Skip to content

The Stack

The problem

#

Flow elements require space (sometimes referred to as white space) to physically and conceptually separate them from the elements that come before and after them. This is the purpose of the margin property.

However, design systems conceive elements and components in isolation. At the time of conception, it is not settled whether there will be surrounding content or what the nature of that content will be. One element or component is likely to appear in different contexts, and the requirement for spacing will differ.

We are in the habit of styling elements, or classes of elements, directly: we make style declarations belong to elements. Typically, this does not produce any issues, but margin is really a property of the relationship between two proximate elements. The following code is therefore problematic:

p {
margin-bottom: 1.5rem;
}

Since the declaration is not context sensitive, any correct application of the margin is a matter of luck. If the paragraph is proceeded by another element, the effect is desirable. But a :last-child paragraph produces a redundant margin. Inside a padded parent element, this redundant margin combines with the parent’s padding to produce double the intended space. This is just one problem this approach produces.

The left example shows an expected space between two paragraphs. The right example shows an undesired double space between the bottom paragraph and the bottom edge/border of the containing box

The solution

#

The trick is to style the context, not the individual element(s). The Stack layout primitive injects margin between elements via their common parent:

.stack > * + * {
margin-top: 1.5rem;
}

Using the adjacent sibling combinator (+), margin-top is only applied where the element is preceded by another element: no “left over” margin. The universal (or wildcard) selector (*) ensures any and all elements are affected. The key * + * construct is known as the owl.

Recursion

In the previous example, the child combinator (>) ensures the margins only apply to children of the .stack element. However, it’s possible to inject margins recursively by removing this combinator from the selector.

.stack * + * {
margin-top: 1.5rem;
}

This can be useful where you want to affect elements at any nesting level, while retaining white space regularity.

Two nested boxes with borders do not exhibit doubled spacing. The space is equal between each element

In the following demonstration (using the Stack component to follow) there are a set of box-shaped elements. Two of these are nested within another. Because recursion is applied, each box is evenly spaced using just one parent Stack.

You’re likely to find the recursive mode affects unwanted elements. For example, generic list items that are typically not separated by margins will become unexpectedly spread out.

Nested variants

Recursion applies the same margin no matter the nesting depth. A more deliberate approach would be to set up alternative non-recursive Stacks with different margin values, and nest them where suitable. Consider the following.

[class^='stack'] > * {
margin-top: 0;
margin-bottom: 0;
}

.stack-small > * + * {
margin-top: 1.5rem;
}

.stack-large > * + * {
margin-top: 3rem;
}

The first declaration block’s selector resets the vertical margin for all Stack-like elements (by matching class values that begin with stack). Importantly, only the vertical margins are reset, because the stack only affects vertical margin, and we don't want it to reach outside its remit. You may not need this reset if a universal reset for margin is already in place (see Global and local styling).

The following two blocks set up alternative Stacks, with different margin values. These can be nested to produce—for example—the illustrated form layout. Be aware that the <label> elements would need to have display: block applied to appear above the inputs, and for their margins to actually produce spaces (the vertical margin of inline elements has no effect; see The display property).

A form uses the large Stack spacing to separate whole fields, and a nested small Stack spacing to separate field labels from their inputs and errors

In Every Layout, custom elements are used to implement layout components/primitives like the Stack. In the Stack component, the space prop (property; attribute) is used to define the spacing value. The modified classes example above is just for illustration. See the nested example.

Exceptions

CSS works best as an exception-based language. You write far-reaching rules, then use the cascade to override these rules in special cases. As written in Managing Flow and Rhythm with CSS Custom Properties, you can create per-element exceptions within a single Stack context (i.e. at the same nesting level).

.stack {
--space: 1.5rem;
}

.stack > * + * {
margin-top: var(--space);
}

.stack-exception,
.stack-exception + * {

--space: 3rem;
}

Note that we are applying the increased spacing above and below the .exception element, where applicable. If you only wanted to increase the space above, you would remove .exception + *.

Splitting the stack

By making the Stack a Flexbox context, we can give it one final power: the ability to add an auto margin to a chosen element. This way, we can group elements to the top and bottom of the vertical space. Useful for card-like components.

In the following example, we've chosen to group elements after the second element towards the bottom of the space.

.stack {
--space: 1.5rem;
display: flex;
flex-direction: column;
justify-content: flex-start;
}

.stack > * + * {
margin-top: var(--space);
}

.stack > :nth-child(2) {
margin-bottom: auto;
}

This can be seen working in context in the following demo depicting a presentation/slides editor. The Cover element on the right has a minimum height of 66.666vh, forcing the left sidebar's height to be taller than its content. This is what produces the gap between the slide images and the "Add slide" button.

Title of slide

ac vehicula arcu a odio eget amet et commodo in convallis ultrices commodo lacus faucibus non vulputate phasellus mi laoreet accumsan nec at eget arcu tellus dolor sodales eget eu blandit imperdiet arcu ut lacus tellus ut consequat euismod cubilia semper commodo lacus dolor lorem convallis nec pretium ipsum iaculis

Where the Stack is the only child of its parent, nothing forces it to stretch as in the last example/demo. A height of 100% ensures the Stack's height matches the parent's and the split can occur.

.stack:only-child {
height: 100%;
}

Use cases

#

The potential remit of the Stack layout can hardly be overestimated. Anywhere elements are stacked one atop another, it is likely a Stack should be in effect. Only adjacent elements (such as grid cells) should not be subject to a Stack. The grid cells are likely to be Stacks, however, and the grid itself a member of a Stack.

A 3 by 2 grid. One of the cells is marked as a Stack, and contains evenly spaced child elements

The generator

#

Use this tool to help you generate basic Stack CSS and HTML.

The component

#

A custom element implementation of the Stack is provided for download. Consult the API and examples to follow for more information.

Download Stack.zip

Props API

The following props (attributes) will cause the Stack component to re-render when altered. They can be altered by hand—in browser developer tools—or as the subjects of inherited application state.

Name Type Default Description
space string "var(--s1)" A CSS margin value
recursive boolean false Whether the spaces apply recursively (i.e. regardless of nesting level)
splitAfter number The element after which to split the stack with an auto margin

Examples

Basic

<stack-l>
<h2><!-- some text --></h2>
<img src="path/to/some/image.svg" />
<p><!-- more text --></p>
</stack-l>

Nested

<stack-l space="3rem">
<h2><!-- heading label --></h2>
<stack-l space="1.5rem">
<p><!-- body text --></p>
<p><!-- body text --></p>
<p><!-- body text --></p>
</stack-l>
<h2><!-- heading label --></h2>
<stack-l space="1.5rem">
<p><!-- body text --></p>
<p><!-- body text --></p>
<p><!-- body text --></p>
</stack-l>
</stack-l>

Recursive

<stack-l recursive>
<div><!-- first level child --></div>
<div><!-- first level sibling --></div>
<div>
<div><!-- second level child --></div>
<div><!-- second level sibling --></div>
</div>
</stack-l>

List semantics

In some cases, browsers should interpret the Stack as a list for screen reader software. You can use the following ARIA attribution to achieve this.

<stack-l role="list">
<div role="listitem"><!-- item 1 content --></div>
<div role="listitem"><!-- item 2 content --></div>
<div role="listitem"><!-- item 3 content --></div>
</stack-l>