Tableless layout HOWTO

Abstract and status

It has been advocated many times that tables shouldn't be use in HTML for layout purposes. This page shows one way to create a 3 columns layout using CSS only.

Please send comments and suggestions to Dominique Hazaël-Massieux. Translations of this article are available.


HTML is a structural language, which means it is - or should be - used to add structure into a text through tags. The table tag should then only be used to format data into a table to relate columns with rows.

But since the apparition of tables in HTML, it has been very often used for layout purpose, usually split a web page into columns. Besides the fact that it breaks the meaning of HTML, it doesn't help either in various cases that we could summarize by the difficulty to parse or render a table in some context (disabilities, view port restrictions, ...).

This document describes one way to create a 3 columns layout and links to other layout techniques.

Layout description

The technique described below is the one used in the page for new W3C users and allows to build a 3 columns layout, with the following features:

It's ideal for homepages since it allows to have a complete text in the center and nice lists of links on the side.

One of the restriction is that it won't work for too bad CSS implementations, but it will degrade nicely into a traditional vertical layout.

This layout is applied to this page itself so that you can get an idea of what it produces.


the layout is split in 3 parts:
on the left, a HTML division with list1 as id, in the center, a HTML
division with main as id and on the right, a HTML division with list2
as idThis layout uses CSS absolute positionning. If we define 3 divisions on the HTML page <div id="main">, <div id="list1" class="link-list">, <div id="list2" class="link-list">, we can apply then the following CSS rules on them:

/* Properties that both side lists have in common */
div.link-list {
/* we leave some place on the side using the margin-* properties */
#main {
/* and then we put each list on its place */
#list1 {
#list2 {

The idea is to crop the main division on the sides using the margin-left and margin-right properties, and then to position each side columns using position:absolute, and set the top left corner and top right corner coordinate to (0,0).

To prevent bad CSS implementations to read the stylesheet, just call it through <style type="text/css">@import url('your-stylesheet-url');</style>.

Dominique Hazaël-Massieux, $Id: csslayout-howto.html.en,v 1.5 2005/12/20 10:36:13 dom Exp $