Back in september, someone exposed a very interesting problem on CSS-tricks forums. To sum up, he had a list of elements floated to the left. However, he wanted to float items top to bottom on each column and not left to right on each row.

He started with:


And wanted to end with:


Solutions to the problem


Even if I’m not a flexbox expert, I’m pretty confident saying there is a way to do it very easily. The problem with flexbox is that it’s not fully compatible so we had to look for another option.

Actually Bennett Feely did it very nicely already on CodePen.


I first managed to do it with :nth-child() selectors, replacing manually each one of the ten elements (JSFiddle). It sucked because it was:

  • Manual,
  • Dependant of the number of items,
  • CSS heavy,
  • Not elegant.


I was very upset not finding any proper way to do it with CSS so I did it with a mix of CSS and JavaScript (in fact jQuery). I don’t know if it’s the best way to do it in JavaScript but here is what I came up with:

$('.myList > li:odd').remove().appendTo('.myList')

Basically I target one out of two items with :nth-child(even) then remove it from the DOM to finally append it again. This does exactly what was asked so I think it’s a decent solution (JSFiddle).


Finally someone came up with a better idea (and probably a better understanding of CSS) than mine with a pure CSS and very elegant solution (CodePen).

li:nth-child(even) {
  margin: 110px 0 0 -110px;
  /* Given a 100*100px element with a 10px margin */

Wolfcry911 simply used margins to reposition one out of two items. It’s a brilliant solution, really.

However it relies on CSS advanced pseudo-selectors so for a deeper browser support, you might want get back to the JavaScript solution.

Columns (edit 31/01/2013)

I just noticed Estelle Weyl did it in another clever way with CSS columns (CodePen). I’m actually wondering if it’s not the better option all in all since it requires only one single CSS line (prefixes omitted).

ul {
  columns: 5;

Congratulations to her for such a smart solution. :)

Pushing it further

A few days ago, Chris Coyier found Wolfcry911's work and tweeted about it. Someone (in the person of Arash Milani) answered it wasn’t possible to do it with more than 2 rows.

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! This made me want to give it a shot. Honestly, it took me a few tries and no more than 10 minutes to find a solution for 3 rows.

Check out this Pen!

Instead of doing :nth-child(even), we need two different selectors:

li:nth-child(3n + 2) {
  margin: 120px 0 0 -110px;
  background: limegreen;

li:nth-child(3n + 3) {
  margin: 230px 0 0 -110px;
  background: crimson;

Automating the process

So I found a solution to do it with the number of rows we want, pretty cool. Immediately, I thought about automating this. And guess what? I succeeded.

Prepare the ground

First, I had to move everything to em units in order to make the whole thing easier to customize. I also created a few variables:

$rows: 4;
$baseline: 10px;
$width: 4em;
$height: 4em;
$margin: 0.4em;

A few explanations about the variables:

  • $rows stands for the number of rows you want,
  • $baseline is set as a font-size to the root element (html) in order to be able to use em everywhere,
  • $width is the width of each item; in my demo it equals 100px,
  • $height is the height of each item; in my demo it equals 100px as well,
  • $margin is the gap between each item; I set it to 10% of the size of an item.

Note: you may wonder why using 2 different variables for size when one would be enough. This allows you to use non-square items if you want to: try it, it works.


Now let’s get to the funny part. I figured out there is some kind of pattern to achieve this and to be honest it took me a while (no pun intended) to create the while loop for this, struggling between my comprehension of the problem and Sass syntax errors. Anyway, this is the main idea:

$i: $rows; // Initializing the loop

@while ($i > 1) {
  li:nth-child(#{$rows}n + #{$i}) {
    $j: ($i - 1); // Setting a $i-1 variable

    margin-top: ($j * $height + $i * $margin);
    margin-left: -($width + $margin);

  $i: ($i - 1);

It is pretty tough. Let me show you how it compiles when $rows is set to 4 (other variables remain unchanged):

li:nth-child(4n + 4) {
  margin-top: 13.6em; // (3 * 4em) + (4 * 0.4em)
  margin-left: -4.4em; // -(4em + 0.4em)

li:nth-child(4n + 3) {
  margin-top: 9.2em; // (2 * 4em) + (3 * 0.4em)
  margin-left: -4.4em; // -(4em + 0.4em)

li:nth-child(4n + 2) {
  margin-top: 4.8em; // (1 * 4em) + (2 * 0.4em)
  margin-left: -4.4em; // -(4em + 0.4em)

I think the pattern should be easier to see now thanks to the comments. For X rows you’ll have X-1 different selectors starting from :nth-child(Xn+Y) (where X and Y are the same) until Y becomes stricly superior than 1 (so Y equals 2).


Check out this Pen!

Try changing the number of rows by editing $rows and see the magic happen.

Final words

There are still some problems with this method like: what if items have various sizes? Or what if we want different margins? Or what if we set a disproportionate number of rows given the number of items?

I guess we could complicate the whole thing to accept more parameters and be even more flexible but would it worth it? I guess not. The simple way is to use JavaScript. The funny way is to use Sass.