Improving your CSS

The current version of the Radio NZ website was launched in February 2007. A number of people have asked me about the CSS for site, and particularly about the size (only 24k, uncompressed). The previous version of the site had about 85k of CSS.

We use gzip compression on the site, so the served filesize is only 6k, but there are other techniques I used to get the initial file size down.

It could be argued that such optimisations are pointless, because any improvements are swamped by the amount of time it takes for the content to traverse the internet. Some prefer maintainability and readability over optimisation. This is true to a point, but only on broadband. We still have a lot of dial-up in New Zealand, and in these cases the speed of the connection is the bottleneck, not the time taken to travel over the net.

The other issues are performance and cost. If you reduce the size and count of files your servers will be able to deliver more requests. If your traffic is metered then any reduction in size saves money. If you are unconvinced read the interview with Mike Davidson regarding the ESPN relaunch.

My aim is to get the HTML and CSS to the browser as fast as possible so that something can be displayed to the user. The load times on pages has a direct effect on the user’s perception of quality.

Here are some of the techniques:

1. Using one file.

This reduces the number of server requests (which speeds things up) and ensures that the browser gets everything it needs at once.

2. Reduce white-space.

All rules in our css file are one line each, and there is minimal other white-space. Even though compression will reduce strings of white-space down to one character, stripping this out first ensures that the compression runs faster (fewer characters to process) and that redundant white-space does not have to be decompressed on the browser side. Prior to moving to a Mac I used to use TopSyle Pro which has some tools to convert a more readable version into something smaller, simply by optimsing white-space and some rules. I took a couple of CSS files from major NZ sites and ran them through cleancss to see what sort of savings could be made.

The first site serves a total of 400k on the home page of which 108k is CSS. This could be reduced by 25k with simple optimisations.

The second site serves a total of 507k on the home page of which 56k is CSS. This could be reduced by 28% for a 14k saving.

John at projectx did a more detailed analysis of the top NZ home pages and Government sites using the yslow benchmarks. Interesting reading.

3. Use CSS inheritance

I start all my CSS files this way.


This rule resets all elements to no margin, no padding. (The font-size is required to sort out some rendering issues in Internet Explorer when using ems.)

It is a good place to start styling as it removes almost all the differences you’ll see in browsers when you start styling a page.

One of the sites I reviewed before writing this had a body rule to reset margins and padding to 0, and then went on to reset again them on 8 sub-elements that didn’t need it. They also applied other rules to elements where the parent element already had the rule.

This not only wastes space, but the browser has to apply and re-apply all these rules.

The process I use when writing CSS is to apply a rule and then check to see if this rule applies to all other elements within the same container. If it is, then the rule can be moved to the container element.

For example, if you have a menu item where you apply {font-size:10px; color:#000} to a

and and

  • . The color element can probably be moved to the body element, especially if that is the default for text on the site. The font-size can probably be moved to a div that contains the other two elements.

    It is sometimes better to apply a rule to a container element and override it in a one of its children, than apply the same rule to most of the children.

    By repeating this process common rules tend to float to less specific selectors at the top of the document tree.

    Westciv has a article that explains inheritance.

    4. Using CSS shorthand.

    Taken from an NZ site, here is the body tag:
    font-family:Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
    color: #333;
    margin: 0px;
    padding: 0px;
    line-height: 130%;
    font-size: 100%;
    background-color: #FFF;

    This could be better expressed thus:
    font:10px/1.3 Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
    background:#FFF center top url(/body.gif) repeat-y;

    And another:


    This could be more simply expressed as:


    These savings are on top of any white-space removal. I’d estimate that the size of the CSS file could be cut in half for a saving of 28k.

    4. Avoiding long chains of selectors

    #side #menu ul.menu li.selected{rules}

    These take up more space and take a lot longer to process in the browser.

    5. Careful layout of the HTML.

    We use a small number of container divs (some of these to work around browser bugs), and keep the selectors to access elements as succinct as possible. We don’t use lots of CSS classes, instead using selectors on parent elements to target particular things.

    An example is in our left-hand menu area. The left menu is positioned with a div with the id #sn. We can access the main menu with simple rules like #sn li.

    If you look at the code though, you’ll see the padding in all menus is applied via one rule: li {padding-bottom:4px;}, an example of inheritance.

    I’ve not got into a great deal of detail on these, so I’m happy to answer any specific questions via comments.

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