Monday, January 28, 2008

Zero-width whitespace and what it can do for you...

One of the most common layout problems I see in the web 2.0 space is accounting for the odd shaped content some people post. Long URLs are among the most common nuisance. Take for example:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla%3Aen-US%3Aofficial&hs=G12&q=zwsp+zero-width+space&btnG=Search

A long URL like this often overflows its container and is a layout nightmare. Most people's response is to simply set an overflow value, and either hide the remainder, or have a horizontal scrollbar. Neither of these solutions are ideal. Either way you are obscuring content, and I think everyone agrees that, in a web layout, horizontal scrollbars are the devil.

The solution to this problem is Unicode character U+200C. (a.k.a. ​ or &zwsp;) This character achieves the exact opposite of the common non-breaking space ( ). Zero-width space does not render a visible space to the screen, but acts like a space for breaking up text when wrapping. Here is a javascript example of how to use it:


function linkify(text) {
var pre = text.substr(0,text.indexOf("http://"));
var rest = text.substr(text.indexOf("http://"));
var url = rest.split(/\s/,2)[0];
rest = rest.split(/\s/,2)[1];
var link = '<a href="'+url+'">';
link += url.replace(/(\/|\+|=|\-)/g,"$1&#8203;");
return pre+link+'</a>'+((rest)?rest:'');
}


For the URL above, this would render the following html:

http:/​/​www.google.com/​search?hl=​en&client=​firefox-​a&rls=​org.mozilla%3Aen-​US%3Aofficial&hs=​G12&q=​zwsp+​zero-​width+​space&btnG=​Search

Now this link nicely wraps to fit inside its container, and one of your worst layout nightmares is easily solved. I don't think it takes much creativity to figure out the other potential applications for this character.

I cannot tell you what a pain it was to make sure every &, <, and > symbol in this post was properly escaped, so I hope you found this helpful.

1 comment:

Marco said...

It may be worth mentioning that you should test this with various fonts. Apparently not all web-safe fonts have glyphs to handle the zero-width character entity. I'm doing tests at the moment, and have found that Arial seems to work the best between Firefox and IE7. IE6 doesn't seem to be able handle the zero-width space.

-Marco (simplymarco.com/journal)