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If you know when and how to leverage each one, you’ll be well on your way to creating stunning, responsive websites that look great on any device. But mastering them can take some practice.

If you’re new to CSS or interested in learning more about margins vs padding, read on to learn precisely what they are and how to decide when to use each one.

Web design and coding basics

Before we dive into the nuances of margins and padding, let’s quickly review the basics of web development: HTML and CSS

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) tells your web browser how to display a web page. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) provides a set of rules that are applied to HTML and govern the style of a website. So, we rely on HTML to define the specific text for a header on a page, but we can use CSS to set a consistent font, text size, and color for all headers in the same class across a website. 

The invention of CSS was a game changer for web development because it eliminated the need to write or rewrite an individual line of styling code for each element on every page of a website. CSS enables us to not only set consistent parameters for elements in the same class, but make changes to an entire class all at the same time.

What is the CSS box model?

CSS uses what’s called the box model to tell web browsers how to display and space different elements on a web page. All websites are made up of a series of boxes and these boxes have four major components.

  1. Content - The innermost part of the box. Content could be an image, text, heading, or something else. 
  2. Padding - The inner space between the content and the border of your box.
  3. Border - The perimeter of the box. Borders can be invisible or they could be a thick colored line like the green one pictured above. 
  4. Margin - The outer space (or lack of space) surrounding the box.

CSS boxes can be aligned vertically or horizontally. They can sit side-by-side, nest inside one another, and they can even overlap.

What’s the difference between margin and padding?

The main difference between padding and margin is that padding controls how much breathing room exists within a box, while margin controls how much breathing room or whitespace exists outside of a box. 

Padding can be set to zero pixels and above. It can change its own element's size and impact how much of a fill color or background image is visible within a box. 

Margins, on the other hand, are essentially invisible barriers around a box. They define how an element interacts with adjacent elements or the edge of a screen. Margins can be set to zero and above like padding. But unlike padding, margins can also be set to auto and can even have negative values.

Similarities between margin vs padding

In certain situations you can use either margin or padding to achieve similar results — and this is what makes the box model a bit confusing. Here’s an example.

The image above shows a set of nested boxes and their corresponding spacing in the Webflow Designer. We have a container box with a solid black border and light blue fill or background color. Within that container, there’s a div block containing a logo image (content), zero pixels of padding, a dotted black border, and a 100 pixel margin.

But we could achieve the exact same appearance using the container box’s padding instead of the div block’s margin. In the image below, we’ve increased the container’s padding from zero to 100 pixels and decreased the div block’s margin from 100 pixels to zero.

A header image showing a logo for a business named Sad Zebra depicting Zebra ears on a sky blue background. Below it, there are two images from the Webflow Designer: the left one depicting 100px padding for containers, and the right one depicting 0px margins for a div block.

Sometimes, there isn’t one correct answer as to whether you should use margin or padding. So, don’t be afraid to play around with both options. Just make sure you review the appearance of your design on different screen sizes and adjust as needed to ensure your responsive web design looks great on any device.

As you can see in the image above, while 100 pixels of margin can look great on a large computer screen, your content may become imperceptibly small when viewed on a cell phone.

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