This site is designed to work with *modern* HTML5 browsers like Microsoft Edge
IE10 or later also works pretty good. As of April 23, 2016 Firefox and Chrome still don't:
  1. seem to have official support for GridBased Layout but it seems to be comming soon
  2. seem to support JPEG-XR even though I believe it is a formal ISO Standard under an open format: ISO/IEC 29199-2:2012
Other browsers may also have variying support, but I *personally* consider Microsoft Edge, Chrome and FireFox the major browser vendors of present time.

I'm Giving Up Table Layouts

No Table Layout

When I first started working as as an ASP.NET WebForms developer back in the mid 2000's, I was pretty green around the ears. One of the priorities my team indicated to me was that the WebForms I created should have a good layout. My memory may be a bit foggy, but I believe that many members of my team suggested I use table layout for this purpose.

For example, my team might have suggested that I try something like this to layout my webforms:

      
         <table>
            <tr><td>Last Name:</td><td><input type="text" /></td>
            <tr><td>First Name:</td><td><input type="text" /></td>
            <tr><td>Middle Name:</td><td><input type="text" /></td>
            <!-- This would normally be populated from database but it is 
                 hardcoded here for simplicity of demonstration.  -->
            <tr>
               <td>Favorite Two Dimensional Geometric Shape:</td>
               <td>
                  <select>
                  <option>Square</option>
                  <option>Rectangle</option>
                  <option>Rhombus</option>
                  <option>Circle</option>
                  <option>Parallelogram</option>
                  </select>
               </td>
            <tr />
            <tr>
            <td colspan="2"><input type="submit" value="Save" /></td>
            </tr>
         </table>
      
      

Which would likely graphically render something like this

Picture of Form Rendered Via Table Based Layout
Figure 1

It's clean and it works right? The columns and controls line up well and with some CSS you can even get the text to right align up to the controls. There are a few problems though. If you search the internet for table based vs CSS based layout, you will run into a few flame posts where seasoned Web Developers insist that you *never* use table based layout. That's because tables were never designed to organize controls on a form and there are a number of problems associated with that approach. Of those problems, there are three issues that concern me the most.

In my oppinion, the three components that table based layout messes up the most are: accessiblity(1); job security(1); and, jQuery annimations (2).

In my oppinion, accessibility (3) is the ease at which your site can be used through various alternative devices and by user's with special needs. You would typically want a website to be usable by as many people as possible because it can mean increased productivity and revene. Becuase of this, you should keep all types of users in mind including those that might be using screen readers instead of typical monitors. From what I understand from the accesibilty section of (1) and other things I have read over time, table based layout tends to wreck havoc with screen readers making a site much more difficult for a blind person to navigate, but that isn't the only problem with table based layout. If you want, you can read (1) for additional reasons.

Another problem with table based layout that personally affected me was the job security issue. I had an interview for a nice job at a well known university farily recently and they asked me how I felt about HTML5. I mentioned a few points I liked about HTML5 and started to promote the new CSS3 Grid Layout (4) feature that's starting to come to new browsers. I suppose my first mistake was that Grid Layout isn't technically part of HTML5, but rather it is actually *expected* to become part of CSS3; unfortunately, I didn't just stop by smaking myself there. I made the mistake of running into a glass window by *implying* that the only reasonable way I knew of laying out form items was table based layout. The interviewer took note of my statement with a rather straight face and I *assume* he took points off my application due to my ignorance. I didn't get that job...

The other problem with table based layout is that it could potentially interfere with jQuery animations. While I understand that CSS3 animations are becoming farily standard in newer browsers, they aren't completely available yet so some developers may still have to rely on jQuery animations. For those developers, forms layed out via tables may have problems with such jQuery animations (2).

Those are the three things that I feel personally impact me with table based layout and why I chose to stop using the "technique". Now that I have presented the downsides, I shall mention the two alternatives that seem to be the easiest for me. There are likely other options, but these two seem to be the easiest for me. The first is the use of the "table-" options of the "display:" CSS option and the second is the new new CSS3 Grid Layout that I already mentioned (4).

The "table-" options of the "display:" CSS option should be supported by most modern browsers. In fact, this feature should be supported on IE8 (5) which is appearently included with Windows 7 and supported in Windows XP (6). So unless someone is using a *really* old browser, the technique mentioned by Ms. Andrew should work fine.

So how do you use the new "table-" options of the "display:" CSS Property? Well, you can either read Ms. Andrew's post (5) or you can look at this recoding of my previous example:

HTML File

      
      <div class="gridForm">
         <div><div>Last Name:</div><div><input type="text" /></div></div>
         <div><div>First Name:</div><div><input type="text" /></div></div>
         <div><div>Middle Name:</div><div><input type="text" /></div></div>
         <!-- This would normally be populated from database but it is
                 hardcoded here for simplicity of demonstration.  -->
         <div>
            <div>Favorite Two Dimensional Geometric Shape:</div>
            <div>
               <select>
                  <option>Square</option>
                  <option>Rectangle</option>
                  <option>Rhombus</option>
                  <option>Circle</option>
                  <option>Parallelogram</option>
               </select>
            </div>
         </div>
         <div><input type="submit" value="Save" /></div><div></div>
      </div>
      
      

CSS File

      
      .gridForm div {
         display: table-row
      }
      .gridForm div > div {
         display: table-cell
      }   
      
      

Which will probably render like this in most "modern" browsers:

Picture of Form Rendered Table Display Options for CSS
Figure 2

If you wanted, you *could* put the CSS in the same file as the HTML, but for reasons I won't get into here, that isn't recommended. Instead, you typically have one or more CSS files for your site and you would put the definitions for your GridForm class in one of those files. The .gridForm identifier in both of the blocks stands for the "gridForm" class that was referenced in the HTML File. There are two CSS blocks. One had the ".gridForm div" selector and the other had the ".gridForm div > div" selector. The first selector ".gridForm div" chooses all div elements of the gridForm class. The second selector ".gridForm div > div" chooses all div elements that are a direct child of div elements inside an element of the .gridForm class. The first block uses the ".gridform div" selector to make all div elements inside and element of the .gridForm class display using the table-row formatting. The second block then uses the ".gridForm div > div" selector to make sure that all direct chidren of gridForm divs are displayed as table cells. I'm not an expert on CSS, but I think the rules of CSS are used in such a manner that the more general rule is applied first and the more sepcific rule is applied last to achive the result we want.

To make a long story short, using the table-row and table-cell properties in CSS isn't much more difficult than using the actual table elements for form layout and it's better for accessibility, but my personal favorite method for form layout is the grid-based layout in which Microsoft seems to have taken the lead (4). That is the layout that is prefered for this site as it is partially supported in IE10 and higher and *should* be supported in Chrome and Firefox soon.

In my oppinion, the HTML for GridBased CSS layout might look a little cleaner like this:

      
         <div class="gridForm">
            <label>Last Name:</label><input type="text" />
            <label>First Name:</label><input type="text" />
            <label>Middle Name:</label><input type="text" />
                     
            <label>Favorite Two Dimensional Geometric Shape:</label>
            <!-- This would normally be populated from database but it is
                 hardcoded here for simplicity of demonstration.  -->
            <select>
               <option>Square</option>
               <option>Rectangle</option>
               <option>Rhombus</option>
               <option>Circle</option>
               <option>Parallelogram</option>
            </select>         
            <input type="submit" value="Save" />
         </div>
      
      

...but then the CSS might be a bit on the messy side looking something like this...

      
         div.gridForm {
            display: -ms-grid; 
            font-size: x-large
         }
         div.gridForm label:nth-of-type(1) {
            display: -ms-grid;    
            -ms-grid-column: 1; -ms-grid-row: 1;    
         }
         div.gridForm input:nth-of-type(1) {
            -ms-grid-column: 2; -ms-grid-row: 1;    
         }
         div.gridForm label:nth-of-type(2) {   
            display: -ms-grid;    
            -ms-grid-column: 1; -ms-grid-row: 2;    
         }
         div.gridForm input:nth-of-type(2) {    
            -ms-grid-column: 2; -ms-grid-row: 2;    
         }
         div.gridForm label:nth-of-type(3) {
            display: -ms-grid; 
            -ms-grid-column: 1; -ms-grid-row: 3;    
         }
         div.gridForm input:nth-of-type(3) {
            -ms-grid-column: 2; -ms-grid-row: 3;    
         }
         div.gridForm label:nth-of-type(4) {
            display: -ms-grid; 
            -ms-grid-column: 1; -ms-grid-row: 4;    
         }
         div.gridForm select {
            -ms-grid-column: 2; -ms-grid-row: 4;    
         }
         div.gridForm input[type="submit"] {   
            -ms-grid-column: 1; -ms-grid-row: 5;    
         }
      
      

The end result would probably render something like this...

Picture of Form Rendered Via Grid Based Layout
Figure 3

I know that seems like a bit of work but it does *appear* to make for cleaner HTML at the expense of some messy CSS3. In addition, since the CSS can be cached, ofloading work into the CSS3 file *may* lead to better network performance. The HTML on the other hand can't be cached as easily as the CSS because portions of the HTML *might* in some cases be automatically generated as with MVC, ASP.NET WebForms, PHP etc... The other advantage of the Grid Based layout over just using the simple table-row and table-cell CSS commands is that the Grid Based approach *seems* (in my oppinion) to offer more predicatble results with a greater chance of flexibility. The options for the new Grid Based approach seem promising at (4).

In summary, I would say that while it may seem tempting to use HTML table elements to layout forms, I would not do so since that can lead toward definate accessibility problems and possibly cause other unwanted issues. There are two main easy alternatives to table based layout. Those alternatives are the table-cell/table-row properties of CSS and the emerging Grid Based layout standard. Of the two options, I prefer the Grid Based layout standard.

Bibliography

1. Jurmann, Matt
13 Reasons Why CSS Is Superior to Tables in Website Design
Chromatic. [Online: APR 3, 2008]
[Cited: AUG 2, 2013.]
http://www.chromaticsites.com/blog/13-reasons-why-css-is-superior-to-tables-in-website-design/

2. Emily; Greg; et al.
jQuery - How to Use slideDown (or show) function on a table row?
StackOverflow. [Online: MAY 28, 2009]
[Cited: AUG 02, 2013.]
http://stackoverflow.com/questions/467336/jquery-how-to-use-slidedown-or-show-function-on-a-table-row

3. Henry, Shawn Lawton
"Introduction to Web Accessibility"
W3C [Online: SEP 2005.]
[Cited: AUG 09, 2013.]
http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php

4. Atkins, Tab Jr.; Etemad, Elika J.; Atanassov, Rossen; Mogilevsky, Alex; Cupp, Phil.
"CSS Grid Layout"
W3C Working Draft, 2 April 2013
[Cited: AUG 09, 2013.]
http://www.w3.org/TR/css3-grid-layout/

5. Andrew, Rachel
"Everything You Know About CSS Is Wrong"
Digital Web Magazine, October 21, 2008
[Cited: August 10, 2013.]
http://www.digital-web.com/articles/everything_you_know_about_CSS_Is_wrong/

6. Various
"Internet Explorer - OS Compatibility"
Wikipedia, August 10, 2013
[Cited: August 10, 2013.]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Explorer#OS_compatibility

©2013 - Shawn Eary
This post is released under the Free Christian Document License (FCDL)