How to: learn about CSS by creating a ‘tweetable quote’

This is the fourth in a series of posts introducing HTML. The first part tackled making a ‘Tweet this’ link in a blog post, and the second introduced Twitter’s Web Intents sort-of-API. The third post outlined a little hack for embedding images in those tweets.

If you haven’t read those, you might find it easier to start there.

You can also get all four tutorials in a small ebook.


Stage 4: Styling your ‘Tweet this’ quotes with CSS

At the top of every post in this series has been a ‘Sharelines’ section with quotes in white text against a blue background, each one preceded by a Twitter icon bullet point.

All of those stylistic elements are created with CSS: Cascading Style Sheets. And this post will explain how to learn more about CSS by using them to style your ‘tweet this’ links.

In order to do that I need to explain how CSS works alongside HTML, and why we need both.

HTML = content and meaning; CSS = style and design

Because content can be viewed on all sorts of devices – from big desktop screens to laptops, tablets, mobile phones and televisions – it is important to separate content from style.

While the content remains the same, we might choose to style it in different ways depending on the device the user is using.

Some tags in HTML may sound like they’re about appearance: heading tags, for example, or tags that make text bold or italic.

But in reality they are about meaning: a <h1> tag indicates that the heading is of ‘first level’ importance; a </h1>
tag indicates a heading which is one level below that; and so on. How we style headings of such importance is a separate decision.

Likewise, once upon a time, people used the HTML tag <b> to make something bold, and <i> for italic. But both those tags described appearance, so they were replaced with <strong> and <em> to describe the emphasis imbued in the text: again, meaning, not style.

If you want to specify the colour of text, its background, size, or font, then you should be using CSS to do so.

And CSS allows us to style aspects of other elements in a webpage, from borders and alignment of elements to margins and padding, opacity – even the appearance of the cursor or the behaviour of rollovers.

So in this tutorial I’m going to show you how to style the ‘tweetable quotes’ created in the preceding posts.

Three types of CSS

There are three ways of using CSS:

  1. External style sheets are saved as separate files which the HTML document then links to.
  2. Internal style sheets are written inside the HTML document, between the head tags
  3. And inline styles are written inside HTML tags themselves, using the style="" attribute.

Each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

  • External style sheets are most widely used because you only have to write the styles once. As long as all your HTML pages link to it, you can change the style of thousands of pages across a website by just changing that one style sheet.
  • Internal style sheets are typically used where one page needs some of its own specific styles.
  • And inline style sheets are used where you need to override any other style sheets when it comes to one particular element. Or where you cannot gain access to the parts of a website needed to created internal or external style sheets – which is the case with sites.

The style sheets are applied in that order: where there are any clashes (for example more than one style sheet specifies the font for normal paragraph text) then the most recently applied style sheet overrides others: an internal style sheet can override an external style sheet; and an inline style can override both.

But remember: this is done on an element-by-element basis: where there is no conflict, part of an external style sheet will still apply.

For example, an external style sheet might specify that links are bold and highlighted orange and anything in a Heading 1 tag is in Arial; but an internal style sheet might override one of those styles that by specifying on this particular page links are blue and underlined. And then on one particular link an inline style may specify, actually, this link is going to be red. Heading 1 tags are still Arial throughout.

CSS targets tags, attributes and values

In the first tutorial of this series I introduced HTML tags, attributes and values. These become particularly important when it comes to CSS, because CSS works by targeting tags to style anything contained within them.

It can do this in a number of combinations:

  • It can target a single tag, for example h1
  • It can target a combination of tags, for example blockquote em, so that the style only affects text within both tags
  • It can target tags with a specified attribute and value. In fact there are two attributes which are regularly used for styling: class and id. So a piece of CSS might target <h2> headings with a class="headline" attribute and value. Class and id are represented with particular symbols, as I’ll explain below.

    In external and internal CSS an element is targeted and styled by specifying the tag(s) and any attributes/values without chevrons, and then any styles in curly brackets, like so:

h1 { font-size: 18px; }

The styles are described in pairs: first the property (font-size in the example above), then a colon, and then the value of that property (18 pixels in the example), and then a semi-colon to indicate the end of that particular property.

You can apply more than one style, like so:

h1 {
background: #00FF00;
color: #FF0000;
font-size: 18px;

These don’t need to be on separate lines but it makes it easier to interpret when you or someone else looks at it later. (I’ll explain those hashes followed by numbers below).

You can specify combinations of tags by listing them in order:

blockquote em { font-size: 18px; }

You can specify tags with a particular class attribute by using the period like so:

h1.headline { font-size: 18px; }

In this case you are styling anything within the tags <h1 class="headline"> (it doesn’t matter if it has other attributes too)

And you specify an id attribute by using the hash symbol:

h1#headline { font-size: 18px; }

In this case you are styling anything within the tags <h1 id="headline">

Inline styles using the style attribute

Having explained how external and internal style sheets work, I now need to point out that inline styles work slightly differently.

An inline style does not need to target tags or attributes, because it exists within the tag itself, and actually is an attribute of that tag.

Here’s an example:

<span style="background-color:#00aced;color:#ffffff;">STYLED TEXT HERE</span>

To apply an inline style to a tag you need to add the attribute style=""

As values within that attribute you then add as many property:value pairs as you want, each pair separated with a semi-colon.

Style-specific tags: div and span

In the example above I’ve used the tag. This is one of two tags which are often used to apply styles to elements which are not contained within any particular HTML tag. The other is `
The key difference is that `
<div>` is used for 'block level' elements - in other words items like paragraphs or larger sections of a page - while
is used for smaller elements, such as individual words or sentences.

For example the body of an article may be contained within the tags <div id="article"> and </div> or each quote is contained within the tags <span class="quote"> and </span>.

Describing colours: hexadecimal codes

One other thing which needs explaining about the examples above: how to describe colours.

Colours on the web are created by combining red, green and blue light: the RGB model. To paint a colour online, then, you need to specify how much red, how much green, and how much blue your colour is made up of.

This is done with hexadecimal codes. These are six characters, preceded by a hash, for example #000000 or #FFFFFF or #00aced.

You don’t need to know anything more about hexadecimal colours in order to use them: simply type ‘hexadecimal codes’ into a search engine and you will get dozens of pages which show you colours and their corresponding hexadecimal codes. If you want a specific one, like ‘Twitter blue’ then search for ‘Twitter blue hexadecimal code’ (warning: not all sites agree!).

But it’s useful to know a little more about how they work, so here’s a quick overview…

The first two characters in a hexadecimal code refer to the amount of red; the second two to the amount of green; and the final two characters specify how much blue to use.

The numbers run from 0 to F, which can be a little confusing. Counting from the lowest to highest value, the hexadecimal system looks like this:

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F.

To specify ‘no green’, then, you would start with the characters 00. To specify ‘100% green’ you would use the characters FF

Simple colours, then, can be guessed at like so:

  • #FF0000 – red
  • #00FF00 – green
  • #0000FF – blue
  • #000000 – black
  • #FFFFFF – white

Black is #000000 because that code means precisely ‘no light’; white is #FFFFFF because, when combined, red, green and blue light makes white light. This is very different to mixing ink or paint and is worth remembering.

Applying all this to your tweetable quote

I am going to assume you are using a free content management system like which does not allow you access to the head tags. For that reason I’ll focus on inline styles.

Pick the quote you want to make tweetable. In the text (HTML) tab, immediately before the quote, add the following tag:

<span style="background-color:#00aced;color:#ffffff;">

And immediately after it, close the tag:

#00aced is the hexadecimal code for a Twitter-like light blue. To make our text stand out against that, we need to make it white: hence the second style: color: #FFFFFF

Now, before the “ tag, add the HTML for your link which opens a ‘tweet this’ window populated with the quote and any other elements such as links, hashtags, etc.

Make sure you close *after* the closing tag too.

Why is it important to apply “ after <a>? Because styles are applied in order: if we apply span and then a, the style attribute of span will be applied but then any styles applying to a will be applied.

Doing it the other way means that styles for a are applied first, and then style attributes of span.

Other things you can change

Try adding padding to your quote – see what happens. Change the amount until you’re happy.

<span style="background-color:#00aced;color:#ffffff;padding:5px;">"Your quote here"</span>

Try changing the font family and size:

<span style="background-color:#00aced;color:#ffffff;font-family:Georgia;font-size:18px;">"Your quote here"</span>

Try ‘floating’ the quote to the right.

<span style="background-color:#00aced;color:#ffffff;float:right;">"Your quote here"</span>

Try changing the height and width of the box containing the text:

<span style="background-color:#00aced;color:#ffffff;height:100px;width:250px;">"Your quote here"</span>

And how about that list with little Twitter icons as bullets?

<li style="text-indent:2em;list-style:none;background-image:url('');background-repeat:no-repeat;">"First tweetable quote"</li>

The properties being styled here include text-indent (indent the text – this is needed because otherwise the text would lie on top of the bullet images), list-style (remove the bullets), background-image (the URL of the image we want to put behind the text – note that it uses single quotes so as not to conflict with the double quotes around the whole series of property:value pairs) and background-repeat (we only want the image to appear once, not repeat).

Unfortunately, because you are styling the tag you will need to repeat this for each list item. (Now you can see why internal and external styles are so much more useful: with those you only need to style li once.)

Thankfully you can copy and paste the HTML.

If you want to add a fancy rollover effect you can do that too. The code for that would look something like this:

style="onMouseOver="'#999999'" onMouseOut="'#00aced'"

If you need to know about any of these properties and how to use them, search for the name of the property and ‘CSS’.

Likewise, if you want to find a way to style something in a particular way, just search for what you want to do and the word ‘CSS’. There are lots of tutorials and examples out there.

And if you see an example of styling that you like, look at the source HTML and links to external style sheets which can show you how they did that.