On Responsive Layout and Grids

I often get asked which responsive grid system I use. This is a very frustrating question because it implies a requirement where I have none. With the myriad solutions presented I can’t blame people for thinking they have a choice to make.

This article is my response to that question.

Anatomy of a grid system

Responsive grid systems can be broken into two main parts:

  1. A CSS construct for the basic grid cell/unit
  2. A catch-all methodology to cover generic column layout

Most systems I see feature a largely trivial decision around part #1 and a load of nonsense for part #2 — in my opinion. I don’t mean to insult those who attempt this. Many smart minds have produced very interesting results worth studying. I call it nonsense because overcomplicating the problem will always produce crazy complex solutions. I believe this comes down to a desire to abstract code too far.

This is how I handle responsive layout:

Part 1 — the basic unit

There are numerous ways to achieve this. The principle is to align elements as columns with an even gutter between them. Here’s a five-column example:

responsive grid

I’d be worried if that surprised you but illustrations make a long article look nice. From experimentation last year I’ve been using this CSS construct ever since:

.grid {
    @include clearfix;
    margin: 0 -1.5em;
}
.grid-unit {
    box-sizing: border-box;
    display: block;
    float: left;
    padding: 0 1.5em;
    width: 100%;
}
.layout .grid-unit {
    width: 20%;
}

The .grid class acts as a container for grid units. The unit padding and negative container margins make for very tidy alignment — I’ll come back to .layout later.

Units are outlined in black in the diagram below:

responsive grid with margin and padding visible

You can achieve the same thing with inline blocks or table-cell display. I called this choice trivial. It’s not entirely inconsequential. You need to consider browser support and it will affect how you style content inside the grid.

Personally I like to separate these layout elements with an extra div to avoid conflicts with visible content styles. You may gasp in horror at the thought of extra markup — I’ll be in the pub Friday evening by 6pm. That’s literally the only significant consequence.

When support for CSS Flexbox hits critical mass I’ll likely transition towards that for grid units. It has a magic order property that will solve responsive layout forever.

Part 2 — responsive layout

This is the meat and potatoes of a responsive grid system and the reason I ultimately reject many of them. The ones that try to offer pre-defined classes for every possible column arrangement are a lost cause.

In my opinion there’s a fundamentally flawed logic in trying to write a generic catch-all solution. You’re always going to end up with hundreds of unnecessary variations. If you use classes it’s going to look hideously confusing. If you don’t use classes it’s going to look horrendously perplexing.

I write responsive layout CSS on a per-module basis as-and-when required. Let’s say I have four feature boxes on my home page:

responsive grid layout

By default they’re stacked vertically (I may progressively enhance to a fancy carousel but that’s beside the point). On a medium sized viewport I want them two-by-two. Widest breakpoint; one row, four columns.

My HTML is as you’d expect, ignoring possible semantic choices like section or article elements. I may not even need an extra div to style my features:

<div class="grid home-features">
    <div class="grid-unit"><!-- feature 1 --></div>
    <div class="grid-unit"><!-- feature 2 --></div>
    <div class="grid-unit"><!-- feature 3 --></div>
    <div class="grid-unit"><!-- feature 4 --></div>
</div>

The additional CSS I need is minimal:

@media screen and (min-width: 40em) {
    .home-features .grid-unit {
        width: 50%;
    }
}
@media screen and (min-width: 60em) {
    .home-features .grid-unit {
        width: 25%;
    }
}

In practice it’s a bit more complicated because I’m ignoring vertical spacing here but my basic principle still applies: avoid defining layout until I need it.

(In practice I actually use a lot of CSS preprocessor techniques to avoid multiple classes.)

Abstraction

This doesn’t mean I can’t abstract and reuse common layouts. If my features module is used beyond the home page I just apply CSS with a non page-specific class name.

Say I reuse the features module on the “blog” page but it’s now nested inside another layout with half the available width? I simply abstract the common visual styles with a .features class and apply different layout and breakpoints using .home-features and now .blog-features (or a hook higher up in the DOM).

You can’t define good responsive breakpoints until you know content and location. That’s another reason to avoid pre-defined systems.

Job done

I’ve build websites large and small with this philosophy and I really don’t see a situation where it needs to be any more complicated. I love modular CSS as much as the next person but there’s a point where it becomes an abstraction too far. Don’t solve a problem until it exists. From my experience, trying to find a pre-defined system for every permutation of nested grids is a fool’s errand.

Design vs code

Finally, though a website is designed on a grid doesn’t mean we have to replicate it entirely with a single code system. In my Passenger Focus case study I highlight the areas where my technique above kicks in (grid units are outlined in blue):

Passenger Focus website grid design

The header was designed on the grid but bespoke layout CSS was easier to manage.

So for those who often enquire about my responsive grid “solution” — it’s about 10 lines of code. Not a problem that keeps me up at night.


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