Viewing category: Design

Styling your first webpage with CSS

This article is part of a series:

If you’ve followed along, then you’ve created your very own webpage using HTML and put it on the web using Netlify. You probably noticed that it’s very plain-looking. That’s because we haven’t specified how anything should look. By default, the browser applies some basic styles—headings are big and bold, lists are indented, links are blue and underlined.

These default styles get the point across and make the site usable, but we could definitely make some improvements and use our own sense of style to add some personality. Design on the web is a big, wonderful world, with many resources to help yourself learn and improve. Here’s a great book on web design made for non-designers.

That said, for this article, we’re going to keep things simple and focus more on how to write CSS than how to create a great design. As you get better at HTML and CSS, you will be able to do more and you will need to follow design principles to keep your websites from becoming cluttered and chaotic. Fortunately, our site only has a little content.

As a reminder, here’s an example of the unstyled website we created in the last article.

If you want see what styles we’ll be adding to this page, check out the styled version of the website.

The <style> tag

CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, is the language that we use to describe the appearance of our webpages. Any CSS styles that we add get applied to our webpage in addition to the basic styling that the web browser has already supplied.

Where do we write CSS? Well, remember that our index.html document contains a <head> section that has information about the page that is invisible to the user.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
    <head>
        <meta charset="UTF-8">
        <title>My awesome website</title>
    </head>
    <body>
        <h1>My awesome website</h1>

        <ul class="menu">
            <li><a href="index.html">Home</a></li>
            <li><a href="journal.html">Journal</a></li>
        </ul>

        <p>My name is Blake. I enjoy making websites and writing articles. I think everybody should have a personal homepage.</p>

        <h2>Favorite board games</h2>

        <ul>
            <li>Dungeons & Dragons</li>
            <li>Risk</li>
            <li>Monopoly</li>
        </ul>

        <h2>Favorite TV shows</h2>

        <ul>
            <li>Stranger Things</li>
            <li>Cheers</li>
            <li>Game of Thrones</li>
        </ul>
    </body>
</html>

We can add a <style> tag inside the <head> tag that will contain all of our CSS code.

<head>
    <meta charset="UTF-8">
    <title>My awesome website</title>
    <style>
        ...CSS code goes here...
    </style>
</head>

Great, let’s write our first CSS rule.

<style>
    body {
        font-family: "Gill Sans", sans-serif;
    }
</style>

This rule changes the font of everything inside the <body> tag to Gill Sans, if available on the user’s device. If not, it tells the browser to use a default sans-serif font. 1

Save the file and open it up in a web browser (File > Open File…).

Anatomy of a CSS rule

Let’s look a little more closely at what we did in that example. Here’s the code again (from now on I’m omitting the <style> tag in these samples, but that is where the CSS code lives for now).

body {
    font-family: "Gill Sans", sans-serif;
}

That first bit, body, is called a selector. You might say it selects the parts of your page you wish to style.

The line inside the braces ({}) is a property and value. The property in this example is font-family, which controls what font you want to use. The value is "Gill Sans", sans-serif, which tells the browser, “I would like to use Gill Sans but if the user doesn’t have it, use any sans-serif you have.” Note that a ; goes at the end of the property/value line.

You can add multiple properties to a rule. For example, let’s make the width of our page more narrow so that users with wide screens don’t have to follow the text all the way across the screen.

body {
    max-width: 500px;
    font-family: "Gill Sans", sans-serif;
}

We just set the max-width property of the body to be 500px. That means the width of our page will never exceed 500 pixels in width. Any text that would go beyond that width will instead be wrapped around to the next line.

It doesn’t really matter what order the properties go in, but I have my own preferences I tend to follow. The important thing is that, whatever ordering scheme you decide on, you be consistent.

As you can probably imagine, there are quite a few properties that you can use. In time, you will begin to remember the common ones offhand. But if you aren’t sure what property you need or you just want to see what’s available, check out the MDN CSS Reference (it’s a long list, but remember that you only need a handful for now—there’s no need to memorize this list.

Adding more styles to the page

Let’s look at our styling progress up to now.

A screenshot of the webpage with the font changed and the body width narrowed, aligned toward the left side of the window.

So far, so good. But we should probably make the page a bit more centered so that people with wide screens don’t have to stare off to the left side so much.

We’re going to use the margin property, which controls the space around an element. Specifically, we’re using maring-left and margin-right, like this:

body {
    margin-left: auto;
    margin-right: auto;
    max-width: 500px;
    font-family: "Gill Sans", sans-serif;
}

We could have specified a pixel value here, but by using the auto keyword, we’re telling the browser that we want an even amount of margin to the left and right of the page. The result is that the page is centered in the browser window.

Screenshot showing that the webpage is centered within the window.

Okay, cool. Let’s try changing some colors.

body {
    margin-left: auto;
    margin-right: auto;
    max-width: 500px;
    font-family: "Gill Sans", sans-serif;
    background-color: antiquewhite;
    color: saddlebrown;
}

That will give us:

Screenshot of webpage showing the colors applied.

Woo hoo, colors! We’re setting the background-color property, which defines the color of empty space, the background of the page. We’re also setting color, which controls the color of text on the page.

There are different ways to reference colors in CSS. We’re using color keywords for ease of use. You can see the whole list of available color keywords, as well as other ways to represent colors, on this MDN CSS color reference.

We’re not going to win any design awards for the color choices here, but it’s my webpage and I can do what I want. 2

Styling links

By default, links are blue. But that isn’t sitting well with with the warm colors we chose. Let’s change it to something warmer.

a {
    color: firebrick;
}

We’re creating a new rule. We want to target all of the <a> elements on the page. We can do that by using a as the selector. Remember that color controls the text color. We’ll make it a reddish color.

For fun, let’s make it so that the color of the link changes when you hover the mouse over it. We’ll need a new rule for this, with a slightly different selector. We don’t want to target every link, only the one the mouse is being hovered over. CSS has a special syntax for selecting elements that are in a certain state, like being hovered over.

a:hover {
    color: crimson;
}

This selector says, if a link is in the hover state, apply this rule. In this example, we’re just changing the text color.

Meaning vs. appearance

Let’s make our navigation links sit horizontally in a row rather than stacked in a bulleted list. Remember, our list of links looks like this:

<ul>
    <li><a href="index.html">Home</a></li>
    <li><a href="journal.html">Journal</a></li>
</ul>

You might think, “Well if I don’t want a bulleted list, I’ll just change the HTML.” But in this case, we aren’t changing the meaning of the menu—it is still a list of links. It’s just that we’re changing the way it looks by tweaking the layout and removing the bullets.

So we’ll keep the HTML the way it is. But we’ll add some CSS to change the appearance.

ul {
    padding-left: 0;
    list-style: none;
}

First, we’ll target the list as a whole. We’ll set padding-left to 0 to remove the indentation (padding is similar to margin, but we’ll discuss the difference later). You can use list-style to change the bullet type, but we’re setting it to none so that the bullets are removed altogether.

Next, we’ll target the individual list items, or <li> elements.

li {
    display: inline-block;
    margin-right: 15px;
}

Setting the display property to inline-block will cause the list items to sit next to each other in a row. We’ll add a little margin-right to the list items so that they are spaced apart nicely.

But notice, there’s a problem:

Screenshot of webpage showing the menu links sitting horizontally in a row. The page has two other lists which are now also sitting horizontally without bullets.

By attempting to style our menu list, we inadvertently styled all of our lists. We don’t want that. But how do we target only the menu list? We can give it a name.

<ul class="menu">
    <li><a href="index.html">Home</a></li>
    <li><a href="journal.html">Journal</a></li>
</ul>

We can give any element the class attribute to give it one or more names (separated by spaces) that we can use in our CSS. Let’s adjust our CSS to use the new name.

.menu {
    padding-left: 0;
    list-style: none;
}

We changed the ul selector to .menu. When using class names in CSS, we start them with a dot.

We can use this same name to target our list items.

.menu li {
    display: inline-block;
    margin-right: 15px;
}

This selector is saying, “target all list items that are inside an element with the class name of menu.”

Now that both of our rules are specifically targeting the menu class name, our regular lists have reverted back to their original look.

Screenshot of the webpage showing the menu as a horizontal list without affecting the other lists on the page.

Styling the site header

Let’s do something fun with the site header. Hopefully you are starting to get the idea of how these CSS rules work—first you specify a selector, then a list of properties you want to change. This article is already getting long, so I’ll just drop in the code rather than describe each property. I encourage you to play around with the values to see how they work.

h1 {
    margin-top: 0;
    padding: 10px;
    font-size: 18px;
    font-weight: normal;
    text-transform: uppercase;
    letter-spacing: 1px;
    background-color: saddlebrown;
    color: antiquewhite;
}

This code produces the following look.

Screenshot of the webpage. The main heading now appears inside of a dark box with light, all-caps text.

One thing I want to point out—this rule demonstrates the difference between padding and margin. I gave <h1> some padding to provide some space within its box, to give the text a little padding between it and the edge of the box. On the other hand, margin controls the space around the outside of the box.

I really want the <h1> to touch the top of the viewport, but, by default, there’s a little margin all around the <body>. We’ll go back and modify our body rule to get rid of the top margin.

 body {
    margin-top: 0;
    margin-left: auto;
    margin-right: auto;
    max-width: 500px;
    font-family: "Gill Sans", sans-serif;
    background-color: antiquewhite;
    color: saddlebrown;
}

There we go. Our homepage is looking good.

Reusing CSS across different pages

We would like to apply all of the styles we wrote for the homepage to our journal page. One way to do that is to copy and paste our <style> tag and all its contents to journal.html. That would work, but what if we decide to make a change, such as choosing a different color for links? We would probably want to change the link color on both the homepage and the journal. That means editing two different files. Making changes would become more and more difficult for each additional page we add to our site.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. We’ll use an external style sheet. We’ll take all of our CSS out of index.html and put it into a separate file. Then we’ll make both the homepage and journal reference that file.

First create a separate file and name it style.css (you can name it whatever you like so long as it ends in .css). Then copy everything between the <style> and </style> tags (but not the tags themselves) and paste it into your new CSS file.

Next, edit index.html by adding a <link> tag to the <head>:

<head>
    <meta charset="UTF-8">
    <title>My awesome website</title>
    <link rel="stylesheet" href="style.css">
</head>

This bit of code links your HTML file with your CSS file. Now index.html knows that you have CSS rules that it should use in style.css.

Go ahead and make the same change to journal.html. Once you do, the journal page should be receiving all of your custom styles.

Screenshot of the Journal page. The text and color styles from the homepage have also been applied to this page.

Styling articles

Let’s spruce up our blog article by making it appear on a white card. Add this rule to style.css:

article {
    padding: 20px;
    background: #fff;
}

That’s nice. But why is there so much space above the heading? It’s because the <h2> has top margin by default. But we can remove it.

article h2 {
    margin-top: 0;
}

This rule is targeting every <h2> that appears inside an <article> and removing its top margin.

That’s looking better.

Screenshot of the Journal page. Its one article now it appears on a white card.

Let’s update our journal by adding another article. It should automatically receive the correct styles so long as we use the same HTML structure.

Blog articles usually appear with the newest ones first, so let’s add another article right above the first one.

<article>
    <h2>My second entry</h2>

    <time datetime="2020-01-12">January 12, 2020</time>

    <p>I added some CSS to my website. It’s very stylish.</p>
</article>

It received the styles but something isn’t right—the cards are touching, causing them to appear like one giant card.

Screenshot of the journal page with a second article added.

Not to worry, we can add some bottom margin to each article. Adjust the article rule like so:

article {
    margin-bottom: 20px;
    padding: 20px;
    background: #fff;
}

Which produces:

Screenshot of the Journal page. The two article cards now have vertical space between them.

Much better. One last issue. Our menu appears to have lost its horizontal styling. That’s because we need to add the menu class name to our menu list. Make the following adjustment in journal.html.

<ul class="menu">
    <li><a href="index.html">Home</a></li>
    <li><a href="journal.html">Journal</a></li>
</ul>

Looks great! You can check out the final journal page here.

Publishing your changes

Head back into your Netlify dashboard and go to the Deploys tab. At the bottom of the page you will see a box where you can drag and drop your website folder (just make sure you’ve saved all the files).

That’s it! Your website should have been updated to reflect the latest changes.

Conclusion and bonus challenge

If you have followed all the way through, you deserve a cookie and a pat on the back! You not only created your own website from scratch using HTML, you also made it look stylish by using CSS.

If you are thirsty for more, here’s a challenge for you. Adjust your menu so that the current page is in bold and not linked (hint: you could use a special class name).


  1. Most web browser’s default to Times New Roman, which is a serif font. There’s nothing wrong with Times New Roman, necessarily, but many webpage authors will change it just because it is the default font. If you want to go down the rabbit hole of the art and science of typography — which I totally recommend you do — check out Butterick’s Practical Typography
  2. That said, if you want people to actually be able to read your webpage, you want to choose background and foreground colors that contrast well. You can use this color contrast checker to make sure your text is easy to see. 

Posted in: Design, Tutorial, Web Dev

Web design in 4 minutes →

I plan to do a little of an introduction to CSS to follow up my post about making your first website. But until then this is a nice walkthrough of adding some visual styles to a webpage made with default HTML styling.

Posted in: Design, Tutorial, Web Dev