coding character sheets

On Display

Paul Stefko
Mar 21, 2022
A brief introduction to Flexbox and Grid layout systems for CSS.
📕 7 min.

The display property is one of the most important for creating sophisticated layouts with CSS. It determines both how the element fits into the content flow (is it a block element or inline?) as well as a layout context for the element's children. And that's where its real power lies.

Outside Display

We've talked about block vs. inline elements before. This is where you set that value. Elements have their usual defaults, but you can use display: block to turn a <strong> element into a block of its own, for example.

There's not a lot of reason to change this part of the property without also changing the inside display context, which we'll discuss shortly. If you need a generic block element, you have our friend the <div>. And it has a cousin, <span>, that serves as a generic inline element.

Inside Display

You are much more likely to use display to set the layout context for the element's children. There's a lot of options here, but the two most important that we'll talk about today are flex and grid. (By default, both are blocks, but you can make either one inline by using inline-flex or inline-grid. I don't recommend doing this while you're still learning, though, because things can get weird.)


Flex layout, or flexbox layout, is a layout context for arranging child elements along a single one-dimension axis, either a row or a column. It's called "flex" because those children have flexible sizing, able to grow or shrink to best use the available space. By setting display: flex, you turn an element into a flex container. All of its child elements are called flex items.

.flex-row {
display: flex;

By default, flexbox arranges items in the direction text is normally written for the document language (left-to-right in English). You can change this with the flex-direction property on the flex container. So this CSS...

.flex-column {
display: flex;
flex-direction: column;

...would create a flex container that arranges its items in the direction that blocks are normally arranged in the document's language (top-to-bottom in English).

A flex container has two axes of alignment. The main axis runs in the direction of the flex context as defined by flex-direction, while the cross axis runs perpendicular to the main axis. By default, flex items stretch to the full width of the cross axis, but they don't stretch to fill the full width of the main axis.

The justify-content property of the flex container changes how items are spaced along the main axis. The default is flex-start, which aligns all items as close to the start of the main axis as possible. flex-end does the same but at the end of the main axis, and center aligns everything as close to the center of the main axis as possible. Three other values, space-around, space-between, and space-evenly, will spread the items out along the main axis in different ways. The following HTML and CSS...

<div class="flow-space-around">
<div>Item 1</div>
<div>Item 2</div>
<div>Item 3</div>
.flow-space-around {
display: flex;
justify-content: space-around;

...will render like this:

Item 1
Item 2
Item 3

Similarly, the align-content property aligns items along the cross axis. flex-start, flex-end, and center work as you'd expect. However, align-content doesn't have the space-* options. align-content really only matters if some of your flex items are larger than the others along the cross axis.

There's so much more to learn about flexbox, and I'm going to cover more advanced examples of it in the future, but if you want to dig in on your own, I recommend A Complete Guide to Flexbox on as an excellent guide to the various properties and values involved.


So, flexbox has you covered is you just want to line things up in a row or a column. But what if you want to lay things out in two dimensions? That's where CSS grid comes in. I'll be honest, when I first discovered grid, I thought it was total sorcery. It's completely changed how I do my work.

If you've done any amount of layout before, you're certainly familiar with the idea of a grid. CSS Grid Layout lets you create one for your web page and lay elements out in specific positions along a grid of rows and columns.

Like with flexbox, you make a grid container by assigning display: grid. All of the container's child elements become grid items.

By default, a grid container has a single column and as many rows as are needed to fit all of the grid items. To make a more complex grid, you must define grid tracks using the grid-template-columns and grid-template-rows properties. Each of these let you list any number of length values that define how wide a column is or how tall a row is. So, the following CSS...

.grid-1 {
display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 200px 300px 200px;
grid-template-rows: 200px 200px;

...would create a grid with three columns and two rows. From start to end, the cells would be 200 pixels, 300 pixels, and 200 pixels wide respectively, and each cell would be 200 pixels tall.

Grid also introduces a new length unit, the fr unit. 1fr is defined as one equal fraction of the available space in a grid track. The algorithm calculates how much of the container's width (for example) is left after subtracting any absolute sizes (like 200px), divides it by the total fr units defined for the track, and assigns the fractional cells appropriately. So, the following CSS...

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

...would give a grid with one 200-pixel column on either end, but the column in the middle would stretch to fill whatever space is left.

Grid items are then laid out along the grid tracks, each item filling one cell. Grid follows the document's normal flow directions by default. So, in English, it would fill columns from left to right until it hit the end of the track, then it would go down to the next row and continue left to right.

You can control the position of an element manually, instead. Imagine that every column and every row in the grid is divided by numbered lines. The start of the first column is numbered 1, then 2, 3, and so on. Same with the rows. You can position a grid item at one of these lines using the grid-column and grid-row properties. So the following CSS...

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

...would position an item in the second column of the second row, regardless of where it would have been positioned normally. You can mix and match manually positioned elements with automatically positioned ones, as well. The algorithm will skip over a cell if you've already assigned an item there.

If you manually position two items in the same cell, they will overlap. Whichever item is defined in the HTML source later will appear on top, by default.

You can also make items span multiple columns and/or rows. If you give grid-column or grid-row two numbers seperated by a forward slash /, that item will start at the first numbered line and end at the second.

You can use spanning and overlapping cells to create complex layouts. The following code...

<div class="grid-overlap">
<div class="item-1">Ullamco reprehenderit Lorem ullamco veniam enim dolor minim.</div>
<div class="item-2">Lorem esse ipsum aliquip proident veniam ad sint commodo excepteur ipsum.</div>
.grid-overlap {
display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 10em 1fr 1fr 10em;
grid-template-rows: 1fr 1fr 1fr;

.item-1 {
grid-column: 1 / 3;
grid-row: 1 / 4;
background-color: pink;
color: black;

.item-2 {
grid-column: 2 / 5;
grid-row: 2 / 3;
background-color: skyblue;
color: black;

...renders like this, for example.

Ullamco reprehenderit Lorem ullamco veniam enim dolor minim.
Lorem esse ipsum aliquip proident veniam ad sint commodo excepteur ipsum.

Much like with flexbox, Grid Layout has many more options and permutations. I recommend's A Complete Guide to Grid as a resource for learning how to use this powerful tool.


Hopefully you can already see uses for both flexbox and grid in your designs. We'll look at more concrete examples in the future, but I challenge you to play around with both and get a feel for them.