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HTML, page layout and accessibility

There seems to be a lot of hassle over accessibility and page layout for HTML documents. See, for example,

So what ever happened to the way we used to do things? If I recall correctly, all of the markup was style-based (i.e. h1, h2, h3, list, ordered list, etc.) and I could define the appearance of those styles in my browser. I'm sure that I used at least one browser (perhaps the IBM one under OS/2) that let me choose fonts, colours, indent levels, font sizes, horizontal rules, link appearance, etc. (maybe even graphics wrap-around settings). It seems to me that a properly configurable client (complete with text-to-speech) coupled with rather generic page desription markup is far superior to the mess we seem to building now. Better yet would be to have a site-specific accept/reject of that site's style-sheet (better in the sense that many sites have vastly different styles, all of which are far superior to anything I can come up with).

I'd rather have markup that says <menu> </menu>, <sidebar></sidebar>, etc. and let browser settings (user-configurable with sensible defaults) deal with placement. To be honest, I can't think of any reason why I, as the creator, should have to worry about fonts, colours, positioning, etc. To a lesser extent, I'm not even sure that I should need to take explicit steps to ensure accessibility--that should be the job of the rendering agent.

Of course, I'm more interested in information than presentation, especially given that one of my pet peeves is that I find that presentation is often in the way.

Ron Porter
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

fixed font size is the horror that made me leave IE for Netscape, since Netscape allows me to change the font size for all pages.

Most browsers let you overule the sites preferences; the result (in IE at least) is rarely pretty.

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

This occurs because the web has become primarily a presentation medium.  It's not simply about information.

This is why some websites are designed entirely by graphic designers.

Brent P. Newhall
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

This is actually one of the reasons behind style sheets. That you define your pages layout and visual properties seperately to its content. CSS is designed to degrade gracefully on older browsers or be plain ignored (NN 4.7 notwithstanding) on non-visual browsers or assistive technologies. Ultimately your main HTML content should have enough markup to define what it is, rather than what ti looks like (e.g. link, paragraph etc.) so it can be correctly processed by assistive browsers.

And yeah, fixed font size is just plain dumb. It annoys us people who can see reasonably well. 8 point font is fine in a newspaper, but make it relative or default on a web site.

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

In reality <Hn> styling isn't styling its structural content.

Styling within HTML is using something like "< i >" and "< b >"
which is wrong as it assumes the style when it should be emphasis.

Simon Lucy
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Ron, it's no longer like that because there are very few web users who share that sentiment.

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Brent - you hit the nail on the head.

The guys who architected HTML envisioned it as a way of conveying information, yet every company in the world hires someone with the title "designer" to create their web pages.
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Correct -- HTML started off with the best of intentions.  It was supposed to be a presentation-agnostic document description language where the browser decided whether "header level three" meant "bold 12pt helvetica" or what.

Dave Siegel, aka "The HTML Terrorist" changed all that by co-opting HTML into a presentation language.  He wrote a very entertaining essay on the subject which you can find in the 1997 book "XML Principles, Tools and Techniques".

Fortunately XML has come along and become what HTML was originally intended to be -- a system for adding semantic tags to documents, not presentation tags.

If you are interested in the technical aspects of accessibility standards, a good friend of mine is the W3C's accessibility standards specialist -- I can forward your name to him if you'd like.


Eric Lippert
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

HTML IS a structural language. Awful things like the FONT tag messed that up and made pages a hell of a lot more bloated than they need to be, but CSS (which has been supported to some degree by browsers since 1997) takes us back to the structured approach.

Take a look at and tell me how you would achieve the layout changes without complicated server-side code?, and are amongst the "high profile" sites which take a structural approach to markup and use CSS for the majority of their layout definition.

Regarding Ron's comment about navigation elements, XHTML 2 has support for navigation lists:

There is some controversy about XHTML 2 and how long will it be before browsers support it, but for something that works in today's browsers, check this article out:

Books to read:

Sites to go to:

Walter Rumsby
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

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