2 Column CSS Layout

Though a lot of web developers are beginning to migrate to css in their sites I still see many developers struggling when using css to layout their sites. CSS styling is usually pretty easy to grasp, but it can take some time to get comfortable with using css positioning techniques to layout a site. All too often I see the same developers moving back to tables so I thought I would present a few simple layouts, beginning here with a 2 column css layout.

I’ve created a 2 column layout using css, keeping things as simple as I could. Instead of just presenting the layout I want to work through the code here and explain some of the common pitfalls that I’ve come across and show how this simple layout overcomes those obstacles.

There are plenty examples of css layouts online though most of the 2 and 3 column ones that I’ve seen only include the columns themselves. I’ve included both a header and a footer in my layout. While the header is easy to include the footer tends to trip people up so I wanted to add it here and offer some explanation about how to integrate it into the layout.

The image below is a typical layout for many websites. A header at the top, a menu to the left, a main content area to the right, and a footer at the bottom. You might see something like this centered on the page. You can click the image to open it in a new window or tab and view the source code while reading about it here.

Click the image above to open the layout in a new window

Let’s look at the basic html structure for the page and then see how css is used to layout the various elements. The html structure is quite simple.

<div id="page">
 <div id="header">Header</div>
 <div id="menu">Menu</div>
 <div id="content">Content</div>
 <div id="footer">Footer</div>

We have each of the four sections of the page represented by a single div and then all four are enclosed in a ‘page’ div. The ‘page’ div is included so we can center everything in the browser window. There’s not much exciting going on here and it’s rather basic. All you need to notice is that each element is represented by a single div and that the order they sit in the structure is pretty straightforward as well. Nothing in the structure itself indicates that the layout will be in 2 columns.

Of course the interesting part is the css which surprisingly is rather simple as well. In fact only one of the elements even needs css positioning applied to achieve the layout. Can you guess which one? Let’s look at the css for each of the elements one at a time in the order they appear in the html structure.

Page Div

The page div is included in the layout to center everything. It’s represented by the thin purple border around everything on the page. It’s not really necessary in the 2 column layout, but I’ve included it since many sites are centered in the browser and some people have trouble doing this with css.

div#page {
  border:1px solid purple;
  margin:0 auto;
div {

The border, padding, and text-align are purely for formatting. The text-align on the generic div is to center the single word of text within each div (header, menu, content, footer). I needed to add the text-align:left to the page div or it tries to center the 4 divs inside it in Internet Explorer. While you might use any or all of these properties they have nothing to do with the centering of the overall page.

To center the page you need a width which I’ve specified here in px, but could be any valid width such as % or em. You also need a margin which is set to auto for the left and right margin. If you’re not familiar with css shortcuts the way I’ve specified margin here is the same as saying 0 for the top and bottom margins and auto for the left and right margins. That’s all it takes to center your page. Just wrap your entire page in a div, give it a width and set the left and right margin to auto. You also need to use a proper doctype for your html in order for this to work in Internet Explorer.

Header Div

The header div is even more unremarkable than the page div. All I’ve included is a border so you can see it and a height and width. In real pages I’d typically set the width to be 100%, but used px here for no real good reason.

div#header {
  border:2px solid red;

The header appears just where you might expect. Since it’s the first element inside our page div it displays right at the top of the page. As it does that automatically there’s no reason why we need to add any kind of css positioning to it. In fact not adding any positioning to it will make it easier to set the menu and content divs.

Menu Div

Again the menu div has a border and I’ve also applied a width and height to it. Nothing really new here. There’s also a margin which I’ve used just to give the div a little space from the border of the page div. The menu div is our one positioned element. Did you guess it was the menu div? Let’s look at the code to see how it’s positioned.

div#menu {
  border:2px solid green;
  margin:10px 0 10px 5px;

The menu div is positioned by floating it to the left. When something is floated in css it’s taken out of the normal document flow. As far as the other elements on the page are concerned it’s been removed from the same document space they occupy and other elements can thus occupy the same document space. I think this is one of the harder aspects of css positioning to grasp. In this layout unless we tell it otherwise the next element on the page (in our case the content div) will want to sit in the same exact place the menu div sits. It can since as far as the content div is concerned the menu div has been removed from the document so to speak. With floated elements it’s not quite that simple, but for the purposes of this layout we can stay with this simple concept of document flow.

Content Div

As with the other divs the content div has a border applied to it as well as a width. Again nothing special about either of these. I do want to discuss each of the three other css properties so let’s take a look at the code

div#content {
  border:2px solid blue;
  margin:10px 0 10px 235px;

The get the content div to display where we want we don’t need to use css positioning. Here all that’s been done is to give it a left margin to place it to the right of the menu. Remember that without doing anything the content div will be located all the way to the left in the same space the menu div occupies. Again that’s because the menu div is no longer in the normal document flow due to the float. You can test this by copying the source code and removing the 235px from the left margin and see where the contnet div moves.

CSS positioning could have been used either by floating the content div or using absolute or relative positioning. I think this is the common first thought when creating a css layout. The instinct is to use positioning on everything. But there’s a reason why I didn’t use it. I want to keep the content div in the normal document flow. Keeping it in the normal document flow helps to keep the footer div always sitting right below it. Had positioning been used and the content div been removed from the document flow as well as the menu then the footer would want to occupy the space just below the header.

The menu div usually has a fixed amount of information in it and generally won’t change height from page to page. The content div however will often change height based on the how much content it contains. Most of the time there will be enough content so that it has a height greater than the menu. When it does the footer will sit at the bottom of the page and everything will look great. But if the content isn’t enough to give the div a greater height than the menu the footer will come up to sit below the content (now shorter than the menu) and will end up overlapping the bottom of the menu.

Because of this I’ve added a min-height to the content div. The min-height assures us that the content will always have a greater height than the menu div. If the content needs the div to grow longer it will automatically, but by adding min-height we can be sure it will never be too short. Unfortunately Internet Explorer doesn’t handle the min-height property and so I’ve used _height as a sort of min height hack. IE actually interprets _height as height and all other browsers ignore it. Fortunately Internet Explorer will still expand past this height when the content needs it to so _height does act the same way as min-height. Incidentally you can use an underscore in front of any css property and know that only IE will interpret it. I’ll use this sometimes when I need IE to have a different value for a property than other browsers. Just make sure to use the underscore version of the property after the valid property.

Footer Div

Because we’ve accounted for the footer div in the way we set up the content div nothing special needs to be done to it. It looks exactly like our header div in fact. Just the by now familiar border, width, and height.

div#footer {
  border:2px solid red;

i think footers cause a lot of problems for people when they begin to layout a page with css instead of tables. I see lots of questions about how to position it and others asking why it’s not sitting where expected. Here by not using css positioning on the content we’ve solved the problem and let the footer naturally sit at the bottom of the page where we want.

This simple structure has been built as a 2 column css layout. No tables allowed (unless you have data for your content that should make use of a table). Even though our 2 column layout uses css to position the various elements we only needed to use css positioning on one element in our layout. Keep that in mind as you develop your own layouts. Just because you’re not using tables doesn’t mean you need to use css positioning on everything. By limiting the use of it here we’ve simplified things and eliminated some problems that often arise.

By no means is this the only possible way to develop a 2 column css layout. Below are some links to other css layout resources that may also help in the development of your sites. Feel free though to use my 2 column css layout as a basic structure in your own sites.


Layout Reservoir
CSS layout techniques
Layout Boxes

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