This article describes a novel solution to the problem of creating a dynamic, multi-column, vertically ordered list that fluidly wraps according to the available width while preserving the ordering of items.
Creating a single-column vertical list using HTML is a doddle, requiring nothing more than the use of the
LI tags or even
BR tags. This can be expanded to a fixed number of columns using a little server-side coding that breaks the list into equally sized chunks and then inserts it into either a multi-column table or a series of
Using the Code
One solution to this problem that works with horizontally ordered lists is the use of fixed-width
<div style="float:left;width:120px;">Archery<br />Ballooning<br />Biking</div>
<div style="float:left;width:120px;">Bungee Jumping<br />Coasteering<br />Dancing</div>
<div style="float:left;width:120px;">Driving<br />Gliding<br />Motor Racing</div>
<div style="float:left;width:120px;">Murder Mystery<br />Off-Roading<br />Paintballing</div>
width (indicated by the dotted rectangle), this code would render as follows:
However, as the available
width becomes less, the list wraps in such as way that although horizontal ordering might be preserved, vertical ordering is not preserved until full wrapping has been achieved.
Furthermore, if some of the floated
divs are different heights, even the horizontal ordering can break down as the wrapping
floats are 'intelligently' placed.
The problem is that we have no way of controlling the wrapping order of
floats. If we could somehow tell the second
float to wrap under the first before the fourth wraps under the first, second, and third, we would be fine. However, it's always the last
float that gets wrapped.
Our solution to this problem is to use nested
floats and to set the
min-width attributes, in order to constrain the order in which the blocks of the list are wrapped.
float now looks like this:
<div style="float:left;width:50%;min-width:110px;"> CONTENT </div>
These are nested together such that each pair of adjacent list items or blocks of items, each in a floated
div, is contained within a superordinate floated
<br />Ballooning<br />Biking</div>
<div style="float:left;width:50%;min-width:110px;">Bungee Jumping
<br />Coasteering<br />Dancing</div>
<br />Gliding<br />Motor Racing</div>
<div style="float:left;width:50%;min-width:110px;">Murder Mystery
<br />Off-Roading<br />Paintballing</div>
This gives us a DOM structure as below:
As the available
width decreases, the percentage
widths result in each column shrinking until a column hits its lower limit
width as set by the
min-width attribute. The
divs that hit this first are the inner
divs (in red) so as we pass a critical threshold, the outer
divs (blue) become narrow enough that they are no longer able to hold the inner
divs without them wrapping, so we see the following:
As you can see, the vertical ordering is preserved.
This can be extended to any number of initial columns as long as it is a power of 2, e.g., 4, 8, 16, or 32 columns, which would respectively require 2, 3, 4, and 5 levels of nesting where each pair of 50% width floated
divs is contained by a superordinate 50% width floated
An example of this method in action with 8 columns is available
here (link to dead site removed by author).
Server Side Requirements
The main point of this article was to demonstrate the above 'trick' to building multi-column vertical lists that adapt to the available space. To illustrate the server side requirements, we include a sample method in VB.NET which does the required rendering for a list with 8 columns.
Public Function HTMLMultiColumnList(ByVal listitems As List(Of String), _
ByVal widthpixels As Integer) As String
Dim output As New StringBuilder
Dim itemsperblock As Integer = CInt(Math.Floor((listitems.Count) / 8))
Dim blockswithextraitems As Integer = listitems.Count - (itemsperblock * 8)
Dim sublists(8) As List(Of String)
Dim counter As Integer = 0
For i As Integer = 0 To 8 - 1
sublists(i) = New List(Of String)
Dim itemsthisblock As Integer = itemsperblock
If i < blockswithextraitems Then itemsthisblock += 1
For k As Integer = 0 To itemsthisblock - 1
If counter < listitems.Count Then
counter += 1
Dim divopen As String = String.Format( _
Dim divclose As String = "</div>"
For i As Integer = 0 To 7
If i Mod 4 = 0 Then output.Append(divopen)
If i Mod 2 = 0 Then output.Append(divopen)
output.Append(Join(sublists(i).ToArray, "<br />"))
If i Mod 2 = 1 Then output.Append(divclose)
If i Mod 4 = 3 Then output.Append(divclose)
Points of Interest
The one problem with this method is that the wrapping occurs using modulo 2, i.e., an 8 column list wraps to 4 columns, then 2 columns, then a single column. However, at each stage, the width used by the bottom level
divs containing the list items is always exactly equal to or greater than 50% of the available width. While it would be nice to have a solution that wrapped 8 into 7 columns, etc., from a visual perspective, this method works rather well.
N.B.: Please note that the margins and colored borders in the illustrations above should not be used. The wrapping
divs must have no borders or margins, or the 50% width value will no longer be correct. If you want to 'decorate' the blocks of list items, then do so using further markup within the innermost floated
divs however any horizontal decoration would rather defeat the object of having the separate blocks wrap under each other to produce the effect of continuous vertical lists.
Having enjoyed reasonably successful careers in medical statistics, psychology, lecturing, computer programming and project management, I've finally settled down to just one thing and am running my own software/webservices business (i.e. director, accountant, manager, sales and marketing, senior programmer, DBA, network administrator, IT support engineer, receptionist, administrator, secretary, cleaner, maintenance man, and person who puts the rubbish bags out on Tuesday evenings).