Pier Design Tutorial


Lukas Renggli has created an amazing content management system called Pier. It’s still in the alpha phase, but the functionality and flexibility make it a truly innovative content management solution. If you’ve played with wiki software in rails or php, try Pier and Seaside and prepare to experience enlightenment. Currently, the default Pier installation does not take full advantage of the capabilities of CSS. This document describes how to build a simple theme/template for a Pier wiki starting from an existing css framework.


I’m new to Squeak/Smalltalk, Seaside and Pier. I’ve learned quite a bit over the past few months, but I’m still a newbie. As a result, my approach might not represent the “best practices” way of customizing Pier. My hope is that in writing this document, people that know more than me will read it and give me some useful feedback.

Pier layout structure

Before we dive in and start writing or editing css code, let’s take a look at the style handles that Pier provides by default and how to change them.

A brief introduction to CSS

Cascading StyleSheets (CSS) provide an abstraction layer for specifying the appearance of an HTML document. It’s beyond the scope of this document to explain the intricacies of css. Instead, you should check out:

If you collect computer books for a hobby, you should buy Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cederholm.

What you need to know about CSS

For now, suffice it to say that CSS allow you to specify the appearance of any HTML tag. They also provide “class” and “id” elements that are used to create a hierarchy of style commands. As a general rule of thumb, use an “id” when there is only one occurrence of the object per page. Use a “class” when there are one or more occurrences per page.

Given this general rule, you can get a very good idea of where to start customizing the layout of a page/site by looking through the HTML source for <div id="..."> and <div class="..."> tags.

Pier layout

Pier uses the Seaside web framework. Compared to other web frameworks, Seaside is a web heretic that breaks several conventional rules. For example, most designers are probably used to working with templates containing a mixture of HTML and framework-specific code. Seaside applications use an API to generate HTML. There are no templates. That’s right, no templates. This means that as a designer, you only need to worry about the stylesheets. This section provides an overview of the default HTML structure provided by Pier, and how to customize it.

General outline of a page

Pier currently uses classes under the #frameContent id to control the style of different page elements. In css code, ‘#’ is the prefix for ids, and ‘.’ is the prefix for classes.

    .box .views
    .box .commands
    .box .tree

In Seaside and Pier, the “pages” that are rendered in your browser are made up of several components. In Pier, the main layout components are embedded in a special page component called the ‘environment’. It’s normally hidden, but you can access it by typing it in the location bar of you browser. In the default case (above), the environment contains header, box->view, box->command, box->tree and content components. The view, command and tree components are actually subclasses of the box component, so they inherit the default css settings from that class.

Changing the css parameters of a Pier component

You can easily change the default values. For example, let’s say you would rather specify the header using an id (#header) instead of a class (.header)

  1. navigate to environment/header
  2. click on the ‘settings’ link under commands
  3. add the text “header” to CSS Name. Note that the CSS Name field controls the <div id> name.
  4. delete the text for CSS Class
  5. click the ‘save’ button

Where do the default values come from

Pier components are subclasses of PRWidget. Continuing our previous example, here is the class heirarchy for PRHeaderWidget:


and the class methods for PRHeaderWidget:

PRHeaderWidget class
    ^ 'header'

Notice that defaultCssClass returns the string “header”. You can change the default value by changing this string. I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to explore the rest in detail. (Hint: defaultCssName appears as a class method of PRBoxWidget.)

Don’t work too hard: Get a template

Unless you’re a seasoned web designer, there’s a good chance that you probably won’t create an ideal css template from scratch on the first try. Like the scaffolds created by generators in Ruby on Rails, having a good outline for your css files will get you started down the right path, and help you avoid mistakes. Furthermore, you can avoid several cross-browser css compatibility issues by finding a good starting framework.

Look for design contests

Design contests are a great source for CSS templates. The quality varies, but it’s usually high. Many of the designers are trying to make a name for themselves, so their entries are probably worth hundreds to thousands of dollars in development time. Think of design competition sites as a repository for high-quality, open-source css. However, be sure to double-check that you are legally using a theme/design, and give the author credit!

Here are a few design contest sites to get you started:

Find a template

One of my favorite design-theme/frameworks is Scribbish, a css framework and typo theme designed by Jeffrey Allan Hardy at Quoted-Printable. Scribbish has a simple, yet elegant appearance, which is mirrored in the css framework. There are separate stylesheets that control different components of the page, making this theme easy to understand and modify to fit Pier, or any site. Before continuing, go read about the css framework used by scribbish, I’ll wait.

Sounds good, right? Download the latest version of Scribbish, expand the tar file and take a look at the source code.

Modify scribbish for use with Pier

Before we tell Pier about the new css files, we need to change a few things so that scribbish works correctly outside of its native Typo environment.

Use relative paths

All references to ‘url’s in all the stylesheets are hard-coded to work with Typo. For example, in scribbish/stylesheets/application.css, the body tag looks like:

body {
    background: url(/images/theme/background.gif) repeat-x left top;
    font: normal 12px "lucida grande", verdana, arial, helvetica, sans-serif;

You could hard code a new url, but for now I recommend just using a relative url:

background: url(../images/background.gif) repeat-x left top;

Find all the references to absolute paths change them to relative paths.

Deal with tables and textareas

Pier still uses tables in a few places. Whenever you edit a page, the form generated by Magritte uses tables. I haven’t figured out how to change this yet. For now, we’ll work around it.

Unless the table width is set to 100%, the width of your textareas will be constrained by the table width, rather than the width of the ‘content’ div. To ensure that your forms use the full allowable width, and have reasonable height, add the following code to the bottom of content.css:

#content textarea {
    width: 100%;
    height: 300px;

#content table.container {
    width: 100%;

Configure Comanche to serve files

If you look closely at your default Pier installation, you’ll notice that you are using css stylesheets from here. We want to use our own custom stylesheets. There are multiple ways of accomplishing this goal. You can put the stylesheets at any web-accessible URL and reference them. If you running Pier behind a proxy front-end, then you can just put them somewhere in your root directory and refer to them. If you know how to setup Seaside Style Libraries (I haven’t tried this yet) then you can just do that. The solution I chose was to configure Comanche to serve files. This allows me to keep the stylesheets outside of my Squeak image. Right now I find this easy since I’m used to working this way.

The default configuration

If you followed the instructions for installing Pier posted on the Smallwiki site or the instructions for installing Seaside from the Seaside home page, then Comanche is not configured to serve static files.

The new configuration

Fortunately, all of the necessary changes are summarized nicely in the Getting Software section of David Shaffer’s Seaside tutorial. For completeness, I’m posting the exact same code here, but all credit goes to David Shaffer.

Rather than starting Comanche like this:

WAEncodedKom startOn: 8080.

Kill any existing server instances with this command:

"Kill all existing Kom HTTP servers"
HttpService allInstancesDo: [:each | each stop. each unregister].

And then start Comanche with these options:

"Start a new server on port 8080 servering both static content and seaside apps"
| ma seaside |
seaside := WAKom default.
ma := ModuleAssembly core.
ma serverRoot: (FileDirectory default directoryNamed: 'FileRoot') fullName.
ma alias: '/seaside' to: [ma addPlug: [:request | seaside process: request]].
ma documentRoot: (FileDirectory default directoryNamed: 'FileRoot') fullName.
ma directoryIndex: 'index.html index.htm'.
ma serveFiles.
(HttpService startOn: 8080 named: 'httpd') plug: ma rootModule

Note that the directory ‘FileRoot’ can be called anything you want. You’ll need to put that directory in the same folder as your Squeak image file.

Customize your Pier environment

Although I recommend more changes to the css stylesheets, those minor edits are the only changes that you have to make. To use the new stylesheets, we need to give Pier the path to ‘application.css’, and modify the environment to reflect the scribbish layout structure.

Use the new stylesheets

To make Pier use the new stylesheets, just change PRStyleLibrary»style as follows:

    ^ '@import "/scribbish/stylesheets/application.css";'

Note that if you started Comanche prior to adding scribbish underneath the ‘FileRoot’ directory, you might have to restart Comanche before the stylesheets will be recognized.

Edit the environment

With the new stylesheets in place, the pages will look strange because the Pier layout structure does not match the css design. To fix this, you need to edit the environment. Access it by typing it in the navigation bar of your browser, or clicking here, if you’re following this tutorial.

A new environment

<div id="container">
<div id="page">
<div id="content">+main+</div>
<div id="sidebar">+search++tree++commands+</div>
<div id="footer">Pier &mdash; Empowered by Seaside</div>
Set the default environment

The default environment is returned by the method PRStructure>defaultEnvironment. To add new default components, just add children to the the environment Page (a PRPage instance). To change the environment contents, change the string for the ‘contents:’ parameter. Here is an example of a new default environment that adds a path component under the header, and a search component in the sidebar.

    ^ (PRPage named: 'environment')
            addDecoration: PRHider new;
            addChild: ((PRComponent named: 'header')
                    componentClass: PRHeaderWidget;
            addChild: ((PRComponent named: 'path')
                    componentClass: PRPathWidget;
            addChild: ((PRComponent named: 'views')
                    componentClass: PRViewsWidget;
            addChild: ((PRComponent named: 'search')
                    componentClass: PRSearchWidget;
            addChild: ((PRComponent named: 'commands')
                    componentClass: PRCommandsWidget;
            addChild: ((PRComponent named: 'tree')
                    componentClass: PRTreeWidget;
            addChild: ((PRComponent named: 'main')
                    componentClass: PRContentsWidget;
            contents: '<div id="container">+header++path++views+<div id="page"><div id="content">+main+</div><div id="sidebar">+search++tree++commands+</div>
</div><div id="footer">Pier &mdash; Empowered by Seaside</div></div>';

This new environment will be used whenever you create a new kernel. To reset your kernel (this will destroy all data):

"Reset Pier Kernel"
PRKernel reset. PRPierFrame initialize.

Customize components

The new environment defines some new components, and uses familiar components (i.e. views) in a new way. In this scenario, the header, path and view components are intended to be laid out horizontally across the top of the page, before the “page” and “sidebar” content. In my customized scribbish layout, each component has a corresponding #id or .class to provide complete control over the style. The default component settings in Pier use classes, so you’ll either have to change the component ‘settings’ after adding the component, change the code to set new defaults, or change your stylesheet to fit the Pier defaults. For example, the default path widget has a title that gets in the way when the path is displayed as an inline list. You might also want to hide the icons by default. The Pier UI components that you add to each page are subclasses of PRWidget. Thus, to change the default settings of the path component, add class methods to PRPathWidget.

        ^ nil

    ^ false

    ^ 'path'

Custom Header component

The default Pier header uses tables.

PRHeaderWidget>renderWidgetOn: html
html table
    class: 'header';
        with: [
            self renderLogoOn: html.
            self renderSpacerOn: html.
            self renderTitleOn: html ]

Let’s change the header to look like a simple blog or wiki: get rid of the table, and add a subtitle. On the instance side, add methods to get, set and render the subtitle. Then modify renderWidget on to render both the title and subtitle.

renderWidgetOn: html
    self renderTitleOn: html.
    self renderSubtitleOn: html
renderSubtitleOn: html
    html heading level: 2; with: (self expand: self subtitle).
    ^ self propertyAt: #subtitle ifAbsent: [ self class defaultSubtitle ]
subtitle: aString
    self propertyAt: #subtitle put: aString

On the class side, add a method for the description and the default subtitle (a new string).

    ^ String new
    ^ MAStringDescription selector: #subtitle label: 'subtitle' priority: 120 default: self     defaultSubtitle

CSS class controls for inline lists

Inline lists are a versatile design technique that allow the use of lists to control horizontal layout (see CSS Design: Taming Lists). With this techinque, lists can be used to create menu bars and context bars. To control the style of inline lists, it is often convenient to designate the first and/or last item of the list using a class. This allows these items to be styled differently than items in the middle of list, providing a convenient mechanism for creating a path string separated by slashes, or a menu bar separated by lines.

Although we could make these properties configurable, simply hard-coding them to always be “first” and “last” should work for 99% of all cases. To add this capability, modify PRListWidget>renderItems.

renderItems: aCollection on: html
    html unorderedList with: [
        aCollection do: [ :each |
            html listItem 
                class: (aCollection first = each ifTrue: [ 'first' ]);
                class: (aCollection last = each ifTrue: [ 'last' ]);
                class: (self selected = each ifTrue: [ 'active' ]);
                with: [ self renderItem: each on: html ] ] ]

Add a context bar

Now that we can uniquely render the first and last items of a list, it’s easy to add a context bar. Just add a path component to the environment. Under the settings for environment/path, add a custom CSS name. Then, use css to render the path as an inline list, adding a ‘»’ (&#187;) or ‘/’ character before each item except the first. To add this change into the scribbish framework, we’ll add #path to the layout, and create a new component.css file to handle the the style settings for #path and other Pier components.

Since path is a floating element, we need to make sure that all of the floats are cleared before rendering the page content, by adding ‘clear: both;’ to the top of the #page style.

Make changes to layout.css

#path {
    padding: 0px;
    margin-bottom: 0px;
    float: left;

#page {
    clear: both;
    /* ... page settings here ... */

create component.css (based on code from *CSS Design: Taming Lists)

#path {
    /* additional custom path styles here */

#path ul {
    margin-left: 0;
    padding-left: 0;
    display: inline;
    border: none;

#path ul li {
    margin-left: 0;
    padding-left: 2px;
    border: none;
    list-style: none;
    display: inline;

#path ul li.first {
    margin-left: 0;
    padding-left: 0px;
    border: none;
    list-style: none;
    display: inline;

#path ul li:before {
    content: "\0020 \0020 \0020 \00BB \0020";

#path ul li.first:before {
    content: "";

Add a reference to component.css in application.css just above the ‘local.css’ reference, so that component styles override any default settings.

@import 'component.css';

P is for paragraphs

Lukas recently changed the way paragraphs are rendered in Pier from using <p> tags to <div class="paragraph">. This change first appeared in Pier-lr.83. The monticello comments say something about the <p> element causing problems with nested pages. Unfortunately, the change to <div class="paragraph"> completely breaks the scribbish theme.
Currently, I’m using <p> elements with one level of nesting and I haven’t noticed any problems.

To use normal <p> elements, change PRViewRenderer>visitParagraph to

visitParagraph: anObject
    html paragraph with:  [ super visitParagraph: anObject ]

Please note that it might be possible to fix this problem by using specifying properties for <div class="paragraph"> that will make it behave like <p>. If anyone knows how to do this, please let me know.

Get the code

I haven’t covered every Pier and css modification in detail. Rather, I tried to provide example cases that highlight the types of changes you can make to add some style to Pier. To provide a finished example, you can download my version of a default Pier installation (Pier-all-lr.87) styled along with my modified version of scribbish (version 1.2).


  • Pier Design Tutorial image+changes
    Squeak (3.8) .image and .changes files loaded with Seaside 2.6a3, Pier-All-lr.87 plus all the necessary dependencies.

  • pier-scribbish-1.2
    Scribbish 1.2 distribution containing changes described in this tutorial and a few other modifications for Pier.

published 25 May 2006 #