The Need for Layout Markup Language

Written March 3. 2000, at 19:24 GMT.

I originally sent this thought piece as a letter to the CHI-WEB mailing-list.

The cause was a thread where someone pointed out how tables and fancy HTML layouting hurts the usability of web pages for (blind) people using screen readers.

This got me started...

The web-authors of today have only HTML and CSS to work with when creating the layout of their pages. HTML was primarily designed to faciliate structural markup of content (not looks or layout). CSS on the other hand does excellent job of styling text, blocks of text and any interactive elements, while not really allowing for advanced layout.

What we lack is some kind of a specialized markup method for visual layout.

Where this comes from

This is an idea that I formed loosely some time ago. I'd like to describe it loosely to the Internet to see what it thinks. AFAIK there are no existing standards that focus primarily on layout.

Tables are obviously an inadequate method of marking up layout, as they often force us to break up the logical flow (order) of the content, and as many have pointed out tables are bound to cause all sorts of unforseen problems in different types of user-agents. All this is simply because tables are ...er... tables, a structure intended for storing fragmented pieces of data.

CSS as a presentation language admittedly has some layout functions, but those are primitive and nowhere near the level of layout cotrol one needs for complex pages.

It has occurred to me that it would be really nice if we had a third, and seperate way of marking up layout. When designing and writing pages for visual presentation one would use HTML for structure, CSS for styling, and the new language/extensions for organizing spatially the elements of the document.

For instance, this layout markup could take the form of an extension to HTML -- something along the lines of a <grid> tag.

My Proposed Grid Tag

The grid tag could function in a way similar to the table tag, except that it would contain no content - only references to content within the page, and possibly even linked to content in other documents (similar to what we do with linked CSS files, and in framesets only that the content would be rendered inline.).

Each grid cell would have various attributes to control dimensions, content alignment and flow of content between cells. Lots of attributes similar to what tables have today, but only much more flexible and intended for control of layout.

The grid specifications could be placed at the top of web pages and would automatically be ignored by older web-browser as well as user-agents for the blind etc.

Following the grid-specifications one would be an ordinary HTML document (flavored with CSS). The HTML document could be structured in a logical order with all the semantics correct so it would output correctly on alternative user-agents.

However, within the content (HTML) part of the document there would be "invisible" <block> definitions each with a unique id that was being used by the grid-markup part of the page.

Rant

I just can't help thinking what a wonderful world it would be if we had somesuch markup methods?

What do you guys think?

Is it possible that layout methods have been undeservingly left out (or simply forgotten) by the W3C?

...or am I just a crackpot?


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