You SPILt my code: a modular approach to creating web front ends

One of the projects I’ve been working on since starting at DDH in May is a review of the front-end development framework we’re currently using to build websites, sUPL or the Simple Unified Presentation Layer. The aim of sUPL was to be a lightweight markup scheme — lightweight both in terms of using minimal HTML markup and short class and ID names (commonly used to apply CSS styles and to trigger Javascript-based interactivity).

Whilst sUPL had served the department well for a number of projects I wanted to update it to reflect recent changes in the front-end development world and also to put the emphasis back on the “simple” in sUPL. After reading around and trying out a number of existing front-end frameworks (e.g.  as Blueprint,  YUI, HTML5 Boilerplate, OOCSS and 320 and Up) I felt our own framework should be updated along the following lines:

  • Be written it in HTML5, to make use of new structural elements and prepare the ground for the use of HTML5 APIs;
  • Move away from terse class names to longer but more “human readable” ones;
  • Employ the Object Oriented CSS (OCSS) methodology of maximising the reuse of CSS code by only applying CSS styles to classes, not IDs;
  • Using the OOCSS concept of “objects”, that is that is reusable chunks of HTML, CSS and Javascript code to build common design patterns.

Welcome to SPIL: the Simple Presentation and Interface Library

There are quite a few frameworks out there so why create another one? Most of the existing frameworks have been created for highly specific purposes (e.g. YUI) or they are more generic (e.g. the HTML5 Boilerplate). SUPL’s successor, SPIL (Simple Presentation and Interface Library) can be thought of as a toolkit (or Lego!)  for constructing web pages and applications, providing both a generic structure for page layout and the ability to “plug in” interface design patterns which will work “out of the box”.


SPIL makes use of the new HTML5 structural elements such as header, footer, section, nav and aside, loading in the Modernizr Javascript library to provide support for older, less capable browsers such as Internet Explorer pre-version 9. Of course relying on Javascript to provide this functionality may not always be appropriate, so SPIL provides some alternative markup in the form of reliable old-fashioned divs should you want to use XHTML1.0. For instance if we were marking up a primary navigation element in HTML5 we would use:

<nav class=”primary”> …. </nav>

But should we want to stick with XHTML we could use:

<div class=”nav primary”> … </div>


The development of SPIL has been heavily influenced by Object Oriented CSS (OOCSS) — both the concept and the CSS library. OOCSS encourages the reuse of code in order to enhance performance and keep down CSS file size (also approximating the DRY — Do Not Repeat Yourself  — concept in software engineering). One way to do this is to only style on classes — which can be used any number of times on a page — and not IDs — which can only be used once and also interfere with style inheritance. Class names can be chained together to combine styling effects, reusing predefined styles.

A useful concept in OOCSS is that of “modules”. Although SPIL’s implementation differs from that of the OOCSS library, the ideas are very similar. For instance, we can create a module object for a common design pattern, a tabbed display that can be plugged straight into a page template:

<div class=”mod tabs”>
 <ul class=”tabControls inline”>
  <li class=”tabControlHeader”><a href=”#tab1”>Tab 1</a></li>
  <li class=”tabControlHeader”><a href=”#tab2”>Tab 2</a></li>
 <div class=”tabPanes”>
 <section class=”tabPaneItem” id=”tab1”>Tab 1 content</section>
 <section class=”tabPaneItem” id=”tab2”>Tab 2 content</section>

The structure for this module within the identifying div is built around what jQuery Tool’s implementation of tabs would expect but the class names could also be applied to other implementations. To use this code with jQuery Tools we would simply include a line in our Javascript file, e.g.:

$(".tabControls").tabs(".tabPanes > section");

An advantage of taking a modularised approach to code is we can start to build a library of predefined code snippets that can be slotted in place by anyone involved in interface building, from UI designers and programmers wanting to create a functional prototype through to front-end developers working on the final site build.

Development of SPIL

SPIL is being developed iteratively alongside new web projects within DDH. We’re feeding the work straight into an open source project which we hope will be available for release soon. If you have any comments or if there’s anything you’d like to see in the framework, why not less us know via the comments?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *