The Ultimative Flexbox Based CSS Layout

Things are looking good on the CSS layout front. Flexbox can be used in all major browsers and CSS Grid Layout is almost at a point where browser support has reached a sweet spot – for some of us it might even be feasible to build production websites using CSS Grid Layout and some form of graceful fallback.

Until the rest of us can also switch to CSS Grid Layout for good, we have to rely solely on Flexbox to serve all of our layout needs. But this is not a bad thing at all, Flexbox is pretty powerful by itself already.

In todays article we’re going to build two powerful Sass Mixins to serve all of our CSS layout needs.

The starting point: Flexbox grid

The challenge of finding smarter and better methods of building grid layouts with CSS is as old as CSS itself. When Flexbox was introduced, things got a lot easier.

@mixin grid($gutter-vertical: 1rem, $gutter-horizontal: 1rem) {
  display: flex;
  flex-wrap: wrap;

  @if $gutter-vertical > 0 {
    margin-top: -$gutter-vertical;
    
    > * {
      padding-top: $gutter-vertical;
    }
  }
  @if $gutter-horizontal > 0 {
    margin-left: -$gutter-horizontal;
    
    > * {
      padding-left: $gutter-vertical;
    }
  }
}

@mixin grid__item($size: 12/12) {
  width: $size * 100%;
  flex-grow: 1;
  box-sizing: border-box;
}

What you can see above is a Sass Mixin for a grid wrapper and a Sass Mixin to generate grid items. We’re setting the display property of the wrapper to flex and specify that grid items in it should wrap. By doing so, all of the immediate child elements (grid items) of the wrapper element are displayed as columns side by side until the point where there is not enough space anymore and a new row with items begins.

We’re applying negative margins for the optional vertical and negative gutter, to compensate for the gutter which is applied to the grid items. Most of the popular grid layouts do not compensate for the gutter of the grid columns, which makes it harder to apply vertical gutters between grid items and it also makes nesting grids more complicated. However there are also two downsides of using negative margins: it might look confusing when inspecting grids with the browser developer tools and there is a problem with clearing the negative margin under some circumstances.

We’re applying the vertical and horizontal gutters as paddings. By setting the box-sizing property in the grid item Mixin to be border-box, we make it possible to apply specific widths without having to substract the horizontal padding.

See the Pen Semantic Flexbox Grid Layout by Markus Oberlehner (@maoberlehner) on CodePen.

(Look at the example at CodePen: https://codepen.io/maoberlehner/pen/zPYmrV)

Transforming the grid into a layout Swiss Army Knife

Grids can be pretty useful to build certain layouts but oftentimes grids are not the best solution for the problem at hand. Flexbox makes it possible to build flexible and fluid layouts which adapt to the content without using any media queries at all.

@mixin layout($gutter-vertical: 1rem, $gutter-horizontal: 1rem) {
  display: flex;
  flex-wrap: wrap;

  @if $gutter-vertical > 0 {
    margin-top: -$gutter-vertical;

    > * {
      padding-top: $gutter-vertical;
    }
  }
  @if $gutter-horizontal > 0 {
    margin-left: -$gutter-horizontal;

    > * {
      padding-left: $gutter-horizontal;
    }
  }
}

@mixin layout__item($size: 'auto', $min-width: 0) {
  box-sizing: border-box;

  @if $size == 'auto' {
    flex-grow: 1;
  } @else if $size == 'max' {
    flex-grow: 9999;
  } @else {
    flex-grow: 1;
    width: $size * 100%;
  }
  @if $min-width > 0 {
    flex-basis: $min-width;
  }
}

The first Mixin is still the same as before, but we’ve changed its name to layout, grid would be misleading because of the new super powers we’ve added in the second Mixin.

The new layout__item Mixin now has a default size of auto and a new parameter min-width to define a minimal width. By setting the size to auto and not setting a min-width, the column width is automatically calculated depending on its content and the width of the other columns.

By setting the size parameter to max we can define that the column should take the most space it can possible get, so all of its surrounding columns shrink to their minimal width to make room for this column.

The last possible value for the size, is the same that it was before: a fraction of the desired grid width (e.g. 612).

By additionally specifying a min-width we’re able to define that the column is not allowed to shrink further than this width, this means that the column is taking a new row if the available space is to little to keep its minimal width intact.

See the Pen No Media Query Responsive Layout (The Ultimative Flexbox Based CSS Layout) by Markus Oberlehner (@maoberlehner) on CodePen.

(Look at the example at CodePen: https://codepen.io/maoberlehner/pen/ZXPNEy)

Final thoughts

Flexbox is a powerful tool which makes it possible to build very complex layouts which adapt to the screen size and the content. However the combinations of flex specific properties to add to the CSS code to achieve certain layouts, might not always be self-explanatory.

Using Sass Mixins can add a layer of abstraction which not only makes it easier to achieve those complex layouts but even more important, it makes it easier to understand the code.


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