What’s the Difference Between CSS and CSS3?

Posted on December 19, 2017 | Updated on March 1, 2021

CSS3 is the latest version of CSS, which stands for Cascading Style Sheets. CSS, as you likely know already, is a core element of web design that helps influence visual presentation. It accompanies HTML documents during the development process of a website. Through it, you can change colors, fonts, various page elements and spacing, and much more.

A good way to look at it is this — HTML is used to actually call out the content that will be displayed, including web copy, images and hyperlinks. CSS is used to format that content, so it’s more visually appealing.

It has long been overdue for an update, which we’ve luckily received in the form of CSS3. Even more awesome is the fact that most major browsers and internet service providers adopted and supported the new visual standard in a timely manner. Part of why it happened so quickly has to do with the structure of the new standard.

The most obvious question is, what is different in CSS3 from past iterations? It helps to know a bit of history before taking a look at how the latest variant is different from previous releases.

The Storied History of Cascading Style Sheets

CSS2, the predecessor of CSS3, was launched all the way back in 1998, almost 20 years ago. With it came a series of updates to the core principles and standards of the original CSS. It was updated only once more, in 2011, with the launch of CSS2.1, but the changes were definitely not what you’d call substantial.

Because of the huge time gap, you could say CSS3 was inevitable. Shortly after the launch of a stable release, many browsers and tools were updated. They implemented support for the new design standard, which favors convenience and usability. The goal was to improve the efficiency, capability and performance of CSS2 while implementing its long-accepted standards. This is especially true on mobile platforms, which have become the new norm.

The funny thing is, that 20-year gap wasn’t exactly planned. The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) team began working on CSS3 back in 1999, just a year after launching version 2. It took that long to come up with a stable release of the design standard. And here we are today.

What’s Changed in CSS3?

Right off the bat, you’ll want to note CSS3 is generally considered the premiere form of these design standards, accepted and supported by every major web browser, including Internet Explorer and Safari. If you haven’t already, you should move forward and begin implementing the new variant everywhere you can. It won’t be long before every site or web service the whole world over is using CSS3. You don’t want to be left in the dust.

In CSS, all components were considered a part of a single large specification or stylesheet, meant to define separate features and elements. CSS3 changed how this works completely by introducing the use of multiple documents called modules, which reference one another.

The main reason it was structured like this is because CSS3 is in active development. As W3C works on the various stages or modules, they can be included by modern browser providers individually. Of course, the nature of this makes things a lot easier for everyone in the design and development world, because you’re not working from a single document or sheet anymore.

It also means support is more widespread and relevant for the standard. You should keep in mind that with the release of a new module or changing specification, you’ll want to check browser support before rolling it out on a live design.

What Can You Do in CSS3?

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list. Try to remember CSS3 is still in active development, so it will change over time, and that means new features and functions will be introduced. Some of the features discussed here may even change.

One of the most convenient things you can do in CSS3 is create rounded borders, natively, without hacks. This was simply not possible in CSS, because there was no related feature. You can also place a border around images or icons, and even add text shadows all via native CSS.

In regular CSS, you also had to use a variety of workarounds if you wanted to configure multiple backgrounds. That is no longer the case in CSS3, as you can specify multiple backgrounds in the latest version.

There are a few smaller changes behind the scenes, but they all follow this same concept — making life easier for web developers and designers. Some examples include proper CSS masks, exclusions, wrap-flow elements, and composition and blending.

Sadly, you still need to have a solid understanding of CSS to master CSS3. It’s not as if you can just dive into the newer standard and start from scratch. The good news, however, is because they are directly related. If you do begin working with CSS3, you’ll build a solid understanding of CSS along the way, because the two are meshed. The same is true of HTML and the new HTML5 design standard.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at www.eleanorhecks.com.

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