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Sep 28 2004

Writing Lean CSS

The goal of using CSS in our web pages is to more cleanly separate presentation from structure. But if our CSS files are too large and/or messy, it would seem that all we’re doing is taking the presentation out of the XHTML and dumping in on the floor. No real rhyme or reason, just a bunch of presentation information to wade through. While I am no expert on the full and complete use of CSS, I thought I’d share a few tips on how I learned to keep my CSS a little more organized and easily editable.


Using CSS shorthand is probably the quickest and easiest way to cut down on your overall file size while making your files easier to update at the same time. There are already very detailed articles on CSS shorthand, but let me give a brief overview of the techniques I use most often.

Margin and Padding

As you probably know, margins and padding can be declared using margin-top, margin-left, padding-right, padding-bottom, etc. But all ‘sides’ of the box can be described at once using shorthand. The model goes like this:

/* Usage - margin: top right bottom left; */
margin: 10px 2px 5px 8px;

This would define the margin-top to be 10px, margin-right to be 2px, margin-bottom to be 5px, and margin-left to be 8px. Now we don’t have to declare every one of these values. If all 4 sides are to be the same 10px, we can simply declare margin: 10px; and the 10px margin will be applied to all 4 sides. If we declare the first two values, such as margin: 10px 5px;, a margin of 10px will be applied to the top and bottom, and 5px to the left and right sides. If we declare 3 values, margin:0 5px 10px; a margin of 0 will be applied to the top, 5px to the left and right sides, and 10px to the bottom. All this works the same for padding, but be sure to take the box-model differences into account when using padding. And remember, when declaring a value of 0 to any of these positions, no units are necessary. 0em is the same as 0 px is the same as just 0. No need to include the units.


When applying background colors and images together, there are a few properties that you will most likely use: background-color, background-image, background-repeat, and background-position. When using these in combination, they can be applied as follows:

/ When you want to apply the following styles /
background-color: #CCC;
background-image: url(bg_image.gif);
background-repeat: repeat-y;
background-position: top right;

/ All of these can be combined into / background: #CCC url(bgimage.gif) repeat-y top right;

Any of these declarations can be left out, but when undeclared, the browser defaults will be used, typically transparent background, no background image, full repeating, and top left positioning.


As it is with backgrounds, font declarations can be combined into one concise line.

<div class="multiline
/ When you want to apply the following styles /
font-style: italic;
font-weight: normal;
font-size: small;
line-height: 1.4em;
font-family: Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif;

/ All of these can be combined into / font: italic normal small/1.4em Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif;

Again, any of these declarations can be left out, but the browser defaults will be used. It is also good to note that browser defaults vary much more with fonts than they do with backgrounds.

Use the Cascade

There’s a reason they’re called ‘Cascading Style Sheets.’ The document cascade is a relatively in-depth process, but when using a single linked style sheet, the document cascade can be simplified. Many style definistions will be inherited by elements from their parent element. Browser defaults often interrupt this cascade, but rules like font and text-align will mostly be inherited throughout your document. I say mostly because there are a few browser bugs, mainly IE, that you have to deal with on this issue.

To more fully utilize this cascade we can take advantage of this inheritance and not have to repeat these definitions. For example, say we want most of our document text to be the same. We place that definition in the body selector, and that font will (or in the case of IE, should) be inherited throughout the entire style sheet. IE has a little problem with tr and td elements not inheriting fonts, so to apply a font to an entire document we do the following:

body, tr, td {
  font: normal small/1.4em Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif;

Similarly, if any of your headlines and paragraphs will have the same margins, those can be grouped together as well.

h1, h2, h3, p {
  margin:0 0 15px;

We can also use this cascade in our selectors. Say, for example, I have a div tag with an id of “article.” Inside this article div I want the paragraphs to have a specific margin. Instead of having to put a class of ‘article-paragraph’ on each p in the article div, I can use the following selector:

/ This will select any p inside <div id="article"> /
#article p {
  margin:0 0 15px;

Also, the cascade runs in the direction of specificity. Yeah, that sounds really complex, but all it means is that if you specify, say, a font in the body selector, you can overwrite that font definition by using a more specific selector. For example:

body, tr, td {
  font: normal small/1.4em Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif;
h1, h2, h3 {
  font: medium Georgia, Times New Roman, Times, serif;

We have declared that everything inside the body should have a specific font style, but because the h1, h2, and h3 selectors are more specific than the body selector, the font definitions in that selector take precedence over the ones in the body.

A Few Good Tips

Jacob Rask suggested that you could eliminate all default padding, margins, and borders by using the following CSS:

* {
  padding: 0;
  margin: 0;
  border: 0;

This works very well, but the only thing I’ve found is that you will have to declare some margin/padding for any ul or ol elements in order for them to display correctly.

John Nunemaker suggested that you keep all your CSS declarations on one line. It does keep things a little neater, as long as you’re comfortable reading and editing the file like that.


This is in no way a comprehensive list of ways to keep your CSS files more organized. It’s just a few tips I’ve picked up along the way, from my own work and from others. If you have others that save you time, let me know about them. I’ll welcome any way to save myself a few seconds or a few bytes.