Useful CSS Features You May Have Not Known About

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At work I’m sometimes surprised when I discover a CSS feature that enables me to use some clever trick. Some of these features are brand new and still not widely supported (hello, polyfills!), others are pretty old but not commonly known.

Also, if you’re anything like me and prefer digging for “pure CSS” solutions rather than coding in JavaScript, you may find here a couple of hints that will make your life (as a developer) easier.

Dynamically generating counters using only CSS

Assume we have a collection of items represented by HTML elements. We want them to be ordered and displayed with proper numbers. First thing that comes to mind is to mark them up as ordered list (ol), and the browser will do the job for us.

<ol>
  <li>Tidy the room</li>
  <li>Buy groceries</li>
  <li>Write blogpost</li>
</ol>
  1. Tidy the room
  2. Buy groceries
  3. Write blogpost

So far, so good. We have semantic HTML and proper presentation. But what if we want to display the list with nested numbers? Or want to change the default look of numbers to fit into our designs? Oh yes, it’s possible to do it by hand, but

  • it’s tedious,
  • won’t work if the content is generated dynamically.

It’s possible to manipulate our HTML with JavaScript, but we are lazy developers, aren’t we? We want to use some pure CSS solution, which will be simpler and more performant. Say “hello” to CSS counters, which allow you to dynamically add order numbers to your lists and generated content.

CSS counters are, in essence, variables maintained by CSS whose values may be incremented by CSS rules to track how many times they’re used. This lets you adjust the appearance of content based on its placement in the document.

MDN

To start generating numbers with CSS counters we need to know how to do the following:

  • initialize the counter,
  • increment the counter.

We initialize the counter for a parent element, which will contain our list of elements. It can be done with a counter-reset property.

ol {
  counter-reset: counter-name;
}

We need to provide a name for our counter to identify it. It works like a variable name, which we set as a counter-reset property value.

Then we can increment our counter using counter-increment property:

ol > li {
  counter-increment: counter-name;
}

Alright, so we’re all set. Now we need to replace the default numbers of the ordered list and make them more stylish. It’s possible with the use of pseudoelements and content property.

ol {
  list-style-type: none;  
}

ol > li::before {
  counter-increment: counter-name;
  content: counter(counter-name);
}

We can successfuly use counters not only for lists, but also for document sections (marking chapters with numbers, like in the codepen below) and other types of elements.

Auto numbering chapters with CSS counters: check it out on Codepen
Auto numbering chapters with CSS counters

Browser support

In fact CSS counters exist for a pretty long time in the spec, so the browser support is awesome.

Chrome Firefox Safari Internet Explorer/Edge Opera
Any Any Any 8+ Any

Resources and further reading

Internal links and pure CSS lightboxes

With HTML, it’s possible to link not only to external resources, but also to certain sections of a document. Such links are called the anchor links.

<a href="#useful-css-properties">Useful CSS properties</a>

<h1 id="useful-css-properties">Useful CSS properties</h1>

They are defined by a reference to an element’s id attribute. We can enhance the experience of such kind of navigation using only CSS. There is a :target pseudoclass, which can be used to select and style internal links in the document.

Yellow fade technique demo: check it out on Codepen
The :target pseudoclass in use

The example above is very simple and not very surprising. If you are waiting for something that will blow your mind or just make you think “oh, why I’ve been doing that using JavaScript for all these years” – there is indeed one clever trick involving :target pseudoclass.

We can create simple lightboxes without a single line of JavaScript. Here is the markup for our elements:

<a href="#about-me">About me</a>

<div id="about-me" class="lightbox">
  <a href="#" class="close-me"></a>
  <p>
    Lightbox content
  </p>
</div>

We need to create a link to an existing section in our document. Clicking on this link should cause the lightbox to appear and apart from that we should also be able to close it. The magic here belongs to CSS.

Our lightbox should be initially hidden. We can apply display: none to the .lightbox element, but to make the effect more visually appealing we can enhance it with CSS transforms.

.lightbox {
  position: fixed;
  transform: scale(0);
  transition: transform .3s ease-in;
}

It’s also very important to apply position: fixed to remove our lightbox from the document flow to make it look and behave exactly like a lightbox.

The lightbox’s id value should be the same as the href attribute value of the link. Then the following lines of CSS are responsible for opening the lightbox:

.lightbox:target {
  transform: scale(1);
}
Pure CSS lightbox: check it out on Codepen
Pure CSS lightbox example

Browser support

Chrome Firefox Safari Internet Explorer/Edge Opera
Any 3.5+ 3.2+ 7+ 10.1+

Resources and further reading

JavaScript-less sticky menus

Sticky navigation menus are quite popular in contemporary web design. Creating a fixed menu and changing its position when scrolling the document is feasible with a couple of lines of JavaScript. But if there is such demand for a certain design pattern implementation, shouldn’t it land in CSS specification soon?

In fact, there is a possibility to create a sticky menu with just a single line of CSS. Unfortunately, for now it only exists as an experimental feature (you can find the draft in the spec).

.menu {
  position: sticky;
}

Turn the “experimental” flag in your browser and fasten your seatbelts!

Pure CSS sticky menu: check it out on Codepen
Pure CSS sticky menu

Browser support

In Chrome and Firefox the feature works only after turning on the “experimental” flag.

Chrome Firefox Safari Internet Explorer/Edge Opera
No support 32+ 6.1+ No support No support

Resources and further reading

Accessing the HTML attributes' values using CSS

Apart from CSS counters there are various ways to fill the generated content. One of them is accessing the value of HTML attributes using the attr() function.

We can use this feature for creating links accessible in print media.

<p>For more information see 
  <a href="http://martasztybor.pl/css/useful-css-features/">
    the article about useful CSS features
  </a>
</p>
@media print {
  a::after {
    content: " (" attr(href) ")"
  }
}

The result then should look like below:

For more information see the article about useful CSS features (http://martasztybor.pl/css/useful-css-features/)

Ire Aderinokun on her blog bitsofco.de described a clever trick with the use of the attr() feature. It proves that styling broken images is possible.

Browser support

Chrome Firefox Safari Internet Explorer/Edge Opera
2+ Any 3.1+ 8+ 9+

The currentColor property

Before CSS variables (custom properties) will become widely supported, we can alredy use a value with a variable-like feel. It’s called currentColor and its usage is limited to properties that accept color as a value.

.simple-module {
  color: hotpink;
  border: 2px solid currentColor;
  box-shadow: 3px 3px 0 currentColor;
}

In the example above the element’s font color will be applied to both to border and box-shadow.

I prepared a small example of menu with a couple of items to show how currentColor can help us write more reusable code. In the example the menu-item’s left border and icon should change the color on hover and the color of each item should be different.

  <nav>
  <ul>
    <li class="menu-item menu-item--shop">
      <svg viewBox="0 0 32 32">
        <use xlink:href="#icon-cart"></use>
      </svg>
      <a href="#">Shop</a>
    </li>
    <li class="menu-item menu-item--videos">
      <svg viewBox="0 0 32 32">
        <use xlink:href="#icon-play"></use>
      </svg>
      <a href="#">Videos</a>
    </li>
    <li class="menu-item menu-item--gallery">
      <svg viewBox="0 0 32 32">
        <use xlink:href="#icon-image"></use>
      </svg>
      <a href="#">Gallery</a>
    </li>
    <li class="menu-item menu-item--contact">
      <svg viewBox="0 0 32 32">
        <use xlink:href="#icon-phone"></use>
      </svg>
      <a href="#">Contact</a>
    </li>
  </ul>
</nav>
// Normal state 

.menu-item {
  color: white;
  border-bottom: 1px solid white;

  &::before {
    content: '';
    border-left: 5px solid #b5b5b5;
  }

  // Items' colors definitions
  svg {
    fill: white;
  }

  &--shop {
    color: #24C7B7;
  }
  
  &--videos {
    color: #D45542;
  }
  
  &--gallery {
    color: #DEB63E;
  }
  
  &--contact {
    color: #161652;
  }
}

// Hovered state
.menu-item:hover {
  &::before {
    border-left: currentColor;
  }

  svg {
    fill: currentColor;
  }
}

As we can see, there is no need to separately define colors for the icon and the border for each of the menu items.

currentColor menu example: check it out on Codepen
More modular menu items coloring

Resources and further reading

Browser support

Chrome Firefox Safari Internet Explorer Opera
Any Any 4+ 9+ Any

CSS Feature queries

A Modernizr for CSS features? An automated “Can I Use?” in your stylesheets? You’re welcome!

Apart from querying for a certain type of media using @media at-rule it’s also possible to query for CSS features. The rule @supports can be used for testing if browser supports a certain feature and then apply nested CSS rules if the condition is met. For example:

@supports (display: flex) {
  
  .my-element {
    display: flex;
    justify-content: center;
  }
}

Feature queries can help us to tackle uneven browser support and progressively enhance our websites.

Resources and further reading

Browser support

Unfortunately, the browser support isn’t too good for feature queries (they still aren’t supported in MS Edge).

Chrome Firefox Safari Internet Explorer/Edge Opera
28+ 22+ 9+ No support 12.1+