Master Flexbox Scaling by Understanding flex-grow, flex-shrink, and flex-basis
Inspired by an article why flex-grow is weird, I’ve developed a small tool (Codesandbox) to explore how different properties of flex items work separately or in combination. You can reproduce all examples of this article with my tool. I hope you find it useful.
In case this tool is not intuitive for you, this article breaks down different combination of flex-basis, flex-grow, and flex-shrink to show how these flexibility properties can be leveraged for responsive flexbox layouts.
Take a look at the next screenshot.
First of all, the blue annotations explain how the tool works. In this example, the 2 flex items (blue = flex item 1 and green = flex item 2) do not consume the whole available space of the flex container (width of
100px free space is represented by 2 grey-scaled squares (500px / 10 segments). The grey-scaled ruler is meant as utility to visualize how many "portions" of the flex container are free for distribution.
The next example shows both
So what is the difference between
flex-basis In case you specify both properties (green flex item),
width is ignored. The blue flex item does not specify
flex-basis so the item automatically gets the default property (
flex-basis: auto). In such a case,
width is used for scaling.
Dave Geddes compiled an in-depth explanation on the difference between width and flex-basis.
As you can see in the next example,
flex-basis can cause an overflow of the flex container.
However, specifying a
flex-shrink value fixes the problem by allowing the blue flex item to shrink.
You can specify
flex-shrink for every flex item. In the next example, flex item 1 shrinks 4 times more than flex item 2.
As you can see, the blue flex item consumes 1 spot (
100px) and the green flex item consumes 4 spots (
400px). How come?
The following code snippet shows the calculation for the available space for the aforementioned example.
// pseudo algorithm for flex-shrink const flexItem1Width = 500 const flexItem2Width = 500 const flexContainerWidth = 500 // 500 - 500 + 500 = | -500 | = 500px const spaceToDistribute = Math.abs(flexContainerWidth - flexItem1Width + flexItem2Width) const flexItem1ShrinkFactor = 4 const flexItem2ShrinkFactor = 1 // 5 const totalShrinkValues = flexItem1ShrinkFactor + flexItem2ShrinkFactor // 100px const distributionSpot = spaceToDistribute / totalShrinkValues // 500px - (4 * 100px) = 100px const flexItem1ComputedWidth = flexItem1Width - (flexItem1ShrinkFactor * distributionSpot) // 500px - (1 * 100px) = 400px const flexItem2ComputedWidth = flexItem2Width - (flexItem2ShrinkFactor * distributionSpot)
Downsizing only happens if required. In the following example, the
flex-basis values are respected.
Of course, you can specify multiple flex item properties. The next screenshot shows that providing
flex-grow values is totally legit.
In this case, only
flex-grow values take effect causing both flex items to grow equally (because of same factor
1). Obviously, you can also specify different
flex-grow values for your flex items and the behavior is exactly as you expect it (same as with
flex-shrink but growing instead of shrinking).
Finally, let’s take a look at the following example to examine the calculation formula for
The algorithm is nearly the same as for
// pseudo code for flex-grow algorithm const flexItem1Width = 10 const flexItem2Width = 50 // 10px + 50px - 500px = | -440px | = 440px const spaceToDistribute = 440 const flexItem1GrowFactor = 10 const flexItem2GrowFactor = 15 // 15 const totalGrowValues = flexItem1GrowFactor + flexItem2GrowFactor // 440px / 15 = 29,3333 const distributionSpot = spaceToDistribute / totalGrowValues // 10px + (10 * 29,3333px) = 303,33333px const flexItem1ComputedWidth = flexItem1Width + (flexItem1GrowFactor * distributionSpot) // 50px + (5 * 29,3333px) = 196,6666px const flexItem2ComputedWidth = flexItem2Width + (flexItem2GrowFactor * distributionSpot)
min-width and max-width
Let’s take the last example and specify
max-width values for both flex items, too.
As you can see,
max-width values are respected. That’s why flex item 1 does not grow beyond
100px (it does not scale to
303,333px). In addition, flex item 2 does not scale beyond
200px (it does not scale to
Finally, let’s see how different flex item properties behave.
In this example, flex item 1 cannot consume its hypothetical main size of
600px. Due to the fact that a
flex-shrink value other than
auto is specified, the blue flex item is allowed to shrink. However, it does not shrink beyond its
min-width value (
200px). In the end, its width is
300px and that’s because of the properties of flex item 2. The green flex item cannot take its
flex-basis width (
250px). Due to
flex-shrink values the item is allowed to shrink and grow. Growing is not possible because there is no available free space within the flex container. So, the
max-width value is irrelevant. However,
min-width is respected and the green flex item takes up
Manuel Matuzovic explains in detail why
flex-grow: 1 is not the same as
This is because
flex is the shorthand for
flex-basis. It is tricky because you can use it with one, two, and three values. E.g., if you use only one value, the other values are implicitly set (e.g., by default values).
Summary and Lessons Learned
It helped me a lot to understand scaling of flex items by developing this tiny tool. I can encourage others to do the same for learning purposes and sharing knowledge.
For me, a good understanding of
flex-basis in combination with known
max-width properties allows for developing better (in terms of responsive and robust) flexbox layouts.