AtoZ CSS Screencast: Media Queries

Guy Routledge
Guy Routledge

Loading the player…

This screencast is a part of our AtoZ CSS Series.


The @media rule allows conditional styling of elements.

The conditions can be based on the type of media or known characteristics of the device being used.

Combining media queries with fluid layout and flexible images, allows us to implement responsive web design.

In this episode we’ll look at how @media queries can be used to change the styling of websites based on querying information about the device and two approaches for tackling page layout in responsive design.

Media Queries

Sometimes we only want certain styles to apply to certain types of devices or when certain characteristics of the device are true.

For example, we might want to remove the header and footer when printing a web page.

Using the query print will restrict the styles of the at-rule to the print media type.

@media print {
  .site-header, .site-footer {display: none;}

Other media types include

  • all
  • braille
  • embossed
  • handheld
  • projection
  • screen
  • speech
  • tty
  • tv

The only two media types I use are print and screen, which is a bit of a catch-all for any screen-based device including mobile devices, tv and projection.

Device Queries

We can check more fine-grained details about the device being used by passing a query into the @media rule. A common property to query is the min-width of the browser window

body {
  font-size: 0.75em;
@media (min-width: 600px) {
  body {
    font-size: 1em;

In this example the initial font-size for all devices is 0.75em but if the device has a minimum width of 600px (ie. is 600px or wider) then the font size will be increased to 1em.

There are a number of things we can query about the device:

  • width min-width max-width
  • height min-height max-height
  • device-width min-device-width max-device-width
  • device-height min-device-height max-device-height orientation
  • aspect-ratio min-aspect-ratio max-aspect-ratio
  • device-aspect-ratio min-device-aspect-ratio max-device-aspect-ratio
  • resolution min-resolution max-resolution
  • color min-color max-color
  • color-index min-color-index max-color-index
  • monochrome min-monochrome max-monochrome
  • scan grid

Many of these have a corresponding min and max variety as well.

I use min-width and max-width a lot, orientation, aspect-ratio and resolution occasionally and min-height and max height from time to time. I’ve never used the others as far as I can remember.

Width is by far the most common thing to query about the device, but as the reported width and device width are often different, it’s necessary to add the following meta tag to your HTML which will make them equivalent:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">

The initial-scale is set to prevent devices zooming out to fit the whole site in the viewport. It’s possible to set maximum-scale=1 but then this removes the ability for a user to zoom the page in which isn’t good user experience.

Combined Queries

It’s possible to combine queries together using the and keyword:

@media screen and (min-width: 600px) and (max-width: 800px) { }
@media screen and (orientation: portrait) and (min-width: 800px) { }

It’s also possible to use negation:

@media not screen { }

And limit applicability using only:

@media only screen { }

These @media blocks can contain any CSS you’d write elsewhere in the stylesheet and cascade the same way too. This means you will likely not have to write that much CSS to change the design for multiple devices.

Responsive Design

As @media queries allow the conditional styling when certain device characteristics are true, we can use them to control the styling of a page across a range of different devices or device sizes.

We can control fine details or big-picture layout. It’s common for websites viewed on a large screen to have multiple columns of text and images, but this would be impossible to read on a screen one fifth of the width.

As building and modifying complex layouts is time-consuming, let’s use a simple example of four boxes to represent four sections of a page. Each box contains an image and a few lines of text.

Without any styles applied, the images, text, and boxes stack on top of each other. We can space them out a bit and add some borders and backgrounds to make them stand out a bit more.

As the screen gets wider, the layout looks a bit stretched and the small amount of text starts looking odd compared to the size of the image. Around 500px, we could add a @media query to create a two column layout instead of a 1-column layout.

@media screen and (min-width: 500px) {
  .box { 
    float: left;
    width: 50%; 

As the screen gets wider again, we could fit 4 columns in so could change the width of each box to 25% instead.

@media screen and (min-width:500px) {
  .box { 
     width: 25%; 

Because of how CSS styles cascade, we don’t need to specify float:left again.

This approach of starting with the small screen and adding styles to make a more complex layout is known as Mobile First, as coined in the book of the same name by Luke Wroblewski.

It’s possible to go in reverse – desktop first – and start with the more complex layout. In this case, we’d start with the boxes floated and 25% wide and use max-width queries to override the styles for smaller screens. This leads to a small amount more CSS but can sometimes be easier to get your head around. However, if possible I think it best to start mobile first as it focuses thinking about design and development from the outset and reduces the risk of needing to shoehorn a complex layout onto a tiny screen.

It took me a while to get used to mobile first, but it’s definitely my go-to approach these days – although I’d love to know what you think…

Watch out for our Quick Tip article coming soon!