Cvramen’s Guide to CSS, Part 1

I have recently been doing a lot of work related to CSS files recently at my Web Designer job at NAVAIR. There seems to be some confusion about what CSS is and what it does. Very few documents exist that explicitly and unambiguously state what CSS does. Doing a few search engine searches, I could not find any documents at all that explain CSS with a level of specificity that is to my satisfaction, so I am stepping forward to post my thoughts on the topic.

Chicken salad sandwich.
A chicken salad sandwich. This is something that CSS could stand for, but has nothing to do with today's topic.

If you want to know how to build a good website with CSS, some common tips and tricks for making pretty websites with CSS, or the history of CSS, that kind of stuff is already covered elsewhere on other sites rather well, so I will not be discussing that.

CSS files are essentially just files with a bunch of code in them (just like an HTML file); simple files that can be altered in any plain text editor. CSS files can be used in conjunction with a few different types of files, but are most commonly used in conjunction with HTML files, therefore that will be the context within which I will talk about them.

A screenshot of a CSS file.
What a CSS file looks like. Yup, that's about it. Just plain lines of code. No embellishments here. That's all it is.

Allow me to inform you of some misconceptions:

  1. CSS is not an all-encompassing “look and feel” solution for websites. If a web designer is given the task of editing an already-existing website and making major changes to it, he will most likely need to edit more than just the CSS files. CSS does not change the design elements of a website; it is simply a tool a web designer can use to assist in changing the design elements of a website.
  2. CSS is not a proprietary software package or content management system.CSS is simply a type of file. There are no limitations on what it can do, other than how the browser interprets the code.
  3. CSS does not add new elements to a web page’s layout.I cannot emphasize this enough. CSS cannot make things (it also can’t destroy things). It only alters the properties of what’s already there. You can’t make new things; you can only make changes to the things that already exist. The “things” in a web page’s layout are created in the HTML file. After they are created, then their properties can be modified by a CSS file.
  4. CSS is not mandatory. A website does not have to have CSS files in order to function. Some websites don’t have any CSS files or CSS code of any kind and some utilize other means for controlling the visual appearance of the website. And by that I mean, some sites are entirely Flash, which I recommend against. Websites should use CSS, but CSS is not some silver bullet that just does everything. A good website requires a holistic view, a vision- overseen by a competent individual or group of individuals.

That’s it for now. I’ll post part 2 tomorrow!

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