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In Cascading Style Sheets, the box model is everything. The primary purpose of CSS is visual presentation (although styling for non-visual presentation is included) and the box model is the primary mechanism of layout. Also of great importance are the inline layout model and the special mechanisms that exist to handle positioning and floating of elements. The serious designer must have a firm grasp of how the box model works and familiarity with it will allow the author to understand all the various properties will interact with each other when applied.

The CSS Box Model

Box model diagram

The diagram above demonstrates the CSS formatting model in general, but the box model in particular. Every CSS element forms a "box" composed of these components:


It is important to understand how box model widths are calculated. Use the following equation to determine the width of the containing block:

width = margin-left + border-left-width + padding-left + width + padding-right + border-right-width + margin-right

Microsoft get it wrong

Internet Explorer 5.x makes a complete pigs ear of this equation. It calculates the width of the content as the sum of the content and its padding and borders. If you want a box that is 100 pixels wide, with 10 pixels of padding and 10 pixels of border, you would normally set a style rule like this:

width: 100px; padding: 10px; border: 10px

To achieve the same effect in Internet Explorer 5.x, you would alter the style rule like this, or you would end up with a box that is 40 pixels narrower than it should be:

width: 140px; padding: 10px; border: 10px

In Internet Explorer 6.0, Microsoft have corrected this problem, but only if you specify a correct DOCTYPE declaration in your code, otherwise it reverts to the fucked-up version.


It is equally important to understand the difference between how widths are calculated and how heights are calculated. Vertically-adjacent margins of elements in normal document flow are collapsed. That means that the distance between two vertical margins that are adjacent to each other is the highest of the two values. If a block with the style rule margin-top: 1em is placed below another block with a style rule of margin-bottom: 3em than the distance between the two will be 3em, rather than 4em. There are two exceptions to this rule. Vertically-adjacent margins of positioned or floated elements are not collapsed.

the element background

If you apply a background (a color, an image or a combination of the two) to an element, that background extends all the way to the outer edge of the border around the element. The element and its padding are filled and the background will also be visible through the border if it has been given a border-style with gaps in it, such as dotted or double.

Below is an example. The paragraph has 1em of padding and a white, dotted border that is 5 pixels in width.

this example is of some text

It should be noted that many browsers fail to display this example correctly. Internet Explorer makes a good stab at it, but Mozilla and Opera fail to extend the background image underneath the border.

background reading

More on the CSS box model can be found at the website of the World Wide Web Consortium, in particular, in the specification of The Box Model. Also at the W3C is the CSS2 revision that corrects and updates the CSS level 2 specification. Also of note is the latest version of the box model module that is intended for Cascading Style Sheets Level 3. The specification includes many new features to wet the appetite. Tantek Çelik of Microsoft has come up with a hack that takes advantage of yet another bug to fix the problem it has calculating widths. Thank you for reading.

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© Simon Jessey, 2002