People Digging into Grid Sizing and Layout Possibilities

Jen Simmons has been coining the term intrinsic design, referring to a new era in web layout where the sizing of content has gone beyond fluid columns and media query breakpoints and into, I dunno, something a bit more exotic. For example, columns that are sized more by content and guidelines than percentages. And not always columns, but more like appropriate placement, however that needs to be done.

One thing is for sure, people are playing with the possibilities a lot right now. In the span of 10 days I’ve gathered these links:

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Simple Named Grid Areas

I think of named grid areas in CSS Grids as bring-your-own syntactic sugar. You don’t absolutely need them (you could express grid placement in other ways), but it can make that placement more intuitive. And, hey, if I’m wrong about that, correct me in the comments.

Say you set up a 3-column grid:

.grid { display: grid; grid-gap: 1rem; grid-template-columns: 200px 1fr 1fr;

No rows defined there; those are implicit and will appear as needed. We could define them, we just aren’t, because like most situations in web design, we don’t care how tall the items are — the height will grow as needed to accomodate the content.

Now, how do we place something in that very top-left position in the grid? We could tell the grid to place it there like this:

.item { grid-column: 1 / 2; /* start at the first grid column line and end at the second */

That works, although that .item better be the first child of .grid. Otherwise, something else may implicitly be placed there and .item will kick down to the next open row. If we wanted to be super sure to place it in the top-left, we could do the row as well:

.item { grid-column: 1 / 2; grid-row: 1 / 2;

Now it will be in the top-left for sure, even if other items are explicitly placed there (they’ll just overlap). We can even shorten things up with the grid-area property:

.item { grid-area: 1 / 1 / 2 / 2;

All those 1’s and 2’s might be intuitive enough for now, but the numbers become a bit much in more complex grids involving both column and row placement.

Check this. While we are defining the columns, we can name them with a separate property:

.grid { display: grid; grid-gap: 1rem; grid-template-columns: 200px 1fr 1fr; grid-template-areas: "pro a b" "pro c d";

Every quoted group in grid-template-areas is a row. Inside are names I just made up. Could be just about anything, as long as it makes sense to you. See how the word “pro” is repeated twice there on two rows? That’s important, as it’s saying that we could place a grid item where that value “pro” is and it will be in the first of three columns and span two rows. Pretty intuitive, yeah?

We place it like this:

.pro-features { /* rather than */ grid-area: 1 / 1 / 2 / 3; /* we can now do */ grid-area: pro;

Here’s that simple example:

See the Pen Simple Named Grid Areas by Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) on CodePen.

Want to get even more descriptive with a grid? Try drawing it in your CSS comments.

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Don’t use empty or low content for your design system grid examples

Dave and I had Jen Simmons on ShopTalk the other day. Jen was talking about Intrinsic Web Design and how one of the core tenets of it is grids with rows and columns that don’t necessarily change at the same rate or ones that have essentially different rules for how they behave.

For example, take this (contrived) grid setup:

.grid { display: grid; grid-template-columns: 1fr minmax(50px, 100px) 20% auto;

Each of those columns will behave differently.

I’m just wrapping my head about this, and definitely don’t fully understand it. Here’s what it seems like to me, numbered 1-4 based on the “strength” (I guess?) of the width.

.grid { display: grid; grid-template-columns: 1fr /* #4 - Weakest, will fill remaining space */ minmax(50px, 100px) /* #3 - Will only start changing when other columns force it */ 20% /* #1 - Definite size, steady */ auto /* #2 - Indefinite size, entirely based on content, pushy */ ;

This is much different from quite a long history of how we’ve set up grid columns in the past. Float-based grids typically use percentages (a definite size) to set columns. Same with inline-block-based grids, typically.

Even with grid, if you set up all your columns with all percentages or all fractional units, you’d likely have a steady grid in which the content inside won’t mess with sizing. But Jen is saying that it’s interesting to have a grids where the content has a say in how they size. Embrace it. Sounds fun to me.

But anyway, say you’re setting up a grid that uses mixed values for column widths like this. Don’t do that with totally empty columns, otherwise, you’ll get a false sense of how those columns will behave.

Just look at this demo where these four grids have the exact same setup and all that is different is the amount of text in each column.

See the Pen Different Collapse Rates of Different Column Width Values by Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) on CodePen.


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Aspect Ratios for Grid Items

We’ve covered Aspect Ratio Boxes before. It involves trickery with padding such that an element’s width and height are in proportion to your liking. It’s not an ultra-common need, since fixing an element’s height is asking for trouble, but it comes up.

One way to lower the risk is The Psuedo Element Tactic, in which a pseudo element pushes its parent element to the aspect ratio, but if the content inside pushes it taller, it will get taller, aspect ratio be damned.

You can use that technique in CSS grid with grid items! Although there are a couple of different ways to apply it that are worth thinking about.

Remember that grid areas and the element that occupy them aren’t necessarily the same size.

We just covered this. That article started as a section in this article but felt important enough to break off into its own concept.

Knowing this, it leads to: do you need the grid area to have an aspect ratio, and the element will stretch within? Or does the element just need an aspect ratio regardless of the grid area it is in?

Scenario 1) Just the element inside needs to have an aspect ratio.

Cool. This is arguably easier. Make sure the element is 100% as wide as the grid area, then apply a pseudo element to handle the height-stretching aspect ratio.

<div class="grid"> <div style="--aspect-ratio: 2/1;">2/1</div> <div style="--aspect-ratio: 3/1;">3/1</div> <div style="--aspect-ratio: 1/1;">1/1</div>
.grid { display: grid; grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr; place-items: start;
.grid > * { background: orange; width: 100%;
.grid > [style^='--aspect-ratio']::before { content: ""; display: inline-block; width: 1px; height: 0; padding-bottom: calc(100% / (var(--aspect-ratio)));

Which leads to this:

Note that you don’t need to apply aspect ratios through custom properties necessarily. You can see where the padding-bottom is doing the heavy lifting and that value could be hard-coded or whatever else.

Scenario 2) Span as many columns as needed for width

I bet it’s more likely that what you are needing is a way to make a, say 2-to-1 aspect ratio element, to actually span two columns, not be trapped in one. Doing this is a lot like what we just did above, but adding in rules to do that column spanning.

[style="--aspect-ratio: 1/1;"] { grid-column: span 1;
[style="--aspect-ratio: 2/1;"] { grid-column: span 2;
[style="--aspect-ratio: 3/1;"] { grid-column: span 3;

If we toss grid-auto-flow: dense; in there too, we can get items with a variety of aspect ratios packing in nicely as they see fit.

Now is a good time to mention there little ways to screw up exact aspect ratios here. The line-height on some text might push a box taller than you want. If you want to use grid-gap, that might throw ratios out of whack. If you need to get super exact with the ratios, you might have more luck hard-coding values.

Doing column spanning also gets tricky if you’re in a grid that doesn’t have a set number of rows. Perhaps you’re doing a repeat/auto-fill thing. You might end up in a scenario with unequal columns that won’t be friendly to aspect ratios. Perhaps we can dive into that another time.

Scenario 3) Force stuff

Grid has a two-dimensional layout capability and, if we like, we could get our aspect ratios just by forcing the grid areas to the height and width we want. For instance, nothing is stopping you from hard-coding heights and widths into columns and rows:

.grid { display: grid; grid-template-columns: 200px 100px 100px; grid-template-rows: 100px 200px 300px;

We normally don’t think that way, because we want elements to be flexible and fluid, hence the percentage-based techniques used above for aspect ratios. Still, it’s a thing you can do.

See the Pen Aspect Ratio Boxes Filling by Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) on CodePen.

This example forces grid areas to be the size they are and the elements stretch to fill, but you could fix the element sizes as well.

Real world example

Ben Goshow wrote to me trying to pull this off, which is what spurred this:

Part of the issue there was not only getting the boxes to have aspect ratios, but then having alignment ability inside. There are a couple of ways to approach that, but I’d argue the easiest way is nested grids. Make the grid element display: grid; and use the alignment capabilities of that new internal grid.

See the Pen CSS Grid Items with Aspect Ratio and Internal Alignment by Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) on CodePen.

Note in this demo instead of spanning rows, the elements are explicitly placed (not required, an example alternative layout method).

Aspect Ratios for Grid Items is a post from CSS-Tricks