<select> Something New, Part 1

By Aaron Gustafson

So you’ve built a beautiful, standards-compliant site utilizing the latest and greatest CSS techniques. You’ve mastered control of styling every element, but in the back of your mind, a little voice is nagging you about how ugly your <select>s are. Well, today we’re going to explore a way to silence that little voice and truly complete our designs. With a little DOM scripting and some creative CSS, you too can make your <select>s beautiful… and you won’t have to sacrifice accessibility, usability or graceful degradation.

The Problem

We all know the <select> is just plain ugly. In fact, many try to limit its use to avoid its classic web circa 1994 inset borders. We should not avoid using the <select> though—it is an important part of the current form toolset; we should embrace it. That said, some creative thinking can improve it.

The <select>

We’ll use a simple <select> for our example:

<select id="something" name="something">
  <option value="1">This is option 1</option>
  <option value="2">This is option 2</option>
  <option value="3">This is option 3</option>
  <option value="4">This is option 4</option>
  <option value="5">This is option 5</option>
</select>

[Note: It is implied that this <select> is in the context of a complete form.]

So we have five <option>s within a <select>. This <select> has a uniquely assigned id of “something.” Depending on the browser/platform you’re viewing it on, your <select> likely looks roughly like this:

A <select> as rendered in Windows XP/Firefox 1.0.2.

or this

A <select> as rendered in Mac OSX/Safari 1.2.

Let’s say we want to make it look a little more modern, perhaps like this:

Our concept of a nicely-styled <select>.

So how do we do it? Keeping the basic <select> is not an option. Apart from basic background color, font and color adjustments, you don’t really have a lot of control over the <select>.

However, we can mimic the superb functionality of a <select> in a new form control without sacrificing semantics, usability or accessibility. In order to do that, we need to examine the nature of a <select>.

A <select> is, essentially, an unordered list of choices in which you can choose a single value to submit along with the rest of a form. So, in essence, it’s a <ul> on steroids. Continuing with that line of thinking, we can replace the <select> with an unordered list, as long as we give it some enhanced functionality. As <ul>s can be styled in a myriad of different ways, we’re almost home free. Now the questions becomes “how to ensure that we maintain the functionality of the <select> when using a <ul>?” In other words, how do we submit the correct <option> value along with the form, if we are no longer using a form control?

The solution

Enter the DOM. The final step in the process is making the <ul> function/feel like a <select>, and we can accomplish that with JavaScript/ECMA Script and a little clever CSS. Here is the basic list of requirements we need to have a functional faux <select>:

With this plan, we can begin to tackle each part in succession.

Building the list

So first we need to collect all of the attributes and <option>s out of the <select> and rebuild it as a <ul>. We accomplish this by running the following JS:

function selectReplacement(obj) {
  var ul = document.createElement('ul');
  ul.className = 'selectReplacement';
  // collect our object’s options
  var opts = obj.options;
  // iterate through them, creating <li>s
  for (var i=0; i<opts.length; i++) {
    var li = document.createElement('li');
    var txt = document.createTextNode(opts[i].text);
    li.appendChild(txt);
    ul.appendChild(li);
  }
  // add the ul to the form
  obj.parentNode.appendChild(ul);
}

You might be thinking “now what happens if there is a selected <option> already?” We can account for this by adding another loop before we create the <li>s to look for the selected <option>, and then store that value in order to class our selected <li> as “selected”:

…
  var opts = obj.options;
  // check for the selected option (default to the first option)
  for (var i=0; i<opts.length; i++) {
    var selectedOpt;
    if (opts[i].selected) {
      selectedOpt = i;
      break; // we found the selected option, leave the loop
    } else {
      selectedOpt = 0;
    }
  }
  for (var i=0; i<opts.length; i++) {
    var li = document.createElement('li');
    var txt = document.createTextNode(opts[i].text);
    li.appendChild(txt);
    if (i == selectedOpt) {
      li.className = 'selected';
    }
    ul.appendChild(li);
…

[Note: From here on out, option 5 will be selected, to demonstrate this functionality.]

Now, we can run this function on every <select> on the page (in our case, one) with the following:

function setForm() {
  var s = document.getElementsByTagName('select');
  for (var i=0; i<s.length; i++) {
    selectReplacement(s[i]);
  }
}
window.onload = function() {
  setForm();
}

We are nearly there; let’s add some style.

Some clever CSS

I don’t know about you, but I am a huge fan of CSS dropdowns (especially the Suckerfish variety). I’ve been working with them for some time now and it finally dawned on me that a <select> is pretty much like a dropdown menu, albeit with a little more going on under the hood. Why not apply the same stylistic theory to our faux-<select>? The basic style goes something like this:

ul.selectReplacement {
  margin: 0;
  padding: 0;
  height: 1.65em;
  width: 300px;
}
ul.selectReplacement li {
  background: #cf5a5a;
  color: #fff;
  cursor: pointer;
  display: none;
  font-size: 11px;
  line-height: 1.7em;
  list-style: none;
  margin: 0;
  padding: 1px 12px;
  width: 276px;
}
ul.selectOpen li {
  display: block;
}
ul.selectOpen li:hover {
  background: #9e0000;
  color: #fff;
}

Now, to handle the “selected” list item, we need to get a little craftier:

ul.selectOpen li {
  display: block;
}
ul.selectReplacement li.selected {
  color: #fff;
  display: block;
}
ul.selectOpen li.selected {
  background: #9e0000;
  display: block;
}
ul.selectOpen li:hover,
ul.selectOpen li.selected:hover {
  background: #9e0000;
  color: #fff;
}

Notice that we are not using the :hover pseudo-class for the <ul> to make it open, instead we are class-ing it as “selectOpen”. The reason for this is two-fold:

  1. CSS is for presentation, not behavior; and
  2. we want our faux-<select> behave like a real <select>, we need the list to open in an onclick event and not on a simple mouse-over.

To implement this, we can take what we learned from Suckerfish and apply it to our own JavaScript by dynamically assigning and removing this class in onclick events for the list items. To do this right, we will need the ability to change the onclick events for each list item on the fly to switch between the following two actions:

  1. show the complete faux-<select> when clicking the selected/default option when the list is collapsed; and
  2. “select” a list item when it is clicked & collapse the faux-<select>.

We will create a function called selectMe() to handle the reassignment of the “selected” class, reassignment of the onclick events for the list items, and the collapsing of the faux-<select>:

As the original Suckerfish taught us, IE will not recognize a hover state on anything apart from an <a>, so we need to account for that by augmenting some of our code with what we learned from them. We can attach onmouseover and onmouseout events to the “selectReplacement” class-ed <ul> and its <li>s:

function selectReplacement(obj) {
  …
  // create list for styling
  var ul = document.createElement('ul');
  ul.className = 'selectReplacement';
  if (window.attachEvent) {
    ul.onmouseover = function() {
      ul.className += ' selHover';
    }
    ul.onmouseout = function() {
      ul.className = 
        ul.className.replace(new RegExp(" selHover\\b"), '');
    }
  }
  …
  for (var i=0; i<opts.length; i++) {
    …
    if (i == selectedOpt) {
      li.className = 'selected';
    }
    if (window.attachEvent) {
      li.onmouseover = function() {
        this.className += ' selHover';
      }
      li.onmouseout = function() {
        this.className = 
          this.className.replace(new RegExp(" selHover\\b"), '');
      }
    }
  ul.appendChild(li);
}

Then, we can modify a few selectors in the CSS, to handle the hover for IE:

ul.selectReplacement:hover li,
ul.selectOpen li {
  display: block;
}
ul.selectReplacement li.selected {
  color: #fff;
  display: block;
}
ul.selectReplacement:hover li.selected,
ul.selectOpen li.selected {
  background: #9e0000;
  display: block;
}
ul.selectReplacement li:hover,
ul.selectReplacement li.selectOpen,
ul.selectReplacement li.selected:hover {
  background: #9e0000;
  color: #fff;
  cursor: pointer;
}

Now we have a list behaving like a <select>; but we still need a means of changing the selected list item and updating the value of the associated form element.

JavaScript fu

We already have a “selected” class we can apply to our selected list item, but we need a way to go about applying it to a <li> when it is clicked on and removing it from any of its previously “selected” siblings. Here’s the JS to accomplish this:

function selectMe(obj) {
  // get the <li>’s siblings
  var lis = obj.parentNode.getElementsByTagName('li');
  // loop through
  for (var i=0; i<lis.length; i++) {
    // not the selected <li>, remove selected class
    if (lis[i] != obj) {
      lis[i].className='';
    } else { // our selected <li>, add selected class
      lis[i].className='selected';
    }
  }
}

[Note: we can use simple className assignment and emptying because we are in complete control of the <li>s. If you (for some reason) needed to assign additional classes to your list items, I recommend modifying the code to append and remove the “selected” class to your className property.]

Finally, we add a little function to set the value of the original <select> (which will be submitted along with the form) when an <li> is clicked:

function setVal(objID, selIndex) {
  var obj = document.getElementById(objID);
  obj.selectedIndex = selIndex;
}

We can then add these functions to the onclick event of our <li>s:

…
  for (var i=0; i<opts.length; i++) {
    var li = document.createElement('li');
    var txt = document.createTextNode(opts[i].text);
    li.appendChild(txt);
    li.selIndex = opts[i].index;
    li.selectID = obj.id;
    li.onclick = function() {
      setVal(this.selectID, this.selIndex);
      selectMe(this);
    }
    if (i == selectedOpt) {
      li.className = 'selected';
    }
    ul.appendChild(li);
  }
…

There you have it. We have created our functional faux-<select>. As we have not hidden the original <select> yet, we can watch how it behaves as we choose different options from our faux-<select>. Of course, in the final version, we don’t want the original <select> to show, so we can hide it by class-ing it as “replaced,” adding that to the JS here:

function selectReplacement(obj) {
  // append a class to the select
  obj.className += ' replaced';
  // create list for styling
  var ul = document.createElement('ul');
…

Then, add a new CSS rule to hide the <select>

select.replaced {
  display: none;
}

With the application of a few images to finalize the design, we are good to go!

Taking it further

We have created a solution that will work for the majority of users, but we aren’t stopping there. Part 2 in this series will explore how to make the faux-<select> more accessible, part 3 will explore this technique as it applies to <select>s with organizational <optgroup>s, and part 4 will examine this technique as it applies to multiple <select>s.

Get the Source

You can download the files that go with this article in a single compressed archive: replaceSelect_files.zip