Back to HTML – Tricky margins

HTML layout is weird. Half the time it makes sense, and the other half it makes half as much sense as it should. To that end, here’s a quick refresher on margins and padding and layout that I’m writing as much for myself as for you.
Lets start with a box. In this imaginary real box wold, you are either putting blocks next to each other, or inside other boxes, to get elements to line up and appear in some fashion or another. These virtual boxes have two properties, margin and padding. In our box world analogy, the padding would represent the thickness of the walls of the box. If you add something thats bigger than the inside of the box, the actual outside edge of the box will have too expand to contain whatever is inside. When you set a margin however, its simply stating a rule that you would like this box to be at least x number of units away from any other sibling box.

For instance, I have Box A and I want anything around Box A to be at least 2 feet away on the top or bottom of the box. Now, I have Box B that also has margin, but for Box B I only need everything to be 1 foot away along the top or bottom of the box. If I placed these two boxes next to each other (as siblings), the boxes would be 2 feet apart. Box A overrules Box B since A requests any other box to be further away from B, and thus B is also satisfied since the margin for B is less than A. If I also specified padding for box B of 6 inches, the contents of B would be at least 2 feet 6 inches from A since margin is measured from the outside edge of the box.

Here is a real example. In this case, I have 2 paragraphs. The orange space represents margins, and the green represents padding as shown by the debugging tools in chrome.

The code looks something like this:

  2. <article>
  3. <p>This is some paragraph text 1</p>
  4. <p>more paragraph text</p>
  5. </article>

Example 1 Margining:

Notice how the margins collapse when they touch each other. Remember that margin represents ‘minimum spacing’.

Example 2 Padding:

Notice how not only are the paragraphs further apart with similar spacing, but they padding doesn’t overlap at all. This distinction is important when you lay out content, and especially when you start floating things. Eventually the imaginary real box model starts to break down as we approach real world HTML. Another really important tidbit to understand is that margining can extend OUTSIDE of the container. For instance, in the previous code snippet, we only have one article and two

tags. If we put two articles side by side, we can see how the paragraph margining will extend out of the article block:


  2. <article>
  3. <p>This is some paragraph text 1</p>
  4. <p>more paragraph text</p>
  5. </article>
  6. <article>
  7. <p>This is some paragraph text 1</p>
  8. <p>more paragraph text</p>
  9. </article>

Note how the article is only the size of the paragraphs inner dimensions:

However, when we look at the paragraph margining, we see:

The paragraph spacing extends beyond the bounds of the article and pushes the paragraphs and the article down. I know. The box model doesn’t work any more. Remember the differences and play around with it yourself.

Some Practical Advice

  • When you first start laying elements out on a page, only specify bottom margining and keep the space consistent. It will help debug initial issues since there will be less overlapping margins.
  • Use a sylesheet language like less or sass so you can keep the numbers more consistent and easier to change.
  • Use good debugging tools. Chrome Developer tools, or Firebug are both good. They’ll keep you from going insane immediately.
  • If all else fails, simplify the problem. Make a small, quick html page to try to replicate your scenario.
  • Tinker. You only learn something by doing it. Do it.

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