Layout Secret Weapon #1: The CSS Table Property

Massimo Cassandro

Magnetic cube table

Right now, Flexbox is arguably THE hot new thing for layout building. Flexbox’s almost miraculous abilities to adapt to the available space has left many of us wide-eyed with possibility.

Nevertheless, it can’t solve all your layout problems, and moreover, it brings with it some compatibility issues with legacy browsers. There simply is no bulletproof ‘polyfill’ (fallback for older browsers) for Flexbox — currently I'm only aware of a polyfill for the 2009 version of IE: Flexie.

In many cases I've found simpler solutions using the often-ignored CSS table displays properties. These CSS properties are widely supported by all relevant browsers (note this excludes IE6 & 7), and can elegantly solve several major and small layout headaches.

In case you're not 100% familiar with this technique, changing a DIVs display property can make it behave like a table or a table element.

Wait what? Tables for layout? Isn’t that bad?

Perhaps the hottest web design topics of the early 2000's was the debate over using HTML table code as a layout tool. That was a hack and is still bad practice.

Instead here we're using perfectly meaningful HTML (i.e. DIVs, SECTIONs, HEADERs, etc) and simply borrowing some useful table presentation know-how from CSS. This is precisely what CSS was designed to do, so don't feel that this is a hack or patch. It’s not.

Using 'display:table-cell'

In the sample below, clicking the top button you can change the display property of the three colored DIVs from block to table-cell:

See the Pen Display table #1 by Massimo Cassandro (@massimo-cassandro) on CodePen.

You can see how the DIVs can be horizontally arranged without requiring any float property, and that you can also access some typical table rules (just like vertical-align).

If you need some spacing, note that the classic CSS margin property doesn't have any effect on table cells: instead use border-spacing instead (it must be applied to the container table element). You can find some commented lines within the Codepen, if you want to play with those rules.

This technique can be very useful to solve a lot of problems that prove difficult to crack other ways.

I've picked out three simple cases where the table display properties are really valuable.

But first let's look at them:

display property renders as
table, inline-table table
table-column col
table-column-group colgroup
table-row-group tbody
table-header-group thead
table-footer-group tfoot
table-row tr
table-cell td
table-caption caption

For a really comprehensive guide to tables and CSS take a look at CSS Tricks: A Complete Guide to the Table Element.

Case 1. Equal height boxes

I think this is one of the most frequent issues I've deal with: there are some floated boxes with unknown content and you have to make all them with equal height.

I know, flexbox can easily solve this problem, but tables rules can do it too.

Simply apply the display: table (or table-row) property to the container and the display: table-cell property to inner boxes. Take care to remove any float property (otherwise the table-cell property doesn't take effect).


<div id="wrapper">
    <div id="div1"></div>
    <div id="div2"></div>
    <div id="div3"></div>


#wrapper {
    display: table;
#wrapper div {

See the Pen Equal height boxes by Massimo Cassandro (@massimo-cassandro) on CodePen.

Case 2. Simple old-style layout

This one is a more outdated example, but I think you might need to deal with it, as I did recently.

Some months ago I received a graphic layout very similar to the scheme below. It needed to be compatible with IE8, and I found that the best way was to use CSS table rules:

See the Pen table display #3: old-style layout by Massimo Cassandro (@massimo-cassandro) on CodePen.

Case 3. Responsive layout with content choreography

The previous example leads us to a new topic: is it possible to build a responsive layout with CSS table rules?

Not only is possible, but we can also perform some content choreography tasks.

We have already seen how changing the display property from block totable-cell of two divs can change their arrangement from vertical to horizontal.

Add to this the fact that an element with the table-header-group property is brought to the top of a table layout. In the same way, table-footer-group elements are brought to the bottom and so on. This can be unexpectedly useful when reformatting responsive layouts.

In the pen below, the header element exchanges his position with the nav element on window resize, simply changing its display property to table-header-group.


<div id="wrapper">
    <!-- rest of code -->


#wrapper, header {
    display: block; /* we don't really need this rule, since it is the default */

@media (min-width: 48em) {
    #wrapper {
        display: table;
    header {
        display: table-header-group;

A similar behavior occurs for the footerand the #banner2 div.

Here is a scheme of the layout: on the left the default, mobile version, and on the right the desktop version:

responsive layout scheme  using display: table

And this is a running demo:

See the Pen `display: table` layout by Massimo Cassandro (@massimo-cassandro) on CodePen.

For more info about this argument, take also a look at:


CSS table display properties are an under-rated and valuable solution for both big and little layout challenges.

While I may not personally choose to use them to build complex layouts, they can certainly solve many difficult problems related to portions of the layout.