Stylesheets, Then and Now

Some book designers don’t know what CSS stands for. That might actually be a good thing.

css illustrationCSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet. It’s basically a dress code for your website or your E-book. “Business casual! Serifs optional!” The E-books at Bicycle Comics have had two or three Cascading Style Sheets inside them. “Cascading” means that the different style sheets know which one to listen to if the instructions conflict. (If the company picnic is “T-shirts and jeans,” but your boss tells you “Dockers and polo shirts” then you’ll probably wear Dockers and a polo shirt.)

The thing is, the term “style sheet” far predates Web pages and E-books. Traditional book and magazine publishers have used style sheets for decades, to define a standard look and feel for all the different editors and designers. Stories in The New Yorker famously have three columns of text per page. The front cover of Time always has a red border. Apple Computer wrote all their user manuals in Garamond back in the 1990s. These consistent presentations resulted from the use of company-wide style sheets.

(Confusingly, most publishers also have “style guides.” Basically, style guides set policy about words and punctuation, while style sheets set policy about colors, fonts, and margins.)

Now, when we’re making a poetry anthology, we need coherent plans on all three of those.

  1. Style sheet: What will be the colors, typefaces, and artistic “mood” of this anthology? May different poems use different typefaces? (Bad idea, by the way.) At Bicycle Comics, an anthology project has only one style sheet.
  2. Style guide: How do we feel about capitalizing the first word of each line? What will we do about slang or obscenity? Oxford commas? As a publisher, Bicycle Comics has a universal, yet flexible, style guide.
  3. CSS: What will the overall look and feel of the E-book be? How closely must the E-book resemble the print book? What E-book devices do our readers use, and what are the limits and possibilities of those devices? Our E-books can have between two and four CSS files. For a really complicated anthology designed for multiple platforms, we might add even more.

For people coming to E-books from a print background, the notion of “style sheet” is distinct in origin and scope from the notion of “CSS file.” But many people who come to E-books from a Web background use the term “style sheet” and “CSS” interchangeably. (Some even say “CSS style sheets,” which is a bit odd.) So, when possible, I’m going to use the term “CSS” or “CSS files” to mean the digital snippets of code that add color, fonts, and borders to our digital files. Please help keep me honest!

Comments and critiques welcome. On-topic posts which mention relevant projects you’ve worked on are fine, but please don’t be crass.




Filed under Book vs. Ebook, Look and Feel

2 responses to “Stylesheets, Then and Now

  1. Pingback: Famous Last Word Post | The Yellow Buick Review

  2. Pingback: Simplify, Simplify (CSS Portion) | The Yellow Buick Review

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