ADF 11g – Why use skinning? Why not use simple external CSS stylesheets?

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Today a discussion arose with one of the UI Designers on the ADF 11g project I work on. He is used to a certain way of styling web applications. He wants to work with ‘clean’ HTML – as little styling in it as possible, very W3C compliant and preferably structured – DIVs, ULs, … – in a way that makes applying external stylesheets very easy. He would like the HTML to contain values for the (style) class at specific points. And he will then take it from there.

While this approach is fairly common for Web Designers, it is not one that works well with most component based web frameworks, such as JavaServer Faces libraries. With JSP tag libraries and JSF components, web page developers have no direct control over the HTML that is rendered. Components provide productivity and help achieve consistency in source code and in look & feel. Typically this is seen as ample compensation for the loss of control over the exact HTML rendered.

The loss of control over styling with component based web frameworks is usually addressed in an inside out manner. Instead of applying CSS stylesheets on the final HTML result – styles are set on the components themselves. Server side styling instructions are interpreted by the components themselves and turned into CSS styling code for the browser.

The use of stand-alone components has consequences for the HTML that gets rendered. Instead of designing an HTML page in its entirety, taking care to proper alignments across containers, leveraging relative CSS positioning, components can only generate the HTML for themselves. HTML that must work in any circumstance. Typically this HTML is not what it would be when a web designer creates the entire page – knowing what will come where and creating the best HTML and CSS for the page. Again, using components means sacrificing some (or sometimes a lot) in terms of proper HTML and CSS to gain tremendous productivity.

With the use of external stylesheets, the styling is not component oriented (it is probably component unaware, as the components do not really appear in the generated HTML) but focused on the HTML; the HTML is not as structured as would be desired; more importantly: the HTML rendered by components can change with new versions of the components; styling that builds on the HTML structure currently produced by components may well be outdated in the near future.

Skinning – Component aware, Server Side Styling

Skins are server-side artefacts that determine the styling of ADF Faces components. " A skin is a style sheet based on the CSS 3.0 syntax specified in one place for an entire application. Instead of providing a style sheet for each component, or inserting a style sheet on each page, you can create one skin for the entire application. Every component automatically uses the styles as described by the skin."  The 11g RichClient Components have been designed with skinning engrained from the very beginning. These components when rendered through the HTML renderkit know how to read skin specifications and turn them into CSS styleclasses on the HTML that gets rendered. At the same time, the server side skin is converted to a client side CSS stylesheet – on the fly – that the browser can interpret and use to style according to the styleclasses written by the components in the rendered HTML.

Skins apply to the entire application. They are not used to style individual instances of components, although to some extent we can make skin features conditional.

It is easy to switch skins between pages. The skin is configured in the trinidad-config.xml file. This configuration can use an EL expression. When a page is rendered – full page refresh – the expression is reevaluated and can result in another skin being applied – for example depending on the application module the user has entered, the time of day of the preferences of the user.

ADF Faces Skins have built in support for browser version, operating system and locale – CSS for specific browser generated at run-time. The supplied skins are aware of the issues for specific combinations of browser (version), OS and locale and cater for them. Our own custom skins can have such facilities as well.

Styling individual components

"If you do not wish to change ADF Faces components throughout the entire application, you can choose to change the styles for the instance of a component on a page using the styleClass property – to refer to a style defined in a external CSS stylesheet – or even specify the style right on the component."

When we specify a styleClass on a component, it typically appears as the class attribute on a single HTML element. Yet, the component may well render multiple HTML elements. Styling visual attributes of the other HTML elements can be quite complex as the styling instructions have to take the currently rendered HTML structure into account.

In addition to styleClass, most components also allow the style itself to be defined – right there in the page definition – using an EL expression for dynamic or conditional assignment if we like. Note that in some cases components – such as ADF 11g RichClient components – allow multiple styleclasses to be set. For example the inputText component has inlineStyle and contentStyle. The latter applies to input item in the HTML page – where the user enters the value – while inlineStyle is a set of CSS styles that are applied to the root DOM element of the component. Many components are composed of several DOM elements which may have their own styles applied to them.

Summary

The component based approach of JSF in general and ADF Faces in particular do not go well together with an outside-in styling approach. Control over the HTML rendered is very limited. Styling should not be made to depend on the HTML structure. Instead, styling should be done inside out – using skins (server side styling) technology to achieve the desired look & feel. Apart from several benefits – skin styles inherit properties from each other, making global changes across all or all similar components fairly simple; skins offer automatic support for differences between browsers and locales; skins can be switched dynamically; skins are component oriented and through skins most visual component characteristics can be set – there are limitations with skins. For starters, they do not style individual component instances. And they are – at least initially – less intuitive than the use of external stylesheets will be for most web designer. You have to learn how to work with skins.

Resources

ADF 11g Documentation on Skinning and defining Styles.

Live demo of ADF 11g – including demonstration of skinning options.

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About Author

Lucas Jellema, active in IT (and with Oracle) since 1994. Oracle ACE Director for Fusion Middleware. Consultant, trainer and instructor on diverse areas including Oracle Database (SQL & PLSQL), Service Oriented Architecture, BPM, ADF, Java in various shapes and forms and many other things. Author of the Oracle Press book: Oracle SOA Suite 11g Handbook. Frequent presenter on conferences such as JavaOne, Oracle OpenWorld, ODTUG Kaleidoscope, Devoxx and OBUG. Presenter for Oracle University Celebrity specials.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks guys for all your comments. In general I can state that:

    • working with JSF components in general and ADF Faces (11g Rich) in specific is very productive
    • however, with the productivity, you sacrifice some of the control over the look & feel (that is: almost anything you want to do can be done, but some things take considerably longer than would be the case when having full control over the rendered HTML)
    • the shipped skins in ADF 11g RichFaces produce a look and feel that is more than adequate for most applications (that you develop without having to resort to Flash/Flex in the first place); within the skinning framework you can achieve quite a lot of customization to the look & feel in an organized and fairly productive way. For some wilder things, you have to jump through some hoops
    • Mr. Skinny’s suggestion about combining Skins at the component level and CSS at the page (container) level could work to some extent. Of course skins apply to the containers within the page as well, so you may not need the external CSS files at all
    • Jan is overstating the situation in a fairly dramatic way: the productivity gives you more like 90% of the application; if it does not, you may have to consider a different development technology stack. However, most applications that are not primarily marketing vehicles or mass-consumer websites will fall within the category of applications that benefit from the productivity gains a component based development approach can give you. Not just in development, but also during maintenance when the application is adapted to satisfy those ever changing customer requirements.

    In conclusion: many applications – for backoffice, intranet and internet environments – that support task or data oriented processflows and where graphic visualization and interaction – drag and drop, animations, rich media – are not of primary concern will benefit from a component based approach in terms productivity and complexity control. Through the skinning mechanism they also allow a fair amount of engrained Look and Feel customization. Additionally, you can use external stylesheets for the final tweaking. However, for applications where a custom(izable) user interface is the primary concern, a component based approach may not be suitable.

  2. “…One way of making this possible is to give users of a component the ability to supply a template it must use to generate its output.”

    Since JSF is ‘sooo flexible’ and allows for ‘Pluggable Rendering’ as is described also in http://www.oracle.com/technology/tech/java/newsletter/articles/introjsf/index.html, this shouldn’t be that hard right? I see a lot of statements like ‘Components provide productivity…’, but I’m asking myself what is the value of this productivity in the first 20% of the project, when you have to work the other 80% of the project, trying to alter and/or enhance the UI based on the (ever changing) customer’s requirements or new insights.

  3. So would you use skins for the components and page-level CSS for the rest of the page? Or skins for the complete page? But how would you then handle content and (css) styling coming from an external system like a Content Management System?

  4. Rob Schlüter on

    I think for designing user interfaces based on web technology you need to be able to influence the HTML, CSS and JavaScript generated by the system. They are closely related to each other and changing one of them might influence the others. To me in an optimal solution the HTML contains the data, the CSS all style information and the JavaScripts handle the interaction.

    Using components should not make this approach more difficult. By decoupling the logic and generated output of a component the rendered HTML could be formatted according the rules of the designer. One way of making this possible is to give users of a component the ability to supply a template it must use to generate its output.

  5. Yes, but I wish there was a good way to help a good web designer create a skin. Me – I’m a programmer, not an artist. What I write is functional, but not very good looking. But we have very talented designers that have made my applications look great back when the HTML was under my direct control. And they can’t help me with my JSF applications – good thing that the default skins aren’t too bad.