Tag: Layout

Bold on Hover… Without the Layout Shift

When you change the font-weight of a font, the text will typically cause a bit of a layout shift. That’s because bold text is often larger and takes up more space. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, like a vertical stack of links where the wider/bolder text doesn’t push anything anyway. Sometimes it does matter, like a horizontal row where the wider/bolder text pushes other elements away a smidge.

Ryan Mulligan demonstrates:

Ryan’s technique is very clever. Each item in the list has a pseudo-element on it with the exact text in the link. That pseudo-element is visually hidden, but pre-bolded and still occupies width. So when the actual link text is bolded, it won’t take up any additional width.

It also sorta depends on how you’re doing the layout. Here, if I force four columns with CSS grid and text that doesn’t really challenge the width, the bolding doesn’t affect the layout either:

But if I were to, say, let those links flow into automatic columns, we would have the shifting problem.


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Fluid Images in a Variable Proportion Layout

Creating fluid images when they stand alone in a layout is easy enough nowadays. However, with more sophisticated interfaces we often have to place images inside responsive elements, like this card:

Screenshot. A horizontal card element with an image of two strawberries against a light blue background to the left of text that contains a heading and two sentences.

For now, let’s say this image is not semantic content, but only decoration. That’s a good use for background-image. And because in this context the image contains an object, we can’t allow any parts to be cropped out when it’s responsive, so we’d pick background-size: contain.

Here’s where it starts to get tricky: on mobile devices, this card shifts direction and becomes vertical, with the image on top. We can make that happen with any sort of CSS layout technique, and probably best handled with CSS grid or flexbox.

Screenshot. The same strawberry card but in a vertical format.

But as we test for smaller screens, because of the contain property, this is what we get:

The same card element in vertical but now the strawberry image is not flush with the top border of the card.
Hey, get back up there!

That’s not very nice. The image resizes to maintain its aspect ratio without cutting off any details, and if the image is important content and should not be cropped, we can’t change background-size to cover.

At this point, our next attempt might be familiar to you: placing the image inline, instead the background. 

On desktop, this works fine:

It’s not bad on mobile either:

But on smaller screens, because of all the fixed sizes, the image’s proportions get distorted.

Screenshot. The vertical card element with the strawberry image out of proportion, causing the strawberries to appear stretched vertically.
Hmm, those strawberries are not as appetizing when stretched.

We could spend hours fiddling with the image, the card, the flex properties, going back and forth. Or, we could…

Separate main content from the background

This is the base for obtaining much more flexibility and resilience when it comes to responsive images. It might not be possible 100% of the time but, in many cases, it can be achieved with a little effort on the design side of things, especially if this approach is planned beforehand.

For our next iteration, we’re placing our strawberries image on a transparent background and setting what was the blue color in the raster image with CSS instead. Go ahead and play with viewport sizes in this demo by adjusting the size of the sample space!

Looking deeper at the styles, notice that we’ve also added padding to the div that holds the image, so the strawberries don’t come too close to the edges. We have full control of how close or distant we want them to be, through this padding.

Note how we’re also using negative margins to compensate for the padding on our outer card wrapper, otherwise we’d get white space all around the image.

Use the object-fit property for inline images

As much as the previous demo works, we can still improve the approach. Up to now, we’ve assumed that the image was un-semantical content — but with this layout, it’s also likely that the image illustration could be more than decoration.

If that’s the case, we definitely don’t want the image to get cut off because that would essentially amount to data loss. It’s semantically better to put the image inline instead of a background to prevent that, and we can use the object-fit property to make it happen.

We’ve extracted the strawberries from the background and it’s now an inline <img> element, but we kept the background color in that same image div. 

Finally, combining the object-fit: contain with a 100% width makes it possible to resize the window and keep the aspect ratio of the strawberries. The caveat of this approach, however, is that we need to set a fixed height for the image on the desktop version — otherwise it’s going to follow the proportion of the set width (and reducing it will alter the layout). That might make things too constrained if we need to generate these cards with a variable amount of text that breaks into several lines.

Coming soon: aspect-ratio

The solution for the concern above might be just around the corner with the upcoming aspect-ratio property. This will enable setting a fixed ratio for an element, like this:

.el {   aspect-ratio: 16 / 9; }

This means we’ll be able to eliminate fixed height and replace it with our calculated aspect ratio. For example, the dimensions in the desktop breakpoint of our last example looked like this:

.image {   /* ... */   height: 184px;   width: 318px; }

With aspect-ratio, we could remove the height declaration and do the math to get the closest ratio that amounts to 184:

.image {   /* ... */   width: 318px; /*  Base width */   height: unset; /* Resets the height that was set outside the media query */   aspect-ratio: 159 / 92; /* Amounts close to a 184px height */ }

The upcoming property is better explored in this article, if you want to learn more about it.

In the end, there are multiple ways to achieve reliably responsive images in a variable proportion layout. However, the trick to make this job easier — and better — does not necessarily lie with CSS; it can be as simple as adapting your images, whether that’s by separating the foreground from background (like we did) or selecting specific images that will still work if a fair portion of the edges get cropped.

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Styling Layout Wrappers In CSS

Two things that strike me often about the web are how many ways there are to go about the same thing and how many considerations go into even the most seemingly simple things.

Working with wrapper elements is definitely on both those lists. Wrappers (or containers or whatever) are so common — especially when establishing grid layouts and boundaries for the elements inside them — that it’s easy to take them for granted and reach for them without stepping back to consider how they work, why we use them, and how to use them effectively.

Ahmed Shadeed wrote up the most exhaustive article on wrappers I’ve ever read. He provides a brief overview of them before diving into a bunch of considerations and techniques for working with them, including:

  • When to use them
  • How to size them
  • Positioning them
  • Adding margin and padding
  • Working with CSS grid and other display values
  • Breaking out of the wrapper
  • Using CSS custom properties

If you take the images from the article, it tells a pretty cool story.

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Grid for layout, flexbox for components

When should we reach for CSS grid and when should we use flexbox? Rachel Andrew wrote about this very conundrum way back in 2016:

Flexbox is essentially for laying out items in a single dimension – in a row OR a column. Grid is for layout of items in two dimensions – rows AND columns.

Ahmad Shadeed wrote a post where he gives the same advice, but from a different angle. He argues we should use grid for layout and flexbox for components:

Remember that old layout method might be perfect for the job. Overusing flexbox or grid can increase the complexity of your CSS by time. I don’t mean they are complex, but using them correctly and in the right context as explained from the examples in this article is much better.

Speaking of which, there’s so many great layout examples in this post, too.

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First Steps into a Possible CSS Masonry Layout

It’s not at the level of demand as, say, container queries, but being able to make “masonry” layouts in CSS has been a big ask for CSS developers for a long time. Masonry being that kind of layout where unevenly-sized elements are layed out in ragged rows. Sorta like a typical brick wall turned sideways.

The layout alone is achievable in CSS alone already, but with one big caveat: the items aren’t arranged in rows, they are arranged in columns, which is often a deal-breaker for folks.

/* People usually don't want this */  1  4  6  8 2     7 3  5     9

/* They want this *.  1  2  3  4 5  6     7 8     9

If you want that ragged row thing and horizontal source order, you’re in JavaScript territory. Until now, that is, as Firefox rolled this out under a feature flag in Firefox Nightly, as part of CSS grid.

Mats Palmgren:

An implementation of this proposal is now available in Firefox Nightly. It is disabled by default, so you need to load about:config and set the preference layout.css.grid-template-masonry-value.enabled to true to enable it (type “masonry” in the search box on that page and it will show you that pref).

Jen Simmons has created some demos already:

Is this really a grid?

A bit of pushback from Rachel Andrew

Grid isn’t Masonry, because it’s a grid with strict rows and columns. If you take another look at the layout created by Masonry, we don’t have strict rows and columns. Typically we have defined rows, but the columns act more like a flex layout, or Multicol. The key difference between the layout you get with Multicol and a Masonry layout, is that in Multicol the items are displayed by column. Typically in a Masonry layout you want them displayed row-wise.

[…]

Speaking personally, I am not a huge fan of this being part of the Grid specification. It is certainly compelling at first glance, however I feel that this is a relatively specialist layout mode and actually isn’t a grid at all. It is more akin to flex layout than grid layout.

By placing this layout method into the Grid spec I worry that we then tie ourselves to needing to support the Masonry functionality with any other additions to Grid.

None of this is final yet, and there is active CSS Working Group discussion about it.

As Jen said:

This is an experimental implementation — being discussed as a possible CSS specification. It is NOT yet official, and likely will change. Do not write blog posts saying this is definitely a thing. It’s not a thing. Not yet. It’s an experiment. A prototype. If you have thoughts, chime in at the CSSWG.

Houdini?

Last time there was chatter about native masonry, it was mingled with idea that the CSS Layout API, as part of Houdini, could do this. That is a thing, as you can see by opening this demo (repo) in Chrome Canary.

I’m not totally up to speed on whether Houdini is intended to be a thing so that ideas like this can be prototyped in the browser and ultimately moved out of Houdini, or if the ideas should just stay in Houdini, or what.

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Exciting Things on the Horizon For CSS Layout

Michelle Barker notes that it’s been a heck of a week for us CSS layout nerds.

  1. Firefox has long had the best DevTools for CSS Grid, but Chrome is about to catch up and go one bit better by visualizing grid line numbers and names.
  2. Firefox supports gap for display: flex, which is great, and now Chrome is getting that too.
  3. Firefox is trying out an idea for masonry layout.

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4 CSS Grid Properties (and One Value) for Most of Your Layout Needs

CSS Grid provides us with a powerful layout system for websites. The CSS-Tricks guide gives you a comprehensive overview of Grid’s properties with layout examples. What we’re going to do here is a reverse approach to show you the smallest possible set of grid properties you need to know to meet most of your layout needs.

These five properties will get you up and running:

  • display (for the grid value)
  • grid-template-columns
  • grid-gap
  • grid-auto-flow
  • grid-column / grid-row

Here’s how simple it is. Let’s assume you want to implement the following layout for small, medium and large screens.

Small and medium-sized screens
Large screen layout

This is the markup we’ll be working with:

 <!-- Stuff before -->  <nav class="container-nav">   <ul>     <li></li>     <li></li>     <li></li>     <li></li>     <li></li>     <li></li>     <li></li>     <li></li>     <li></li>   </ul> </nav>  <div class="container-main">   <section class="item item-type-a"></section>   <section class="item item-type-b"></section>   <section class="item item-type-b"></section>   <section class="item container-inner">     <section class="item-inner"></section>     <section class="item-inner"></section>     <section class="item-inner"></section>     <section class="item-inner"></section>     <section class="item-inner"></section>   </section> </div>  <!-- Stuff after -->

If we apply a few baseline styles, this is what we get, which is already sufficient for small screens:

Now we can get into the grid properties!

Use display: grid to divide the page into independent layout containers

First, we need to determine which parts of the page should be aligned with grid layouts. It is possible to define a single grid layout for the whole page. However, for websites with a very complex structure (e.g. news websites), handling a large grid quickly becomes complicated to wrangle. In this case, I recommend breaking things down into several, independent grid containers.

Like this:

Where do you draw the line between what is and isn’t a grid? Here’s a personal rule of thumb I follow:

If the layout in a particular part of the page does not fit into the grid of an adjacent or surrounding part of the page, make that part its own grid container.

I have drawn the grid lines into the page section with the class .container-main in the following image You may notice that the section with the .container-inner class from the markup does not fit exactly into the grid of rows.

Here’s another possible layout where the small sections fit into the surrounding grid if a finer line raster is chosen. A separate grid container is not absolutely necessary here.

To kick this off, let’s .container-main into a grid container. This is the basic building block for CSS Grid — turning an element into a grid container with the display property:

.container-main {   display: grid;          }

We’ll want to do the same with our other grid containers:

.container-inner {   display: grid;          }  .container-nav {   display: grid;          }

Use grid-template-columns to define the required columns

Next, we’re going to define the number of columns we need in each grid container and how wide those columns should be. My guideline for the number of columns:  use the smallest common multiple of the maximum number of columns required for the different screen sizes.

How does that work? The .container-main element has a total of two columns on medium-sized screens. If we take that and multiply it by the number of columns on large screens (three), we get a total of six columns.

We can do the same for our navigation, the .container-inner element. There are three columns on medium-sized screens, which we multiple by one column on large screens to get a total of three columns.

The .container-nav element provides no number of columns. In this case, the grid system should automatically adjust the number of columns to the number of menu elements. It’s common to add or remove items in a navigation, and it’d be great if it responded accordingly, which is something grid can help us with a little later on.

OK, so we defined the number of columns for each grid container. Let’s use the grid-template-columns property to set those into place. But, first a couple of minor details:

  • The grid-template-columns property is only used on the grid container. In other words, you won’t find it being used (at least correctly) on a grid item inside the container.
  • The property accepts a bunch of different values that both define the number of columns and how wide they should be. The one we’re interested in here is the fractional (fr) unit. I’d highly suggest checking out Robin’s overview because it’s unique to grid and does an amazing job doing calculations to decide how grid elements fit inside a grid container.

We need six equal-width columns in .container-main. We can write that like this:

.container-main {   display: grid;   grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr 1fr 1fr 1fr; }

Or, we can turn to the repeat() function to simplify it into something more readable:

.container-main {   display: grid;   grid-template-columns: repeat(6, 1fr); }

Let’s take that knowledge and apply it to our .container-inner element as well, which we decided needs three columns.

.container-inner {   display: grid;   grid-template-columns: repeat(3, 1fr); }

Use grid-gap to add spacing between grid items

By default, grid uses all the space it has in a grid container to fit in grid items. Having elements flush next to one another might be a design requirement, but not for the particular layout we’re making. We want some breathing room between things!

We have the grid-gap property for that. Again, this is a property that’s just for grid containers and what it does is create vertical and horizontal spacing between grid items. It’s actually a shorthand property that combines the vertical spacing powers of grid-row-gap and horizontal spacing powers of grid-column-gap. It’s handy that we’re able to break things out like that but, in times like this where we’re working with the same amount of spacing in each direction, the shorthand grid-gap is much nicer to write.

We want 20px of space between grid items in .container-main, 10px of space in .container-inner, and 5px of space in .container-nav. No problem! All it takes is a one-liner on each grid container.

.container-main{   display: grid;   grid-template-columns: repeat(6, 1fr);   grid-gap: 20px; }  .container-inner {   display: grid;   grid-template-columns: repeat(3, 1fr);   grid-gap: 10px; }  .container-nav {   display: grid;   grid-gap: 5px; }

Use grid-column and grid-row to determine the size of the individual grid items

Now it is time to put the layout into the shape we want it!

First is the grid-column property, which allows us to extend a grid item across n columns, where n is the number of columns to span. If you’re thinking this sounds an awful lot like the rowspan attribute that lets us extend cells across multiple rows in HTML tables, you wouldn’t be wrong.

It looks like this when we use it on a grid .item in our .container-main element, and on the .inner-item elements in .container-inner:

.item {   grid-column: span 6; }  .item-inner {   grid-column: span 3; }

What we’re saying here is that each item span six rows in our main container and three rows in our inner container — which is the total number of columns in each container.

An interesting thing about CSS Grid is that we are able to name the lines of the grid. They come with implicit names out of the box but naming them is a powerful way to distinguish between the starting and ending lines for each column on the track.

We can change the number of columns and rows the items should span at different breakpoints:

@media screen and (min-width: 600px) {   .item-type-b {     grid-column: span 3;   }    .item-inner {     grid-column: span 1;   } }  @media screen and (min-width: 900px) {   .item {     grid-column: span 2;     grid-row: span 2;   }    .item-type-b{     grid-row: span 1;   }    .item-inner{     grid-column: span 3;   } }

Using grid-auto-flow to control the placing of the elements

CSS Grid places elements one row after the other. This is why the result in our example looks like this at the moment:

A column-by-column placement can be achieved by setting the grid-auto-flow property to column (row is the default value). Our layout will profit from column-wise placement in two cases. First, it makes our menu items finally appear in a horizontal orientation. Secondly, it brings the elements of the container class into the desired grouping.

The final result

Conclusion: More or less specification?

The grid system allows us to work under the motto, “make as many specifications as necessary, but as few as possible.” We’ve only covered a few of the specifications necessary to turn elements into a CSS grid container and the items inside it into grid items for the sake of showing just how little you need to know to build even complex layouts with CSS Grid.

CSS Grid supports additional use cases where:

  • We want to make even fewer specifications in order to instead rely more on automatic positioning.
  • We want to make even more specifications in order to determine more details of the resulting layout.

If the first case applies, then it’s worth considering the following additional grid options:

  • When creating the grid with grid-template-columns, you can have the grid system automatically determine the width of individual columns with the auto keyword or adapt it to the existing content with the settings min-content, max-content, or fit-content.
  • You can let the grid system automatically determine the number of required columns with the help of repeat, auto-fill, auto-fit, and minmax. Even media queries can become redundant and these tools help make things flexible without adding more media queries.

Here are a couple of articles on the topic that I recommend: Becoming a CSS Grid Ninja! and Auto-Sizing Columns in CSS Grid: auto-fill vs. auto-fit.

If the second case applies, CSS Grid offers even more settings options for you:

  • You can explicitly specify the width of the columns in the unit of your choice (e.g. px or %) using the grid-template-columns property. In addition, the property grid-template-rows is available to define the number and width of rows, should there be a specific number of them. 
  • You can also define specific column or row numbers for positioning as values for grid-column and grid-row (or use the properties grid-column-start, grid-column-end, grid-row-start, or grid-row-end).

And we haven’t even gotten into CSS Grid alignment! Still, the fact that we can accomplish so much without even broaching that topic shows how powerful CSS Grid is.

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Responsive Grid Magazine Layout in Just 20 Lines of CSS

I was recently working on a modern take of the blogroll. The idea was to offer readers a selection of latest posts from those blogs in a magazine-style layout, instead of just popping a list of our favorite blogs in the sidebar.

The easy part was grabbing a list of posts with excerpts from our favorite RSS feeds. For that, we used a WordPress plugin, Feedzy lite, which can aggregate multiple feeds into a single time-ordered list — perfect for showcasing their latest offerings. The hard part was making it all look awesome.

The plugin’s default list UI is rather bland, so I wanted to style it to look like a newspaper or magazine website with a mixture of smaller and larger “featured content” panels.

This seems like an ideal case for CSS Grid! Create a grid layout for different layouts, say, one five-column layout and one three-column layout, then use media queries to switch between them at different break points. Right? But do we actually need those media queries — and all the hassle of identifying break points — when we can use grid’s auto-fit options to automatically create a fluid responsive grid for us? 

The approach sounded tempting, but when I started introducing column-spanning elements, I ran into trouble with the grid overflowing on narrow screens. Media queries appeared to be the only solution. That is, until I found a workaround!

After looking at several tutorials on CSS Grid, I found that they largely fall into two camps:

  1. Tutorials that show you how to create an interesting layout with spanned elements, but for a fixed number of columns.
  2. Tutorials that explain how to make a responsive grid that resizes automatically, but with all of the grid items the same width (i.e. without any spanned columns).

I want to make the grid do both: create a fully responsive fluid layout that includes responsively resizing multi-column elements as well.

The beauty is that once you understand the limitations of responsive grids, and why and when column spans break grid responsiveness, it is possible to define a responsive magazine/news style layout in just a dozen lines of code plus one simple media query (or even with no media queries if you are willing to limit your span options).

Here’s a visual showing the RSS plugin right out of the box and what it’ll look like after we style it up. 

(Demo)

This magazine-style grid layout is fully responsive with the colored featured panels adjusting dynamically as the number of columns change. The page displays around 50 posts, but the layout code is agnostic as to the number of items displayed. Ramp up the plugin to show 100 items and the layout stays interesting all the way down.

All of this is achieved using only CSS and with only a single media query to deal with a single column display on the narrowest of screens (i.e. smaller than 460px).

Incredibly, this layout only took 21 lines of CSS (excluding global content styling). However, to achieve such flexibility in such a few lines of code, I had to dig deep into the more obscure parts of some of  CSS Grid and learn how to work around some of its inherent limitations.

The essential elements of the code that produce this layout is incredibly short and a testament to the awesomeness of CSS Grid:

.archive {   display: grid;   grid-template-columns: repeat(auto-fit, minmax(210px, 1fr));   grid-gap: 32px;   grid-auto-flow: dense; }  /* Extra-wide grid-posts */ .article:nth-child(31n + 1) {   grid-column: 1 / -1; } .article:nth-child(16n + 2) {   grid-column: -3 / -1; } .article:nth-child(16n + 10) {   grid-column: 1 / -2; }  /* Single column display for phones */ @media (max-width: 459px) {   .archive {     display: flex;     flex-direction: column;   } }

The techniques in this article could be used equally well to style any dynamically generated content such as the output from a latest posts widget, archive pages or search results.

Creating a responsive grid

I have set up seventeen items displaying a variety of mock content — headlines, images and excerpts — which are all contained in a wrapper

<div class="archive">   <article class="article">     <!-- content -->   </article>      <!-- 16 more articles -->    </div>

The code that turns these items into a responsive grid is remarkably compact:

.archive {   /* Define the element as a grid container */   display: grid;   /* Auto-fit as many items on a row as possible without going under 180px */   grid-template-columns: repeat(auto-fit, minmax(180px, 1fr));   /* A little spacing between articles */   grid-gap: 1em; }

Notice how the heights of the rows automatically adjust to accommodate the tallest content in the row. If you change the width of the Pen, you will see the items grow and shrink fluidly and the number of columns change from one to five, respectively.

The CSS Grid magic at play here is the auto-fit keyword that works hand-in-hand with the minmax() function that’s applied to grid-template-columns.

How it works

We could have achieved the five-column layout alone using this:

.archive {   display: grid;   grid-template-columns: repeat(5, 1fr); }

However, this would create five columns that grow and shrink with different screen widths, but always stay at five columns, resulting in them becoming ridiculously narrow on small screens. The first thought might be to create a bunch of media queries and redefine the grid with different numbers of columns. That would work fine, but with the auto-fit keyword, it is all done automatically.

For auto-fit to work the way we want, we need to use the minmax() function. This tells the browser how small the columns can be squeezed down to followed by the maximum width they can expand to. Any smaller, and it will automatically reduce the number of columns. Any larger, and the number of columns increases.

.archive {   grid-template-columns: repeat (auto-fit, minmax(180px, 1fr)); }

In this example, the browser will fit in as many columns as it can 180px wide. If there is space left over the columns will all grow equally by sharing the remaining space between them —  that’s what the 1fr value is saying: make the columns equal fractions of the available width. 

Drag the window out and as the available space increases the columns all grow equally to use up any additional space. The columns will keep growing until the available space allows for an additional 180px column, at which point a whole new column appears. Decrease the screen width, and the process reverses, perfectly adjusting the grid all the way down to a single column layout. Magic!

And you get all this responsiveness out of just one line of code. How cool is that? 

Creating spans with “autoflow: dense”

So far, we have a responsive grid but all items the same width. For a news or magazine layout we need some content to be featured by spanning two or more columns or even, perhaps, to span all the columns.

To create multi-column spans we can add the column-span feature to the grid items we want to take up more space. For example, if we want the third item in our list to be two columns wide we can add:

.article:nth-child(3) {   grid-column: span 2; }

However, once we start adding spans a number of problems can arise. First, gaps may appear in the grid because a wide item may may not fit on the row, so grid auto-fit pushes it onto the next line, leaving a gap where it would have been:

The easy fix is adding grid-auto-flow: dense to the grid element which tells the browser to fill in any gaps with other items, effectively making the narrower content flow around the wider items like this:

Note that the items are now out of order, with the fourth item coming before the third item, which is double the width. There is no way round this as far as I can tell, and it is one of the limitations you have to accept with CSS Grid.

Check out Geoff Graham’s “The Auto-Flowing Powers of Grid’s Dense Keyword” for an introduction to grid-auto-flow: dense with examples of how it behaves.

Ways to specify spans

There are several ways to indicate how many columns an item should span. The easiest is to apply grid-columns: span [n] to one of the items, where n  is the number of columns the element will span. The third item in our layout has grid-column: span 2, which explains why it is double the width of other items that only span a single column.

Other methods require you to explicitly define grid lines. The numbering system for grid lines is as follows:

Grid lines can be specified from left-to-right using positive values (e.g. 1, 2, 3) or negative values (e.g. -1, -2, -3) to go from right-to-left. These can be used to place items on the grid using the grid-column property like this:

.grid-item {   grid-column: (start track) / (end track); }

So, this gives us additional ways to specify a spanned item. This is especially flexible as either the start or end value can be replaced with the span keyword. For example, the three-column blue box in the example above could be created by adding any of the following to the eighth grid item:

  • grid-column: 3 / 6
  • grid-column: -4 / -1
  • grid-column: 3 / span 3
  • grid-column: -4 / span 3
  • grid-column: span 3 / -1
  • Etc.

On a non-responsive (i.e. fixed columns) grid, these all produce the same effect (like the blue box above), however, if the grid is responsive and the number of columns changes, their differences start to become apparent. Certain column spans break the  layout with an auto-flowing grid, making the two techniques appear incompatible. Fortunately, there are some solutions which allow us to combine the two successfully. 

First, however, we need to understand the problem.

Overflow side-scrolling problems

Here are some featured areas created using the notation above:

(Demo)

It all looks good at full-width (five columns) but when resized to what should be two columns, the layout breaks like this:

 As you can see, our grid has lost its responsiveness and, although the container has shrunk, the grid is trying to maintain all five columns. To do so, it has given up trying to keep equal-width columns, and the grid is breaking out of the right-hand side of its container, causing horizontal scrolling.

Why is this? The problem comes about because the browser is trying to honor the explicit grid lines we named. At this width, the auto-fit grid should implicitly be displaying two columns, but our grid line numbering system contradicts this by explicitly referring to the fifth grid line. This contradiction leads to the mess. To display our implicit two-column grid correctly, the only line numbers allowed are 1, 2 and 3 and -3, -2, -1, like this:

But if any of our grid items contains grid-column references that lie outside this, such as grid line number 4, 5 or 6 (or -4, -5 or -6), the browser is getting mixed messages. On the one hand, we have asked it to automatic create flexible columns (which should implicitly give us two columns at this screen width) but we have also explicitly referred to grid lines that don’t appear in a two-column grid. When there is a conflict between implicit (automatic) columns and an implicit number of columns, grid always defers to the explicit grid; hence the unwanted columns and horizontal overflow (which has also been aptly named CSS data loss). Just like using grid line numbers, spans can also create explicit columns. So, grid-column: span 3 (the eighth grid item in the demo) forces the grid to explicitly adopt at least three columns, whereas we want it, implicitly display two.

At this point it might seem like the only way forward is to use media queries to change the grid-column values at the width where our layout breaks — but not so fast! That’s what I assumed at first. But after thinking it though a bit more and playing around with various options, I found there are a limited set of workarounds that work all the way down to two columns, leaving just one media query to cover a single column layout for the narrowest screens.

The solutions

The trick, I realized, is to only specify spans using grid lines that appear in the narrowest grid you intend to display. That is a two-column grid in this case. (We will use a media query to cover the single column scenario for very narrow screens.) That means we can safely use grid lines 1, 2 and 3 (or -3, -2 and -1) without breaking the grid.

I initially thought that meant limiting myself to a maximum span of two columns, using combinations of the following:

  • grid column: span 2
  • grid-column: 1 /3
  • grid-column: -3 / -1

Which remains perfectly responsive right down to two columns:

Although this works, it is rather limiting from a design perspective, and not particularly exciting. I wanted to be able to create spans that would be three, four or even five columns wide on large screens. But how? My first thought was that I would have to resort to media queries (OMG old habits die hard!) but I was trying to get away from that approach and think differently about responsive design.

Taking another look at what we can do with just 1 to 3 and -3 to -1, I gradually realized that I could mix positive and negative line numbers for the grid column’s start and end values ,such as 1/-3 and 2/-2. At first glance, this does not seem very interesting. That changes when you realize where these lines are located as you resize the grid: these spanned elements change width with the screen size. This opened up a whole new set of possibilities for responsive column spans: items that will span different numbers of columns as the screen gets wider, without needing media queries.

The first example I discovered is grid-column: 1/-1.This makes the item act like a full-width banner, spanning from the first to the last column at all column numbers. it even works down to one column wide!

By using grid-column: 1/-2, a left-aligned nearly-full-width span could be created that would always leave a one column item to the right of it. When shrunk to two columns it would shrink responsively to a single column. Surprisingly, it even works when shrunk to a single column layout. (The reason seems to be that grid will not collapse an item to zero width, so it remains one column wide, as does grid-column: 1/1.) I assumed grid-column: 2/-1 would work similarly, but aligned with the right-hand edge, and for the most part it does, except at one column display when it causes overflow.

Next I tried 1/-3  which worked fine on wider screen, showing at least three columns, and smaller screens, showing one column. I thought it would do something weird on a two-column grid as the first grid line is the same as the grid line with -3. To my surprise, it still displays fine as a single-column item. 

After a lot of playing around, I came up with eleven possible grid column values using grid line numbers from the two-column grid. Surprisingly, three of these work right down to single-column layouts. Seven more work down to two columns and would only need a single media query to deal with single column display.

Here is the full list:

Responsive grid-column values, showing how they display at different screen sizes in an auto-fit grid. (Demo)

As you can see, although this is a limited subset of every possible responsive span, there are actually a lot of possibilities.

  • 2/-2 is interesting as it creates a centered span which works all the way down to one column! 
  • 3/-1 is  least useful as it causes overflow even with two-columns.
  • 3/-3 was a surprise.

By using a variety of grid-column values from this list, it is possible to create an interesting and fully responsive layout. Using a single media query for the narrowest single-column display, we have ten different grid-column span patterns to play with.  

The single-column media query is generally straightforward as well. The one on this final demo reverts to using flexbox at smaller screens:

@media (max-width: 680px) {   .archive {     display: flex;     flex-direction: column;   }    .article {     margin-bottom: 2em;   } }

Here is the final grid which, as you can see, is fully responsive from one to five columns:

(Demo)

Using :nth-child() to repeat variable length displays

The last trick I used to get my code down to two dozen lines was the :nth-child(n) selector which I used to style multiple items in my grid. I wanted my span styling to apply to multiple items in my feed, so that the featured post boxes appeared regularly throughout the page. To start with I used a comma-separated selector list, like this:

.article:nth-child(2), .article:nth-child(18), .article:nth-child(34), .article:nth-child(50)  {   background-color: rgba(128,0,64,0.8);   grid-column: -3 / -1; }

But I soon found this cumbersome, especially as I had to repeat this list for each child element I wanted to style within each article — such as the title, links and so on. During prototyping, if I wanted to play around with the position of my spanned elements, I had to manually change the numbers in each of these lists, which was tedious and error prone.

That’s when I realized that I could use a powerful feature :nth-child pseudo-selector instead of a simple integer as I had used in the list above. :nth-child(n) can also take an equation, such as :nth-child(2n+ 2), which will target every second child element.

Here is how I used the :nth-child([formula]) to create the blue full-width panels in my grid which appear at the very top of the page, and is repeated just over half way down:

.article:nth-child(31n + 1) {   grid-column: 1 / -1;   background: rgba(11, 111, 222, 0.5); }

The bit in the brackets (31n + 1 ) ensures that the 1st, 32nd, 63rd, etc. child is selected. The browser runs a loop starting with n=0 (in which case 31 * 0 + 1 = 1), then n=1 (31 * 1 + 1 = 32), then n=2 (31 * 2 + 1 = 63). In the last case, the browser realizes that  there is no 63rd child item so it ignores that, stops looping, and applies the CSS to the 1st and 32nd children.

I do something similar for the purple boxes which alternate down the page from right-to-left:

.article:nth-child(16n + 2) {   grid-column: -3 / -1;   background: rgba(128, 0, 64, 0.8); }  .article:nth-child(16n + 10) {   grid-column: 1 / -2;   background: rgba(128, 0, 64, 0.8); }

The first selector is for the right-hand purple boxes. The 16n + 2 makes sure that the styling applies to every 16th grid item, starting with the second item.

The second selector targets the right-hand boxes. It uses the same spacing (16n) but with a different offset (10). As a result, these boxes appear regularly on the right-hand side for grid items 10, 26, 42, etc.

When it comes to the visual styling for these grid items and their contents, I used another trick to reduce repetition. For styles that both boxes share (such as the background-color, for example) a single selector can be used to target both:

.article:nth-child(8n + 2) {   background: rgba(128, 0, 64, 0.8);   /* Other shared syling */ }

This will target items 2, 10, 18, 26, 34, 42, 50, and so forth.  In other words,  it selects both the left- and right-hand featured boxes.

It works because 8n is exactly half of 16n, and because the offsets used in the two separate selectors have a difference of 8 (i.e. the difference between +10 and +2 is 8) 

Final thoughts

Right now, CSS Grid can be used to create flexible responsive grids with minimal code, but this does come with some significant limitations on positioning elements without the retrograde step of using media queries.

It would be great to be able to specify spans that would not force overflow on smaller screens. At the moment, we effectively tell the browser, “Make a responsive grid, please,” which it does beautifully. But when we continue by saying, “Oh, and make this grid item span four columns,” it throws a hissy-fit on narrow screens, prioritizing the four-column span request rather than the responsive grid. It would be great to be able to tell grid to prioritize responsiveness over our span request. Something like this:

.article {   grid-column: span 3, autofit; }

Another issue with responsive grids is the last row. As the screen width changes the last row will frequently not be filled. I spent a long time looking for a way to make the last grid item span (and hence fill) the remaining columns, but it seems you can’t do it in Grid right now. It would be nice if we could specify the item’s start position with a keyword like auto meaning, “Please leave the left-hand edge wherever it falls.” Like this:

.article {   grid-column: auto, -1; }

…which would make the left-hand edge span to the end of the row.

The post Responsive Grid Magazine Layout in Just 20 Lines of CSS appeared first on CSS-Tricks.

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