An Introduction to Client-side JavaScript

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Have you ever thought to yourself while building a website, how could I create HTML elements and bind them to the DOM? This article explains some of the fundamentals for interacting with the DOM tree using client-side JavaScript.

Maybe you've been tasked with writing a function that creates multiple <li> list elements. If you wanted to programmaticlly set attributes and apply styles, this is where the power client-side JavaScript really shines!

Client-side means that the JavaScript code is run on the client machine, which is the browser. Server-side JavaScript means that the code is run on the server which is serving web pages.

This post will aim to cover:

  1. Virtually creating HTML elements in JavaScript
  2. Creating and setting attributes to HTML DOM elements
  3. Binding the created HTML elements to the DOM

What is JavaScript?

JavaScript is a lightweight, interpreted, compiled programming language with first class functions. While it is most well-known as the scripting language for Web pages, many non-browser environments also use it, such as Node.js, Apache CouchDB and Adobe Acrobat.

Why read this article?

If you're like me, I was (for some reason) afraid of learning to code in JavaScript at first. We just didn't get along. Then I stumbled upon this video titled: This is truly the only way to learn JavaScript by Chris Hawkes.

After watching the video, I was captivated by the fact you could virtually create HTML DOM elements in JavaScript. This essentially took out all the need to ever go into my .html files, hypothetically speaking. Other than to include a script element for referencing the client side JavaScript containing all of the virtually created DOM elements.

So where does HTML fit into the picture?

HTML or HyperText Markup Language is the most rudimentary building block in web development. Using HTML allows developers to define the meaning and structure of web content through semantic HTML DOM elements.

What is the DOM?

From MDN, The Document Object Model (DOM) is the data representation of the objects that comprise the structure and content of a document on the web. The DOM represents the HTML or XML document so that programming languages can easily connect to the page. Think of the DOM as a large tree like structure with the document (root node) at the top of the tree with the <html> (root element) on the next branch and the rest of the HTML elements to follow.

Build the DOM Tree

JavaScript allows for virtually creating HTML elements using the Document interface and associated methods. Below is an example of virtually creating a new <div> element using createElement() and attaching it to the DOM tree within the <body> node of the current document.

Filename: script.js
const div = document.body.createElement("div");

Creating HTML attributes

After virtually creating HTML elements with JavaScript, you can add and remove attributes from them. The Document interface provides a method called createAttribute() to create HTML element attributes.

var div_att = document.createAttribute("class");
div_att.value = "page-content";

This creates a class attribute and assigns it the value "page-content", ie class="page-content".

Injecting and Setting Element Attributes

Up until this point, we have virtually created HTML elements using createElement() and gave those elements some attributes using createAttribute(). Now it's time to inject values into the attributes and set their values using the setAttributeNode() method. Putting all the previous steps together:

  1. Create the HTML div element.
  2. Create class attribute for the newly created element.
  3. Inject the class attribute value with the text "page-content".
  4. Set the injected attribute values for DOM elements.
const div = document.createElement('div');
const div_class = document.createAttribute("class");
div_class.value = "page-content";

Create and set attributes more efficiently

The faster way to create and set an attribute for any HTML DOM element, is by using setAttribute which takes two arguments. The first being a valid attribute name and the second being a value for that attribute.

const div = document.createElement('div';
div.setAttribute("class", "page-content");

This produces the same markup <div class="page-content"></div> as the method above. You can also get and set the class attribute for a specific HTML element by accessing the className property of the Element interface.

HTMLElement.className = "page-content"

The DOM provides many unique ways to modify the content within HTML nodes or completely alter the document structure. Using the read-only classList property returns a live DOMTokenList collection of class attributes for the element.

The DOMTokenList itself is read-only, although you can modify it with the add(), remove(), and toggle() methods.

const p = document.createElement("p");
p.setAttribute("class", "first-class"); // <p class="first-class"></p>

p.classList.add("second-class"); // <p class="first-class second-class"></p>
p.classList.remove("first-class"); // <p class="second-class"></p>

Note: You can quickly see the nodes and objects contained in each DOM element by inspecting the page and navigating to the properties tab.

Binding elements to the DOM

The final step in this workflow is to bind the HTML elements to our DOM tree using appendChild(). This step in the process truly improved my overall web content structuring and DOM understanding.

You can utilize the appendChild() method and bind the virtually created HTML elements to the DOM within the document as a child of the body tag.

document.body.appendChild(div); // binding the div element to DOM tree

So far, you've created one HTML div element, set its class attribute and then finalized the processing by binding it to the DOM tree. Specifically binding the element onto the <body> node of the document. Now who said using JavaScript in web development had to be hard?

Setup Browser Testing Environment

Most browsers will allow you to right click on a webpage and use the inspect menu button to inspect the markup within the current page. I recommend installing Chrome Dev Tools or some form of developer tools for the specific browser you are using. You also need a text editor of any flavor. I'm using Visual Studio Code as my IDE (Integrated Development Environment) but feel free to use whichever editor you'd like.

Open up a terminal window and create a new directory named js-tutorial using the mkdir command,

spherical:~ TannerDolby$ mkdir js-tutorial

Then change directory into the newly created one name js-tutorial,

spherical:~ TannerDolby$ cd js-tutorial

The directory js-tutorial currently does not contain any content so performing a list command using ls will output nothing until we add content to the directory.

Using the touch command here creates a file named index.html within the root directory of js-tutorial. Let's create the other files needed for this post while we are here.

spherical:js-tutorial TannerDolby$ touch index.html
spherical:js-tutorial TannerDolby$ touch style.css
spherical:js-tutorial TannerDolby$ touch script.js
spherical:js-tutorial TannerDolby$ ls
index.html script.js style.css

Lets write some code!

Now we're ready to start putting code into these newly created files within the js-tutorial directory. Open up the js-tutorial folder in your preferred editor and navigate into the index.html file (it will be blank). I suggest using the html5-boilerplate VS Code plugin as I will be using it to generate a template of HTML boilerplate code. But getting familiar with typing out the basic markup for an .html page by hand is great practice.

Inside the index.html file, include the following HTML.

Filename: index.html
<!DOCTYPE html>
<meta charset="utf-8">
<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=edge">
<title>Intro to client-side JS</title>
<meta name="description" content="A demo page">
<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">
<link rel="stylesheet" href="style.css">
<script src="script.js"></script>

Great! Now that the basic markup for index.html page is setup. Make sure you've provided the relevant document metadata inside the <head> tag. Ensure to include references to the custom CSS file using a <link> and custom JavaScript using a <script> tag.

Putting it all together!

Navigate to the script.js file in the home js-tutorial directory and lets start writing JS code for constructing a basic DOM tree. You will be utilizing everything mentioned so far to build a small web page with virtually created HTML elements.

Step 1

Create the <main> and <section> HTML elements with a class attribute then inject and set a value for each.

Filename: script.js
const main = document.createElement("main");
main.setAttribute("class", "page-wrapper");

const section = document.createElement("section");
section.setAttribute("class", "page-content");

Step 2

Create the heading and paragraph elements and give them both some inner text.

const h1 = document.createElement("h1");
h1.setAttribute("class", "section-title");
h1.innerText = "Hello world!";

const p = document.createElement("p");
p.setAttribute("class", "section-text");
p.innerText = "lorem ipsum dorem dolor.";

Step 3

Create an <img> element for the picture I grabbed from

const img = document.createElement("img");
img.setAttribute("class", "photo");
img.setAttribute("src", "cat-coding.jpg");
img.setAttribute("alt", "Cat, presumably coding a very complex system.");
img.setAttribute("loading", "lazy");

Step 4

Create a paragraph element for the image description.

const p2 = document.createElement("p");
p2.setAttribute("class", "caption");
p2.innerHTML = `${img.alt}. This photo was found on`;

Step 5

Bind virtually created HTML elements to the DOM Tree.


// Append the first <main> element to the documents body.

Start up a local web server or open the index.html file using your web browser. If you have provided the proper <link> element for CSS, the HTML we created in script.js will render on the page with the exact DOM structure that was setup while binding the HTML elements.

I gave the page a bit more styling within the stylesheet if you want to view the code. You could also apply the same styles as those present in the .css file by using JavaScript and = "", this will take a bit longer.


If you read this far and followed each step, you should now have a very basic web page with a couple HTML elements built primarily with JS instead of using traditional markup directly inside an .html file.

For anyone wanting to start their journey with JavaScript, this is truly some of the best practice to become more familiar with the basics of browser JS. Have a look at the source code on Github. You can also checkout similar posts in the #javascript or #html categories.

Here's a link to the live demo.

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