Flexbox Basics

June 5, 2015

I’ve been trying to write this post for almost a year. Flexbox is a really well-supported feature by now. I’ve been using it on almost every site I’ve worked on since December 2013. By far the best way to understand how to use flexbox is to experiment with your layout, your UI components, your own needs.

This is more or less a reference for me personally versus a longer reason of why you should use flexbox. It’s features far outweigh any concern you might have about it.

Flexbox is one of those things you either hate and dismiss or want to embrace and use on every project. Flexbox is a layout module for CSS. It’s a way to layout elements on a line based on unknown dimensions and have the inner boxes become flexible to it’s outer container.

It’s absolutely wonderful. Here’s the rundown:

  • You don’t have to clear a row of columns.
  • Columns can be reordered.
  • Everything can be relative.
  • Centering, aligning and spacing has never been easier.

Flex Container

This is what I think of when I refer to what I’m calling a “flex container”

.flex__container {
    display: flex;
    flex-wrap: wrap;
    flex-direction: row;
    justify-content: flex-start;
    align-content: flex-start;
    align-items: flex-start;

First things first, we need to start by declaring display: flex, that will make the immediate children in that container element a “flex child”. Now we have a flexbox layout to work with and all our immediate children are flexible within that layout, by default they take up one equal part of the available space.

flex-wrap breaks the children onto a new line if the combined children’s flex-basis exceed the width of the viewport (we’ll get to flex-basis in a second, for now, just think max-width).

flex-direction is defaulted to row (it’s there as an example). You can also set it to column to stack your flex children vertically instead of horizontally.

justify-content sets how the content is aligned across it’s entire flex container. It defaults to flex-start which is the furthest top left corner of your flex container. Other values are: flex-end | center | space-between | space-around. This the property you can use to vertically and horizontally center your content inside your flex container.

align-items sets how the flex children are aligned in relation to each other on their current line. The default is flex-start, which aligns each of the flex children to the top of the flex container. These are the other accepted values: flex-end | center | baseline | stretch.

Flex Children

Now a flex child needs a few attributes. A flex child can have up to three values assigned to it:

flex: flex-grow flex-shrink flex-basis;

flex-grow defines a flex child’s ability to grow. If you set it to be a number it will become that proportion of the flex container. For example if we set a flex child to be flex: 3 and another to be flex: 2 they’d take up 3 equal parts of the whole flex container and

flex-grow: 3;

See the Pen Flex Grow Example by Charles Peters (@charlespeters) on CodePen.

flex-shrink this is how much the child will shrink in relationship to the other flex children inside their flex container when the available space changes. Honestly this property confuses me more than the other two.

flex-shrink: 3;

See the Pen Flex Shrink Example by Charles Peters (@charlespeters) on CodePen.

(The only values acceptable for flex-grow & flex-shrink are a unitless number.)

flex-basis sets how big the flex child should be regardless of the viewport.

See the Pen Flex Child Example by Charles Peters (@charlespeters) on CodePen.


Most of the time if I’m using flexbox for page layout I typically use a flex container with flex-wrap: wrap and most of my “column” elements look like this:

.flex__child-3 { flex: 3 0 15rem; }

Again, you need to apply this to your context. But this is a lot easier to work with than floats in my opinion.


One really cool feature of flexbox that can be very powerful in responsive design, is the ability to visually reorder elements (as if they’re source order was different) within the flex-container.

By adding order: 9 you’ll arrange it almost last visually in your container. I’ve found problems with using order on some elements in a flex container that don’t have order declared on them.

See the Pen Flexbox Order Example by Charles Peters (@charlespeters) on CodePen.

Nesting Flexbox

Just a side note here, because there are still things on the planet, you can nest flexbox inside of flexbox.

See the Pen Flexbox Nesting by Charles Peters (@charlespeters) on CodePen.

Easy Vertical Centering

Centering Content Inside

This is a quick way to use flexbox to center content vertically inside any element.

.center--v {
  display: flex;
  flex-direction: column;
  justify-content: center;

On a Line

Adding this to your flex container well center the items vertically with each other.

.center--items { align-items: center; }

Browser Support

Like I said, really good browser support, IE10+, Android 4+ and all other modern browsers. Some of those versions require prefixes and the other syntaxes for flexbox, all of which are covered with Autoprefixer, which I would highly recommend working into your build process.

These links have more detailed information about flexbox: