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Modern Signal Blog

News, tips, tricks and discussions related to web strategy, web design, and custom web application and database development.

Viewing posts for topic: "CSS". View all posts.

Responsive Web Design without a Redesign

In November 2012, Modern Signal launched a redesign of our site.  We were (are!) very proud of how it looked and the ways it would allow us to keep future and current clients better informed.  One problem: it wasn't responsive.  Our redesign had been in the works for a while, and the design had been approved and finalized before we became fully aware of a new reality: because of the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, modern websites must adjust to a wide variety of screen sizes.  They must be responsive.

SJ5083 : Square Peg in a Round Hole by Sue Adair
Square Peg in a Round Hole  © Copyright Sue Adair and licensed
for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The problem was that we had just invested considerable time and energy in redesigning our site. We were happy with the way it looked on desktop browsers, and we didn't want to start over.  The question arose, can we keep our design and just make it responsive?  This same question has started to come up with many of our clients too, and so it was definitely worth investigating.

If you ask a designer whether you need to start from scratch to make your site responsive, they are likely to say, more or less, yes.  That is, you may be able to keep much of the overall look and feel of your site, but you'll have to rethink so many things you are better off starting over.  I'm not a designer, though.  I'm a developer with years of experience in the trenches with html, css, and javascript.  And so in my usual naivete I thought, "How hard could it be?"

"How Hard Could It Be?"

The answer to this question is, of course, "It depends."  The designers are right in that you have to rethink many of the visual elements of your site in order to make it responsive.  You likely have a top navigation bar with drop-down menus.  You likely have a side navigation bar which will not fit on smaller screens.  You may have some fixed-width background images that are not going to expand and contract the way they need to in a responsive site.  The Modern Signal site had all of those things.

In the end, though, all of these challenges were surmountable with css, elbow grease, and just a little bit of targeted redesign.  I'll take you through how we tackled these challenges.

"What Needs to Change?"

The first step in making any existing design responsive is to walk through the site to identify things that have to change.  Mainly you are looking for:

  1. Areas that are fixed-width
  2. Areas that will look jumbled if they need to wrap a lot
  3. Areas that require a lot of width to make sense

There are other less well-defined things you might want to consider, like how much content people will comfortably scroll through on a phone, but these are the biggest red flags.  In our site this list brought up:

  1. Right navigation area using fixed-width background images
  2. Top navigation can wrap, but looks confusing when it does
  3. Carousel on front page uses non-responsive code and contains too much information to fit comfortably on very small screens.

So, knowing what I needed to attack, I dove in.

BootStrap - Laying the Groundwork

First things first.  We had become familiar with Twitter's Bootstrap framework.  We like it for its attractive set of widgets as well as it's framework for building responsive sites.  The first step, then, was to integrate the Bootstrap CSS files and change the html of the site to use the Bootstrap concepts of "rows" and "spans".  I won't delve into this too much as I doubt there is much I can add to the information already available.

"How to Go from Fixed-width to Expandable?"

Our right navigation presented an immediate problem: it used fixed-width background images in order to give it a distinctive banner look and feel:

The html and css looked very like this (only including relevant css):

<h3 class="subnav-section">
  <a href="/aboutus">About Us</a>

.subnav .subnav-section a {
  background: url('../images/subnav-section-bkg.png') 0 0 no-repeat;

This is simple, effective and ... not responsive.  In the end, I ended up coming to terms with an ugly fact: I couldn't fix this with css alone.  At least not with the css available to me (maybe I can ignore IE6, maybe even IE7, but not IE8!)  I would have to add a little html to make it work.  What I ended up with was:

<div class="banner-header">
    <a href="/about_us">About Us</a>

.banner-header {
    background: url('../images/banner-bkg-left.png') left 0 no-repeat;
    padding-left: 30px;
.banner-header h3 {
    background: url('../images/banner-bkg-right.png') right 0 no-repeat;
    padding-right: 30px;

I added an extra div tag around the header.  The background of the div tag is the left side of the banner, while the background of the h3 tag is the right side of the banner.  The middle of the banner is, mercifully, just a plain black background and can expand to its heart's content.  This worked well, and only forced me to add one html tag.

On to the next challenge...

"How to Unclutter the Top Navigation?"

Our top navigation is a relatively simple line of links with drop-down menus that appear when you hover over the links.  They wrap fine, but get pretty jumbled on small, phone-size screens.  They also use hover actions to display submenus, which doesn't work on devices that use touch screens. 

Here is a case where simply rearranging the existing design elements didn't work.  We needed to rethink the design a bit.  The default Bootstrap template deals with this by transforming the navigation into a single button that displays a drop-down of the entire menu when clicked.  We ended up using the same idea:

What's important to note about this is that we didn't need to rethink the design of our entire page to accomplish this -- we just had to rethink this one element.

"What About the Carousel?"

Our next challenge was dealing with the carousel on our home page.  Large home page carousels are very popular on websites nowadays.  They're splashy and can be used to draw the visitor's attention to news, products, featured services, etc.  They usually, however, take up the full width of the page and so present a problem for responsive design.

So, it's a common problem, which is fortunate.  I quickly found Flexslider, which handled most of the responsive challenges for me.  It took very little time for me to replace our current carousel code with Flexslider.

We still had a problem, though.  The items in our carousel contain images and text.  We can make the images progressively smaller, but at some point we just don't have enough room to make the text fit over the images without making the text too small to see.  The answer for us was to hide things progressively as the page width gets smaller.  This is very easy to do using some built-in Bootstrap classes.  If you want something to be hidden on tablet-sized devices or smaller, use the "hidden-tablet" class:

<div class="hidden-table">...</div>

If you want something to be hidden on phone-sized devices or smaller, use the "hidden-tablet" class:

<div class="hidden-phone">...</div>

Using these classes, we hide the descriptive text in the carousal on devices smaller than 1024px wide, and we hide the carousel altogether on devices smaller than 768px.  So go from:

on large devices to:

on medium-sized devices to:

on very small devices.


In the end, we're very happy with the results of the responsive web design overhaul of our site.  We got it done much faster and cheaper than we would have had we gone back to the design phase.  Of course, if we had been in the market for a full redesign anyway, we would have done that, but we were happy with our design and just wanted to add some responsive sugar to it, to in effect make it a mobile website and a tablet website as well as one that looks good on the desktop.  We have heard from a lot of people who are in the same boat, and I hope this post gives heart to those who would like a responsive site but are not ready for a redesign.

Interested in implementing responsive elements on your own site? Download this checklist of things you should keep in mind.

Complex Styled Menu with jQuery

I recently finished a redesign project, and there were some interesting challenges that came up that I thought I would write about.

To start off, there were the menus.  The site has an obligatory drop-down menu at the top, and a similarly styled menu on the left.  Here's a look at the drop-down menu:

As you can see the items in the menu have a little caret on the left, they turn a darker gray on mouseover, and certain items (members-only ones) have a special star icon on the right.  There are also submenus with the same style.  I'm not going to talk about the specific javascript implementation that I used for the drop-down (I used a slightly modified version of the jQuery plugin jdMenu to get it done --, but will instead address how the styles are implemented, which was a bit trickier than you might think.

The html for the menu is a simple nested unordered list:

  <li><a href=[url]>20 Clubs</a></li>
  <li><a href=[url] class=star>Build-PAC Contributors</a>
      <li><a href=[url] class=star>BUILD-PAC Fundraising</a></li>
      ... etc ...
  ... etc ...

Nice and clean and accessible.  But the style has to be pixel perfect too, of course.

When I got the menu from the designer, the caret and the star were implemented with a single background image.  That made sense to some extent.  You can only have one background image per element.  And I can't use the <li> for one of the background images because the only elements that supports the hover is the <a> tag.  And I needed to use the a:hover css selector to make the items turn dark gray on mouseover.

Fine.  But that really makes things a bit complicated and inflexible.  What if I need to adjust the width of the menus (which did indeed happen several times during the redesign)?  I would then need to recreate those background images with the correct width.  I know just enough Photoshop to do that kind of thing, but it's really annoying.

Finally it occurred to me that there's really no reason that the <a> tag is the only one that can do a hover.  With javascript, I could capture the hover for any element.  What is more, jQuery made this very easy to do.  I added this to my page:

$("td.leftnav ul li").hover(function(){

(Okay that bit of code applied to my left navigation menu.  jdMenu actually took care of this for my top nav by adding a "jdm_hover" class.)

So with that little bit of code, I was free to set the caret as the background of the <li>, and set the star as the background of the <a>, and let the hover of the <li> take care of the background color change.  And when I inevitably got that call to change the width of the menus, it was a simple change in the stylesheet.

CSS 101

Posted by David Hammond

Despite the title, this is not an intro to stylesheets. This is, rather, a few pointers for web developers that have worked with stylesheets before, but never really got them, which is not as uncommon as you might think. The concepts behind stylesheets are simple enough, so I think many developers, including myself in the past, figure that they pretty much understand them even though they sometimes have no idea why the code they just wrote works. The fact is, stylesheets are pretty simple, but they are devilishly difficult to troubleshoot, especially if you don't have a few pieces of information and the right tools.

So this is intended to be a list of those pieces of information and tools that a developer needs to demystify the most intricate stylesheets. Keep in mind that this page is a work in progress...

Get the doctype right

First of all, we'll all be happier if we are using a strict doctype that tells the browser to follow CSS standards. If we don't we're starting out on a rocky playing field. This does not mean, necessary, that you have to convert everything to well-formed xhtml. It's perfectly acceptable to use old-fashioned transitional html, as long as you put this at the top of your page:

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"

See here for more info and a list of acceptable doctypes:

Understand the Cascade

Now with the right doctype your styles will cascade properly. What does that mean? Well, now, if you set the font size for the body tag, the font-size will cascade down to all elements beneath it, until it encounters a tag that has a different font-size specified. That's the way it's supposed to work. You should not need to specify the font-size for all of the elements in your document. Doing so only makes your stylesheet more complicated and harder to debug.

But sometimes you want to use stylesheet selectors that are a bit more advanced then a simple element. Something like:

td#leftNav li {font-size: 10px}

In layman's terms, you want to set the font-size of the second level of list items in a list in the left nav of your page. Simple right? It is until you have other styles that are competing to set the font-size of list items. So the next big thing is to understand the cascade. I.e. how does the browser decide which style to use? Well, it has to do with how specific the selector is and where it is declared. Then there's the "!important" keyword. To get an idea, read through this:

One word: Firebug

Now that you have read the specifications for how the cascade works, you should have no problems troubleshooting your next stylesheet problem, right? Wrong. A complex stylesheet can make knowing the rules only the first step in an arduous process of trial and error, unless you have Firebug. Firebug is probably the best single piece of software for debugging html, css, and javascript ever invented. If you don't have it, get it, and if you aren't using it to its full potential, learn more about it. Need to know how a particular style is being applied to a particular element in a page? Just inspect the element in Firebug and it tells you. See here:

Browser Compatibility

Okay, so far I've been pretending that all browsers follow the stylesheet rules just as they should. The latest versions of Firefox, IE and Safari (the three browsers worth testing in) are pretty compliant with the standards. If you concentrate on making your stylesheets as simple as possible, that helps. Of course there will be times when special issues will popup in particular browsers. So first make sure the browser supports the particular stylesheet property that you are using. Here's one place to look:

Then, well, maybe you're back to the old method of trial and error, hacking, and beating your head on the table :-) Perhaps I will use this space in the future to post about common problems and workarounds.

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  • Modern Signal worked with us to understand our needs and figure out what solution would work best for us. Our Lighthouse CMS is perfectly suited to our website goals. When we later needed to modify the CMS, they again took the time to understand exactly what was  needed and then built that functionality rather than delivering a cookie cutter solution.   

    - Ecosystem Investment Partners

  • Modern Signal has a professional staff that was very responsive to our needs during all phases - scoping, developing, implementing and maintaining - of our project.  We have been pleased with their ability to deliver quality work on time and on budget. If given the opportunity, I would work with them again.

    - The National Center for Safe Routes to School

  • Modern Signal significantly enhanced our site to be more efficient and user-friendly. They provide excellent customer service with timely and cost-effective solutions.

    - Center for Medicare Education

  • This was by far the smoothest website redevelopment I have ever experienced. Modern Signal was a wonderful company to work with and we greatly value our working relationship. 

    - National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators

  • I felt as if my company was their only client. They responded to my needs quickly and efficiently despite short turn around time and intense demands.

    - Teaching Strategies, Inc.

  • Modern Signal has been a great partner for us for over the past 10 years.  As our business grew and our needs changed, Modern Signal was able to work with us to adjust our website platform in the ever-changing online world.  Their service and response level has been second to none, and we've been never been happier with our relationship with them.

    - Charm City Run

  • I love working with Modern Signal! Their CMS is very easy to use and they are incredibly responsive to questions or challenges I bring them.

    - NALP

  • Modern Signal understands our business - from future needs to current limitations - so their solutions are always scalable, solid, and service-oriented.

    - National Association of Home Builders

  • We wouldn’t have gotten where we are today without your support over the years.  Modern Signal has always been a great partner to us.

    - Kirk Gillis, Managing Director at Zoom Tanzania