Chapter 2. Basic iPhone Styling

If you know HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, you already have what you need to develop your own iPhone apps. With this book, you'll learn how to use these open source web technologies to design and build apps for both the iPhone and iPod Touch. Buy the print book or ebook or purchase the iPhone App.

Ultimately, we are going to build a native iPhone app using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The first step on this journey is to get comfortable styling HTML to look like an iPhone app. In this chapter, I’ll show you how to apply CSS styles to a bunch of existing HTML pages so that they are easily navigable on an iPhone. So, in addition to moving closer to building a native app, you’ll be learning a practical (and valuable) skill that you can use immediately.

First Steps

Theory is great, but I’m a “show me, don’t tell me” kinda guy. So let’s dive in.

Imagine that you have a website that you want to iPhone-ize (Figure 2.1, “The desktop version of a typical web page looks fine in Safari on a computer”). In this scenario, there are a number of easy things you can do to optimize a site for the iPhone. I’ll go over your options in this chapter.

Figure 2.1. The desktop version of a typical web page looks fine in Safari on a computer

The desktop version of a typical web page looks fine in Safari on a computer

Figure 2.2, “The same web page looks OK on an iPhone, but we can do much better” shows what the same web page looks like on the iPhone. It’s usable, but far from optimized for the iPhone.

Figure 2.2. The same web page looks OK on an iPhone, but we can do much better

The same web page looks OK on an iPhone, but we can do much better

Example 2.1, “The HTML document we’ll be styling” shows an abbreviated version of the HTML for the web page shown in Figure 2.1, “The desktop version of a typical web page looks fine in Safari on a computer”. This is the HTML you’ll be working with in this chapter. You can download it from the book’s website (see the section called “How to Contact Us”) if you’d like to try styling it as you go through the chapter. The desktop stylesheet (screen.css) is not shown, as it is not essential, but you can use the stylesheet from the previous chapter if you’d like to have something to play with.

Example 2.1. The HTML document we’ll be styling

  <link rel="stylesheet" href="screen.css" type="text/css" />
  <title>Jonathan Stark</title>
<div id="container">
  <div id="header">
    <h1><a href="./">Jonathan Stark</a></h1>
    <div id="utility">
            <li><a href="about.html">About</a></li>
            <li><a href="blog.html">Blog</a></li>
    <div id="nav">
            <li><a href="consulting-clinic.html">Consulting Clinic</a></li>
            <li><a href="on-call.html">On Call</a></li>
            <li><a href="development.html">Development</a></li>
  <div id="content">
    <p>Jonathan Stark is a web developer, speaker, and author. His 
       consulting firm, Jonathan Stark Consulting, Inc., has attracted
       clients such as Staples, Turner Broadcasting, and the PGA Tour.
  <div id="sidebar">
    <img alt="Manga Portrait of Jonathan Stark" 
    <p>Jonathan Stark is a mobile and web application developer who the
       Wall Street Journal has called an expert on publishing desktop 
       data to the web.</p>
  <div id="footer">
        <li><a href="services.html">Services</a></li>
        <li><a href="about.html">About</a></li>
        <li><a href="blog.html">Blog</a></li>
    <p class="subtle">Jonathan Stark Consulting, Inc.</p>


For years, web developers used tables to lay out elements in a grid. Advances in CSS and HTML have rendered that approach not only obsolete, but undesirable. Today, we primarily use the div element (along with a variety of attributes) to accomplish the same thing, but with more control. Although a complete explanation of div-based layouts is well beyond the scope of this book, you’ll see plenty of examples of it as you read through the chapters. To learn more, check out Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman (New Riders Press), which covers the issue in greater detail.

Preparing a Separate iPhone Stylesheet

I’m as DRY as the next guy, but in the real world you’re better off making a clean break between your desktop browser stylesheet and your iPhone stylesheet. Take my word for it and make two completely independent files—you’ll sleep better. The alternative would be to wedge all of your CSS rules into a single stylesheet, which ends up being a bad idea for a number of reasons; the most obvious is that you’d be sending a bunch of irrelevant desktop style rules to the phone, which is a waste of precious bandwidth and memory.


DRY stands for “Don’t Repeat Yourself,” and is a software development principle stating that “Every piece of knowledge must have a single, unambiguous, authoritative representation within a system.” The term was coined by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas in their book The Pragmatic Programmer (Addison-Wesley).

To specify a stylesheet for the iPhone, replace the stylesheet link tag in the sample HTML document with ones that use the following expressions:

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" 
      href="iphone.css" media="only screen and (max-width: 480px)" />
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" 
      href="desktop.css" media="screen and (min-width: 481px)" />

Here, desktop.css refers to whatever your existing desktop stylesheet is, and iphone.css is a new file that we’ll be discussing in detail in a bit.


If you’re following along using the sample HTML document shown earlier, you’ll now need to rename screen.css to desktop.css; however, since we’re focused on the iPhone stylesheet, you can ignore the desktop stylesheet completely. If it fails to load, your browser won’t get too upset.

Regrettably, Internet Explorer will not understand the previous expressions, so we have to add a conditional comment (shown in bold) that links to an IE-specific version of the CSS:

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" 
      href="iphone.css" media="only screen and (max-width: 480px)" />
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" 
      href="desktop.css" media="screen and (min-width: 481px)" />            
<!--[if IE]>
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="explorer.css" media="all" />

So now it’s time to edit the HTML document: delete the existing link to the screen.css file and replace it with the lines just shown. This way, you will have a clean slate for the iPhone-specific CSS that I’ll show you in this chapter.

Controlling the Page Scaling

Unless you tell it otherwise, Safari on the iPhone is going to assume that your page is 980px wide (Figure 2.3, “The iPhone assumes a normal web page is 980px wide”). In the majority of cases, this works great. However, you are going to format our content specifically for the smaller dimensions of the iPhone, so you must let Mobile Safari know about it by adding a viewport meta tag to the head element of the HTML document:

<meta name="viewport" content="user-scalable=no, width=device-width" />

If you don’t set the viewport width, the page will be zoomed way out when it first loads.


The viewport meta tag will be ignored by browsers other than Mobile Safari, so you can include it without worrying about the desktop version of your site.

Figure 2.3. The iPhone assumes a normal web page is 980px wide

The iPhone assumes a normal web page is 980px wide

Figure 2.4. Setting the viewport to the width of the device makes your pages a lot more readable

Setting the viewport to the width of the device makes your pages a lot more readable

Merely by suppressing the desktop stylesheet and configuring your viewport, you are already giving your iPhone users an enhanced experience (Figure 2.4, “Setting the viewport to the width of the device makes your pages a lot more readable”). To really impress them, let’s start building the iphone.css stylesheet.

Adding the iPhone CSS

There are a number of user interface (UI) conventions that make an iPhone app look like an iPhone app. In the next section, I’ll add the distinctive title bar, lists with rounded corners, finger-friendly links that look like glossy buttons, and so on. Using your text editor, create a file named iphone.css, add the code in Example 2.2, “Setting some general site-wide styles on the HTML body element”, and save the file in the same directory as your HTML document.

Example 2.2. Setting some general site-wide styles on the HTML body element

body {
    background-color: #ddd; /* Background color */
    color: #222;            /* Foreground color used for text */
    font-family: Helvetica; 
    font-size: 14px;
    margin: 0;              /* Amount of negative space around the outside of the body */
    padding: 0;             /* Amount of negative space around the inside of the body */


Note that I have set the overall font for the document to Helvetica, which is the font used by most of the applications on the iPhone. If you are trying to achieve a professional look, you should probably stick with Helvetica unless you have a specific reason not to.

Now I’ll attack the header div that contains the main home link (i.e., the logo link) and the primary and secondary site navigation. The first step is to format the logo link as a clickable title bar. Add the following to the iphone.css file:

#header h1 {
    margin: 0;
    padding: 0;
#header h1 a {
    background-color: #ccc;
    border-bottom: 1px solid #666;
    color: #222;
    display: block;
    font-size: 20px;
    font-weight: bold;
    padding: 10px 0;
    text-align: center;
    text-decoration: none;

I’m going to format the primary and secondary navigation ul blocks identically, so I can just use the generic tag selectors (i.e., #header ul) as opposed to the tag ids (i.e., #header ul#utility, #header ul#nav):

#header ul {
    list-style: none;
    margin: 10px;
    padding: 0;
#header ul li a {
    background-color: #FFFFFF;
    border: 1px solid #999999;
    color: #222222;
    display: block;
    font-size: 17px;
    font-weight: bold;
    margin-bottom: -1px;
    padding: 12px 10px;
    text-decoration: none;

Pretty simple so far, right? With this little bit of CSS, we have already made a big improvement on the iPhone page design (Figure 2.5, “A little bit of CSS can go a long way toward enhancing the usability of your iPhone app”). Next, add some padding to the content and sidebar divs to indent the text from the edge of the screen a bit (Figure 2.6, “Indenting text from the edges”):

#content, #sidebar {
    padding: 10px;

Figure 2.5. A little bit of CSS can go a long way toward enhancing the usability of your iPhone app

A little bit of CSS can go a long way toward enhancing the usability of your iPhone app


You might be wondering why I added padding to the content and sidebar elements instead of setting it globally on the body element itself. The reason is that it’s very common to have elements that you want to have displayed edge to edge (as with the header in this example). Because of this, padding applied to the body or some other global wrapper element can become more trouble than it’s worth.

The content in the footer of this page is basically a rehash of the navigation element at the top of the page (the ul element with the id nav), so you can remove the footer from the iPhone version of the page by setting the display to none:

#footer {
    display: none;

Figure 2.6. Indenting text from the edges

Indenting text from the edges

Adding the iPhone Look and Feel

Now it’s time to get a little fancier. Starting from the top of the page, add a 1-pixel white drop shadow to the logo link text, and a CSS gradient to the background:

#header h1 a {
    text-shadow: 0px 1px 0px #fff;
    background-image: -webkit-gradient(linear, left top, left bottom, 
                                       from(#ccc), to(#999));

In the text-shadow declaration, the parameters from left to right are horizontal offset, vertical offset, blur, and color. Most of the time, you’ll be applying the exact values shown here to your text because that’s what usually looks good on the iPhone, but it is fun to experiment with text-shadow because it can add a subtle but sophisticated touch to your design.

The -webkit-gradient line deserves special attention. It’s an instruction to the browser to generate a gradient image on the fly. Therefore, a CSS gradient can be used anywhere you would normally specify a url() (e.g., background image, list style image). The parameters from left to right are as follows: the gradient type (can be linear or radial), the starting point of the gradient (can be left top, left bottom, right top, or right bottom), the end point of the gradient, the starting color, and the ending color.


Note that you cannot reverse the horizontal and vertical portions of the four gradient start and stop point constants (i.e., left top, left bottom, right top, and right bottom). In other words, top left, bottom left, top right, and bottom right are invalid values.

The next step is to add the traditional rounded corners to the navigation menus:

#header ul li:first-child a {
    -webkit-border-top-left-radius: 8px;
    -webkit-border-top-right-radius: 8px;
#header ul li:last-child a {
    -webkit-border-bottom-left-radius: 8px;
    -webkit-border-bottom-right-radius: 8px;

As you can see, I’m using corner-specific versions of the -webkit-border-radius property to apply an 8-pixel radius to both the top two corners of the first list item, and the bottom two corners of the last list item (Figure 2.7, “Gradients, text shadows, and rounded corners start to transform your web page into a native-looking iPhone app”).

Figure 2.7. Gradients, text shadows, and rounded corners start to transform your web page into a native-looking iPhone app

Gradients, text shadows, and rounded corners start to transform your web page into a native-looking iPhone app

It would be cool if you could just apply the border radius to the enclosing ul, but it doesn’t work. If you try it, you’ll see that the square corners of the child list items will overflow the rounded corners of the ul, thereby negating the effect.


Technically, I could achieve the rounded list effect by applying the radius corners to the ul if I set the background color of the ul to white and the background of its child elements to transparent. However, when you click the first or last item in the list, the tap highlight will show up squared off and it looks terrible. Your best bet is to apply the rounding to the tags themselves as I’ve demonstrated here.

Adding Basic Behavior with jQuery

One of my favorite things about building web apps for the iPhone is that I can be reasonably sure that JavaScript is enabled. Regrettably, this is not the situation when building websites for desktop browsers. My next step is to add some JavaScript to my page to support some basic dynamic behavior. In particular, I want to allow users to show and hide the big honking navigation section in the header so that they only see it when they want to. In order to make this work, I’m going to write some new CSS, and use some JavaScript to apply the new CSS to the existing HTML.

First, let’s take a look at the new CSS. Step one is to hide the ul elements in the header so they don’t show up when the user first loads the page. If you are following along at home, open your iphone.css file and add the following:

#header ul.hide {
    display: none;

Next, I’ll define the styles for the button that will show and hide the menu. Note that the button does not exist in the HTML yet; for your information, the HTML for the button is going to look like this:

<div class="leftButton" onclick="toggleMenu()">Menu</div>

I’ll describe the button HTML in detail in a moment (the section called “Adding Basic Behavior with jQuery”), so don’t bother adding the preceding line of code to your HTML file yet. The important thing to note is that it’s a div with the class leftButton and it’s going to be in the header.

Here is the CSS style for the button (you can go ahead and add this to the iphone.css file):

#header div.leftButton {
    position: absolute;1
    top: 7px;
    left: 6px;
    height: 30px;2
    font-weight: bold;3
    text-align: center;
    color: white;
    text-shadow: rgba(0,0,0,0.6) 0px -1px 0px;4
    line-height: 28px;5
    border-width: 0 8px 0 8px;6
    -webkit-border-image: url(images/button.png) 0 8 0 8;7


For the graphics used in this chapter, you can download jQTouch from and copy the graphics from the themes/jqt/img directory. Put these copies into an images subdirectory beneath the directory that contains your HTML document (you’ll probably need to create the images directory). We’ll be talking about jQTouch in detail in Chapter 4, Animation.


Taking it from the top, I set the position to absolute to remove the div from the document flow, which allows me to set its top and left pixel coordinates.


Here, I set the height to 30px so it’s big enough to tap easily.


Next, I style the text bold, white with a slight drop shadow, and centered in the box.


In CSS, the rgb function is an alternative to the familiar hex notation typically used to specify colors (e.g., #FFFFFF). rgb(255, 255, 255) and rgb(100%, 100%, 100%) are both the same as #FFFFFF. More recently, the rgba() function has been introduced, which allows you to specify a fourth parameter that defines the alpha value (i.e., opacity) of the color. The range of allowable values is 0 to 1, where 0 is fully transparent and 1 is fully opaque; decimal values between 0 and 1 will be rendered translucent.


The line-height declaration moves the text down vertically in the box so it’s not flush up against the top border.


The border-width and -webkit-border-image lines require a bit of explanation. These two properties together allow you to assign portions of a single image to the border area of an element. This means no more nonsemantic nested divs or slicing images into topLeftCorner.png, topRightCorner.png, etc. If the box resizes because the text increases or decreases, the border image will stretch to accommodate it. It’s really a great thing; having fewer images means less work, less bandwidth, and shorter load times.

With the border-width line, I’m telling the browser to apply a 0 border to the top, an 8px border to the right, a 0-width border to the bottom, and an 8px-width border to the left (i.e., the four parameters start at the top of the box and work their way around clockwise). Note that I don’t need to specify a color or style for the border.


With the border widths in place, I can apply the border image. The five parameters from left to right are the url of the image, the top width, the right width, the bottom width, and the left width (again, clockwise from top). The url can be absolute ( or relative. Relative paths are based on the location of the stylesheet, not the HTML page that includes the stylesheet.


When I first encountered the border image property, I found it odd that I had to specify the border widths when I had already done so with the border-width property. After some painful trial and error, I discovered that the widths in the border-image property are not border widths; they are the widths to slice from the image. Taking the right border as an example, I’m telling the browser to take the left 8 pixels of the image and apply them to the right border, which also happens to have an 8px width.

It is possible to do something irrational, such as applying the right 4 pixels of an image to a border that is 20px wide. To make this work properly, you have to use the optional parameters of webkit-border-image that tell the image what to do with the slice in the available border space (repeat, stretch, round, etc.). In three years of trying, I have failed to come up with any sane reason to do this, so I won’t waste space here describing this confusing and impractical option of an otherwise killer feature.

OK, time for some JavaScript. In preparation for the JavaScript you’re about to write, you need to update your HTML document to include jquery.js and iphone.js. Add these lines to the head section of your HTML document:

<script type="text/javascript" src="jquery.js"></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src="iphone.js"></script>


jQuery downloads, documentation, and tutorials are available at To use jQuery, you will need to download it from the website, rename the file you downloaded (such as jquery-1.3.2.min.js) to jquery.js, and put a copy of it in the same directory as your HTML document.

The primary duty of the JavaScript we need to write is to allow the user to show and hide the navigation menus. Copy the following JavaScript into a file called iphone.js and save it in the same folder as the HTML file:

if (window.innerWidth && window.innerWidth <= 480) { 1
    $(document).ready(function(){ 2
        $('#header ul').addClass('hide'); 3
        $('#header').append('<div class="leftButton" 
            onclick="toggleMenu()">Menu</div>'); 4
    function toggleMenu() { 
        $('#header ul').toggleClass('hide'); 5
        $('#header .leftButton').toggleClass('pressed'); 6


The entire page is wrapped in an if statement that checks to make sure the innerWidth property of the window object exists (it doesn’t exist in some versions of Internet Explorer) and that the width is less than or equal to 480 (the max width for the iPhone). By adding this line, we ensure that the code only executes when the user is browsing the page with an iPhone or some other similarly sized device.


If you are testing your iPhone web pages using the desktop version of Safari as described in Don’t Have a Website?, the if statement here will fail if your browser’s window width is too large. As a workaround, enter the following line of JavaScript into Safari’s location bar to resize your browser to more iPhone-esque dimensions:


You can even increase the height measurement to make a tall skinny view which is sometimes helpful if you are working with a lot of content (Figure 2.10, “A tall view of the completed basic iPhone CSS”, shown later).


Here we have the so-called “document ready” function. If you are new to jQuery, this can be a bit intimidating, and I admit that it took me a while to memorize the syntax. However, it’s worth taking the time to commit it to memory because you’ll be using it a lot. The document ready function basically says, “When the document is ready, run this code.” More on why this is important in a sec.


This is typical jQuery code that begins by selecting the uls in the header and adding the “hide” CSS class to them. Remember, hide is the selector we used in the previous CSS. The net effect of executing this line is to “hide” the header ul elements. Take special note: had we not wrapped this line in the document ready function, it would have most likely executed before the uls were even finished loading. This means that the JavaScript would load, this line would fail because the uls wouldn’t exist yet, the page would continue loading, the uls would appear, and you’d be scratching your head (or smashing your keyboard) wondering why the JavaScript wasn’t working.


Here is where I append a button to the header that will allow the user to show and hide the menu (Figure 2.8, “The Menu button has been added to the toolbar dynamically using jQuery”). It has a class that corresponds to the CSS we wrote previously for .leftButton, and it has an onclick handler that calls the function toggleMenu(), which comes next.


The toggleMenu() function uses jQuery’s toggleClass() function to add or remove the specified class to the selected object. On this line, I’m toggling the hide class on the header uls.


Here, I’m toggling the pressed class on the header leftButton.

Figure 2.8. The Menu button has been added to the toolbar dynamically using jQuery

The Menu button has been added to the toolbar dynamically using jQuery

We haven’t written the CSS for the pressed class yet, so let’s do so now. Go back to iphone.css and insert the following:

#header div.pressed {
    -webkit-border-image: url(images/button_clicked.png) 0 8 0 8;

As you can see, I’m simply specifying a different image for the button border (it happens to be slightly darker). This will add a two-state effect to the button that should make it evident to the user that the button can both show and hide the menu (Figure 2.9, “The Menu button displays darker when it has been pressed to display the menu options”).

Figure 2.9. The Menu button displays darker when it has been pressed to display the menu options

The Menu button displays darker when it has been pressed to display the menu options

Figure 2.10. A tall view of the completed basic iPhone CSS

A tall view of the completed basic iPhone CSS

What You’ve Learned

In this chapter, I covered the basics of converting an existing web page to a more iPhone-friendly format. I even used a bit of dynamic HTML to show and hide the navigation panels. In the next chapter, I’ll build on these examples while introducing some more advanced JavaScript concepts—in particular, some yummy Ajax goodness.

Site last updated on: November 17, 2010 at 10:11:32 AM PST