Creating an aspect ratio CSS utility


Until we get a native aspect ratio unit in the browser: achieving a controlled height based on a container’s width might seem difficult in a responsive design at first glance. It is actually pretty darn trivial, thanks to good ol’ padding and a touch of positioning magic (read: hacking).

The utility’s code permalink

We’ve got a two for the price of one going on here:

Code language
[class*='ratio-'] {
  display: block;
  position: relative;

[class*='ratio-'] > * {
  display: block;
  width: 100%;
  height: 100%;
  position: absolute;
  top: 0;
  left: 0;

.aspect-ratio-wide {
  padding-top: 56.25%;

.aspect-ratio-square {
  padding-top: 100%;
🔥 Pro tip: The [class*=''] selector looks for elements that contain whatever you put in the quotes. It’s handy for querying parts of a selector when you’re not 100% sure of an element’s construction.

We’ve got two separate classes that specify a ratio and then a shared bit of CSS that is common to both.

The .aspect-ratio-* class creates a relatively positioned container because its direct descendant is absolutely positioned. Adding a top padding value of X% means that the container will have X% of its own width as vertical padding.

This padding value is the magic of the aspect ratio utility, because no matter how wide or narrow the container gets, the height will always be relative to its width. It’s a tidy little CSS algorithm.

The absolute positioning serves two purposes, too: it makes it easier for the child element to fill its container—but more crucially—it prevents that child element from affecting its parent’s padding.

Examples permalink

This utility is flexible and can be used in a number of contexts. Here’s two common ones.

Sometimes it’s handy to render out a list of square images in a grid. We all know images can vary in size, so the mixture of .aspect-ratio-square and some object-fit gives you exactly what you want, with a tiny amount of CSS (even to generate a completely responsive grid).

This is thanks the the .aspect-ratio-square utility having a padding-bottom value of 100%, which is what makes it a perfect square.

See the Pen Piccalilli CSS Utility — Issue #3 — Aspect Ratio Utility — Square by Andy Bell (@piccalilli) on CodePen.

Video embed

One thing that can be a bit of a head scratcher is responsive video embeds. Not with the ratio utility, though!

If you add .aspect-ratio-wide to the container of the <iframe>, it adds a bottom padding value of 56.25%, which gives you a 16:9 aspect ratio, regardless of width. The CSS also takes precedence over the width and height attributes, which you cFyiUnitan still use to set sensible defaults for if your CSS fails. Progressive enhancement in action.

See the Pen Piccalilli CSS Utility — Issue #3 — Aspect Ratio Utility — Wide by Andy Bell (@piccalilli) on CodePen.

Wrapping up permalink

With only a few lines of CSS, we’ve got a handy little CSS algorithm that gives us aspect ratio. It’s frustrating that we’re having to use absolute positioning within the utility, but that won’t be the case forever because that magic aspect-ratio unit is only around the corner.

When it arrives, we’ll be able to extend this utility to use the new aspect-ratio unit as a progressive enhancement. Until then, you can read the draft spec in preparation.

Hello, I’m Andy and I’ll help you to level up your front-end development skills.

I'm a designer and front-end developer who has worked in the design and web industries for over 15 years, and in that time, I have worked with some of the largest organisations in the world, like Google, Harley-Davidson, BSkyB, Unilever, The Natural History Museum, Oracle, Capita, Vice Media and the NHS.

On Piccalilli, I share my knowledge and experience to make you a better front-end developer.

I'm the founder of Set Studio, a creative agency that specialises in building stunning websites that work for everyone. Check out what we're all about.