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Optimizing Your Website Structure For Print Using CSS

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Optimizing Your Website Structure For Print Using CSS

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As much as I read articles online, I still print a fair amount of them out. Sometimes I print them to pass on to others, other times to read again when I have more time. Unfortunately a great deal of websites put no effort into providing their content in a printer-friendly fashion. The result of them overlooking the print audience is a great article not being read. If only these writers knew how easy it can be to optimize their site for print and how it can greatly enhance the value of their website.

The secret to creating printable pages is being able to identify and control the "content area(s)" of your website. Most websites are composed of a header, footer, sidebars/subnavigation, and one main content area. Control the content area and most of your work is done. The following are my tips to conquering the print media without changing the integrity of your website.

Create A Stylesheet For Print

Of course you have at least one stylesheet to control the layout of the page and formatting of the content, but do you have a stylesheet to control how your page will look like in print? Add the print style sheet, with the media attribute set to "print", at the end of the list of stylesheets in the header. This will allow you to create custom CSS classes applied only at the time of print. Make sure your structure CSS file is given a media attribute of "all."

<!-- Main stylesheet on top --> 
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="/global.css" href="/global.css" media="all" />
<!-- Print only, on bottom -->
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="/print.css" href="/print.css" media="print" />

Avoid Unnecessary HTML Tables

As much as I try to steer clear of using tables, there's no way to avoid the occasional <tr><td> experience. Forms are much easier to code when using tables. Tables are also great for...get this...data tables. Other than these two situations, a programmer should try to avoid using table, especially when considering print. Controlling the content area of your website can be extremely challenging when the page structure is trapped in a table.

Know Which Portions Of The Page Don't Have Any Print Value

You know that awesome banner you have at the top of your site? Ditch it. And those ads on the right and left sides of the page? Goodbye. Web visitors print your page because of the content on it, not to see the supporting images on your website. Create a class called "no-print" and add that class declaration to DIVS, images, and other elements that have no print value:

.no-print		{ display:none; }
<!-- Example --> 
<div id="navigation" class="no-print">
.... <!-- who needs navigation when you're looking at a printed piece? -->

Use Page Breaks

Page breaks in the browser aren't as reliable as they are in Microsoft Word, especially considering the variable content lengths on dynamically created pages, but when utilized well make all the different in printing your website. The CSS specs don't provide a lot of print flexibility but the "page-break-before" / "page-break-after" properties prove to be useful. Page breaks are much more reliable when used with DIV elements instead of table cells.

.page-break	{ page-break-before: always; } /* put this class into your main.css file with "display:none;" */
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Fusce eu felis. Curabitur sit amet magna. Nullam aliquet. Aliquam ut diam... 
<div class="page-break"></div>
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit....

Size Your Page For Print

Obviously your computer monitor can provide a large amount of width to view a page, but I recommend setting the content area width to 600px (an inch equivalent may be better, but I try to deal with one unit specifically, which is pixels). This ensures that words wont bleed outside the print area. Use this width measurement with the page break DIVs you've created in your stylesheet. After you know the width of your printed content area, adjust the dimensions of content blocks inside the main content area if necessary.


Like any type of programming, testing is important. Note that if you have a website that serves dynamic data, you wont be able to win all the time but you may be able to figure a scheme to format content well most of the time. Be sure to test in multiple browsers (when creating customer websites, I try to check all "Grade A" browsers).

Modifying your page structure for better print results is probably easier than you think -- at least improving your existing template will be. Check back soon for part two, where we analyze optimizing a website's content for print.

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