The Secret Weapon to Learning CSS

Avatar of Robin Rendle
Robin Rendle on

Take the pain out of building site search with the Algolia hosted API. Start free now!

For some reason, I’ve lately been thinking a lot about what it takes to break into the web design industry and learn CSS. I reckon it has something to do with Keith Grant’s post earlier this month on a CSS mental model where he talks about a “common core for CSS”:

We need common core tricks like this for CSS. Not “tricks” in the old sense (like how to fake a gradient border), but mental patterns: ways to frame the problem in our heads, so we can break problems into their constituent parts and notice recurring patterns. Those of us who deeply understand the language do this internally. We need to start working on distilling out these mental patterns we use for understanding layout and positioning and working with relative units, so that we can articulate them to others.

On this note, Rachel Andrew also wrote about how to learn CSS, but in this case, she focuses more on technical CSS specifics:

For much of CSS, you don’t need to worry about learning properties and values by heart. You can look them up when you need them. However, there are some key underpinnings of the language, without which you will struggle to make sense of it. It really is worth dedicating some time to making sure you understand these things, as it will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run.

This ties in nicely with Andy Bell’s “CSS doesn’t suck” argument. Andy says that perhaps the reason why people attack CSS so often is because they simply don’t fundamentally understand it and thereby don’t respect why it works the way it does:

It’s getting exhausting spending so much of my time defending one of the three pillars of the web: CSS. It should sit equal with HTML and JavaScript to produce accessible, progressively enhanced websites and web apps that help everyone achieve what they need to achieve.

As I read these and other posts, I couldn’t stop thinking about the advice that I would give to a fledgling developer who’s interested in web design and CSS—where would I recommend that they start? There’s so much to cover that merely thinking about it gives me a headache.

Personally, I often start with the basics of HTML and slowly introduce folks to CSS properties like color or font-family. But this sort of advice is generally only useful if you’re sitting right next to someone and have the time to explain everything about HTML and CSS: how to lay out a page, how to handle performance, how to think about progressive enhancement, etc. These topics alone are worthy of a month-long workshop—and that’s only the beginning!

Where to get started then? What sort of advice would help a student in the long run?

My experience in the industry probably matches that of a lot of other web designers: I didn’t go to school for this. I figured things out by myself while using referential sites like CSS-Tricks and Smashing Magazine to fill in the gaps. I would start with a project (like making a website for my high school band—and no, I will tell you the name of it), and in the process, I would haphazardly learn about typesetting, Sass, build tools, as well as accessible, hand-written markup.

Hear me out, but I don’t think the best way to get started in the web design industry is to learn the latest doodad or widget. Yes, you’ll have to get to that eventually. Or maybe not. At some point, getting a firm handle on flexbox and grid and memorizing a few properties is a good thing to do. But I want to teach web designers to fish and make sure that they can set themselves up for the future. And the best way to fish for CSS probably won’t be found in a particular book or classroom curriculum. Instead, I think it’s best to recommend something else entirely.

My advice can be summarized in just four words: Get an RSS reader.

After thinking about this, I figured out that the most useful advice I can give is to get involved with the community—and, for me, that has been via RSS. Find a ton of blogs and subscribe to them. Over time, you’ll not only learn about the craft, but have a hefty (and hopefully organized) set of resources that cover basics, tricks, standards, personal struggles, and news, among many, many other things.

This is still how I learn about web design today. RSS is the most important tool I have to help me continue learning about the web—from working with tiny CSS properties to giant frameworks. Sure, Twitter is a good place to learn from (and even connect with) heavy hitters in the web design industry quickly, but there’s no better technology than RSS to constantly keep yourself informed of how people are thinking about CSS and web development.

With that, I encourage you (yes, you) to get an RSS reader if you don’t already have one, or dust off the one you do have if it’s been a while. I use Reeder 3 on OSX and iOS and pair that with Feedbin. From there, subscribe to a ton of blogs or follow a lot of folks on Twitter to find their websites. There’s no shortage of material or sources out there!

This sounds like a silly thing to recommend but fitting yourself into the web design community is more important than learning about any cool CSS trick. You’ll be creating an environment where you can constantly learn new things for the future. And I promise that, once you start, finding people who care about web development and, ultimately, learning about CSS, isn’t as intimidating as it could be on your own.

Which websites should you subscribe to? Well, Stuart Robson made a wonderful list of all the websites that he subscribes to via RSS—you should be able to download that file and drop it straight into your RSS reader. Also, Rachel Andrew made a great list of websites a while back when she asked what’s happening in CSS? And of course our very own newsletter, This Week in Web Design and Development, is certainly a good place to start, too. Speaking of email and newsletters—Dev Tips by Umar Hansa is another great resource where I’m constantly learning new things about Chrome’s DevTools.

What websites do you like though? What’s the best resource for keeping up with CSS? Let us know in the comments below!