CSS and the Limits of Definition Lists

I’ve become a fan of definition lists as a layout tool. Here’s a snippet of HTML, using them to markup a form. You can make the input element label the definition term (dt) and the input element itself the definition data (dd), like so:

<dt><label for="first_name">First Name<label></dt>
<dd><input type="text" name="first_name" id="first_name" size="20" /></dd>
<dt><label for="last_name">Last Name<label></dt>
<dd><input type="text" name="last_name" id="last_name" size="20" /></dd>

What makes this better than using an HTML table is that with CSS you can specify whatever layout you want: you can style it so the dt is above, below, to the right, or to the left of its dd partner. This is particularly helpful when you’re writing re-usable code that might be needed in situations where you can’t predict the layout needs.

But tonight I discovered the limit of this approach, which is when you can’t predict whether the vertical height of the dt’s content will exceed the height of the dd’s. I’ve been working on the next version of Shashin, and what’s been driving the effort is the Boxing Dragons art gallery site, which I just finished working on. I’m using Shashin to display a list of albums (in this case artists) with the description of the album alongside the cover image of the album. For the next release of Shashin, I was originally planning to do this markup with definition lists (with the album cover as the dt and the description as the dd), giving users the flexibility to layout their album and description pairs any way they want, via CSS.

This approach to styling definition lists is fairly tidy, and works fine when the height of the dd is the same or greater than the dt. And in Firefox it also works when the height of the dt is greater, but not so in IE6 (I’ve been resisting upgrading so I haven’t tested with IE7). In IE6 the content of a dd will “flow up” into any available space above it, pushing a dd’s content higher than the position of its dt partner.

The clearfix solution for positioning floating divs doesn’t help here (believe me, I tried). I found several threads of people discussing this problem (or something quite similar to it) but no reliable solutions. The best I found was this admirable effort, but it entails about 70 lines of CSS code as well as some goofy markup. It’s also quite fragile – as soon as I started tweaking things like margins even slightly, it would start to fall apart. Although I probably could have gotten the layout I wanted if I kept at it, the CSS would have been so complex it would have defeated the purpose: to make it fairly easy for Shashin users to alter the stylesheet to get the layout they want.

So, at least for now, I’ve given up on using a definition list and have retreated to using a table. The upside is the markup and the CSS are straightforward and cross-browser compatible. The downside for Shashin is that there’s no flexibility: the album covers have to stay on the left, and the descriptions on the right.


  1. Reply
    Steve February 24, 2008

    I tested version 1.2.3 and liked the simplicity to embed picasa pictures into wordpress. Unfortunately I don’t want to have visitors be redirected to picasa. That’s why I am wondering when you plan to release 1.3 with Highslide support ?

    Keep up the good work,

  2. Reply
    Pat W February 25, 2008

    While not as elegant as using definition lists you can get a lot of flexibility just by wrapping the image node and the text node in a div.

    The div serves as the necessary wrapping element that the DL does not provide which allows you to force siblings divs to clear each other. This can be accomplished by either applying a clear to every container div or simply using something like clearfix.

    As an extra benefit if you ever decide to do side by side displays this would also accommodate it with just css changes.

    Oh and it works fine in IE6.

  3. Reply
    Mike February 25, 2008

    Hi Steve – give me one more week on the new version.

  4. Reply
    Mike February 25, 2008

    Hi Pat – thanks for the tip – I will give it a try. I knew if anyone would have some helpful feedback, it’d be you! 🙂

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