The Benefits of Using CSS Grid for Web Form Layout

Form layout and design is a fundamental yet frustrating part of web design and development. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to style a <select> box or align a label consistently in all browsers.

In 2016, I wrote “Make Forms Fun with Flexbox”, which identified how several form difficulties could be solved with Flexbox. A key benefit was HTML source order consistency, with the <label> always following its associated field tag in a container:

<div>
  <input id="name" name="name" type="text" />
  <label for="name">name</label>
</div>

<div>
  <select id="experience" name="experience"><!-- options --></select>
  <label for="experience">experience</label>
</div>

<div>
  <input id="html" name="html" type="checkbox" />
  <label for="html">HTML</label>
</div>

Flexbox could then be used to:

  • reposition the label if necessary — that is, move it to the left of the field on text inputs, select boxes, and textareas
  • vertically align the label and field.
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It also became possible to style labels based on the state of their field using adjacent sibling selectors — for example, applying bold to a label when its associated checkbox is checked:

input:checked + label {
  font-weight: bold;
}

Flawed Flexboxed Forms

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems using Flexbox for form layout. Flexbox creates a one-dimensional layout where each item follows another and wraps to a new line when necessary. Field/label pairs must be placed in container elements with display: flex; applied to guarantee each appears on a new row.

It was also necessary to define a fixed label width, such as 10em. If a long label required more room, its text would either overflow or resize the element and push the field out of alignment with others.

Finally, forms are normally laid out in a grid. Shouldn’t we be using CSS Grid now that it’s fully supported in all mainstream browsers? Absolutely!

Development Approach

Most CSS Grid articles demonstrate the concepts and may provide graceful degradation fallbacks for older browsers. That approach is ideal when the layout is mostly decorative — for example, positioning page content, headers, footers and menus. It rarely matters when oldBrowserX shows linear blocks in an unusual order because the page content remains usable.

Form layout is more critical: a misaligned label could lead the user to enter information in the wrong box. For this reason, this tutorial takes a progressive enhancement approach:

  1. An initial floated form layout will work in all browsers including IE8+ (which doesn’t support Flexbox either). It will not be perfect, but floats never were!
  2. Enhance the form layout using CSS Grid in all modern browsers.

The examples below contain very few CSS classes, and styling is applied directly to HTML elements. That’s not the BEM way, but it is intentional to keep the code clean and understandable without distractions.

You could consider using similar code as the base for all forms on your site.

The HTML

A typical HTML form can be kept clean, since there’s no need for containing (<div>) elements around field/label pairs:

<form action="get">
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Your web development skillset</legend>

    <div class="formgrid">

      <input id="name" name="name" type="text" />
      <label for="name">name</label>

      <select id="experience" name="experience">
        <option value="1">1 year or less</option>
        <option value="2">2 years</option>
        <option value="3">3 - 4 years</option>
        <option value="5">5 years or more</option>
      </select>
      <label for="experience">experience</label>

      <input id="html" name="html" type="checkbox" />
      <label for="html">HTML</label>

      <input id="css" name="css" type="checkbox" />
      <label for="css">CSS</label>

      <input id="javascript" name="javascript" type="checkbox" />
      <label for="javascript">JavaScript</label>

      <textarea id="skills" name="skills" rows="5" cols="20"></textarea>
      <label for="skills">other skills</label>

      <button type="submit">SUBMIT</button>

    </div>

  </fieldset>
</form>

The only additional element is <div class="formgrid">. Browsers can’t apply display: grid or display: flex to fieldset elements. That may eventually be fixed, but an outer container is currently required.

Form Layout Float Fallback

After some initial font and color styling, the float layout will allocate:

  • 70% of the space to fields which are floated right
  • 30% of the space to labels which are floated left.
/* fallback 30%/70% float layout */
input, output, textarea, select, button {
  clear: both;
  float: right;
  width: 70%;
}

label {
  float: left;
  width: 30%;
  text-align: right;
  padding: 0.25em 1em 0 0;
}

Checkbox and radio buttons are positioned before the label and floated left. Their intrinsic width can be used (width:auto) but a left margin of 30% is required to align correctly:

button, input[type="checkbox"], input[type="radio"] {
  width: auto;
  float: left;
  margin: 0.5em 0.5em 0 30%;
}

input[type="checkbox"] + label, input[type="radio"] + label {
  width: auto;
  text-align: left;
}

The form layout works in all browsers including IE8+:

See the Pen form grid 1: float layout by SitePoint (@SitePoint) on CodePen.

A less conscientious developer would go home for the day, but this form layout has several problems:

  • the padding and margin tweaks are fragile and can look inconsistent across browsers
  • if longer labels or different-sized fonts are ever required, the CSS spacing will require adjustment
  • the design breaks at smaller screen sizes and labels can overflow fields.

Get Going with Grid

The Grid module adds 18 new CSS properties in order to create a layout with rows and columns. Elements within the grid can be placed in any row/column, span multiple rows and/or columns, overlap other elements, and be aligned horizontally and/or vertically. There are similarities to Flexbox, but:

  • Flexbox is one-dimensional. Elements come one after the other and may or may not wrap to a new “row”. Menus and photo galleries are a typical use case.
  • Grid is two-dimensional and respects both rows and columns. If an element is too big for its cell, the row and/or column will grow accordingly. Grid is ideal for page and form layout.

It’s possibly better to compare CSS Grid with table-based layouts, but they’re considerably more flexible and require less markup. It has a steeper learning curve than other CSS concepts, but you’re unlikely to require all the properties and the minimum is demonstrated here. The most basic grid is defined on a containing element:

.container {
  display: grid;
}

More practically, layouts also require the number of columns, their sizes, and the gap between rows and columns. For example:

.container {
  display: grid;
  grid-template-columns: 10% 1fr 2fr 12em;
  grid-gap: 0.3em 0.6em;
}

This defines four columns. Any measurement unit can be used as well as the fr fractional unit. This calculates the remaining space in a grid and distributes accordingly. The example above defines total of 3fr on columns two and three. If 600 pixels of horizontal space was available:

  • 1fr equates to (1fr / 3fr) * 600px = 200px
  • 2fr equates to (2fr / 3fr) * 600px = 400px

A gap of 0.3em is defined between rows and 0.6em between columns.

All child elements of the .container are now grid items. By default, the first child element will appear at row 1, column 1. The second in row 1, column 2, and the sixth in row 2, column 2. It’s possible to size rows using a property such as grid-template-rows, but heights will be inferred by the content.

Grid support is excellent. It’s not available in Opera Mini, but even IE11 offers an older implementation of the specification. In most cases, fallbacks are simple:

  • Older browsers can use flexbox, floats, inline-blocks, or display:table layouts. All Grid properties are ignored.
  • When a browser supports grid, all flexbox, floats, inline-blocks and table layout properties assigned to a grid item are disabled.

Grid tools and resources:

Firefox and Chrome-based browsers have excellent DevTool Grid layout and visualization tools.

Form Grid

To progressively enhance the existing form, Grid code will be placed inside an @supports declaration:

/* grid layout */
@supports (display: grid) {
  ...
}

This is rarely necessary in most grid layouts. However, this example resets all float paddings and margins — rules that must only occur when a CSS Grid is being applied.

The form layout itself will use a three-column design:

form grid

In this form layout:

  • standard labels appear in column one
  • checkbox and radio buttons span columns one and two (but are aligned right)
  • checkbox and radio labels appear in column three
  • all other fields span columns two and three.

Here are the outer container and child field properties:

.formgrid {
  display: grid;
  grid-template-columns: 1fr 1em 2fr;
  grid-gap: 0.3em 0.6em;
  grid-auto-flow: dense;
  align-items: center;
}

input, output, textarea, select, button {
  grid-column: 2 / 4;
  width: auto;
  margin: 0;
}

grid-column defines the starting and ending grid tracks. Tracks are the edges between cells so the three-column form layout has four tracks:

  1. the first track on the left-hand side of the grid before column one
  2. the track between columns one and two
  3. the track between columns two and three
  4. the final track on the right-hand edge of the grid after column three.

grid-column: 2 / 4; positions all fields between tracks 2 and 4 — or inside columns two and three.

The first HTML element is the name <input>. It spans columns two and three, which means column one (track 1 / 2) is empty on that row. By default, the name label would therefore drop to row 2, column 1. However, by setting grid-auto-flow: dense; in the container, the browser will attempt to fill empty cells earlier in the grid before progressing to a new row.

Checkboxes and radio buttons can now be set to span tracks 1 to 3 (columns one and two) but align themselves to the right-hand edge using justify-self: end:

input[type="checkbox"], input[type="radio"] {
  grid-column: 1 / 3;
  justify-self: end;
  margin: 0;
}

Labels on the grid will handle themselves and fit into whichever row cell is empty. However, the default widths and spacing from the float layout are now unnecessary:

label, input[type="checkbox"] + label, input[type="radio"] + label {
  width: auto;
  padding: 0;
  margin: 0;
}

Finally, <textarea> labels can be vertically positioned at the top of the cell rather than centered:

textarea + label {
  align-self: start;
}

Here’s the final grid-based form layout:

See the Pen form grid 2: grid applied by SitePoint (@SitePoint) on CodePen.

Unlike floats, the design won’t break at small dimensions or require tweaking when different fonts, sizes or labels are added.

Grid Enlightenment

It’s taken several years to become viable, but CSS Grid is well supported and offers layout possibilities that would have been difficult with floats or flexbox. Forms are an ideal use case, and the resulting CSS is short yet robust.

If you’re looking to learn another CSS technique, Grid should be at the top of your list.