The Definitive Guide to Using Negative Margins

Since the recommendation of CSS2 back in 1998, the use of tables has slowly faded into the background and into the history books. Because of this, CSS layouts have since then been synonymous with coding elegance.

Out of all the CSS concepts designers have ever used, an award probably needs to be given to the use of Negative Margins as being the most least talked about method of positioning. It’s like an online taboo—everyone’s doing it, yet no one wants to talk about it.

1. Setting the record straight

We all use margins in our CSS, but when it comes to negative margins, our relationship somehow manages to take a turn for the worse. The use of negative margins in web design is so divided that while some of us absolutely love it, there are also those who simply think it’s the work of the devil.

A negative margin looks like this:

#content {margin-left:-100px;}

Negative margins are usually applied in small doses but as you’ll see later on, it’s capable of so much more. A few things to note about negative margins are:

2. Working with negative margins

Negative margins are very powerful when used correctly. There are 2 types of scenarios where negative margins take center stage.

Negative Margins on Static Elements

Negative margins motion on static elements

A static element is an element with no float applied. The image below illustrates how static elements react to negative margins.

Negative Margins on Floated Elements

Consider this as our actual markup:


<div id="mydiv1">First</div>
<div id="mydiv2">Second</div>

3. Effective Techniques

Since we now know that applying a negative margin is valid CSS2 code, using it provides for some very interesting CSS techniques:

Making a single <ul> into a 3-column list

Splitting a list into 3 columns

If you have a list of items which are just too long to display vertically, why not divide them into columns instead? Negative margins let you do this without having to add any floats or additional tags. It’s amazing how it easily lets you divide the list below into 3 separate columns, like so:


   <li class="col1">Eggs</li>
   <li class="col1">Ham<li>
   <li class="col2 top">Bread<li>
   <li class="col2">Butter<li>
   <li class="col3 top">Flour<li>
   <li class="col3">Cream</li>


ul {list-style:none;}
li {line-height:1.3em;}
.col2 {margin-left:100px;}
.col3 {margin-left:200px;}
.top {margin-top:-2.6em;} /* the clincher */

By adding margin-top:-2.6em (twice the line-height of <li>) to .top, all elements move up in perfect alignment. Using a negative margin is more appropriate than applying relative positioning since you only have to apply it to the first of the new columns instead of to each <li> tag. Cool, huh?

Overlap for added emphasis

Overlapping elements on purpose is also a good design metaphor. It adds emphasis to specific elements since the overlapping effect creates the illusion of depth. A good example would be the comments section of, which uses an overlapping technique to draw attention to the number of comments a post has. Combine this with the z-index property and a little creativity and you’ve got it made.

Smashing 3D text effects

3D effects

Here’s a neat trick. Create Safari-like text, which are slightly beveled by creating 2 versions of your text in 2 different colors. Then use negative margins to overlap one over the other with a discrepancy of around 1 or 2 pixels and you’ve got selectable, robot-friendly beveled text! No need for huge jpegs or gifs which devour bandwidth like fat pigs.

Simple 2-column Layouts

Negative margins are also a great way to create simple 2-column liquid layouts where the sidebar has a preset width and the content has a liquid width of 100%


<div id="content"> <p>Main content in here</p> </div>
<div id="sidebar"> <p>I’m the Sidebar! </p> </div>


#content {width:100%; float:left; margin-right:-200px;}
#sidebar {width:200px; float:left;}

And there you have a simple 2-column layout record time. It works flawlessly in IE6 too! Now, to prevent #sidebar from overlapping the text inside #content, simply add

/* Prevent text from being overlapped */

#content p {margin-right:210px;}

/* It’s 200px + 10px, the 10px being an additional margin.*/

When used properly, negative margins can also provide what’s called a Flexible Document Structure which absolutely kicks tables in the face. Flexible Document Structure is an accessibility and SEO technique which allows you to arrange your markup in almost any order depending on your intentions. Tom Wright wrote an interesting article which discusses possible applications of negative margins in multicolumn layouts.

Nudging elements into place

This is the most common (and simplest) usage for negative margins. If you’re inserting a 10th div in a sea of 9 other divs and somehow it just won’t align properly, use negative margins to nudge that 10th div into place instead of having to edit the other 9.

4. Bugfixes

Text and Link problems

Using negative margins with floats sometimes pisses off older browsers. Some symptoms include:

Solution: Just add position:relative and it works!

My picture got cut-off

If you have the bad luck of using IE6 in the office, sometimes content will suddenly be cut-off when overlapping and floats are concerned.

Solution: Again, just add position:relative to the floated element and everything goes back to normal.

5. Conclusion

Negative margins have a place in modern web design because of its ability to position elements without any additional markup. With more users switching to more updated browsers (IE8 included), the future looks very bright for sites which rely on this technique.

If you have any unique experiences with negative margins, let me know by posting a comment.

6. Resources

More info on negative margins.