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It was less than a year ago when I first had a chance to use Penpot and instantly got excited about it. They managed to build something that designers haven’t yet seen before — a modern, open-source tool for everyone. In the world of technology, that might not sound groundbreaking. After all, open-source tools and software are being taken for granted as a cornerstone of modern web development. But for some reason, not for design — until now. Penpot’s approach to building design software comes with a lot of good arguments. And it gathered a strong community.

One of the reasons why Penpot is so exciting is that it allows creators to build user interfaces in a visual environment, but using the same standards and technologies as the end product. It makes a design workflow easier on many levels. Today, we are going to focus on just one of them, building layouts.

Design tools went a long way trying to make it easier to design complex, responsive layouts and flexible, customizable components. Some of them tried to mimic the mechanisms used in web technologies and others tried to mimic these imitations. But such an approach will take you only so far.

Short History Of Web Layouts

So how are the layouts for the web built in practice?

If you’ve been around the industry long enough, you might remember the times when you used frames, tables, and floats to build layouts. And if you haven’t, you didn’t miss much. Just to give you a taste of how bad it was: same as exporting tiny images of rounded corners from ever-crashing Photoshop, just to meticulously position them in every corner of a rectangle so you could make a dull, rounded button, it was just a pain. Far too often, it was a pleasure to craft yet another amazing design — but so much tears and sorrow to actually implement it.

Then Flexbox came in and changed everything. And soon after it, Grid. Two powerful yet amazingly simple engines to build layouts that changed web developers’ lives forever.

Ironically, design tools never caught up. Flexbox and Grid opened an ocean of possibilities, yet gated behind a barrier of knowing how to code. None of the design tools ever implemented them so a larger audience of designers could leverage them in their workflows. Not until now.

Creating Layouts With Penpot

Penpot is becoming the first design tool to support both Flexbox and Grid in their toolkit. And by support, I don’t mean a layout feature that tries to copy what Flexbox or Grid has to offer. We’re talking about an actual implementation of Flexbox and Grid inside the design tool.

Penpot’s Flexbox implementation went public earlier this year. If you’d like to give it a try, last year, I wrote a separate article just about it. Now, Penpot is fully implementing both Flexbox and Grid.

You might be wondering why we need both. Couldn’t you just use Flexbox for everything, same as you use the same simple layout features in a design tool? Technically, yes, you could. In fact, most people do. (At the time of writing, only a quarter of websites worldwide use CSS Grid, but its adoption is steadily increasing; source)

So if you want to build simple, mostly linear layouts, Flexbox is probably all you’ll ever need. But if you want to gain some design superpowers? Learn Grid.

Penpot’s CSS Grid Layout is out now, so you can already give it a try. It’s a part of their major 2.0 release, bringing a bunch of long-awaited features and improvements. I’d strongly encourage you to give it a go and see how it works for yourself. And if you need some inspiration, keep reading!

CSS Grid Layout In Practice

As an example, let’s build a portfolio page that consists of a sidebar and a grid of pictures.

Creating A Layout

Our first step will be to create a simple two-dimensional grid. In this case using a Grid Layout makes more sense than Flex Layout as we want to have more granular control over how elements are laid out on multiple axes.

You can notice that each row and column of the layout has a value of “1FR”. FR stands for fraction, which means that the available space will be distributed evenly across rows and columns.

FRs are extremely useful. For example, the same as other units, FRs can take different values. So you could create 3 columns, one taking 2FRs and two counting 1FR each. As a result, the first column would occupy half of the layout’s width and the other two would take a quarter of available space each.

Adding Elements To The Layout

To add elements to CSS Grid Layout, you can simply drag and drop them onto the canvas.

For each element you can either assign it to a dedicated cell of the grid or allow it to find its place on its own and fill the first available blank.

Spacing And Alignment

CSS Grid Layout gives you full control over how the elements are aligned and how they adjust to available space. A plethora of highly granular options allows you to create very precise, responsive layouts that work seamlessly with elements of any shape or form.

(Image credit: ) (Large preview)

You can make cells and rows adjust to the size of the elements but you can also make the elements adjust to the grid. In this case, we are going to add a sidebar on the left side of the layout and place it in a column with a fixed width of 320px.

The sidebar itself has its own layout. But in this case, for the simple vertical alignment, the Flex Layout is all we need.

Creating Grid Areas

(Image credit: ) (Large preview)

To make the grid even more powerful, you can merge cells, group them into functional areas, and name them. Here, we are going to create a dedicated area for the sidebar.

As you adjust the layout later, you can see that the sidebar always keeps the same width and full height of the design while other cells get adjusted to the available space.

Building Even More Complex Grids

That’s not all. Apart from merging cells of the grid, you can tell elements inside it to take multiple cells. On our portfolio page, we are going to use this to make the featured picture bigger than others and take four cells instead of one.

As a result, we created a complex, responsive layout that would be a breeze to turn it into a functional website but at the same time would be completely impossible to build in any other design tool out there. And that’s just a fraction of what Grid Layout can do.

Next Steps

I hope you liked this demo of Penpot’s Grid Layout. If you’d like to play around with the examples used in this article, go ahead and duplicate this Penpot file. It’s a great template that explains all the ins and outs of using Grid in your designs!

In case you’re more of a video-learning type, there’s a great tutorial on Grid Layout you can watch now on YouTube. And if you need help at any point, the Penpot community will be more than happy to answer your questions.

Summary

Flexbox and Grid in Penpot open up opportunities to craft layouts like never before. Today, anyone can combine the power of Flex Layout and Grid Layout to create complex, sophisticated structures that are flexible, responsive, and ready to deploy out-of-the-box—all without writing a single line of code.

Working with the right technologies not only makes things easier, but it also just feels right. That’s something I’ve always longed for in design tools. Adopting CSS as a standard for both designers and developers facilitates smoother collaboration and helps them both feel more at home in their workflows.

For designers, that’s also a chance to strengthen their skill set, which matters today more than ever. The design industry is a competitive space that keeps changing rapidly, and staying competitive is hard work. However, learning the less obvious aspects and gaining a better understanding of the technologies you work with might help you do that.

Try CSS Grid Layout And Share Your Thoughts!

If you decide to give CSS Grid Layout a try, don’t hesitate to share your experience! The team behind Penpot would love to hear your feedback. Being a completely free and open-source tool, Penpot’s development thrives thanks to its community and people like you.

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