A Guide on Layout Types in Web Design

Jul 22 2010 by Alexander Dawson | 35 Comments

A Guide on Layout Types in Web Design

One of the most variable aspects of web design is the way in which we approach width and height in terms of measurements and flexibility.

For many years, we have rotated between the benefits and pitfalls of using fixed, elastic, and liquid measurements in a quest to give optimal viewing experiences in highly varied situations, while balancing our need to control things in our web pages.

But, as Bob Dylan proclaimed a long time ago, "The times, they are a-changin’," and with these changes come a variety of new ways for laying out your website’s pages and an even more variable landscape of methods for viewing websites.

In this article, we will examine web layout types — old, new, and the future. We will explore the subject in the context that websites are being viewed in a diverse amount of ways, such as through mobile phones, netbooks, and touchscreen personal devices like the iPad.

About Your Options

Let’s set our objectives for this exploration of layout types:

  • We shall examine the variety of options that exist
  • For each layout type, I’ll try to suggest some situations they are best used in
  • The pros and cons of a layout type compared to others

We will discuss 10 types of web layouts.

About Your OptionsWhile pixel perfection is a pipe dream, there’s more to layouts than fixed, liquid or elastic!

The main lesson to take away from these choices is to think carefully about why an option is suitable for a particular situation and how your choice will affect your audience.

Let’s dig in, starting with absolute layouts.

Absolute Layouts

One of the least commonly used methods of measurement employed in web design is absolute measurement (i.e. inches, cm, mm and picas). Absolute units and positioning is traditionally found in print media, which natively use these units of measurement.

The conversion of print to web format can be seen in word processing software such as Microsoft Word, which still uses these conventions when formatting text and sizing the dimensions of a document in order to make it appear as close as possible to printing on paper.

Absolute layouts have limited use in web designs.

Absolute LayoutsA use for absolute layouts on the web is for PDF documents where content remains static.

Of course, just because it isn’t popular doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place on the web designer’s bevy of options.

If you are someone who utilizes printer-friendly stylesheets — yes, people do still print web pages — the absolute measurements of cm, mm, inches, and pt can help you prepare a page layout for printers more accurately.

Relative Layout

Relative positioning and layouts adjust in size depending on the size of the user’s browser viewport.

Absolute LayoutsThe area inside the red border is the browser’s viewport. You can change the size of the viewport by resizing the window. Different monitor sizes have various maximum sizes for the view port.

Typically, this type of layout relies on everything working at 100% width, whether it’s a small screen (like a netbook) or a 24-inch widescreen desktop monitor. This means that the layout will scale according to the viewer’s situation.

Absolute LayoutsVery few sites make use of 100% widths, but it does work.

Fixed Layout

Commonly regarded as one of the least flexible methods of laying out a web design, the use of pixel-based measurements has almost a digital resonance associated with it that transfers across from the print industry, in that the medium relies on fixed/static measurements.

This unit of measurement is accurate and leaves little guessing as to how a web design will appear across different web browsers and has become exceptionally popular among sites that favour control and predictability over optimizing the layout for the audiences’ particular viewing situation.

Absolute LayoutsA fixed width layout is used on Six Revisions.

We all know that problems can arise from having to scroll in all sorts of directions, and the fixed measurement of a px-based layout has this general issue in spades.

While many people seek out some sort of ideal width to ensure maximum compatibility, it’s worth mentioning that if you use a lot of elements that require fixed layout rules like non-repeating background images or borders with other non-relative elements, fixed measurement layouts can do the job well and act as the best all-around solution.

Elastic Layout

One of the most used methods of laying out a design’s content is using the relative em unit of measurement.

Commonly referred to as an elastic layout design (due to the way it flexes by growing and shrinking to meet the content’s needs), it has shown a great deal of appreciation within the web design community due to its ability to scale content, text sizes, and such.

Unlike with fixed units of measurements where absolute-unit elements like images are best suited (due to maintaining without distorting), elastic layouts work best when flexible content (such as text blocks) takes the front seat (though there are ways to have images scale elastically as well).

Absolute LayoutsPopular for its elastic nature, em measurements are recommended for font sizes.

Of all the methods listed, the elastic layout type is the most subservient to your content as it gives the content itself the deciding position as to how the layout should scale.

Making the text smaller in such a design will reduce the width or height, and enlarging the text will have the opposite effect.

This unique attribute allows the layout to resize based on the content rather than the needs of the layout.

Using an elastic solution is perfect if you want the layout to be determined by the content, but it can have issues if the text scales beyond the viewport (causing unwanted horizontal scrolling).

Scaled Layout

One of the latest methods in CSS3 allows the manipulation of the available viewport around certain device orientations (i.e. portrait and landscape).

Depending on the way in which the device is held, the design has the potential to alter its visual layout (altering the amount of space given to the content itself).

Unlike the others, this type of layout does not rely on measurement units, but rather a specific layout type. However, this notion shouldn’t be underestimated as a way of dealing with complex columns on small screens.

Absolute Layouts10 years ago, we wouldn’t have considered a screen’s orientation. How the times have changed!

Scaled layouts truly shine in the smartphone market where the display can be rotated or moved frequently (such as the iPhone, for example).

Scaled LayoutThe iPhone adjusts orientation of your websites on-the-fly.

With such limited space being available on handheld mobile devices, you cannot only maximize the way your pixels are allocated, but you can also allow people the option to choose whichever method they prefer to visualise the information.

Each person will use his or her web-enabled mobile device in a different way, and by allowing your design to relate your content in a transformative way depending on the orientation, you can maximize the usability of your content.

Liquid (or Fluid) Layout

The most relaxed method of providing a dynamically expanding or contracting design makes use of the ever-popular percentage (%) unit measurement.

This layout type has gained mass popularity because it is the ultimate way of allowing the total opposite of a fixed layout where the content will simply take whatever space is available to it.

Absolute LayoutsPercentages require careful calculation as you can’t give more than 100% without issues!

The limited guarantees you hold on the viewport being used goes beyond screen resolutions (imagine your site on a 6-inch screen versus a 100-inch screen, even just at 80% width).

Though it goes without saying that a liquid layout is useful in almost every web-based situation because it adjusts its width depending on how big or small the user’s viewport is — so it’s definitely worth looking into.

Equated Layout

The next method of laying out content we shall look at is the equated layout, which makes use of a new CSS function called calc (see W3C calc spec).

Absolute LayoutsWhen this measurement capability reaches browsers, a new level of control will exist.

While the previous layouts we’ve covered rely on specific widths or heights being provided, an equated layout allows you to mix a fixed and relative value by using a calculation like width: calc(50% - 200px).

Have you ever had a situation where you wished that you could make up the full 100% but also account for things like divs with borders and elements that have fixed widths (such as an image)? If you’re anything like me, it’s certainly something that has crossed your mind.

The calc CSS3 function, which has not been widely adopted yet (but is part of the CSS3 spec) may just be the thing you are looking for. While the function still isn’t widely supported by existing web browsers, this can be a future-forward option for building layouts with an added layer of pliancy.

Fluid-Min/Max Layout

A common problem that we have as designers is that whenever the amount of space we have becomes either too wide or too narrow (or too tall or too short), the relatively-measured and flexible content we have gets too diluted or too compressed (which is bad news).

Using minimum and maximum widths (or heights), you can set limits on how much the design can scale so that you can still have flexibility — but only to a certain extent. Rather than spanning the viewport like a liquid layout, this layout type flows only up to where it’s told (‘atta boy).

Absolute LayoutsA fluid/"jello" layout will scale only to a certain fixed width or height.

If there’s one thing that causes problems with layouts, it’s us making assumptions as to the amount of space that we will have available for our design elements.

The benefits of the CSS min-width, max-width, min-height and max-height properties are most widely noticed when you want your layout to be confined within certain dimensions (like within a fixed-width design) but don’t want to suffer the wrath of horizontal scrolling.

For example, if you wanted to have your width scale to 100% for small screens but only up to, say, 1,500px so that your layout doesn’t get too wide for larger screens, then you can use a max-width:1500px.

As this method of laying out a web page provides a safety net that browsers can rely on (based on the min and max values you supply), you can give your fixed work a bit of added flexibility.

Conditional Layout

With the rise in devices like the iPhone, a need has appeared for a way of altering web designs beyond conventional layouts to ensure that mobile device users can have an optimized experience.

The ability to serve a unique stylesheet based on the device or viewport width and height (through CSS3′s media queries) gives rise to an even more flexible and friendly way to represent your site’s content. This layout type is something I’d like to call "conditional layout."

Conditional LayoutThe above design uses CSS3 media queries to scale the design down as required.

Of all the methods of laying out information that have appeared recently, this is by far the one with the most promise (once the browser compatibility issues are ironed out).

Most website designs rely on a single stylesheet. Using CSS3 media queries (especially with mobile and desktop experiences) can bring conditional layouts to best meet the user agent.

The downside of this is that it means you will need to develop and maintain stylesheets for particular devices — much like how you, in the past, maintained IE-specific stylesheets.

Hybrid Layout

Of course, while mentioning all of these layout types, we can’t forget to mention the most popular layout method of all — the hybrid layout pretty much stands by its name in that the design ends up using a mixture of various layout types. This includes mixing and matching various units and concepts to ensure that the design adapts to the browser’s viewport only when it needs to and still be able to retains a certain level of control over parts of a website that need more fixed structures.

While it requires you to be more thoughtful over your work, it’s possibly the smartest way to design and develop.

Hybrid LayoutMost sites don’t stick to one measurement type, they hybridise based on needs.

Most websites make use of a hybrid layout because certain measurement units are useful for certain situations. While many people still cling to the idea that there is one perfect layout method waiting to be found, I think that the hybrid will overcome situational issues by blending together the best of all worlds.

Perhaps you might end up with an absolute layout in your print stylesheet, and maybe you might have fixed widths using a liquid body with elastic content and a fluid control for the outside edges with scaled and flexible support for certain devices — the combinations are bountiful!

The Bigger Picture

Clearly, there are many options to consider when laying out your web pages, and thus it makes sense — both pragmatically and theoretically — to pay close attention to the details and scope of any design project you undertake.

Which layout type you utilize to produce your website is something that deserves as much attention as the fonts you use or the color theme you put together.

It’s also worth highlighting that there’s no perfect way to deal with every situation and therefore there’s no one type that is universally the best for all situations.

The Bigger PictureThere’s no right or wrong way to design, but careful thought can improve some situations.

Design is one of the most fundamental skills that any web professional must get to grips with. The way the Internet is being consumed is rapidly evolving, with wide disparities in both the devices we employ and the tools we take advantage of.

There’s more to contend with than good usability, accessibility, web copy, color contrast, and so forth. A good website must meet an ever increasing number of needs and thus the search for the perfect layout has become a Holy Grail quest of sorts for web designers.

While times are changing (as do situations), picking the right layout right now should be done methodically.

Related Content

About the Author

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.

35 Comments

Tom Black

July 22nd, 2010

A really useful piece and a good reminder of all the various options

paul

July 22nd, 2010

wow great article alex, thanks :)

Paulo França Lacerda

July 22nd, 2010

I didn’t realize there was so many layout types.
Very informative article. It helps us decide better.

Jordan Walker

July 22nd, 2010

Great article, differentiating between layouts is important to clear up projects.

Zlatan Halilovic

July 22nd, 2010

Excellent article Alexander. I have just one question for you. If I wanted to move away from the fixed layout, which I’ve been using for a while now, which one of these would you suggest to me? And are there any good resources, like online tutorials and books to learn that layout from?

Thanks in advance! :)

P.S. I hope I’m not asking for too much

Young

July 22nd, 2010

i haven’t been able to check SR in the past couple days cuz of a project finishing up, but man, great article! i definitely didn’t know about a couple of these, and it’s more important a topic than ever with the smartphones…as much as i still abhor surfing on my iphone.

as always, though, alex, it would be much more engaging an article if you had some concrete examples on which each method would fail. it might’ve made the article too long but it’s kinda hard to relate to generalizations. for example, i personally hate to work with em’s cuz i hate doing the math in decimals…and i’m a math minor!

Enor Anidi

July 22nd, 2010

Great article to tweet!

Jacob Gube

July 22nd, 2010

@Young: Glad you’re back Young!

I think a solid follow-up to this would be actual examples of these layout types (or at least the major ones like fluid, elastic, min/max, fixed) so that you can do the comparing and contrasting. What I envision is having a basic HTML document and then using different types such as fluid, elastic, fixed to highlight the differences and downsides/benefits of using each. Thanks for the feedback. I realize that it’s sort of hard to grasp if you don’t have something to play around with and test (or at least code that you can copy/paste and test yourself). But I think Alexander’s intention here was simply to highlight your options and to sort of show that there’s more to laying out a page than fixed width.

Trey Brister

July 22nd, 2010

Hey you don’t have to wait for browsers to catch up with the css3 for the calculated layout. Just check out http://lesscss.org

If you don’t want to mess with less. Then I combined the WordPress Thematic Framework child theme CSS with WP-Less into the Less Thematic WordPress theme. Download at http://lessthematic.somanyproducts.com

Trey Brister

July 22nd, 2010

This Hybrid Layout is a new enlightening idea that you just taught me, And I am on popurls everyday. Thanks!

I hope one of these days I can get a good tutorial on the Hybrid Layout.

Michael Tuck

July 22nd, 2010

Whoosh. Alex, you’re really contributing a huge amount of very useful articles for Six Revisions. This is terrific. If it’s okay, I’ll quote some of this in the section of my tutorial site concerning layouts. :)

Alexander Dawson

July 22nd, 2010

Thanks for the comments everyone!

@Zlatan Halilovic: It honestly depends upon what you’re trying to achieve and the type of content you are offering as to what will work best. The thing is that there’s no one layout type which is perfect for every situation, the key is to experiment with the options listed until you find something that suits your needs best!

@Young: As Jacob mentioned, I simply intended to list the various different layout types that are available so people realise that there’s more to life than fixed, fluid and elastic. Though as every web situation is different, I wouldn’t like to say that any specific implementation is wrong or worth discouraging (or encouraging over another).

@Trey Brister: Excellent resource, I guess that makes it a usable solution of sorts already!

@Michael Tuck: Sure! I don’t think Jacob would mind.

Siku

July 22nd, 2010

Very interesting and informative post. A must read for every web designer out there.

Cheers!

Carp Vlad

July 23rd, 2010

good article to keep in mind

David

July 23rd, 2010

This is a nice and comprehensive article. I have used a variety of these layouts depending on a particular project or more importantly the content of a particular project. Thanks for posting…

PixelCrayons

July 23rd, 2010

Thanks for this informative article. There is no single lay out which is perfect and absolute. It all depends on your requirements that which lay out you opt for!!!

Great info. have bookmarked it.

Manali

July 23rd, 2010

Thanks for this informative article.It all depends on your requirements that which lay out you opt for!!!

Great info. have bookmarked it.

Gerben van Ouwendorp

July 23rd, 2010

Great article. Thanks…it’s top of mind again!

Jon Brink

July 23rd, 2010

I love Wilson Audio. I actually own the very first production pair of Wilson Audio Tiny Tots (WATTs).

Moreen

July 23rd, 2010

Wow! Great article you have there! Doing a fixed layout is kinda boring. Experimenting is good and what your article stated is just great! Thanks for posting!

Patrick

July 23rd, 2010

I don’t see the big deal in designing for mobile devices. In fact, I think it’s a lot easier with regards to both style and content to develop mobile sites for clients or make their existing site mobile-friendly.

Great article.

CahabaWeb

July 24th, 2010

It seems that with the continued evolution of devices and resolution – everyone has their mind on horizontal, single style navigation. It seems we never build vertical left side navigation anymore. It used to be the choice of a large percentage. It’s just gone.

Hunnter

July 29th, 2010

@CahabaWeb I think the main reason is simplicity and more efficient use of width and height.
Sidebars usually end up taking up large chunks of a page, and they usually just contain nothing besides that menu. (other cases, people have reviews, vertical banner ads, tweet panels and the like)
Personally, i’m a fan of compact fixed top-left menus.

As for the article, very nice. I never realized they added Calc to CSS3, hopefully that could get around stupid issues CSS has with positioning some things. (perhaps even bring it close to the simplicity of XUL which is fantastic for interfacing, shame nobody wants to adopt it)

Hybrid all the way. Fixed positions (PX or EM) inside child containers for thumbnails & descriptions, parent container flexible, child elements floated left or right, takes advantage width and height equally. Best way to achieve flexible, collapsible columns outside of grid systems.

Peter

August 12th, 2010

Before now I thought there only two layout types – fixed & fluid. Thanks for sharing Alex!

Craig

September 18th, 2010

Wow, Great comprehensive guide on layout types for web design. I thought the conclusion was really relevant because one size does not fit all, and a hybrid method is definitely great advice because it importantly is decided by the content of a particular project. Thanks!

Madina

September 20th, 2010

It’s very good to read about layouts. Because our teacher has ordered us to find information on ths theme individually. Yeah!

Infinitive

November 4th, 2010

Truely great artcle.It has helped me in the resolution of an issue with a client over the layout of their website. Thanks!

sasa

February 17th, 2011

coollllllllll

Amit Rudra

March 24th, 2011

really good…thanks!!!

Stan68

March 30th, 2011

by ‘fixed layout’, do you mean fixed width layout?

Saeed Neamati

June 4th, 2011

I always thought that I know what the web layout is. Alas, that was a mistake. I never imagines that we have almost 10 methods to layout our web pages. This is one of the best articles I ever read on the web. Thank you.
Let’s support CSS3. Read CSS3 Multi-Column Layout Module and CSS3 Animations and have a look at css animations at My heart beats using latest version of Google Chrome.

Nishant

September 24th, 2011

Wow its amazing bombastic tutorial.It gives me new dimension and clear my vision for Css layout.Great Tutorial thanks & thanks .

Mehul Thakkar

September 30th, 2011

Very informative. I never thought on distinguishing layout to so many types. Thanks a lot :)

Raja Aamir

October 19th, 2011

thanks brother……

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