Introduction

Let’s see how the orientation of items within a flex container can be controlled using the flex-direction property.

Lesson Overview

This section contains a general overview of topics that you will learn in this lesson.

  • You’ll learn about the 2 “axes” of a flex container.
  • You’ll learn how to change those axes to arrange your content in columns instead of rows.

The most confusing thing about flexbox is that it can work either horizontally or vertically, and the way some rules work changes a bit depending on which direction you are working with.

The default direction for a flex container is horizontal, or row, but you can change the direction to vertical, or column. The direction can be specified in CSS like so:

.flex-container {
  flex-direction: column;
}

Axes

No matter which direction you’re using, you need to think of your flex-containers as having 2 axes: the main axis and the cross axis. It is the direction of these axes that changes when the flex-direction is changed. In most circumstances, flex-direction: row puts the main axis horizontal (left-to-right), and column puts the main axis vertical (top-to-bottom).

In other words, in our very first example, we put display: flex on a div and it arranged its children horizontally. This is a demonstration of flex-direction: row, the default setting. The following example is very similar. If you uncomment the line that says flex-direction: column, those divs will stack vertically.

See the Pen flex-direction example by TheOdinProject (@TheOdinProjectExamples) on CodePen.

One thing to note is that in this example, flex-direction: column would not work as expected if we used the shorthand flex: 1. Try it out now (i.e. go change the flex value on the flex: 1 1 auto; line). Can you figure out why it does not work if flex: 1 is used? The divs collapse, even though they clearly have a height defined there.

The reason for this is that the flex shorthand expands flex-basis to 0, which means that all flex-growing and flex-shrinking would begin their calculations from 0. Empty divs by default have 0 height, so for our flex items to fill up the height of their container, they don’t actually need to have any height at all.

The example above fixed this by specifying flex: 1 1 auto, telling the flex items to default to their given height. We could also have fixed it by putting a height on the parent .flex-container, or by using flex-grow: 1 instead of the shorthand.

Another detail to notice: when we changed the flex-direction to column, flex-basis refers to height instead of width. Given the context this may be obvious, but it’s something to be aware of.

We’ve strayed from the point slightly… We were talking about flex-direction and axes. To bring it back home, the default behavior is flex-direction: row which arranges things horizontally. The reason this often works well without changing other details in the CSS is because block-level elements default to the full width of their parent. Changing things to vertical using flex-direction: column adds complexity because block-level elements default to the height of their content, and in this case there is no content.

There are situations where the behavior of flex-direction could change if you are using a language that is written top-to-bottom or right-to-left, but you should save worrying about that until you are ready to start making a website in Arabic or Hebrew.

Knowledge Check

This section contains questions for you to check your understanding of this lesson on your own. If you’re having trouble answering a question, click it and review the material it links to.

Additional Resources

This section contains helpful links to related content. It isn’t required, so consider it supplemental.

Improve this lesson on GitHub

Have a question?

Chat with our friendly Odin community in our Discord chatrooms!

Open Discord

Are you interested in accelerating your web development learning experience?

Get started
Thinkful Logo

Thinkful

  • 5-6 months

    5-6 months

  • Job Guarantee

    Job Guarantee

  • 1-on-1 Mentorship

    1-on-1 Mentorship