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Styling underlines with CSS

Posted in CSS, Design and Development

If you’re not underlining your links, you should be. There’re a couple of ways to underline links; text-decoration: underline is the most obvious as that’s how links are styled by default, and border-bottom offers us a bit more flexibility. Using borders, it’s possible to specify the thickness, style and colour, but did you know it’s now possible to do that with text-decoration: underline?

Why bother though, if it’s working for us already with borders? Well, text-decoration: underline is better typographically as the underlines sit nicely on the baseline of words, passing through descenders (the bits of letters that go below the baseline in letters like g, p, and y), whereas border-bottom underlines sit under the descenders, which means there’s too much distance between the words and their underline when.

Not only that, but browsers now detect descenders and the text-decoration underline neatly skips them by default. This can be undone with text-decoration-skip-ink (or text-decoration-skip on Safari), but I can’t see what that would gain, which is why it’s ‘on’ by default.

So how do we get that visual flair with text-decoration: underline that we’ve always had via border-bottom?

Underline, overline

We’re talking about underlines here, but it’s worth prefacing this with a quick tangent: text-decoration-line, just like text-decoration, has 3 positions:

  • Under the text (underline)
  • Through the text (line-through)
  • Over the text (overline)

text-decoration-line also allows multiple values, so we can have lines under, through and above the same block of text. A bit weird, but it’s there:

text-decoration: underline;
text-decoration-line: underline overline;

What the underline looks like

Back to underlines. We now have control of how they look, via text-decoration-style; there are 5 options:

  • dashed
  • double
  • dotted
  • solid
  • wavy

They each look just as you’d expect, with a double line, wavy line, etc. Just add the text-decoration-style declaration:

text-decoration: underline;
text-decoration-style: wavy;

The underline colour

This one’s great. text-decoration-color lets us change the colour of the underline. It accepts any normal CSS colour value, whether a keyword, hexadecimal, RGB, RGBA, HSL, etc.:

text-decoration: underline;
text-decoration-color: red;

Just be sure that the underline passes the colour contrast ratio you’re aiming for!

Thickening up those underlines

Finally, we can control how thick the underline is with text-decoration-thickness, for example:

text-decoration: underline;
text-decoration-thickness: 5px;

Combinations

Of course, we can do lots at the same time:

text-decoration: underline;
text-decoration-style: wavy;
text-decoration-color: red;
text-decoration-thickness: 5px;

Or we can use text-decoration-line instead of text-decoration:

text-decoration-line: underline;
text-decoration-style: wavy;
text-decoration-color: red;
text-decoration-thickness: 5px;

Shorthand

That’s turning into a lot of CSS! Luckily, like margin, padding, border radius and loads of other CSS properties, text-decoration is now a shorthand where we can declare multiple values:

text-decoration: underline wavy red;

Notice I haven’t added the text-decoration-thickness property in that example. There’s a good reason for that: browser support.

A progressive enhancement

Underline styling is well supported across all modern browsers. Older versions (and Internet Explorer 11 and below, of course) should get a bog standard but still very user-friendly underline, as long as there’s nothing like this in your CSS reset:

a {
text-decoration: none;
}

But keep in mind, browser support for varies depending on:

  • the property you use
  • the values in the property

Prefixes needed for shorthand

If you’re using shorthand, you’ll need vendor prefixes for Safari to do your bidding:

text-decoration: underline wavy red;
-webkit-text-decoration: underline wavy red;

Easy enough to do if you’re automating things with Autoprefixer, and not too much extra work if you’re writing it by hand. Again, browsers that don’t support text-decoration shorthand should just fall back to that default underline.

text-decoration-thickness isn’t as well supported as the others

The browser support for text-decoration-line, text-decoration-style and text-decoration-color is pretty good. Each browser implemented all three at the same time, but controlling an underline’s thickness was introduced much later. In fact, only Safari and Firefox currently support it, so we’re still waiting on Chrome (and therefore Opera and Edge).

What’s more, Firefox is currently the only browser to support thickness in the shorthand, so if you want to use thickness in your shorthand you’ll need to do the classic double-declaration so that other browsers get a value they understand:

text-decoration: underline solid red;
text-decoration: underline solid red 5px;

text-decoration-thickness and percentages don’t play nicely

Also, be careful using percentage values for thickness, as it’s only Firefox that supports them.

The good news is that percentage values are calculated as a percentage of 1em, so text-decoration-thickness: 0.1em is the same as text-decoration-thickness: 10%, so you might as well stick to ems as they do effectively the same thing.

There are always pixels (px), but it’s nicer typographically to keep the thickness of the line relative to the text it’s underlining, so if the user increases the size of the text on their screen the underline increases proportionally.

text-decoration-thickness messiness

Be careful when pairing text-decoration-style with text-decoration-thickness. Anything other than the default solid line (and maybe double line) can look messy when the thickness is set too high. Those wavy, dashed and dotted almost always usually cut off in untidy places when they skip descenders, and at the end of a word.

Usability considerations

As with most CSS, remember: with great power comes great responsibility, and from a usability point of view, I’d be wary of using anything other than a solid underline to style a link.

So you’re probably fine if you’re after:

  • a different coloured underline
  • a progressively enhanced thick underline
  • maybe even a double underline

But be careful with everything else:

  • text-decoration-line: line-through is basically how <del> elements look, with a strikethrough
  • text-decoration-line: overline looks weird and could make the text above the link look like the link instead
  • wavy, dotted or dashed underlines could look like spelling or grammatical errors in a word processing document, rather than links

Where I think wavy, dotted or dashed could work nicely, though, is for hover states.

What I would do

Shorthand comes with vendor prefixes and dodgy double-declarations, so I’d start with the classic text-decoration: underline; and enhance it. I’d be inclined to avoid anything other than a straightforward underline, which users know well, so text-decoration-line is out; which leaves me with a splash of colour and a nice em-based thickness for non-Chromium browsers:

a {
text-decoration: underline;
text-decoration-color: red;
text-decoration-thickness: 0.1em;
}

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