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Thinking Inside the Box

Paul Stefko
Mar 18, 2022
An introduction to <DIV>s and some of the ways you can style these plain boxes.
Tagshtml css
📕 4 min.

In HTML, the <div> element is also called the Content Division element. It's a basic container without any specific styling by default. And it's going to be your best friend as you move into more sophisticated designs.

<div> is a block element, so it will start immediately after the element before it, but unlike the paragraph element <p>, a <div> has no default spacing (margin or padding). It inherits properties like color and font from its parent. A <div> is a blank slate. (Everything in this post also applies to other elements like <p>.)

You will almost never need to select every <div> in your page. Instead, each one should get a class, or more likely multiple classes. And <div>s can share classes, styling multiple elements in similar ways.

Note: Semantic markup is a more advanced topic we'll cover in a future post, but for now, keep in mind that a <div> has no meaning in and of itself. It only serves as a container. If there is an element that more accurately represents your content, use that element. You still want to put a block of text in a <p> element, for example.

Sizes & Borders

By default, a <div> is as wide as the area bounded by its parent's padding, with its height determined by its contents. You can define height and width yourself:

.box {
height: 200px;
width: 300px;

I mentioned in a previous post that if an element's content needs more space than it has, it will overflow. You can adjust this using the overflow property:

.box {
height: 200px;
width: 300px;
overflow: hidden;

A <div>, like many elements, can have borders, which are drawn around the whole height and width. A border has three components: a width (in any length unit), a style (solid, dotted, etc.), and a color (or transparent). A single border property sets the border for all sides of the element, or you can set each side individually. You can set each border component individually, or even each component for each side.

.border {
border: 1px solid black;

.top-and-bottom-border {
border-top: 0.5rem solid blue;
border-bottom: 1rem dotted red;

.color-wheel-border {
border: 2px solid;
border-top-color: blue;
border-right-color: green;
border-bottom-color: yellow;
border-left-color: red;


You can set the background color of a <div> with the background-color property. Give it any valid color keyword or hex code and the entire area of the element will turn that color.

.green-box {
background-color: green;

Instead of a solid color, you can make an image serve as the background of an element using the background-image property. You must supply the location of the image using the url() function:

.image-box {
background-image: url("my-bg-img.png");

You can even make a gradient background using a gradient function. There are a few of these functions, and they can handle pretty complex gradient patterns if you want them to. But linear-gradient() starts out pretty simple. All you need to give it is a starting color and an end color. Optionally, you can give a direction or angle before the colors, if you want the gradient to go some way other than top-to-bottom. So, this CSS...

.gradient-box {
height: 200px;
width: 300px;
linear-gradient(to bottom right, red, blue);

...would render like this:


We've gradually built up a set of tools to make our first documents. Maybe you've already put enough pieces together to do something simple. Definitely give it a try. Next time, we'll look at a complete worked example, from Markdown to final styled page.