Building Grids

There are a number of ways to build grids with HTML and css. Let's look at a few of the most common.

We're going to build four grids, each very visually similar, but using different techniques. However, many of the styles will be shared across all four grids, and therefore each grid will have two classes: one that they all share (grid) and one that is specific to the technique (using-floats, using-inline-block, using-flex, or using-grid ). Pay attention to the instructions, because some rules will be applied using the shared class, and some with the specific class!

Grids using the table element

Stop right there! Don't do it. While the table element does indeed produce a grid of cells, its semantic purpose is actually to present data that is tabular, like a spreadsheet of numbers. It is not intended to be used as a layout tool for page content. It also handles responsiveness (the ability of the page to adjust to the width of the window on any device) poorly. So, we're skipping it!

Grids using float

It is possible to use the float property to create grids, and it is perhaps the oldest technique for doing so. We'll take a look at how it's done, but be advised that personally I find other grid techniques to be friendlier, and I only use float when I actually need to wrap text around an element.

Note that in this example and with others following, we'll use a ul element to represent the grid, and li elements for each cell in the grid. This is because in most cases, a grid is conceptually a list that we're just 'presenting' in rows/columns because it's an effective way to communicate small multiples of a thing — like portraits in a yearbook. Semantically, those portraits are just an alphabetical list.

I've started a list below, with a single item. Let's begin by populating the HTML of our list. Don't be alarmed: The pictures are going to be huge. We'll take care of that in a minute when we add css.

  1. Replicate the li element below to make a new li for eight people. You should end up with a single ul containing eight list items, each item with a photo and name.

Okay, let's get these images under control so we can see what we're doing.

  1. Create a stylesheet for this exercise, and link it in the document head.
  2. Add a css ruleset that selects img elements inside .grid. This is the shared class, so this rule will apply to all of the grids we build.
  3. In the selector, add this rule: width: 150px;

The images are now small, but the list-items are still displaying as a bulleted list. Let's override the default list styles.

  1. Create a ruleset for the .grid class, and add the rule padding: 0;. This should remove default padding on the ul that wraps our grid.
  2. Create a new ruleset to select the li elements within .grid. Add the rule display: block;.

Bullets are gone, padding is gone, but our images are still not aligning side-by-side. This is where float comes in.

  1. Add a new selector for this specific grid's li. Use .using-floats li. We're using the specific class because this rule applies only to this grid. Set float: left;. WARNING: This is going to make the page look very broken. It's okay, keep going... but this is why I don't like using floats!

Our elements are now side-by-side, but $#!% went sideways. Remember why? Everything following a floated element tries to wrap around it. That's good, it's what's making our items go side-by-side... but we need to clear the floated elements at the end of the grid. There is a clever technique we can use to do this. We'll use the ::after pseudo-element to insert an element at the end of the list, and apply our clear: both; rule to it.

  1. Create a ruleset with the selector .using-floats::after.
  2. Add the rule content: ""; so the pseudo-element exists.
  3. Add the rule display: block;. This makes pseudo-element the width of its container, even though we cannot see it.
  4. Add the rule clear: both;.

At this point, our grid starts to look like it makes sense. But lets take a few more steps to tidy things up. We'll apply these rules using the shared grid class, so we don't have to do them again for the next grid.

  1. Create a selector for .grid li and set the following rules:
  2. width: 25%; Ensures our grid is "4-up" (25% * 4 = 100% of the available width).
  3. text-align: center; Centers the image and name within each box.
  4. font-size: 0.8rem; Makes the text a bit smaller.
  5. margin-bottom: 1rem; Adds some space below each item.
  6. Finally, in your selector for the img, change the width to width: 90%;. This means "be 90% the width of your parent." The parent li is 25% of the total page width. This ensures the image has a bit of space on either side within its parent item, even on small devices.

We have a serviceable grid! But oh, so many steps to get here. There must be a better way, right?

Grids using inline-block

We've discussed how some elements are inline elements and some are block elements.You may have figured out by now that we can control this behavior with the display css property. Even though a code element (for instance) is normally inline, we can force it to be a block element with css like this: code { display: block; }.

There exists a 'hybrid' of these two behaviors: display: inline-block;. Elements with this rule applied will be styleable like blocks (all of the padding, margin, etc), but will not expand automatically to fill the width of their parent. Instead, they will only be wide enough to hold their content, and more importantly, they will align themselves horizontally like words, fitting themselves left-to-right until wrapping to a new line. We can use this behavior to make a grid!

  1. Copy the entire ul grid from the previous section, and paste it here, then change it's class list to be class="grid using-inline-block". Note the space, it means there are two classes on this element.

Look, we picked up a bunch of existing styles from the shared grid class, so our images are already sized, the text is centered, etc. Hurray for shared classes to avoid repetition!

Let's start out like we did for floats, except this time, the li element will be display: inline-block;. Don't forget, we're styling a new grid now, with a different specific class name, so you'll make a new set of selectors to control styles specific to this grid, prefixed with .using-inline-block!

  1. For this grid's li elements, set display: inline-block;. Be sure you aren't styling using the shared .grid li selector! Instead, what we're doing here is overriding the existing rule with a new one.

This grid is shaping up fairly quickly, but there's one quirk. Our shared styles say the li elements should be width: 25%;... so why aren't they 4-up? The answer lies with a rendering detail of inline-block elements. Because inline-block elements wrap like words, it turns out the browser pays attention to the space character between these elements in the HTML code — just like it pays attention to a space between words. What's happening is this: we have 25% + 25% + 25% + 25% for our list items + 3 spaces, which adds up to more than 100%. The last item must therefore fall to the next line.

The solution is some creative css!

  1. Create a selector for .using-inline-block, and set font-size: 0;.

We've shrunk the space between the li elements to nothing, so we're back to a perfect 25% × 4. However: if we hadn't explicitly set a font-size for the li elements earlier (remember font-size: 0.8rem;?), our names would have disappeared too, because they'd have inherited font-size: 0; from the surrounding ul. Try using the inspector to 'un-check' the font-size style rule for .grid li and see for yourself.

Grids using flex

Flex Layout, or flexbox, is a very powerful collection of layout tools in css.This lesson will not even attempt to get into all the intricacies of flex layout, but we can at least scratch the surface by seeing how it can be used for simple grids like ours. If you want to dig deeper, the Complete Guide to Flexbox is a fantastic resource.

To demonstrate, let's copy our grid ul once again.

  1. Copy the entire ul grid from the previous section, and paste it here, then change its class list to be class="grid using-flex".

Again, our shared styles are already applied, because this ul has the shared grid class. So all we need to do are add the few specific rules for this technique.

  1. Create a selector for this grid's specific class. Add the following rules:
  2. display: flex;
  3. flex-wrap: wrap;

A nice tidy grid once again! In previous methods, the critical rules for making the grid were appled to the child elements, the lis. This time, we're applying a rule to the parent element, the ul. Flex layout can feel a little strange at first because we control children indirectly through rules applied to the parent container, but when you're used to it, it's a very convenient and, uh, flexible (sorry) system. (It's also the approach I normally use for grids myself.)

Grids using grid

As with Flex layout, Grid layout is a very involved suite of tools, and we'll just use the most basic example here. For a complete reference, use the Complete Guide to Grid.

Let's copy our grid ul a final time.

  1. Copy the entire ul grid from the previous section, and paste it here, then change its class list to be class="grid using-grid".
  1. Create a selector for this grid's ul using it's specific class, and add the following rules:
  2. display: grid;
  3. grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr 1fr;

The fr unit stands for fraction, so the above rule is instructing our grid to have four columns, each with an equal fraction of the available space.

You'll see that our images got tiny. Oops! In this case, our shared rule setting the li elements to be width: 25%; is working against us. Since the grid column rule defines a conceptual parent 'column' in which each li resides, we can tell each li to be 100% of it's parent. We only want to do this for this grid, so we will not modify the shared rule. Instead, we will override it.

  1. Create a selector for .using-grid li, and set width: 100%;.

We are now back to having the images fill their column correctly, and our grid is complete!

That's the end of our grid examples (finally!), but it's worth noting that an extremely important part of this whole lesson has been the application of a shared class, in the grid class. Doing so helped avoid repititious work, it also helped avoid repetitous stylesheet code. If you find yourself copying entire blocks of css code then only changing the selector and one tiny detail in the ruleset, you're doing it wrong. This is a prime use-case for a shared class!