From vitruvian to breakdancing: The three frontend layers of a webpage

This week, I’m conducting a workshop on basic HTML and CSS at Chikka. Participants come from the corporate communication, creatives, and content teams. For a martian to easily digest a complicated topic such as a webpage, I’ve used a human being as a metaphor for the three frontend layers of a webpage.

Frontend meaning the webpage not needing any database or server — it should launch and run even when all you’ve got are notepad, Internet Explorer 3.0, and zero prepaid load in your EDSA Mail internet dial-up connection account (no internet needed!).

HTML: the structure layer

Think about a simple human body; disregard the color of its skin or the length of its hair or whether it is male or female — god simply made it with a head, body, and legs. No complicated hiphop outfit nor nice slick pompadour; it doesn’t have any flavoring not even vanilla. It’s only a naked human being. That’s our HTML markup — purely focused on the very essence of the structure of the content.

Vitruvian Man

The HTML markup is what you see when you view the source of a webpage or when you open an HTML document in a text editor.

That’s the structure of the content of your document. For example, your webpage is an article about cats, then most probably, the structure of your content is arranged according to this:

  • Header
    • Site name
    • Navigation
  • Content
    • Cat article
  • Footer
    • Copyright information

Of course, each item I enumerated has a corresponding HTML tag like for the header group it is <header>, etc.

It is best to forget about CSS when we’re laying out the structure layer. What all matters here is the structure of your content — don’t you ever write <header> at the bottom of the document because that’s not the correct structure. Header should be at the top, footer at the bottom.

Also, what we should give attention to in laying out the structure layer is semantics. Meaning, if you’ve got some important title or heading in your design, make it <h1> or <h2> depending on the hierarchy of your headings. Don’t use the heading tags for their font sizes; use them to show hierarchy in your headings. <h1> being the most important like the title of your site or the heading of your cat article. Likewise, if you have a list of anything, use <ul> or <ol>.

Open the HTML document in a browser, close your eyes and let someone read your HTML webpage per element from top to bottom, from left to right (or right to left in other cases) and say “next” if you want to proceed to the next element. If it makes sense to you, then most likely you’ve made the right structure.

To somehow test its semantics, you may want to use a screen reader. Everything should make sense to you while listening and “browsing” the content.

CSS: the presentation layer

Now, it’s time to present our naked human being to the world. It needs something to wear. Something like Sailor Moon’s costume.

Sailor Moon

That’s CSS, short for Cascading Style Sheets. A set of instructions that our HTML document takes to have a visual design like background color and many more.

CSS could also make HTML elements be positioned anywhere on the webpage whether at the left, right, top, or bottom.

JavaScript: the interaction layer

And lastly, whenever you want your vitruvian man to do some break-dancing, add some script.

A practical example is the validation of a form. Of course, we’ve got our content which is a form (HTML) and we’ve dressed it up with spanking gold-colored buttons (CSS), now it’s time to make it show messages when a required field is skipped and to never ever activate the button until the user fills up correctly all the required fields (JavaScript).

Combine all three layers and you’ve got that breakdancing streetdancer.

Minus the baby-kicking.


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