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Typographic layout with negative margins

Negative margins in CSS have good cross-browser support and are underused. Using negative margins you can improve typographic layouts without compromising the semantics of your document.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Table of contents

You can see the example in action here

Trying to improve typography

I have been making efforts to improve the typographic layout of my pages. As part of that process I have been looking at things outside the web. A popular trick in brochures and annual reports is to position titles to the left of the main body text. This allows the eye to clearly differentiate between titles and body content.

Example layout with negative margins

Possible using CSS

Initially I thought this would be difficult to achieve in CSS but in fact it is quite straight forward. To achieve the effect you create a holding div and then give it a margin-left. This moves the div away from the left of the page. Then you give the titles (in this case they are h3s) a negative margin to move them outside the div. By floating everything left you ensure that everything lines up nicely.

The XHTML

<div id="my-holding-div">
    <h3>Subtitle 1</h3>
    <p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nulla nisl velit snip...</p>
    <h3>Subtitle 2</h3>
    <p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nulla nisl velit snip...</p>
    <h3>Subtitle 3</h3>
    <p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nulla nisl velit snip...</p>
</div>

The CSS

#right-box
    {
    float: left;
    width: 500px;    
    margin: 20px 0px 0px 100px;
    padding: 5px;
}

#right-box h3
    {
    margin-left: -100px;
    margin-top: 1.285em;
    clear: left;
    float: left;
    position: relative;    
}

#right-box p
    {
    margin-top: 2em;
    float: left;
} 

Good semantics and good typography

Initially I thought this layout would use two divs. This would have broken up the content and disturbed the semantics of the document. This is bad for search engines and bad for accessibility. Thanks to CSS it is possible to have progressive typographic layouts without sacrificing semantics.

Still haven’t seen the example? You can view it here

Have an update or suggestion for this article? You can edit it here and send me a pull request.

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