doing so, in fact, incorporates a respect for appropriate usage of HTML’s element set — employing “class” identifiers to add further semantic specificity to an appropriately chosen element that’s already in the right neighborhood of meaning. This means avoiding the generic
<div> whenever possible, in favor of more meaning-infused elements such as
<section> (to name just a few). While I think the lofty goal of class-free or nearly-class-free markup is in great measure worth striving for, I also think there are inevitably places where it’s useful to be able to express concepts that HTML’s standard vocabulary doesn’t, and can’t be expected to, intrinsically provide for.
In TypeMetal’s User Guide, for example, I wanted a convention for marking up the names of menu items — in large part, so that I could style them all consistently, and later restyle them at will, but also because being able to find or index menu item references might come in handy someday. HTML’s
<menuitem> element being unsuitable, despite a name that might seem to suggest otherwise (
<menuitem> is for commands that a page visitor can choose), I went with
<strong> (to make menu items likely to stand out from surrounding text, even if one views a User Guide page without its accompanying stylesheet), annotated with a “
class” attribute of “
When you apply class-based styling like this, it’s a given that the class names you’ve chosen, while meaningful to you, are unlikely to mean much at all to Web crawlers and other software that isn’t versed in your particular custom styling vocabulary. That’s part of the tradeoff. My use of
<strong class=“menuitem”> is an imperfect choice, but preferable, I think, to not annotating menu item names at all.
There are many such cases one can readily think of, especially when you get into writing about specialized areas of knowledge. Each has its own objects of interest, that can be useful to identify with formal markup. When you have a writing tool that helps you develop and remember your styling vocabulary, and apply it easily and consistently across a body of work, the potential to do such things becomes much more feasible to realize in actual practice. That’s been a substantial part of my goal in developing TypeMetal, and an area where it’s become tremendously helpful to me. I’m excited to finally have it out in the world, where it can help other HTML authors to achieve the same productivity boost.
I’d love to hear about cases where people find TypeMetal’s approach helpful, and how it might be improved to provide even more convenience and agility. Please feel welcome to tweet @CoherenceLabs, email “support” at coherencelabs.com, or post in the TypeMetal Support Forum! — Thanks!