Tableless Web Design

Tableless web design (or tableless web layout) is web design philosophy eschewing the use of HTML tables for page layout control purposes. Instead of HTML tables, style sheet languages such as CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are used to arrange elements and text on a web page.

CSS was introduced in December 1996 by the W3C to improve web accessibility and to make HTML code semantic rather than presentational. Around the same time, in the late 1990s, as the dot-com boom led to a rapid growth in the 'new media' of web page creation and design, there began a trend of using HTML tables, and their rows, columns and cells, to control the layout of whole web pages. This was due to several reasons:

  • the limitations at the time of CSS support in major browsers;
  • the new web designers' lack of familiarity with CSS;
  • the prevalence in print design of grid-based layout strategies;
  • the lack of knowledge of, or concern for the reasons (including HTML semantics and web accessibility) to use CSS instead of what was perceived as an easier way to quickly achieve the intended layouts, and
  • a new breed of WYSIWYG web design tools that encouraged this practice.

More recent times have seen an increasing understanding among web content professionals of the advantages of restricting the use of HTML tables to their intended and semantic purpose — i.e. laying out tabular data or other information. These advantages include improved accessibility of the information to a wider variety of users, using a wide variety of user agents. There are bandwidth savings as large numbers of semantically meaningless

, and
tags are removed from dozens of pages leaving fewer, but more meaningful headings, paragraphs and lists. Layout instructions are transferred into site-wide CSS stylesheets, which can be downloaded once and cached for reuse while each visitor navigates the site. Sites become more maintainable as the whole site can be restyled or re-branded in a single pass merely by altering the mark-up of the specific CSS, affecting every page which relies on that stylesheet. New HTML content can be added in such a way that consistent layout rules are immediately applied to it by the existing CSS without any further effort.

There is still (as of 2011) some distance to go; some web developers have yet to remove the tables from their page layouts, while others are now afraid to introduce a simple HTML table even where it makes good sense, some erring by the overuse of span and div elements, perhaps even with table-like rules applied to them using CSS.

Read more about Tableless Web DesignRationale, The Use of Tables, See Also

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