Two pretty-good techniques for styling tricky form elements

Written by Tyler Sticka on

Confession time: For most of my career, I despised form elements. Checkboxes, radios, selects and file inputs seemed to gleefully defy what little control I expected from an HTML element. Their penchant for idiosyncracy drove me to almost as much hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing as IE6 or web-safe fonts.

These days, my frustration with form elements has quieted. Partly that’s because browsers and development tools are so much better. But more significantly, I now understand the benefits of surrendering some control to the operating system. As devices continue to accept a greater and greater variety of input methods (keyboard, mouse, touch, voice, gesture, remote, etc.) while browsers adopt an astounding variety of new input types , it’s a gift for vendors to provide default experiences consistent with the user’s expectations of the platform.

So I no longer strive for “pixel perfection” when styling form elements. I don’t need absolute control. All I want is something easy to tap that feels intentional.

When the browser defaults don’t get me there, here are my go-to workarounds.

Checkboxes and Radios: Styled Sibling

This technique works in any browser that supports CSS3 selectors (basically IE9+). If you read Radio-Controlled Web Design a few weeks ago, this should feel familiar. Let’s start with a checkbox example.

We’ll need a few HTML elements:

  • The <input> itself.
  • A dummy element to style (right next to the <input>).
  • A containing <label> that passes click events to the aforementioned <input>.

I like to wrap the <input> and dummy elements in a container to keep everything nice and tidy, but strictly speaking it isn’t required. Here’s what that markup might look like:

<label>
  <span class="checkbox">
    <input type="checkbox">
    <span class="checkbox-value" aria-hidden="true"></span>
  </span>
  Set phasers to stun
</label>

We’re now free to visually hide the checkbox, styling .checkbox-value however we like:

/* hide the "real" checkbox visually */
.checkbox input {
  border: 0;
  clip: rect(0 0 0 0);
  height: 1px;
  margin: -1px;
  overflow: hidden;
  padding: 0;
  position: absolute;
  width: 1px;
}

/* style the "fake" checkbox */
.checkbox-value {
  /* default/unchecked styles */
}
input:checked + .checkbox-value {
  /* checked styles */
}

When the user clicks the label, the click is passed along to the <input>, which toggles the state of :checked, which affects the appearance of .checkbox-value.

Here’s an example that styles the checkbox like an iOS-style switch:

See the Pen Styled checkbox by Tyler Sticka (@tylersticka) on CodePen.

Here’s the same idea applied to radio buttons with a slightly more conventional design (incorporating a base64-encoded SVG checkmark):

See the Pen Styled radios by Tyler Sticka (@tylersticka) on CodePen.

This technique has a few drawbacks. It requires some extra markup. It won’t work in IE8 or earlier without a fallback. It could probably use another pass for accessibility. But compared to most of the JavaScript solutions I’ve tried, this feels straightforward, consistent and predictable.

Selects and File Inputs: Transparent Overlay + JavaScript

For more complex elements like <select> and <input type="file">, we can’t get by on CSS alone (though it gets us further than one might expect).

Our markup is similar to the previous set of checkbox/radio examples, except we won’t need a <label> for click events:

<div class="select">
  <select>
    <option>Option 1</option>
    <option>Option 2</option>
    <option>Option 3</option>
  </select>
  <span class="select-value" aria-hidden="true"></span>
</div>

Instead of hiding the <select> entirely, we want to position it over the rest of our element, allowing it to intercept click events and correctly position any dropdown it may display. Because this technique relies on JavaScript, we’ll qualify some of our selectors with .js (since you’re probably already using Modernizr).

.js .select {
  position: relative;
  /* default styles */
}
.js .select:hover {
  /* hover styles */
}
.js .select.focus {
  /* focus styles */
}

/* nicer default styles for "real" <select> */
.select select {
  cursor: pointer;
  display: block;
  width: 100%;
}
/* hide and overlay when JavaScript is enabled */
.js .select select {
  left: 0;
  height: 100%;
  min-height: 100%;
  min-width: 100%;
  opacity: 0;
  position: absolute;
  top: 0;
}

Already, this “works.” Options will display on click. But there are some problems. The value doesn’t update. There are no hover or focus styles. That’s where JavaScript comes in!

(Although I’ve chosen to write this in jQuery for the sake of readability, remember: You Might Not Need jQuery!)

// For each .select element
$('.select').each(function(){
  // Save some elements as variables
  var $element = $(this);
  var $select = $element.find('select');
  var $value = $element.find('.select-value');
  // Bind event handlers to <select>
  $select.on({
    // On change or keyup, update the value text
    'change keyup': function () {
      $value.text($select.val());
    },
    // On focus, add the focus class
    'focus': function () {
      $element.addClass('focus');
    },
    // On blur, remove the focus class
    'blur': function () {
      $element.removeClass('focus');
    }
  });
  // Trigger the change event so the value
  // is current
  $select.trigger('change');
});

Here’s how all of that comes together:

See the Pen Styled select by Tyler Sticka (@tylersticka) on CodePen.

With some tweaks, the same basic technique can also work for file inputs (assuming experimental WebKit/Blink features aren’t your thing):

See the Pen Styled file input by Tyler Sticka (@tylersticka) on CodePen.

This idea isn’t new. Peter-Paul Koch wrote about it quite a while back. Yet I rarely see it in use outside of a few large mobile frameworks. I’m honestly not sure why.

…and beyond?

What do all of these examples have in common? They don’t mess with the form element too much! By worrying less about customizing behavior and more on simply triggering it, we can indulge some of our designerly impulses without discarding all a given platform has to offer.

Consistency and functionality… no hair-pulling or teeth-gnashing required!

Update: September 8, 2014

A reader pointed out that the select example wasn’t responding to keyboard input in Firefox. I discovered that Firefox doesn’t fire the change event for selects like other browsers do, so I’ve updated the demo and example code so that it binds to both change and keyup.

I also learned that Firefox doesn’t show the full dropdown on any keypress, but this seems to be true of unstyled <select> elements as well. I encourage developers to use these examples as a starting point, and to augment usability shortcomings on a case-by-case basis if the default browser behavior isn’t cutting it.


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Comments

Very good explanation of these techniques.

For the overlay pattern I seem to recall a few browsers (definitely IE7 and IE8, possibly other old versions of newer browsers) not treating fully transparent (opacity: 0) selects as interactable. The trick in those cases was to make the element almost transparent with (opacity: .01) or the browser-specific version to make this technique compatible with a larger group of older browsers. It may not be necessary now days as it was 2 or 3 years years back I was doing this, but in case anyone reads this and has similar issues I thought I'd leave this here so they could find the fix.

Very nice visual style.

Replies

Thank you for mentioning this, Art! None of these examples work very well in IE8 or below. I'm lucky in that most of the projects I'm working on lately target IE9 or later, but if your browser requirements are more stringent, I recommend falling back to the native elements.


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