CSS terminology question

I need to figure out how to call a pair of fundamental CSS concepts in my upcoming book and would like to hear which option you think is best — or least confusing.

When introducing width and height I explain that by default width takes as much horizontal space as it can, while height takes as little vertical space as possible. This leads to a discussion of these two opposed models that I excerpt below.

My question is: which names do I give to these models?

  1. The excerpt uses the names inside-out and outside-in — the ones I decided to use initially. However, a Twitter thread revealed two other good options:
  2. context-based and content-based
  3. extrinsic and intrinsic size, which I think are the terms used in the specifications. I'm afraid they may seem daunting to novices — you need to know what extrinsic and intrinsic mean.

Results: Content- and context-base 130 votes (62%); intrinsic and extrinsic 53 votes (25%); inside-out and outside-in 26 votes (12%).

So the terms will be content-based and context-based. Duly noted.

[ Would you like to improve your CSS? You can hire me as a CSS coach. ]

Excerpt from the Flow chapter

Here follows an excerpt from my current draft.

[end of previous section]

We’ll get back to setting widths and heights later [in the book]. For now it’s enough to note that their default behavior is quite different: width takes as much horizontal space as it can, while height takes as little vertical space as it can. Understanding this difference is key to understanding the browsers’ default layout.

Inside-out and outside-in

An important purpose of any layout module is figuring out what dimensions blocks should take. Why does a block have the width and height that it has? How do browsers determine that?

There are two models for determining block sizes: the outside-in model and the inside-out model. Width works outside-in, while height works inside-out. What does that mean?

In the outside-in model the block looks at the context outside itself to figure out which dimensions it should have. For instance, the default width of a paragraph is determined by the width of its container. If that container width changes, for instance because the user resizes the browser window, the width of the paragraphs changes in reaction to these factors outside themselves. Grid layout is another example of outside-in: it gives a central definition of the columns and rows that all blocks obey. If that definition changes, the blocks’ dimensions also change, regardless of their content.

In the inside-out model the block looks at its content to figure out which dimensions it should take. For instance, the default height of a paragraph is determined by the amount of text it contains. If a script adds more text, the paragraph’s height grows in reaction to these factors inside it. Flexbox layout is another example of inside-out: all individual items in a flexbox look at their contents first to determine their width. If the content of an item changes, the item’s width also changes, regardless of its neighbors.

If a script adds text to a paragraph its width stays the same. Width does not concern itself with what happens inside the paragraph; only with external factors.

Inside-out is more complex than outside-in because indirectly it may also react to outside factors. When the user makes the browser window narrower the width of the paragraphs decreases, which means less text fits on one line, which means the text needs more lines, which means the height of the paragraphs increases. Height is still inside-out, though: the reason the height changes is that the contents of the paragraphs need more space.The fact that they need more space because of the outside-in changes to the width is irrelevant to the height calculation.

As a general rule, when you create a layout you set outside-in dimensions such as width and grid fairly strictly, while you generally leave inside-out dimensions such as height and the width of flex items alone. Like any general rule this one has plenty of exceptions, and we'll encounter some of them in later chapters. Still, if you're unfamilier with CSS layout I advise you to stick to setting outside-in sizes, and allow the browser to set inside-out sizes for itself. That will make your life a lot easier.

Excerpt ends.

[ Would you like to improve your CSS? You can hire me as a CSS coach. ]

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