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In Defense of Tables and Floats in Modern Day Development

Twenty-plus years ago, tables were the main way web pages were created in HTML. It gave web builders consistent control of constructing pages with some “design.” No longer did sites only have to be top-to-bottom in a linear manner — they could be set up with columns that align left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Back then, it was seen as a huge breakthrough.

Tables, however, were never designed to lay out pages and, in fact, have all sorts of problems when used that way today. It was a convenient hack, but at the time, a very welcome one, particularly for those trying to achieve a super-specific layout that previous ways couldn’t handle.

Fast-forward to modern days and it’s now obvious that were tons of issues with the table layout approach. Accessibility is a big one.<table>, <th>, <tr> and <td> elements aren’t exactly accessible, especially when they’re nested several levels deep. Screen readers — the devices that read web content and serve as a measure of accessibility compliance — struggle to parse them into cohesive blocks of content. That’s not to say tables are bad; they simply were never intended as a layout mechanism.

Check out this table layout. Feel free to run it through VoiceOver or whatever screen reading software you have access to.

Yes, that example looks very much like a typical website layout, but it’s crafted solely with a table. You can see how quickly it becomes bloated and inaccessible the very moment we start using it for anything other than tabular data.

So after more than 20 years of being put through the ringer, you might think we should avoid tables altogether. If you’ve never shipped a table-based layout, you’ve undoubtedly heard war stories from those of us who have, and those stories are never kind. It’s like we’ve sort of made tables the “Internet Explorer of HTML elements.”

But that’s not totally fair because tables do indeed fill a purpose on the web and they are indeed accessible when they are used correctly.

Tables are designed to handle data that is semantically related and is best presented in a linear-like format. So, yes, we can use tables today in the year 2020, and that will likely continue to be true many years from now.

Here’s a table being used to display exactly what it’s intended to: tabular data!

With the push toward web standards in the early 2000s, tables were pushed aside as a layout solution in favor of other approaches, most notably the CSS float property. Designers and developers alike rejoiced because, for the first time, we had a true separation of concerns that let markup do the markup-y things it needs to do, and CSS to do the visual stuff it needs to do. That made code both cleaner and way easier to maintain and, as a result, we could actually focus on true standards, like accessibility, and even other practices, like SEO.

See (or rather hear) the difference in this example?

Many of us have worked with floats in the past. They were originally designed to allow content to flow around images that are floated either to the left or right, and still be in the document flow. Now that we’ve gotten newer layout features — again, like grid and flexbox — floats, too, have sort of fallen by the wayside, perhaps either because there are better ways to accomplish what they do, or because they also got the same bad rap as tables after being (ab)used for a long time.

But floats are still useful and relevant! In fact, we have to use them for the shape-outside property to work.

A legitimate float use case could be for wrapping content around a styled <blockquote>.

CSS features like grid, flexbox, and multicolumn layouts are among the wonderful tools we have to work with these days. With even more layout possibilities, cleaner and more accessible code, they will remain our go-to layout approaches for many years to come.

No hacks or extra code in this flexbox example of the same layout we’ve looked at throughout this article:

So, next time you find yourself considering tables or floats, reach for them with confidence! Well, when you know the situation aligns with their intended use. It’s not like I’m expecting you to walk away from this with a reinvigorated enthusiasm for tables and floats; only that, when used correctly, they are perfectly valid techniques, and even continue to be indispensable parts of our overall toolset.