Sizing items in CSS

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In the various lessons so far you have come across a number of ways to size items on a web page using CSS. Understanding how big the different features in your design will be is important, and in this lesson we will summarize the various ways elements get a size via CSS and define a few terms around sizing that will help you in the future.

Prerequisites: Basic computer literacy, basic software installed, basic knowledge of working with files, HTML basics (study Introduction to HTML), and an idea of how CSS works (study CSS first steps.)
Objective: To understand the different ways we can size things in CSS.

The natural or intrinsic size of things

HTML Elements have a natural size, set before they are affected by any CSS. A straightforward example is an image. An image has a width and a height defined in the image file it is embedding into the page. This size is described as the intrinsic size — which comes from the image itself.

If you place an image on a page and do not change its height and width, either using attributes on the <img> tag or CSS, it will be displayed using that intrinsic size. We have given the image in the below example a border so that you can see the extent of the file.

An empty <div> however, has no size of its own. If you add a <div> to your HTML with no content, then give it a border as we did with the image, you will see a line on the page. This is the collapsed border on the element — there is no content to hold it open. In our example below, that border stretches to the width of the container, because it is a block level element, a behavior that should be starting to become familiar to you. It has no height (or size in the block dimension) because there is no content.

In the example above, try adding some text inside the empty element. The border now contains that text because the height of the element is defined by the content. Therefore the size of this <div> in the block dimension comes from the size of the content. Again, this is the intrinsic size of the element — its size is defined by its content.

Setting a specific size

We can of course give elements in our design a specific size. When a size is given to an element (and the content of which then needs to fit into that size) we refer to it as an extrinsic size. Take our <div> from the example above — we can give it specific width and height values, and it will now have that size no matter what content is placed into it. As we discovered in our previous lesson on overflow, a set height can cause content to overflow if there is more content than the element has space to fit inside it.

Due to this problem of overflow, fixing the height of elements with lengths or percentages is something we need to do very carefully on the web.

Using percentages

In many ways percentages act like length units, and as we discussed in the lesson on values and units, they can often be used interchangeably with lengths. When using a percentage you need to be aware what it is a percentage of. In the case of a box inside another container, if you give the child box a percentage width it will be a percentage of the width of the parent container.

This is because percentages resolve against the size of the containing block. With no percentage applied our <div> would take up 100% of the available space, as it is a block level element. If we give it a percentage width, this becomes a percentage of the space it would normally fill.

Percentage margins and padding

If you set margins and padding as a percentage you may notice some strange behavior. In the below example we have a box. We have given the inner box a margin of 10% and a padding of 10%. The padding and margin on the top and bottom of the box are the same size as the margin on the left and right.

You might expect for example the percentage top and bottom margins to be a percentage of the element's height, and the percentage left and right margins to be a percentage of the element's width. However, this is not the case!

When you use margin and padding set in percentages, the value is calculated from the inline size — therefore the width when working in a horizontal language. In our example, all of the margins and padding are 10% of the width. This means you can have equal sized margins and padding all round the box. This is a fact worth remembering if you do use percentages in this way.

min- and max- sizes

In addition to giving things a fixed size, we can ask CSS to give an element a minimum or a maximum size. If you have a box that might contain a variable amount of content, and you always want it to be at least a certain height, you could set the min-height property on it. The box will always be at least this height, but will then grow taller if there is more content than the box has space for at its minimum height.

In the example below you can see two boxes, both with a defined height of 150 pixels. The box on the left is 150 pixels tall; the box on the right has content that needs more room, and so it has grown taller than 150 pixels.

This is very useful for dealing with variable amounts of content while avoiding overflow.

A common use of max-width is to cause images to scale down if there is not enough space to display them at their intrinsic width, while making sure they don't become larger than that width.

As an example, if you were to set width: 100% on an image, and its intrinsic width was smaller than its container, the image would be forced to stretch and become larger, causing it to look pixellated. If its intrinsic width were larger than its container, it would overflow it. Neither case is likely to be what you want to happen.

If you instead use max-width: 100%, the image is able to become smaller than its intrinsic size, but will stop at 100% of its size.

In the example below we have used the same image twice. The first image has been given width: 100% and is in a container which is larger than it, therefore it stretches to the container width. The second image has max-width: 100% set on it and therefore does not stretch to fil the container. The third box contains the same image again, also with max-width: 100% set; in this case you can see how it has scaled down to fit into the box.

This technique is used to make images responsive, so that when viewed on a smaller device they scale down appropriately. You should however not use this technique to load in really large images and then scale them down in the browser. Images should be appropriately sized to be no larger than they need to be for the largest size they are displayed in the design. Downloading overly large images will cause your site to become slow, and it can cost users more money if they are on a metered connection.

Note: Find out more about responsive image techniques.

Viewport units

The viewport — which is the visible area of your page in the browser you are using to view a site — also has a size. In CSS we have units which relate to the size of the viewport — the vw unit for viewport width, and vh for viewport height. Using these units you can size something relative to the viewport of the user.

1vh is equal to 1% of the viewport height, and 1vw is equal to 1% of the viewport width. You can use these units to size boxes, but also text. In the example below we have a box which is sized as 20vh and 20vw. The box contains a letter A, which has been given a font-size of 10vh.

If you change the vh and vw values this will change the size of the box or font; changing the viewport size will also change their sizes because they are sized relative to the viewport. To see the example change when you change the viewport size you will need to load the example in a new browser window that you can resize (as the embedded <iframe> that contains the example shown above is its viewport). Open the example, resize the browser window, and observe what happens to the size of the box and text.

Sizing things according to the viewport can be useful in your designs. For example, if you want a full page hero section to show before the rest of your content, making that part of your page 100vh high will push the rest of the content below the viewport, meaning that it will only appear once the document is scrolled.

Summary

This lesson has given you a rundown of some key issues that you might run into when sizing things on the web. When you move onto CSS Layout, sizing will become very important in mastering the different layout methods, so it is worth understanding the concepts here before moving on.

In this module

  1. Cascade and inheritance
  2. CSS selectors
  3. The box model
  4. Backgrounds and borders
  5. Handling different text directions
  6. Overflowing content
  7. Values and units
  8. Sizing items in CSS
  9. Images, media, and form elements
  10. Styling tables
  11. Debugging CSS
  12. Organizing your CSS