Recipe 3.1. Choosing Between a Flexible and Fixed Layout


You need to determine which design format will do the best job of presenting your web site's content for its audience.


Web designers have three basic options when creating a grid into which web site content can be arranged and presented: a fixed-width layout that locks page elements in place regardless of the browser window size; a flexible, or liquid, layout in which content blocks can be resized when the browser window size changes, and a hybrid layout that combines both fixed and flexible components.

Consider a hypothetical three-column web page that uses CSS-styled content blocks in <div>s for its layout. A fixed-width design specifies pixels for the three columns and their margins:

 <html> <head> …other head tags … <style type="text/css" title="text/css"> <!-- #column1 {  float: left;  width: 150px;   margin-left: 5px;  background-color: #CCCCCC; } #column2 {  float: left;  width: 390px;   margin-left: 5px;  background-color: #FFFFCC;} #column3 {  float: left;  width: 200px;   margin-left: 5px;  background-color: #CCCCCC; } --> </style> </head> <body> <div >…column 1 content …</div> <div >…column 2 content …</div> <div >…column 3 content …</div> </body> </html> 

The code for a flexible layout looks the same, but uses a relative unit, such as percentages, rather than an absolute dimension.

 <html> <head> …other head tags … <style type="text/css" title="text/css"> <!-- #column1 {  float: left;  width: 20%;   margin-left: 2%;  background-color: #CCCCCC; } #column2 {  float: left;  width: 50%;   margin-left: 2%;  background-color: #FFFFCC;} #column3 {  float: left;  width: 20%;   margin-left: 2%;  background-color: #CCCCCC; } --> </style> </head> <body> <div >…column 1 content …</div> <div >…column 2 content …</div> <div >…column 3 content …</div> </body> </html> 

Two coding notes: first, all together the widths and margins total less than 100 percent to account for situations when the browser rounds a percentage value up or down, depending on the window size. Also, if you want to put content beneath the columns (such as a footer), you will need to follow the last floated div in the "row" with a <br /> and assign a clear attribute (either left, right or both) to the CSS rules for the last div's id. Alternatively, you can wrap all the column divs in a container div and clear that.

A hybrid layout might use percentages in the outer columns and a pixel width for the middle column to ensure a more consistent line length in the middle content block. is one of the best examples of the opposite hybrid approachfixed outer columns and a stretchable middle.


Ideally, your site layout should minimize the amount of mousing and scrolling it requires of its users and avoid hiding content beyond the right edge of the browser window. That was a relatively easy task in the early days of the Web, when a designer could more or less count on visitors seeing his site on a 640x480 pixel monitor. Now, the 800x600 pixel resolution has become the new standard. But depending on whom you ask, only about half of the surfers on the Web today browse at that resolution.

After deducting pixels for the various menus and scrollbars around the edges of the browser window, the actual space available on the web page canvas, or viewport, is about 740x410 pixels on an 800x600 display.

Browsing devices and screen resolutions are increasingly varied, as are the browsing skills of the people who will visit your site. Power users know the extent to which they can adjust browser windows, resize web site font sizes, and even change their monitor's resolution, but many others do not.

Ultimately, the fixed-or-flexible decision comes down to one of personal preference, filtered through as much site planning, testing, and user feedback as possible. With that in mind, let's look more closely at some of the pros and cons for the fixed and flexible layout templates presented in the Solution.

Flexible layouts

Designers who use liquid layouts assumecorrectlythat they have no control over the conditions in which the site will be viewed. Whether viewed on a 1600x1200 monitor in a maximized browser window or squeezed down on an ancient public library PC, a flexible layout yields control of the browsing experience to its users. Flexible layouts succeed for the most part at being an all-in-one design approach, with some pitfalls. Flexible layouts are:

  • Better for sites with lots of content, such as e-commerce sites or photo galleries (see Figure 3-1)

  • Harder to execute with a complex design

  • Better than fixed layouts for visitors with smaller-than-average monitors

  • Better when visitors need to make type larger

  • Not so good for designs that require fixed positions for page elements such as ads

  • Difficult to read when maximizedstretched out pages can look very odd

Figure 3-1. Two views of the home page: narrow (left) and wide (right)

Fixed layouts

Control is what turns many designers to fixed layouts. By gearing a site's layout toward some middle groundsay, the perceived 800x600-pixel standardfixed layouts provide a better canvas for accurately translating a designer's mockup into HTML. On larger monitors at higher resolutions, however, locked-down layouts permit ample stretches of empty space to fill the right and bottom sections of the browser window (see Figure 3-2). An increasingly popular faux-flexible layout style minimizes the visual impact of unsightly white space by centering all content in a fixed-width block. When a visitor widens her browser window, the content block shifts to the right, dividing the increased empty space against the right and left edges of the window.

Beyond that, the arguments for and against fixed layouts fill a mixed bag. Fixed layouts are:

  • Better at holding line lengths constant, which improves readability

  • Better for designs that use fixed-width elements, such as large images or movies

    Figure 3-2. The fixed-width layout of the homepage fills a compact corner of a maximized browser window

  • Awaiting obsolescence that will come when baseline monitor sizes and resolutions improve

  • Frustrating for visitors with smaller-than-average monitors, who must scroll horizontally to see the whole page

  • Space-wasters on high-resolution monitors with maximized browser windows

See Also

For more information on the actual sizes of various browser windows, read's article "Tracking Visitor's Browser Sizes" at

Web Site Cookbook.
Web Site Cookbook: Solutions & Examples for Building and Administering Your Web Site (Cookbooks (OReilly))
ISBN: 0596101090
EAN: 2147483647
Year: N/A
Pages: 144
Authors: Doug Addison

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