Christian Heilmann

Web truths: CSS is not real programming

This is part of the web truths series of posts.

Every few months there is an article claiming that CSS is not real programming. That CSS is too hard and broken. The language used in these can get creative:

There is truth to the fact that working with CSS is not traditional programming. There is also truth that CSS has its language faults and that some things are much harder than they should be. That is the case with any standardised language, though. CSS is a way to describe what an interface should be like. It is not the implementation of said interface in a programmatic fashion, like, for example, the Canvas API. That CSS is not like a traditional programming language is by design.

CSS is a great idea when it comes to creating an interface for something as complex and unknown as a user on the web. I talked about the difference of CSS and JavaScript in detail at GOTO Amsterdam where I called it a decision between trust and control.

As a CSS developer, you trust the user agent (in most cases a browser) to do the right thing. You can’t control that it happens, but you also don’t need to sweat the details like performance, paint time and responsiveness. This ball is in the court of the user agent creators and the OS it runs on. And that is a great thing as it allows to fix those important things in one place – where they get applied. If you create interfaces or animations using JavaScript, you have much more granular control. But you also need to ensure everything works. Using CSS means giving up control for the sake of having more time to build a responsive interface catering to the users’ needs. Users need and can mess with your interface settings. CSS is OK with that. Pixel-perfect, defined interfaces are not.

CSS development isn’t programming in the traditional sense where you have loops, conditions and variables. CSS is going that direction to a degree and Sass paved the way. But the most needed skill in CSS is not syntax. It is to understand what interfaces you describe with it. And how to ensure that they are flexible enough that users can’t do things wrong and get locked out. You can avoid a lot of code when you understand HTML and use CSS to style it.

If you don’t consider an interface as an agreement with your users with various levels of fidelity depending on their technical platform, CSS isn’t for you. It is by design a forgiving language, that doesn’t throw any errors when something can’t get applied. Thus it is amazing for progressive enhancement. You don’t even need to worry about adding a line of unsupported code as the parser skips what it can’t apply. What causes a JavaScript parser to throw in the towel and give you an error message, the CSS parser shrugs off and moves on. That can feel odd for a developer – I for one like to know when something went wrong. But it frees you from needing to test on all possible user agents and put “if” statements around everything. Want to use a gradient on button? Define a background color, then override it with a gradient in the next line. If the user agent can’t render gradients, you get a simpler, but still working button. And you didn’t need to worry about gradient support at all.

A lot of “CSS is not real programming” arguments are a basic misunderstanding what CSS is there to achieve. If you want full control over and interface and strive for pixel perfection – don’t use it. If you want to build an interface for an inclusive and diverse web, CSS is a great tool. Writing CSS is describing interfaces and needs empathy with the users. It is not about turning a Photoshop file into a web interface. It requires a different skillset and attitude of the maintainer and initial programmer than a backend language would.

In any case, belittling people who write CSS and considering them not real developers is arrogant nonsense. Especially when you don’t even spend the time to understand what CSS tries to achieve and how amazing it has become.

On the other hand, CSS is not and should not be the solution for everything. Yes, you can create pixels with drop shadows, but you also punish the browser rendering engine with this.

CSS is an integral part of the web to me and whilst the syntax is weird for someone coming from a different programming language, it proved its worth over the years. It should and will not go away for quite some time. So if you don’t like it, pair with someone who does. If your managers demand you to do it, we don’t have a technical issue at our hands, but a project/staffing one.

Instead of having discussions if CSS is broken and needs to be replaced, it is healthier to have different discussions about CSS: