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Responsive Padding, Margin & Gutters With CSS Calc

9 Mar 2022 — Updated 3 Apr 2023

Padding bewteen desktop, tablet, and mobile

Table of contents

When creating a responsive layout, you're not just moving elements around the page to make them fit at every screen size.

A user-friendly design will also adjust the whitespace between items so the arrangement always looks balanced.

Whitespace comes in many forms, but let's focus on the specific kinds of space that we can control with CSS:

With these forms of whitespace, we set their dimensions in CSS. For different breakpoints, we can adjust their size.

But what size should they be?

Let's consider padding as our example, but the following applies equally to all types of whitespace.

Optimal Padding Sizes Per Screen Size

How To Set Padding At Different Breakpoints

Here are several ways you can set padding size per breakpoint:

Let's go through these methods one by one so you can see the pros and cons of each method.

Set Padding Size In Pixels Per Breakpoint With Media Queries

For this method, we need to first decide which breakpoints we want to use. To keep things simple in this example, we will use three breakpoints; mobile, tablet, and desktop.

Here's how our CSS will look:

/* Mobile */
.container {
    padding: 14px;

/* Tablet */
@media (min-width:600px) {
    .container {
        padding: 20px;

/* Desktop */
@media (min-width:900px) {
    .container {
        padding: 24px;

Pros with this method

Cons with this method

Pair Padding Size With Font Size By Using Em Units

Often it's the size of your fonts that will determine the most optimal padding size. By setting padding dimensions in em units you ensure there will always be a relationship between the two.

.container {
    padding: 2em;

This makes even more sense if you're using responsive font sizes. See my article: Responsive Font Size for details on how to achieve this with just a single line of CSS.

Pros with this method

Cons with this method

Use Percentage Units So Padding Grows With Screen Width

By setting padding size as a percentage of the screen width it will automatically grow along with the screen size. But the percentage you need on mobile is different from the ideal percentage on desktop so you will still need to set sizes for each breakpoint like this:

/* Mobile */
.container {
    padding: 4%;

/* Tablet */
@media (min-width:600px) {
    .container {
        padding: 3%;

/* Desktop */
@media (min-width:900px) {
    .container {
        padding: 2%;

Pros with this method

Cons with this method

Use My Responsive Padding Magic Formula

We can overcome all of the cons with the previous methods by using a magic formula to set our padding size.

Here's what it looks like:

calc(8px + 1.5625vw)

This magic formula combines pixel dimensions with viewport widths (vw) in the perfect ratio so padding is always at the perfect size for every screen size. It uses the well-supported calc function to do this (source).

Here are the padding sizes that this formula gives us at the most common screen sizes:

Screen width Padding size
320px (eg: iPhone 4 & 5) 13px
360px (eg: Galaxy S5) 14px
375px (eg: iPhone 6, 7, & 8) 15px
480px 16px
768px (eg: iPad portrait) 20px
1024px (eg: iPad landscape) 24px
1280px 28px
1536px 32px
1920px 38px
2560px 48px

Pros with this method

This website (that you're reading right now) uses my magic formula for padding, margin, and gutter sizing. Adjust the size of your screen and see how it smoothly changes and always looks in balance.


For the best user experience, whitespace should always be proportional to the screen size, and the best way to do this is with a formula that combines pixels and viewport widths in the perfect ratio.

Try it today, it's just a single line of CSS!

Matthew James Taylor

“I've been developing websites professionally for over two decades and running this site since 1997! During this time I've found many amazing tools and services that I cannot live without.”
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