Bradley Taunt
Front-end devsigner

Making Tables Responsive With Minimal CSS

I find that the need to create responsive table layouts pops up far more often than most developers would expect. The gut reaction might to be implement some sort of custom grid-system or pull in a pre-built library. Don't do this - just use tables and some simple CSS.

My recent article, Write HTML Like It’s 1999, received far more attention than I ever expected on HackerNews. With this attention came a few comments mentioning how table elements don’t play nice with mobile devices or that it’s not possible to have a useable layout on smaller screens. This simply isn’t true.

Included below are two separate demos showing how to optimize table HTML for mobile devices using only a minimal amount of CSS. These implementations may not be perfect, but they are far superior to injecting a bunch of custom div elements to look like tables.

Demo 1: Just let them scroll

Okay I will admit, this implementation isn’t the greatest but I find it does work well with huge datasets. Simply set a min-width on your parent table element and the browser will just require the user to scroll the contents horizontally.

table {
    min-width: 800px; /* Set your desired min-width here */
}

Check out the CodePen below to see it in action:

See the Pen Responsive Tables #1: Horizontal Scrolling by Bradley Taunt (@bradleytaunt) on CodePen.

I actually prefer this method because of its simplicity and function. Users on mobile are familiar with scrolling since it is one of the most basic actions required. Seeing a “cut-off” table gives them an instant visual cue that they have the ability to scroll the content.

Demo 2: More flexible than you think

Using something like flexbox tends to work better when you are working with smaller table datasets. All you need to do is add some minor flexbox layout at your targeted mobile screen size.

/* Using 800px as mobile screen in this example */
@media(max-width: 800px) {
    /* Hide the table headings */
    table thead {
        left: -9999px;
        position: absolute;
        visibility: hidden;
    }
    table tr {
        border-bottom: 0;
        display: flex;
        flex-direction: row;
        flex-wrap: wrap;
        margin-bottom: 40px;
    }
    table td {
        border: 1px solid;
        margin: 0 -1px -1px 0; /* Removes double-borders */
        width: 50%;
    }
}

Check out the CodePen demo below:

See the Pen Responsive Tables #2: Flexbox by Bradley Taunt (@bradleytaunt) on CodePen.

There are some caveats with this approach:

  1. We currently hide the thead row when in mobile view (only visually - screen readers can still scan it)
  2. Some more custom work might be needed depending on how many items per flexbox row makes sense (based on project and dataset)

You could keep the table headings and style them the same as the tbody contents, but I find hiding them a little cleaner. That choice is entirely up to your personal preference. You can also decide to add heading span elements inside the main tbody elements like so:

/* Default span styling - hidden on desktop */
table td span {
    background: #eee;
    color: dimgrey;
    display: none;
    font-size: 10px;
    font-weight: bold;
    padding: 5px;
    position: absolute;
    text-transform: uppercase;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
}

/* Simple CSS for flexbox table on mobile */
@media(max-width: 800px) {
    table thead {
        left: -9999px;
        position: absolute;
        visibility: hidden;
    }
    table tr {
        border-bottom: 0;
        display: flex;
        flex-direction: row;
        flex-wrap: wrap;
        margin-bottom: 40px;
    }
    table td {
        border: 1px solid;
        margin: 0 -1px -1px 0;
        padding-top: 35px; /* additional padding to avoid heading overlap */
        position: relative;
        width: 50%;
    }
    /* Show the heading span */
    table td span {
        display: block;
    }
}

See the Pen Responsive Tables #2.5: Flexbox by Bradley Taunt (@bradleytaunt) on CodePen.

Updated: As pointed out by user mmoez, it is far less repetitive to use :nth-child pseudo selectors to implement the heading fields on mobile (as outlined in this CSS-Tricks article).

Why should I care to use table elements?

Simply put: accessibility and proper semantics.

Why use a screwdriver when you need a hammer? Sure, you can make that screwdriver look and almost work the same as a hammer, but for what purpose? Just use the damn hammer1.

Have fun making your tables responsive!

1 I know, this is a terrible analogy…


Have something to say?

Reach out and chat with me on Twitter. That way your thoughts aren't lost forever on this site.