CSS Layout - The display Property

Mastering web layout without mastering CSS is about as feasible as learning to swim on dry land. But unlike swimming – which, once mastered, is a skill that remains with you for life – mastering CSS is a process that never really ends since CSS itself is continually evolving.The display property is the most important CSS property for controlling layout.

The display Property

The display property specifies if/how an element is displayed.Every HTML element has a default display value depending on what type of element it is. The default display value for most elements is block or inline.

Block-level Elements

A block-level element always starts on a new line and takes up the full width available (stretches out to the left and right as far as it can).

  • <div>
  • <h1> - <h6>
  • <p>
  • <form>
  • <header>
  • <footer>
  • <section>

Inline Elements

An inline element does not start on a new line and only takes up as much width as necessary.

This is an inline <span> element inside a paragraph.

Examples of inline elements:

  • <span>
  • <a>
  • <img>

Display: none;

display: none; is commonly used with JavaScript to hide and show elements without deleting and recreating them. Take a look at our last example on this page if you want to know how this can be achieved.

The <script> element uses display: none; as default. 

Override The Default Display Value

As mentioned, every element has a default display value. However, you can override this.Changing an inline element to a block element, or vice versa, can be useful for making the page look a specific way, and still follow the web standards.

A common example is making inline <li> elements for horizontal menus:

Example -

The challenge is aggravated by differences in CSS implementation and support across different browsers (and even across different versions of the same browser), as well as different rates of adoption of CSS recommendations. For well over a decade, web designers and developers have been grappling with sporadic and inconsistent bursts of additional CSS3 features being supported in each new browser version.

But be that as it may, mastering CSS is an absolute necessity for any solid web designer or developer. This article will walk you through some fundamental CSS layout principles, from classic CSS2 techniques to the latest layout approaches in CSS3.

Use Case

One of the best ways to learn a technology is to have a specific use case you’re attempting to support or a particular problem you’re trying to solve. Toward that end, we’ll focus on a use case with a specific set of requirements.

Our use case consists of a Web App layout with some dynamic behavior. It will have fixed elements on the page such as a header, footer, navigation menu and sub-navigation, as well as a scrollable content section. Here are the specific layout requirements:

  • Basic Layout
    • Header, footer, navigation menu, and sub-navigation all remain fixed on scroll
    • Navigation and sub-navigation elements occupy all vertical free space
    • Content section uses all remaining free space on the page and has a scrollable area
  • Dynamic Behavior
    • Navigation menu only shows icons by default, but can be expanded to display text as well (and can then be collapsed to again show only icons)
  • Layout Variations
    • Some pages have sub-navigation next to the navigation menu and some do not

The following example displays <span> elements as block elements:

Example -

The following example displays <a> elements as block elements:

Example -

Hiding an element can be done by setting the display property to none. The element will be hidden, and the page will be displayed as if the element is not there:

Example -

visibility:hidden; also hides an element. However, the element will still take up the same space as before. The element will be hidden, but still affect the layout:

Example -


Even with classic CSS techniques, there’s much more that can be accomplished than many web developers realize or take advantage of. That said, much of this can be quite tedious and can involve hardcoding of values repeatedly throughout a style sheet.

CSS3 has begun to deliver much more sophisticated and flexible layout techniques that are significantly easier to program and that avoid much of the tedium of prior CSS specifications.

Mastering these techniques and paradigms – both for CSS2 and CSS3 – is essential to leveraging all that CSS has to offer in order to optimize both the user’s experience and the quality of your code. This article really just represents the tip of the iceberg of all there is to learn and all that can be accomplished with the power and flexibility of CSS. Have at it!