How to manage layout in a design system

Two way's of doing it well.

A design system is a collection of components. Each component solves a different problem and each has a list of rules on when and how it should be used. A component is also not aware of its surroundings, therefor it doesn't matter, for the component, where you place it on the page. It should always work.

A component is therefor very flexible. To create this flexibility, two rules apply. By sticking to these rules, components are reusable, standalone blocks that can be reused everywhere.

The rules

Rule 1: Be as wide and high as you can

A component should be as wide and high as the container it's in and don't set any constraints for itself.

Be as wide as you can

Rule 2: Don't influence the layout

A component should never influence the layout it’s in. The placing of components if the job of the layout and by influencing, you will break the styling.

Don't influence the layout

But what will define these rules?

What is the layout

There are three subject that are needed to create the layout.

  1. Constrains, in width and sometimes height
  2. Distance between the elements
  3. The flow of the layout


A layout can be seen as a set of horizontal and vertical constraints.

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Constraints of a layout

If you are using a gird, a boundary can be that there is an area of 4 columns and an area of 8 columns. A more of a web-based approach is to set a max-width on each area. This will result in a more fluid layout.

This is a very long sentence that will be fluid inside it's container
A more fluid layout. The components should behave the same as the text in this example.

Distance between elements

After setting the constraints, there is the distance between each element in the layout. This can be set with grid-gap if you use CSS-Grid or with margins.

The distance between elements.


Then there is the flow in the layout. When using flexbox you can decide to align all your items left, center or right.

The flow in the layout.

These three factors; constraints, distance and flow produce the layout.

The technical implementations

There are two implementations to choose from when creating a layout. The class based approach or the component based approach. You don’t have to choose only one for your project. They can be used side by side. The idea is to pick the right solution for each individual layout problem that you are having.

The Class based approach

Do you know Twitter Bootstrap? Bootstrap contains a grid system that is often used by developers. Its grid works with setting a container class to an element. By doing that, the element received a horizontal constraint. The child elements of this container are given row classes. This will give those elements a spacing (with margin). Then there are col-... classes used to set each element into columns.

This approach also uses utility classes like Bootstrap does, but doesn't think in columns and rows. It focuses more on being a fluid layout with a vertical rhythm. Here's how to implement it.

Setting the constraints

Constrains determine the horizontal maximum with of an element. A constraint can be set by using the constraint class. If there are multiple constrains needed you can use a notation like BEM and create constraint--s, constraint--m, constraint--l and constraint--xl. The CSS defines a max-width and maybe sets the horizontal margins to auto but that differs to each design.

Setting the distance

To create a nice vertical rhythm you need to evenly space the elements on the page. Because components can be reused everywhere, they should not contain any margins that influence the layout. Otherwise the rhythm is disturbed. These matings are called "Unwanted margins".

You can see the vertical rhythm as building blocks with different vertical spaces. By creating classes like .page-item, .section-item and .text-item there are only three spacings possible. Theses classes will contain CSS that sets the vertical margin to different sizes.

The page-item is used to create a vertical distance between each big section on the page.

The content item is used to create a vertical distance between each item within such a big section.

The text-item is used create a vertical distance between each text. Think of an article with multiple paragraphs.

Depending on your design you should also add horizontal margins in here. The same philosophy will apply.

Creating the flow

If the stack of blocks are not all the same size, you want to align them in a certain way (left, center, right). This is done with the flow. Just likt the above two implementations you can create a class for this. Think of left center right. The CSS of each class will contain a flexbox solution.

The upside to this solutions is that just by adding some classes, the layout is created. But that's also the downside. You give a lot of people the possibility to create or change the layout, just by adding/removing some classes. The same arguments apply for all utility class based systems.

Component based approach

A more rigged system would be to pour your components into another component that handles the layout. A nice example is the following layout.

A more complex layout.

This is a more [dynamic] layout that's reused on multiple places and contains all sorts of different components.

Creating the boundary, distance and flow

By using CSS-grid or flexbox you can solve all the problems in one go! The max-width of grid-template-columns can be used to declare the boundary of the areas. You can use grid-gap or margin to set the distance between the components and justify-content or align-items to control the flow.

I call these components grids and you can have multiple versions of these grids. These layout-components can be used to layout a page, section or component.

The component based approach is best suited if you have a layout that's reused multiple times. Because you have a bit more control over the flow part in this approach, it's also a good choice if the flow part of the layout is really important.


A design system is a collection of components. Each component is agnostic to the place they are used. Therefor you need a layout system to show them correctly.

Creating a layout has three aspects

  1. Constrains, in width and sometimes height
  2. Distance between the elements
  3. The flow

These problems can be solved with two approaches, the class based approach and the component based approach. Both approaches can be used in the same application and you should choose you solution based on the design.

The class based approach can be very nice for a vertical block based layout. But if the flow part needs more control or if the layout is reused multiple times, the component based solution is a better choice.

Special thanks to Peeke and Syb for their review and comments.