Design & UX
By James George

8 CSS Properties Designers Can’t Live Without

By James George

Imagine a world without CSS, where you have no real control over how anything looks or behaves in a browser. Imagine having to slice images using nested tables for your design. Some of us have been around long enough to remember when tables were a typical, perfectly acceptable way to design a site. Fortunately for us, we have grown accustomed to a web where we have control over almost every single aspect with pixel precision. There are some CSS properties that we just couldn’t live without today. They save us so much time and frustration and make things so easy. These CSS properties are so useful and we use them everyday to the point that if they were taken away, our jobs would be a nightmare.

Declaring A Style As “!Important”

Sometimes, we are moving along with our project, and despite careful planning, we need to inject CSS into a certain web element. We don’t want to have to rearrange things, rename divs, or undergo some other intensive fix, but we just need to override a small detail that is important to our design. Being able to declare a style as “!important,” (meaning that it overrides any other style for this element) may not be a best practice, but it sure is a lifesaver when facing time constraints or tight deadlines. I can’t tell you how many times this one has gotten me out of a jam while leaving the rest of the site intact. Below is an example of making the text color of a headline red and declaring it as “!important.” Later on in the stylesheet, if we accidentally style an h2 tag another color, it will stay red, because the !important attribute is applied to it.

color:#f00 !important;

Position: absolute

This is a fantastic CSS capability, and I have used this many times when designing different websites. This gives you the ability to position an element on the page exactly where you want it. You can specify bottom, top, left, or right. This property is excellent, because you can tell an element to always be stuck to the very left edge, or you can control your element and make it so that it is 2em from the top edge of the browser. This comes in handy when you want something to be in a specific space no matter what. Below shows what happens when you set the position to absolute and specify top to be zero and left to be zero.


Overflow: hidden

I really love this feature, because you can keep content from spilling over into other areas and preserve a neat and tidy layout. Essentially, this property tells the content that if it is going outside of the boundaries of your div, then the browser should hide that area’s visibility. Also, when an element is floated left, and another element ends up going behind it, we can set the CSS of the concealed div to overflow:hidden, and it will no longer go behind the other element.

Before overflow:hidden is applied to Div 2:

Screen shot 2013-04-10 at 9.47.07 AM

After overflow:hidden is applied to Div 2:

Screen shot 2013-04-10 at 9.47.53 AM

This makes div 2 play nice with div 1 and keeps it from disappearing behind div 1, solving all sorts of headaches.


This one is a staple of any CSS-wielding designer. I use this in all of my websites. In fact, I use it so much that I don’t even think about it. it is just a reflex employed to fix major headaches. Clearfix solves the problem of a parent container disappearing due to the float property. When you have an element that is floated, the container no longer attributes it’s height to that element. So, instead of being the same height as the element that is floated, it is smaller or disappears altogether visually.


The display property allows you to do so much with just a couple of short words. It is easy to remember, and it’s a versatile CSS command. You can specify inline, inline-block, block, none, and more. My personal favorite is “none,” because you can hide an entire section with one small line of CSS. This is extremely useful and incredibly powerful. Display allows you to arrange the orientation of multiple elements, and t’s the very foundation of CSS dropdown menus. With display, sub-menus couldn’t disappear and appear on hover. In the menu example below, the dropdown menus would be visible all of the time without the display property.


Margin and Padding


We all use these properties on multiple elements in every website. Could you imagine not being able to specify margin or padding? You couldn’t optically adjust spacing, your text would ride the edge of ever div, every element would be smashed together, and every website resulting from this would look like a nightmare. Margin and padding are both wonderful, because they add the proper spacing and negative space to your site to make it easy to read and the space breaks up each chunk of content. Without specifying the margin property as “auto,” you also wouldn’t be able to center your websites as well.

Width Percentage


Being able to specify the width of a container or an element in percentages allows us to create sites that flex with the screen size. This is especially important now that responsive website design has become the standard. Without being able to specify width as a percentage, either via media queries or by using a CSS grid system, responsive web design as we know it wouldn’t be possible. Being able to set how much space an element takes on a page really gives you a strong sense of control.



The border property is one that is used more frequently than you might think. You could use an image to create a border, but you wouldn’t be able to specify a border at all without the CSS border property. You can specify that there is a border top or on bottom, which is great for creating a divider between two vertically stacked elements. Using border-right or border-left is also a great way to visually divide two columns of text to make them easier to read.

Another aspect of borders in CSS is the ability to have different types of borders, border styles, and widths. This simple element is so versatile and can really spruce up a website. The border styles that you choose can affect the entire layout, look, and feel of a site. Combining the right border color with box shadows and inset box shadows can also add a great deal of dimension to a site without using images. Borders are an essential CSS property that we cannot live without.


Without these CSS properties, every web design project would be full of chaos and inconsistency. Being able to control how each element behaves on each webpage means that we can create consistent layouts that look great and are consistent across different browsers.

Are there CSS properties that you count on daily? Is there anything that you miss from table-based design work from years ago? Is there anything about modern, responsive design that still frustrates you today?

  • Ron

    A friend of mine says box-sizing=border-box is the best thing since sliced bread. :)

    • I just found out about it, and it’s really really helpful!! :)

      I’m still having problems with the media queries… I don’t know why but I’m trying to get better on it every day.

    • Ghome

      Ron, your friend is right, i’m a professional designer, and i can’t live without

      box-sizing: border-box;

      For those who don’t know what it does, lets says you have a div set as:

      width: 100px;
      height: 100px;
      padding: 10px;

      With box-sizing: border-box your box will be 100px x 100px visually (it’s a life saver).

      If you don’t use it, your box is going to be 120px x 120px visually.

      Not having to withdraw padding from total width and height is a real time saver.

      And the best of it… it works since IE 8 (of course all other major browser deal well with it for a long time).

  • Stewart

    Hi James,

    a nice post to kick off but I would recommend not to use !important unless it’s really, really needed. It ends up causing all kinds of problems later on and leads to really dodgy css.

  • Tim

    clearfix isn’t a CSS property; it’s a hack, and an unnecessary one at that. To get a container to contain its floats, simply give it overflow:auto.

  • 1] The use of “!important” is advertised a little too positively here, and I’m putting that mildly. Most of the time its use is evidence of laziness or extreme time-constraints. My advice is never to use it at all if you can help it, as it destroys the C in CSS.
    2] Position:absolute can be very useful, but use it wisely as it takes the element in question out of flow.
    3] Display:none also hides elements from assistive technologies like screen readers, so again: use it wisely.

    Agree with Ron that box-sizing should be on the list, as it allows you to “play” with an element’s true dimensions. particlularly useful in responsive design.

  • Des

    Disappointing article to have been written in 2013. There are many concepts and points made that show evidence you don’t really understand good code.

    With proper coding you shouldn’t need ‘Important’, and allowing people to get to a point that they need to hack their code with it to hit a deadline is poor practise. And yes, I understand deadline, I run a decent (20+) sized team building and maintaining a a number of sites (the largest gets over 5M UVs per month) with numerous frequent updates with tight deadlines and we have only used ‘important’ once.

    Clearfix, shouldn’t be necessary.

    Display is neither the only way or probably the best way to create drop down menus. It can cause accessibility and UX problems and there are more robust means of achieving the same effect.

    I know this is a slight rant but its these kind of articles that people with less experience read and perpetuate the techniques instead of understand and improving how they write code.

    Hacked code builds technical debt that makes the need to hack to hit a deadline greater each time it happens.

  • .cf:before,
    .cf:after {
    content: ” “; /* 1 */
    display: table; /* 2 */

    .cf:after {
    clear: both;

    * For IE 6/7 only
    * Include this rule to trigger hasLayout and contain floats.
    .cf {
    *zoom: 1;

  • @Ron — agreed! box-sizing: border-box is a must in the mobile age.

    I’ve been working in the internet industry for 15 years, and as front-end developer for 7+ years, and it’s nice to learn something new. The overflow:hidden on an element flowing behind another floated element is something i’d never seen before.

    Also, @Tim — i’m going to try the overflow:auto in place of the clearfix hack next time I have a chance. Thanks!

  • njw

    Specificity in your selectors can almost always negate the need for !important, and as !important was originally conceived to be used in the user stylesheet as an accessibility feature it is really bad practice to use it.

  • Border-box is great. I wish I’d learned about it sooner.

    Also be careful about using position absolute – it will have some unintended effects on different resolutions.

    Overflow:auto; is useful for when you have an item within a div but if the item is floating then the div doesn’t know its there so it will look like item is hanging from the div. So overflow:auto lets the div know that this item is there and that you need to automatically expand your height to include it.

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