Break free from inline styles in WordPress

Adding Borders to WordPress Images the Right Way – a.k.a. Why Inline Styles Have No Place In Your Posts

As with most updates to popular software the 3.9 release of WordPress has brought with it some controversy. In this case the point of contention is the removal of a little known feature that allowed the user to add borders and margins (vertical and horizontal “space”) to individual images right from within the image editor. The feature was removed and not surprisingly those that used and depended on it are enraged. WP Tavern has a great rundown of the story complete with links to forum posts so I’m not going to rehash it here. Instead I’ll show you how to add borders to images the right way, explain why inline styles are to be avoided whenever possible, and finally provide a suggestion on how theme developers can prevent this type of issue from happening again.

How to Add Borders to Individual Images the Right Way in WordPress

So, when you have an image, you want that image to have a border, and your theme doesn’t apply a border automatically, what do you do? You add some CSS. And that CSS needs to be added separately from the content. In other words no inline styles.

Depending on your level of skill this may or may not seem like a big deal. I’m here to tell you it’s actually super easy. Let’s say you know nothing about HTML or CSS or anything else. Here’s all you have to do:

  1. Install and activate Jetpack (the plugin)
  2. Go to Jetpack, find Custom CSS, and click the Customize button
  3. Create some new style rules

Customize CSS with Jetpack
Let’s say you want to add a black border. Here is the code required:

.border-black {
    border: #000 solid 1px;
}
Want a gray border instead? Here’s the code for that as well:
.border-gray {
    border: #b9b9b9 solid 1px;
}

With your new CSS rules in place you are ready to apply them to your image. To do so go to your post, find your image, click the edit button by hovering over that image, and in the edit window click the Advanced Options tab to open the Advanced Options.

Adding new CSS classes to images using the Advanced Image Option

From here all you have to do is enter the class name for your CSS rule (“border-black” for black, “border-gray” for gray) in the Image CSS Class field and save your image.

If you want to add multiple classes you can. Just separate them with a space. Also, remember to not put the dot (punctuation mark) in front of the class names. This is not necessary.

If you look at the image above you’ll see it has a black border. This border was added using the exact method described in this tutorial.

Explanation

So what have we done here? First we created two new CSS rules that define a 1px border around any element that is either black or gray. Then we use the WordPress editor to apply those styles to our image through a class. And voila! The image has a border.

The key difference between this approach and that of adding the border with an inline style is that we can now quickly change the border on all images at once by editing the custom CSS. And since we used the Custom CSS function in Jetpack the border will persist even if we switch to a different theme.

Jetpack? You must be off your rocker Morten

At this point if you’re a seasoned WordPress pro you’re probably blowing a gasket over my recommendation of Jetpack. “Jetpack is huge and cumbersome and slows the site down and there are a million other better more awesome solutions etc etc etc.” And this is true. I am no fan of Jetpack. However we have to consider the end-user here: If  you are using the add image border function you probably do so because you don’t want to tamper with your theme or child theme. If that’s the case, Jetpack provides an easy way around the problem. Of course if you have the skills and the time you can add the exact same code to your child theme or custom theme you built from scratch, but this is not a workable solution for the majority of WordPress users. Jetpack is.

Inline Styles are Bad, Mmmmmkay?

Some will interject here and say that you can achieve the same thing by using inline styles. After all that’s what the old solution did and what the new Advanced Image Styles plugin does. Here’s some sobering web standards news: Inline styles is a non-starter. To understand why you need to understand how HTML and CSS interact and why inline styles have no place in WordPress content.

There are two main types of code that go together to create a website:

  • HTML
  • CSS

The HTML marks up the content and tells the browser or other reader how different parts of the content relate to each other. The CSS adds a presentational layer to that markup telling the browser or other reader how to display that content. This provides a clear separation between style and content and it works exceptionally well, especially in applications like WordPress where we can switch themes (and with them the CSS) of the content and see a global change in the appearance of the content without having to change the content itself.

Inline styles are an old leftover from the time when CSS was just being introduced and they work counter to the separation I explained earlier. An inline style allows you to place CSS code inside the tag of any element meaning that style only applies to this singular element. That’s what a function like add borders and space does: It puts presentational code inside the markup.

Why is this bad? There are many reasons:

  • The inline style will apply everywhere regardless of where you display the content.
  • The inline style overrides any CSS supplied by a stylesheet and interferes with media queries and other responsive approaches.
  • The inline style applies to one element only and cannot be easily repeated (ie it has to be applied to every single element).
  • The inline style does not allow us to make a global change to the style that applies to all elements at once.
  • The inline style is presentational code placed in the markup. This goes against current web standards and should be avoided.

There are very few cases where inline styles are appropriate. The only one I can think of is where you use PHP to inject a conditional background image into a specific element, but even there we have better ways of approaching the problem. Needless to say inline styles have no place in WordPress, and especially not in adding borders or margins to images.

But what about margins?

I’m sure you’re itching to point out that my proposed solution only addresses borders, not “space” or margins. And you’d be right. Of course you can use the same approach as before to add margins as well but I have serious reservations about this which I’ll explain in a few paragraphs. However, if you must tamper with the margins I’d make sure to add them as separate CSS rules. I’m willing to bet that if you are adding custom margins it is because the positioning of your images out of the box is not ideal. So essentially you are fixing a layout problem in the theme. Chances are you also add different margins depending on the image, but you tend to add the same set of margins over and over. In that case you create a new CSS rule for each of your margin scenarios and apply them as necessary the same way we applied the border.

As an example you could have this margin rule:

.margin-medium {
    margin: 0 1em 2em;
}

which adds a margin of 0px on top, 1em on left and right, and 2em on the bottom. Then to apply both the black border and the margin you simply enter “border-black margin-medium” in the Image CSS Class section for the image.

Now that you know how to do it I’m going to strongly recommend you don’t mess with the margins. This requires a bit more of an explanation:

The Problem

The problem at hand is not one of deprecated WordPress features nor of bad user behaviour. The cause of the outrage and frustration is that theme developers are not accounting for the user scenario where the user wants to add a border. When there is no option the user will find a new way of doing it outside of the theme and this is not ideal for anyone.

There are many reasons why you’d want to add a border. The most obvious one is if your image background color matches the color of your theme so there is no clear separation between the image and the main background. I’ve encountered this many times and this is why my themes ship with custom CSS to address this particular issue. More on that in a bit. Let’s first take a look at what happens when you add images to a post or page in WordPress:

When you add an image to a post or page in WordPress you also add some CSS classes to that image. The classes vary depending on the image size and alignment and other factors. A good theme has CSS rules that apply  to these classes and provide proper margin and padding for all images. And this is why messing with the margins is a bad idea:

In a good theme the designer and developer has made decisions about how an image is to be presented in relation to other content based on its size and alignment. That means margin has been added where required and removed where it shouldn’t be. If you go in and start adding or subtracting margins you are interfering with what the theme does out of the box and this can lead to crazy behaviour, especially when you switch to a new theme.

Here’s the thing: If your images jam up against text or other elements in your theme it is either the explicit decision of the theme developer that they do so or more likely the theme is not all it’s cracked up to be. Yep, I said it: If your images look wrong in context, your theme is likely not worth its salt and you should look for another one.

The Solution: A Unified Border Class Name Standard

There is an obvious solution to this issue that will allow users to do what they want (add borders to images) while ensuring cross-theme compatibility while avoiding the addition of plugin functionality like Jetpack Custom CSS or plugins that add inline styles: Create a unified border class name standard.

All theme developers should add a set of CSS rules targeting a pre-defined list of border classes the user can call when required. The list could look something like this:

.border-thin-black {
    border: #000 1px solid;
}

.border-medium-black {
    border: #000 3px solid;
}

.border-thick-black {
    border: #000 5px solid;
}

.border-thin-gray {
    border: #b9b9b9 1px solid;
}

.border-medium-gray {
    border: #b9b9b9 3px solid;
}

.border-thick-gray {
    border: #b9b9b9 5px solid;
}

In addition theme developers could make rules whose colors are set through the customizer with class names like .border-thin-custom. That way custom colors can be introduced as the user switches themes while the predefined colors stay intact.

Let your voice be heard

I know you have opinions on this. Don’t internalize your strife. Voice your thoughts, concerns, and opinions in the comments below and start a conversation.

Habits of successful people compared to you

The 99 Habits of Highly Successful, Motivated, Efficient, Charismatic, Happy People

Do viral list articles on the web leave you feeling like you’re not measuring up? Like everyone is more successful, motivated, efficient, charismatic, and happy because they do things differently? Fret not my friend. I have the cure to all that ails your self-doubting soul: The definitive list of the 99 Habits of Highly Successful, […]

Learn Advanced WordPress Development at BCIT with Morten Rand-Hendriksen and Curtis McHale

Advanced WordPress Development: A Summer Class at BCIT with Me

Starting the first weekend of May and continuing through the month of July BCIT is offering a one-of-a-kind intensive course in all things WordPress development called Advanced WordPress Development. The first block, “WordPress Advanced Theming”, will be taught by yours truly over three weekends in May. The next two blocks, WordPress eCommerce and WordPress Plugin […]

DDoS

The DDoS and the Damage Done

“With this notification we would like to inform you that our in-house Website Performance Monitoring System (WPMS) has signaled that your account constantly uses a large amount of the server’s CPU resources. These excessive requests consume an abnormally high amount of CPU resources and endanger the overall performance of the server. Your account consume more then […]

How to upgrade to MAMP 3 – a quick video tutorial

MAMP 3 (the newest version) was just released with lots of cool new features. Now you’re wondering how you can upgrade your existing MAMP install to the new one without losing all your content. Fret not my friend. It’s not at all hard. You just have to do things in the right order. This 6 minute video walks you through the process and gets you up and running.

Proper Pagination in WordPress

How to add proper pagination as default in WordPress themes

It is time we the people who build WordPress themes cast aside the rotting corpse of Older and Newer posts links and replace it with proper pagination. After all the function is already built into WordPress – in fact it has been for a very, very long time. So, without further ado let me provide you with the code you need to get started and a few tweaks to move your WordPress pagination into the 21st century.