Multi-Column Layouts Climb Out of the Box

by Alan Pearce

140 Reader Comments

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  1. Nice tutorial, but working with all of ie and firefox version?

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  2. I have been using this method for awhile and want to implement it on some of my pages for my current site. Thing is that the background image will not repeat in the firefox browser but looks great in IE6. Is there some trick I am unaware of to get background images to repeat-y in that browser?

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  3. I wish people would try shrinking their browser window (especially in IE 6) before posting their amazing discoveries here. Many of the solutions here show dropping text or, worse yet, overlapping text when the window gets smaller.

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  4. I’ve been away from client-side Web dev for a while, and reading through all these comments has certainly been interesting. In a situation like this, where you’re trying to create a layout that looks like it was created with tables, maybe it would make more sense to use a table. The only real drawback would be that you can’t position the main content division right up under the <body> tag. But if you don’t care about that, maybe it would make sense to use a table.

    Of course, creating a boxy layout that looks like it was created with tables is really the crux of all this. For example, if you look at any of the 986 sample layouts at I don’t think a single one uses “colored in equal-length” boxes. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I saw a site that uses this kind of layout. (Though I’m sure there are plenty of them out there).

    On the shrinking browser window thing, that’s a dreadful excuse for using tables. There are plenty of ways around the collapsing columns issue without resorting to using tables for layout.

    Some other stuff got me to thinking that maybe it’s time for Web developers to stop making hacks for old/bad browsers. Adopt an attitude of “Hey, my page validates and looks fine in Firefox 2 and IE7. If it doesn’t look right in your browser, I don’t need to fix my page. You need to fix your browser”.

    Then again, perhaps I’m just being idealistic.

    And by the way, this is a cool way to do comments. Is this something ALA created? Or is this something I can buy and just drop into a site?

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  5. Hmm … I’m trying to adapt this to a percentile size for the rail instead of “150 pixels or else” (on some resolutions and/or text-sizes, 150 pixels might be way too small). Unfortunately … it seems that borders really don’t like percentages for their sizes. Oh well.

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  6. Is this really worth all the agony and effort?
    Elegant? Since when hack became elegant?
    A 2 or 3 col table inside a div is not going to break the page. C’mon! You’re not going to:

    - Raise a cow in your own backyard because you don’t trust the beef at your local grocers

    - Drive extra 15 miles to find a gas station that sells gas for 2 cents less per gallon

    - Photocopy all the pages of your neighbor’s newspaper to save subscription cost.

    Think about what it’s really worth.

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  7. I don’t design web sites very often, but I have a couple to do now. As a law-abiding netizen my instinct is of course to follow every possible rule.
    But I was taught at Harvard never to have anything to do with negative margins.
    I am therefore working on a layout that uses negative tables. These allow special relative positioning or absolute superpositioning, with measurements in quems or quixels. They are completely undetectable by the CSS police.

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  8. I felt I had to chime in here re. tables vs. css. In principle I agree with the ‘use whatever is easiest for the job’ idea; but does no-one else care about source-ordering? We find most clients care a great deal about SEO and you just cannot get a nice source-ordered document with tables. This is the #1 reason we have switched to CSS/div based layouts.
    So yes tables may be quicker, but for a real company’s site often they just aren’t good enough.

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  9. honestly, this is exactly the solution I’ve been waiting (looking?) for, for ages! Thanks listapart!

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  10. I have used this technique recently for a website and almost everything works well. I have also put a simple explanation as to how to achieve it at “Three column layout – Pearce Method “:
    I hope it may help someone.

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  11. I can’t get this to work in ASP.NET 1.1. Even the example breaks when I move the style rules into a linked CSS, and the HTML inside the <form> tag of an aspx web form.  This is what I get.

    Any ideas for fixing it? (No, I absolutely cannot change the platform or work outside of a FORM tag.)

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  12. “This is what happens in ASP.NET 1.1 get”:

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  13. Hi.  I think this is a great solution to deal with three column layout.  I don’t have any negative thoughts about this, but I have a problem to solve.

    I didn’t see any problems when I created the template for the particular project.  Once I started putting content in each column, the left column sometimes jumps into the middle column.  It’s recognized in IE6.  It doesn’t happen always.  Here is the screen shot:
    The margin width of each side of the shell <div> matches to each column width. 

    I looked through the posts and don’t see anybody has the same issue as mine.  Do you think of anything to trigger this issue?  I want to know what I did wrong.

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  14. I encountered the same problem with as Yukiko Tomosada. If the content is overflowing the #center, the #leftRail is moving the same amount to the right. It’s caused by the following declaration:


    as it is in percentage. My solution was declare overflow:hidden;.

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  15. I know, I know, table layouts are evil. But sometimes there is just no better choice. Table elements are for structuring tabular data, I’have heared it hundreds of times. But you know, I prefer using a table to make columns instead of all those obscure css hacks.

    First, these are not standard ways of doing things, they are hacks; you’ve said it yourself, you have to “think outside the box” to find them. You had to think about unfamiliar, unfriendly and unintuitive code hacks to achieve a simple effect whitch can be easily done with a table and a few “normal” css.

    Second, by using a “hack” to layout your stuff, you lose the hability to easily change your presentation style. Try to put a background image to your columns : you will have to completely rewrite your css code. You won’t get all these headakes with a table.

    Third, using a floating div to make a column is not better than using a table to layout non tabular data. I mean, the float property is meant to be used in making an image float over some text. Ok, you can twist the original meaning of this property and handfully use it to achieve your goal, but, in my humble opinion, it is not better practice than using a table to layout non tabular data, even more, it IS also a semantic error.

    The real nice solution would be to use the “display : table-cell” css attribute in my opinion. However it is not supported by IE. So what do we do then ? My personal choice is to use tables instead of figuring out a new pointless unintuitive hack. ( I’m gonna be crucified for saying this… )

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  16. Wow, what will they think of next?
    I agree with you Nicholas, so far I have not seen anything to top the performance of an absolute width declaration (via table) and then pinching around with that. I use “includes” to be able to recycle the code pieces (the greatly touted advantage of css). but the point is you can vary backgrounds and images and make a “tasteful” or a “noisy” site. I think the style of the “3ColLiquidWithContent.html” is particularly ugly. But I am mrPictures not mr Text, and probably a “Design Dinosaur” to boot.

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  17. Hi Folks;

    Sorry I can’t post a link to the site, as it’s still only served internally … I’ve got a two column layout, using the “+large” padding-bottom & “-large” margin-bottom, and the containing div has overflow:hidden. 

    The problem is when you hit an intra-page link to a named anchor, the content above that anchor gets hidden!  If you refresh the page in IE7 the whole content comes back, but this does not happen in FF.  Using links back to “top” is a solution, but I’m getting some pushback from content developers who think there are too many top links (d’oh!).

    Is there a CSS fix for this out there?  This is for a state government site, so we’re trying to avoid javascript solutions for such things (which is why the multi-column “one true layout” CSS is so much appreciated).

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  18. I’ve been using this in many recent designs, as it appeared the perfect solution—spent the entire morning trying to debug a new site, which was fine yesterday—just traced it to Firefox update to—breaks all instances of this solution. Anyone any ideas on how to work round this, until Mozilla can sort themselves out?

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  19. Shouldn’t this be a bug reported on Bugzilla (Mozilla Bug tracker)?

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  20. It looks like there have been at least 3 bugs raised in the Mozilla bug tracker for this issue and it is being actively worked on. The main one is here:

    One solution would be to inject dynamic content after the container using the :after pseudo-element

    #container:after {content: “.”; height: 0; clear: both; visibility: hidden; display: block;}

    This seems to fix the issue but is not as clean. I have only done some quick tests with this and have not looked at it in Safari but it seems to fix the issue.

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  21. I’m doing a redesign for my site right now and I don’t see how this is a big deal.

    I had read this column before but did not have its exact coding in mind when I started filling out the style sheet for the page.  I ended up in more or less the same place. uses tables.  Do you know what that design has?  table-tr-td-td-td-table-tr-td-etc.  There are over 250 lines of code, including java, the page itself is 15k, and employs about 80 (EIGHTY!) images totaling an additional 100ish kb for buttons, mouseover effects, etc.  This code is copied on every page in order to provide a consistent look, and in fact it exposed a problem when the wrong lefthand menu appears on some of the pages.

    The work in progress is  It employs less than 40 lines of code.  The style sheet is a whopping 2k.  It currently uses 4 images.  The left hand column is a fixed width, and the main body scales.  The footer is actually not below the main div, but at the bottom of the left hand column (using negative margin-top).  As far as I can tell, it works correctly in IE 6/7 and Firefox at any width 800 or greater, the footer always drops to the bottom, the dividing line always covers the intended area, I can change the text without affecting the layout, I can update the header , navigation bar and left-hand menu by manipulating the SSI pages and have them show up identical on every single page.  And everything so far comes back 100% validated.

    How are tables a better or more elegant solution?

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  22. Wouldn’t it be just as easy using positioned graphics on the container div?

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  23. Thank you! works great. I’m new to CSS, and already feel the relief.

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  24. I’m trying this method with a fluid, two-column layout, and I’m running into some problems.

    The page is here:
    CSS is here:
    CSS exceptions for IE6 are here:

    In Firefox, the contents of the rail (called #menu in my code) are not showing up.

    In IE7, the position of #content fluctuates as the width of the browser window is changed.

    In IE6, the contents of the rail aren’t showing up and the left edge of #content is cut off.

    Any ideas?

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  25. Great article!

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  26. I have a website that I developed in IE.  It looks fine in Safari and Firefox.  However the fonts, letters are looking a bit smeared.  Are there established stylesheets out there that can assist me.  I mainly am looking for font styles, etc. not layout.

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  27. Unfortunately, this solution suffers what much of the web suffers from of late: fixed width websites. Alas. A List Apart suffers from this as well. “For People Who Make Websites”. Yes, but really for “People Who Make Fixed Width Websites”. It’s a regression in functionality. Oh well.

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  28. I have approached the equal height columns from a different angle. By nesting the column divs they automatically take on the height of the tallest column. I have created some examples that have no CSS hacks and they work in all the common web browsers:

    Pixel widths:
    “3 column liquid layout – pixel widths”:

    Em widths:
    “3 column liquid layout – em widths”:

    Percentage widths:
    “3 column liquid layout – percentage widths”:

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  29. Sorry to take part into discussion so late, but I found this layout and discussion recently. Thank you Matthew for very nice and useful solution. Why not to play with negative margin, it’s OK.

    I found a little IE6 bug when adding pictures or texts on the articlerail.

    The pictures escape often to the right over the rail border, when you rezise IE window. The highest picture does no escape, no matter the picture widht.
    Here is example before resizing:
    … and here after resizing:
    When I switch the pictures, always the first picture stays in the rail but the two last ones escape to the right.

    Of course, all other browsers behave nicely.
    Here is css for the pictures on the article rail:
    #raide img {
    display: inline; 
    overflow: hidden;
    Also I have added to the #center this line:
    overflow: hidden;

    Is this article rail useless on IE6?

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  30. I worked with it for a while but gave up.  Thank you, thank you, Matthew Taylor for posting the links to your samples. You have just the solution I have been looking for.  Just plain common sense and CSS without any buggy hacks.

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  31. In working my way through the code in the “Three-column liquid layouts” section, I can’t figure out what this rule is supposed to do, unless it’s to accommodate a particular browser:


    The layout doesn’t seem to change (at least visibly) if it’s taken out.

    And the site I’m working on will need borders around the sidebars, can y’all recommend a solid “holy grail” alternative?

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  32. The preview looked fine I swear! Here’s another try with code tagging:

    Here’s an alternative way to use negative margins to get a three-column layout. I’ve used the example HTML from this article, but note the CSS methods used for layout are quite different, using padding on an “inner wrapper” div within the center rather than borders.

    Three questions:

    Do you see a problem with using this method as the basis for a fully fleshed out three-column layout?

    Have you seen it used as such before, and if so, can you point to further examples or information on the technique? (side note, if not, I christen it the “Kapok” method since it uses padding <g>


    Can you point to “tried and true” three-column layout techniques robust enough for a CMS-driven site where users are contributing unpredictable content that may disrupt a fragile layout?

    I’ve set the code up in three stages like a howto, so that newbies can easily see the logic behind it.

    Stage 1:

    <br /> &lt;!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC &#8220;-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN&#8221;<br /> &#8220;;&gt;<br /> &lt;html&gt;<br /> &lt;head&gt;<br /> &lt;title&gt;3 columns, liquid center&lt;/title&gt;<br /> &lt;style type=&#8220;text/css&#8221;&gt;<br /> body{<br /> margin:0;<br /> padding:0;<br /> }<br /> #container{<br /> background-color:#0ff;<br /> float:left;<br /> width:100%;<br /> display:inline; /* So IE plays nice */<br /> }<br /> #leftRail{<br /> background-color:gray;<br /> float:left;<br /> width:150px;<br /> position:relative;<br /> &nbsp; height:300px;<br /> }<br /> #center{<br /> background-color:yellow;<br /> float:left;<br /> width:100%;<br /> &nbsp; height:300px;<br /> }<br /> #rightRail{<br /> background-color:green;<br /> float:right;<br /> width:200px;<br /> position:relative;<br /> &nbsp; height:300px;<br /> }<br /> &lt;/style&gt;<br /> &lt;/head&gt;<br /> &lt;body&gt;<br /> &lt;div id=&#8220;container&#8221;&gt;<br /> &lt;div id=&#8220;center&#8221;&gt;<br /> &nbsp; &lt;div id=&#8220;articles&#8221;&gt;Center Column Content&lt;/div&gt;<br /> &lt;/div&gt;<br /> &lt;div id=&#8220;leftRail&#8221;&gt;Left<br /> Rail&lt;/div&gt;<br /> &lt;div id=&#8220;rightRail&#8221;&gt;Right Rail&lt;/div&gt;<br /> &lt;/div&gt;<br /> &lt;/div&gt;<br /> &lt;/body&gt;<br /> &lt;/html&gt;<br />

    Stage 2:


    <br /> #articles{<br /> &nbsp; padding:0 200px 0 150px;<br /> }<br />

    Stage 3:


    <br /> &nbsp; margin-right:-100%;<br />

    to the ruleset for the #center div

    Here’s my explanation for how the negative margin works, please let me know if I’m off base:

    By setting a negative margin equal to the width, the float rules act as if this div has no width at all, allowing the following floated boxes to overlap it.

    Thanks for your time and attention, and hope someone finds this helpful, or at least interesting. . .

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  33. first, thanks to help me climb out oft the box
    i try to use it in
    in file MasterPage.master
    it can’t work
    it can’t display like you in design page but
    it cant preview in ie 7.0+ only

    help me pls.

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  34. The solution is the multiple column proportional synchronized scrolling layout!
    The SLIRK Layout.

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  35. great article indeed!
    I tested it with some odl browsers and yeah – it is not taht good but who cares? Just look at the recent stats of what users use and you’ll find that IE 6 is the oldest while IE 7 and FF are two equal leaders.

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  36. Brilliant!  I was trying to figure out how to do a three column, equal height layout just last night, and though I hacked out a decent idea, the one in this article is so much simpler.  Thanks!

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  37. Working on a website for our local volunteer fire department, and just can’t seem to get the columns right. Site looks okay in IE7 with the use of a few
    ‘s, etc., but not okay in Firefox and Opera. And Safari is way off. All I know about using this type layout came from your website.

    Website url
    CSS url

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  38. I have found this solution useful in getting my site done the way I want. Now, the only thing left is to figure out how to center the entire layout in the middle of the screen, versus having it align to the left edge of the screen.  Any thoughts?

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  39. You can have a look as well at Flexi CSS Layouts – a Dreamweaver Extension that help you create Css layouts in Dreaweaver without coding.

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  40. Thanks for the article! I was really floundering in a sea of div’s, floats, and classes. I incorporated your model and got the alignment I needed.

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