The term "box model" is often used by people when talking about CSS-based layouts and design. Not everyone understands what is meant by this though, and not everyone understands why it is so important.
Any HTML element can be considered a box, and so the box model applies to all HTML (and XHTML) elements.
The box model is the specification that defines how a box and its attributes relate to each other. In its simplest form, the box model tells browsers that a box defined as having width 100 pixels and height 50 pixels should be drawn 100 pixels wide and 50 pixels tall.
There is more you can add to a box, though, like padding, margins, borders, etc. This image should help explain what I'm about to run through:
As you can see, a box is made up of four distinct parts. The outside one, the margin, is completely invisible. It has no background color, and will not obstruct elements behind it. The margin is outside the second part, which is the border. The border outlines the visible portion of the element. Inside the border is the third part of the box, the padding, and then inside that the content area of the box. The padding defines the space between the content area of the box and the border.
(Note that in the image above, the only border of the three drawn that would actually be visible is the solid line - the dashed lines are added to help demonstrate the box model).
When you define a width and a height for your box using CSS, you are defining not the entire area taken up by the content, padding, border and margin. You are actually just defining the content area itself - the bit right in the middle. The padding, border and margin must be added to that in order to calculate the total space occupied by the box. (From this point on, we will use width for demonstrations, but the same principles apply to both width and height).
border: 10px solid #99c;
The above CSS, applied to a box, would mean that that box occupied 300 pixels of space horizontally on the page. The content of the box would occupy 200 pixels of that (dashed line added to demonstrate the edge of the area occupied by the box):
In the above image, you can see that the pale blue area is 240 pixels wide (200 pixels of content plus 20 pixels padding either side). The border is 10 pixels wide either side, making the total width including the border 260 pixels. The margin is 20 pixels either side, making the total width of the box 300 pixels.
In practice, this can cause some confusion. For example, if I have a 100 pixel wide space available, and want to fill it with a pale red box with a dark red border and a small amount of padding, it would be very easy to write the CSS like so:
border: 1px solid #900;
(A declaration of 0, as used for the margin above, does not require a unit to be added. Any value other than 0 does require a unit, e.g. px for pixels. Also, although "background" is defined as a shorthand property, it is more widely supported than the more correct "background-color".)
However, that will not give us a 100 pixel wide box, as the width declaration defines the content area of the box. The content area of the box will be 100 pixels - the total width of the box as defined above will be 122 pixels:
In order to set the above box to only occupy 100 pixels horizontally, you would need to set the width of the content area to be 100 pixels minus the padding and minus the border, in this case 78 pixels, like so:
border: 1px solid #900;
To calculate the overall width of a box, including all padding, borders and margins, you would use the following formula:
total box width = content area width + left padding + right padding + left border + right border + left margin + right margin
At this point, you should now have a good understanding of what the box model is, and how boxes should be treated by different browsers. However, as you will soon learn (if you did not know already), not every browser does as it is supposed to. In order to use boxes, and by extension make the most of CSS in your website, you will need to be aware of how the different browsers treat boxes in practice and how to overcome and work around the problems presented by these idiosyncrasies.
Most browsers released in the last few years have no problem with boxes and render boxes correctly. Opera 6 and 7, Mozilla 1 (and by extension other browsers based on the Gecko engine like Netscape 7, Camino and Firefox and other derivatives), Safari, Konquerer (and derivatives) and Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac are all shining examples of how a web browser should behave, all rendering boxes flawlessly. IE 6 for Windows also will render a box correctly, as long as the [url=http://www.addedbytes.com/design/dtds-explained]Document Type Definition[/url] for the page is correct.
Some browsers don't display a box correctly. Unlike those below here, these browsers are widely enough used on the web that it is usually worth the effort to work through the problem. There are various methods for doing this, some better than others, that follow on. Most notable among the browsers with problems are Internet Explorers 4 and 5 and Internet Explorer 6. IE 6 is easy to work around, by adding a correct DTD (which you should be doing anyway).
Internet Explorer 5 is the main reason there is a box model problem at all. It, unfortunately, does not follow the simple definition for box layout as defined by the W3c. When you define a width for a box and it is rendered in IE5, instead of that width defining the content area of the box, it includes the borders and padding. Margins are added on to the content width correctly, but padding and borders are not. Unfortunately, this leaves us with some unpleasant choices:
On the one hand, the browsers that I am about to mention are appalling, all failing dismally to render a simple box correctly for one reason or another. On a more positive note, users of these browsers, mostly old versions of current browsers, make up an extremely small, and continually shrinking, portion of web users. While you could probably find a workaround for the bugs in the display of boxes in these browsers, it is almost certainly not worth the effort - you are likely to cause yourself more harm than good with workarounds for these!
Netscape 4's box model is awful, but even worse, the simple box model hacks to fix the problem for IE5 and IE6 will crash Netscape 4. Netscape 4's style sheet support is abysmal overall, and it is being supported less and less. Though it is strictly a personal choice, I don't think it is worth the time and effort to support Netscape 4 any more - it's just not used enough, and the number of users is only ever going to shrink.
Internet Explorer 4 suffers, basically, the same problem as IE5. It treats boxes in a very similar way. However, it falls over in far more ways, and many of the available hacks will crash IE4. As it is also used by few people, and that number is dropping, many designers ignore it.
CSS3 promises us the option to determine how we want the user agent to treat boxes, and specify which box model we want to use. Support for CSS3 at a level that will be possible is many many years away yet. Until then, we are stuck with the CSS2 box model, and while IE5 is still used by a significant percentage of the web's population, we are going to have problems with boxes.