Photograph of a woman framed in a backlit window

As page layouts become more complex, developers require access to a greater range of measurements to bring their designs to life. Beyond the standard percentage widths, r/ems and pixels we’re used to, the new vw and vh measurements (and their related brethren, vmin and vmax) provide more powerful ways of describing adaptive designs that can often eliminate reams of @media breakpoint interventions.

Getting Beyond Percentages

Traditional CSS measurement systems create a few problems in web design:

  • Percentage measurements don’t always work as expected. Developers always have to keep margins in mind when sizing elements. Trying to use % height on the body doesn’t work as designers think it should. font-size: 50% makes text half its normal size, rather than creating a dynamic relationship between the text and its container element.
  • It’s almost impossible to keep shapes perfect. Keeping an element perfectly square and responsive at the same time is very difficult.

vw and vh go a fair way towards addressing all of these issues.

Keeping Perfect Rhythm

It’s very easy to make “perfect” shapes on web pages using vw and vh. To do so, you have to appreciate that vw and vh can be used in almost any CSS property that can take a length measurement. Therefore, if you want an element that is always 20% of the screen width and remains square no matter what the window size, you can apply the same vw value to both its width and height:

div.twentysquare {
	background: #999;
	width: 20vw;
	height: 20vw;

(Try resizing the browser window to see the effect on the square).

Using the same method, it would be easy to make a rectangle always be twice as high as it was wide, while scaling to the size of the browser window:

div.onetworect {
	width: 20vw; height: 40vw; 

Sizing a banner to a “perfect” ratio in CSS would be as simple as:

div.goldenrect {
	width: 100vw;
	height: 61.8vw;
	background: red;

Fitting "clamped" text inside a responsive box, always perfectly filling the space allotted to it with breaking into new lines would just be a matter of sizing the font in vw units.

Photograph by Helga Weber, licensed under Creative Commons.

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