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Working with the Box Model

Every element is a rectangular box, and there are several properties that determine the size of that box. The core of the box is defined by the width and height of an element, which may be determined by the display property, by the contents of the element, or by specified width and height properties. padding and then border expand the dimensions of the box outward from the element’s width and height. Lastly, any margin we have specified will follow the border.

Each part of the box model corresponds to a CSS property: width, height, padding, border, and margin.

Let’s look these properties inside some code:

1.   div {
2.     border: 6px solid #949599;
3.     height: 100px;
4.     margin: 20px;
5.     padding: 20px;
6.     width: 400px;
7.   }

According to the box model, the total width of an element can be calculated using the following formula:

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

In comparison, according to the box model, the total height of an element can be calculated using the following formula:

margin-top + border-top + padding-top + height + padding-bottom +
border-bottom + margin-bottom

Using the formulas with the box shown in Figure 4.3, we can find the total height and width of our example.

  • Width: 492px = 20px + 6px + 20px + 400px + 20px + 6px + 20px
  • Height: 192px = 20px + 6px + 20px + 100px + 20px + 6px + 20px
Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 The box model broken down, including a base height and width plus paddings, borders, and margins

The box model is without question one of the more confusing parts of HTML and CSS. We set a width property value of 400 pixels, but the actual width of our element is 492 pixels. By default the box model is additive; thus to determine the actual size of a box we need to take into account padding, borders, and margins for all four sides of the box. Our width not only includes the width property value, but also the size of the left and right padding, left and right borders, and left and right margins.

So far a lot of these properties might not make a whole lot of sense, and that’s all right. To clarify things, let’s take a close look at all of the properties—width, height, padding, border, and margin—that go into forming the box model.

Width & Height

Every element has default width and height. That width and height may be 0 pixels, but browsers, by default, will render every element with size. Depending on how an element is displayed, the default height and width may be adequate. If an element is key to the layout of a page, it may require specified width and height property values. In this case, the property values for non-inline elements may be specified.


The default width of an element depends on its display value. Block-level elements have a default width of 100%, consuming the entire horizontal space available. Inline and inline-block elements expand and contract horizontally to accommodate their content. Inline-level elements cannot have a fixed size, thus the width and height properties are only relevant to non-inline elements. To set a specific width for a non-inline element, use the width property:

1.   div {
2.     width: 400px;
3.   }


The default height of an element is determined by its content. An element will expand and contract vertically as necessary to accommodate its content. To set a specific height for a non-inline element, use the height property:

1.   div {
2.     height: 100px;
3.   }

Margin & Padding

Depending on the element, browsers may apply default margins and padding to an element to help with legibility and clarity. We will generally see this with text-based elements. The default margins and padding for these elements may differ from browser to browser and element to element. In Lesson 1 we discussed using a CSS reset to tone all of these default values down to zero. Doing so allows us to work from the ground up and to specify our own values.


The margin property allows us to set the amount of space that surrounds an element. Margins for an element fall outside of any border and are completely transparent in color. Margins can be used to help position elements in a particular place on a page or to provide breathing room, keeping all other elements a safe distance away. Here’s the margin property in action:

1.   div {
2.     margin: 20px;
3.   }

One oddity with the margin property is that vertical margins, top and bottom, are not accepted by inline-level elements. These vertical margins are, however, accepted by block-level and inline-block elements.


The padding property is very similar to the margin property; however, it falls inside of an element’s border, should an element have a border. The padding property is used to provide spacing directly within an element. Here’s the code:

1.   div {
2.     padding: 20px;
3.   }

The padding property, unlike the margin property, works vertically on inline-level elements. This vertical padding may blend into the line above or below the given element, but it will be displayed.

Margin & Padding Declarations

In CSS, there is more than one way to declare values for certain properties. We can use longhand, listing multiple properties and values one after the other, in which each value has its own property. Or we can use shorthand, listing multiple values with one property. Not all properties have a shorthand alternative, so we must make sure we are using the correct property and value structure.

The margin and padding properties come in both longhand and shorthand form. When using the shorthand margin property to set the same value for all four sides of an element, we specify one value:

1.   div {
2.     margin: 20px;
3.   }

To set one value for the top and bottom and another value for the left and right sides of an element, specify two values: top and bottom first, then left and right. Here we are placing margins of 10 pixels on the top and bottom of a <div> and margins of 20 pixels on the left and right:

1.   div {
2.     margin: 10px 20px;
3.   }

To set unique values for all four sides of an element, specify those values in the order of top, right, bottom, and left, moving clockwise. Here we are placing margins of 10 pixels on the top of a <div>, 20 pixels on the right, 0 pixels on the bottom, and 15 pixels on the left.

1.   div {
2.     margin: 10px 20px 0 15px;
3.   }

Using the margin or padding property alone, with any number of values, is considered shorthand. With longhand, we can set the value for one side at a time using unique properties. Each property name (in this case margin or padding) is followed by a dash and the side of the box to which the value is to be applied: top, right, bottom, or left. For example, the padding-left property accepts only one value and will set the left padding for that element; the margin-top property accepts only one value and will set the top margin for that element.

1.   div {
2.     margin-top: 10px;
3.     padding-left: 6px;
4.   }

When we wish to identify only one margin or padding value, it is best to use the longhand properties. Doing so keeps our code explicit and helps us to avoid any confusion down the road. For example, did we really want to set the top, right, and left sides of the element to have margins of 0 pixels, or did we really only want to set the bottom margin to 10 pixels? Using longhand properties and values here helps to make our intentions clear. When dealing with three or more values, though, shorthand is incredibly helpful.


Borders fall between the padding and margin, providing an outline around an element. The border property requires three values: width, style, and color. Shorthand values for the border property are stated in that order—width, style, color. In longhand, these three values can be broken up into the border-width, border-style, and border-color properties. These longhand properties are useful for changing, or overwriting, a single border value.

The width and color of borders can be defined using common CSS units of length and color, as discussed in Lesson 3.

Borders can have different appearances. The most common style values are solid, double, dashed, dotted, and none, but there are several others to choose from.

Here is the code for a 6-pixel-wide, solid, gray border that wraps around all four sides of a <div>:

1.   div {
2.     border: 6px solid #949599;
3.   }
Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 Different border sizes and styles

Individual Border Sides

As with the margin and padding properties, borders can be placed on one side of an element at a time if we’d like. Doing so requires new properties: border-top, border-right, border-bottom, and border-left. The values for these properties are the same as those of the border property alone: width, style, and color. If we want, we can make a border appear only on the bottom of an element:

1.   div {
2.     border-bottom: 6px solid #949599;
3.   }

Additionally, styles for individual border sides may be controlled at an even finer level. For example, if we wish to change only the width of the bottom border we can use the following code:

1.   div {
2.     border-bottom-width: 12px;
3.   }

These highly specific longhand border properties include a series of hyphen-separated words starting with the border base, followed by the selected side—top, right, bottom, or left—and then width, style, or color, depending on the desired property.

Border Radius

While we’re looking at borders and their different properties, we need to examine the border-radius property, which enables us to round the corners of an element.

The border-radius property accepts length units, including percentages and pixels, that identify the radius by which the corners of an element are to be rounded. A single value will round all four corners of an element equally; two values will round the top-left/bottom-right and top-right/bottom-left corners in that order; four values will round the top-left, top-right, bottom-right, and bottom-left corners in that order.

When considering the order in which multiple values are applied to the border-radius property (as well as the margin and padding properties), remember that they move in a clockwise fashion starting at the top left of an element.

1.   div {
2.     border-radius: 5px;
3.   }
Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 Different border-radius sizes

The border-radius property may also be broken out into longhand properties that allow us to change the radii of individual corners of an element. These longhand properties begin with border, continue with the corner’s vertical location (top or bottom) and the corner’s horizontal location (left or right), and then end with radius. For example, to change the top-right corner radius of a <div>, the border-top-right-radius property can be used.

1.   div {
2.     border-top-right—radius: 5px;
3.   }

Box Sizing

Until now the box model has been an additive design. If you set the width of an element to 400 pixels and then add 20 pixels of padding and a border of 10 pixels on every side, the actual full width of the element becomes 460 pixels. Remember, we need to add the width, padding, and border property values together to get the actual, full width of an element.

The box model may, however, be changed to support different calculations. CSS3 introduced the box-sizing property, which allows us to change exactly how the box model works and how an element’s size is calculated. The property accepts three primary values—content-box, padding-box, and border-box—each of which has a slightly different impact on how the box size is calculated.

Content Box

The content-box value is the default value, leaving the box model as an additive design. If we don’t use the box-sizing property, this will be the default value for all elements. The size of an element begins with the width and height properties, and then any padding, border, or margin property values are added on from there.

1.   div {
2.     -webkit-box-sizing: content-box;
3.        -moz-box-sizing: content-box;
4.             box-sizing: content-box;
5.   }

Padding Box

The padding-box value alters the box model by including any padding property values within the width and height of an element. When using the padding-box value, if an element has a width of 400 pixels and a padding of 20 pixels around every side, the actual width will remain 400 pixels. As any padding values increase, the content size within an element shrinks proportionately.

If we add a border or margin, those values will be added to the width or height properties to calculate the full box size. For example, if we add a border of 10 pixels and a padding of 20 pixels around every side of the element with a width of 400 pixels, the actual full width will become 420 pixels.

1.   div {
2.     box-sizing: padding-box;
3.   }

Border Box

Lastly, the border-box value alters the box model so that any border or padding property values are included within the width and height of an element. When using the border-box value, if an element has a width of 400 pixels, a padding of 20 pixels around every side, and a border of 10 pixels around every side, the actual width will remain 400 pixels.

If we add a margin, those values will need to be added to calculate the full box size. No matter which box-sizing property value is used, any margin values will need to be added to calculate the full size of the element.

1.   div {
2.     box-sizing: border-box;
3.   }
Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 Different box-sizing values allow the width of an element—and its box—to be calculated from different areas

Picking a Box Size

Generally speaking, the best box-sizing value to use is border-box. The border-box value makes our math much, much easier. If we want an element to be 400 pixels wide, it is, and it will remain 400 pixels wide no matter what padding or border values we add to it.

Additionally, we can easily mix length values. Say we want our box to be 40% wide. Adding a padding of 20 pixels and a border of 10 pixels around every side of an element isn’t difficult, and we can still guarantee that the actual width of our box will remain 40% despite using pixel values elsewhere.

The only drawback to using the box-sizing property is that as part of the CSS3 specification, it isn’t supported in every browser; it especially lacks support in older browsers. Fortunately this is becoming less and less relevant as new browsers are released. Chances are we’re safe to use the box-sizing property, but should we notice any issues, it’s worth looking into which browser those issues are occurring with.

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