Weaving CSS dreams

In promising news for web design and development, Macromedia’s Dreamweaver MX 2004 claims it will possess much more powerful CSS support, as well as significant improvements which will help its users create accessible content. A page from Dreamweaver’s tour presents an overview of its CSS-related features. Susan Morrow, a senior director for Macromedia, is quoted with this statement in an article at MacCentral:

“It’s time for CSS to become the broad standard it should be, […] However, to date, it’s been difficult to implement.”

In an interview published last week at DMXzone, Dave Shea made reference to the need for “visual CSS editors” in order for traditional designers to begin using CSS en masse. Dreamweaver seems to be expanding to bridge that gap. While I hesitate to give up control over the construction of my markup and CSS to what we used to call WYSIWYG editors, Dreamweaver is certainly looking like it will enable more use of CSS by a broader group of designers and developers. Appropriately summarizing the concept is this statement from the MX 2004 Story:

Whereas the initial MX products blazed a new, uncharted trail, the MX 2004 versions make the path cleaner, wider, and easier to traverse.

Advanced support for CSS in Dreamweaver is a mixed blessing. It’s good, because this means more sites and applications will be built with more optimized and accessible code by default. It’s organization of rules and properties looks like it might simplify management of large, complex style sheets. My only concern with Dreamweaver is the same as it was as Macromedia announced expanded and smarter HTML support in prior versions: it’s very possible to use as a crutch which enables designers to avoid learning and understanding how the Web is (and should be) built. In order for us to truly understand the Web and design successfully for it, we need to at least partially understand the underpinnings. CSS is no exception. One only need look at the mass of sites produced in the last five years by designers and agencies who had no understanding of HTML, or what constituted appropriate use of Flash, to see an abundance of bloated and awkward sites which adhere too closely to the principles of print design.

CSS is written, at least in part, in a designer’s language. The syntax is not hard to learn or understand. The difficulty surfaces when working around browser discrepancies and behavior differences. Hopefully, Dreamweaver will step in to ease the frustrations of creating consistent cross-browser pages, but not completely replace the need to learn and understand what CSS is and how it works.

Also of note for this new version of Dreamweaver is the Accessibility Overview. Here, Macromedia points out the preferences and features which will ease making web content accessible. Many of these features have existed in Dreamweaver for several versions. But accessibility features are now consolidated and easier to find, and Macromedia is more actively explaining how to take advantage of them. Dreamweaver will also feature tools to validate pages for compliance with Section 508 and WCAG Priority One checkpoints. When we mention “accessibility”, we’re usually discussing the building of sites which are accessible to people with disabilities. Often ignored when talking about accessibility, Dreamweaver will also contain features which make it easier for people with disabilities to create web sites and applications.

Macromedia has been working with the WaSP’s Dreamweaver Task Force over the last few years to improve the Dreamweaver product, and to raise awareness of web standards within the development community. Macromedia is now working with another highly respected and knowledgeable authority to refine use of CSS and web standards throughout their products and web site. The Macromedia site walks the talk, demonstrating beautiful design which uses CSS for layout, and nearly validates as XHTML 1.0 Transitional (save for a few missing alt attributes in images here and there, and some missing type attributes in their script tags).

Obviously, Macromedia has been taking huge strides to improve support for web standards. They deserve a lot of credit for their efforts and successes in this space.