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Top 10 CSS Table Designs

Tables have got to be one of the most difficult objects to style in the Web, thanks to the cryptic markup, the amount of detail we have to take care of, and lack of browser compatibility. A lot of time could be wasted on a single table although it’s just a simple one. This is where this article comes in handy. It will show you ten most easily implemented CSS table designs so you can style your tables in a zap!

Looking for more design inspiration? Web Design Elements: Examples And Best Practices1

Top 10 CSS Table Designs

First things first Link

We start with a valid xhtml 1.0 strict markup. Here is an example of a valid table markup:

<!-- Table markup-->

<table id="...">

	<!-- Table header -->
	
		<thead>
			<tr>
				<th scope="col" id="...">...</th>
				...
			</tr>
		</thead>
	
	<!-- Table footer -->
	
		<tfoot>
	        <tr>
	              <td>...</td>
	        </tr>
		</tfoot>
	
	<!-- Table body -->
	
		<tbody>
			<tr>
				<td>...</td>
				...
			</tr>
			...
		</tbody>

</table>

You can read more about xhtml table markup in HTML Dog’s Table Section2. I have tested the tables below in Mozilla Firefox 3, IE 6 and 7, Opera 9.x and Safari. Also note that I apply a light blue color scheme to all of these tables to give the article a consistent look. You can modify the color scheme to match your site — the source package3 is provided in the end of the article.

Before we start, let’s review the general rule of thumb for styling of tables:

  • Tables love space. Set the width of tables carefully, according to the content. If you don’t know the perfect width, simply set the width of the table to 100%. Tables look nicer when they have “overwidth”, and when it comes to tables too much width is definitely better than too little width.
  • Cells need some padding. Sure, each table cell relates to each other. But it doesn’t mean that we have to pull them too close, right? Define some space between the cells, crammed up table cells are so much harder to read.
  • Treat tables the way you treat content. Tables are read similarly to the way we read text — except it’s harder and it takes more time to read a table. So be careful with the amount of contrast you are giving to your table. Use soft colors — it’s easier for the eyes. Don’t treat your table like it’s a graphical decoration. Make sure that the style you apply to it makes the content more readable, not the other way around.

Now that we are all set up let’s get going, shall we?

1. Horizontal Minimalist Link

Horizontal tables are tables that are read rather horizontally than vertically. Each entity is represented by a row. You can style these types of tables with minimalist style. Simply set enough padding to the cells (td and th) and put a 2 pixel border underneath the header.

Employee Salary Bonus Supervisor
Stephen C. Cox $300 $50 Bob
Josephin Tan $150 Annie
Joyce Ming $200 $35 Andy
James A. Pentel $175 $25 Annie

Because horizontal tables are supposed to be scanned horizontally, clearing the border of the table increases the efficiency of the table. The lack of border, however, makes this table design hard to read if it has too many rows. To counter it we simply add 1 pixel border underneath all td elements:

Employee Salary Bonus Supervisor
Stephen C. Cox $300 $50 Bob
Josephin Tan $150 Annie
Joyce Ming $200 $35 Andy
James A. Pentel $175 $25 Annie

The tr:hover rules are very useful to aid people reading a minimally designed tables. When the mouse cursor hovers over a cell, the rest of the cells in the same row highlights immediately, making it easier to track things if your tables have multiple columns.

  • Important!
  • Carefully finetune the typography and the padding between the cells
  • Pros
  • Very easy to style, good for simple tables
  • Cons
  • tr:hover rules don’t work in IE 6, table can be confusing if it has too many columns
  • Play with
  • Color scheme, typography, tr:hover effects

2. Vertical Minimalist Link

Although rarely used, vertically oriented tables are useful for categorizing or comparing descriptions of objects, with each entity represented by a column. We can style it in minimalistic style by adding whitespace separators between columns.

Comedy Adventure Action Children
Scary Movie Indiana Jones The Punisher Wall-E
Epic Movie Star Wars Bad Boys Madagascar
Spartan LOTR Die Hard Finding Nemo
Dr. Dolittle The Mummy 300 A Bug’s Life

Add large border-left and border-right with the same color as background. You can use transparent borders if you want, but IE 6 screws it all up. Since this table is supposed to be read from top to bottom (vertically), adding tr:hover does not help and instead makes it harder to read the data. There is perhaps a Javascript-based solution which enables you to highlight the whole column when a mouseover event occurs, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

  • Important!
  • Carefully finetune the typography and the padding between the cells, do not add tr:hover effect
  • Pros
  • Easy to style, good for simple tables
  • Cons
  • Can not be used if background is not a solid block of color, suitable only for some tables
  • Play With
  • Color scheme and typography

3. Box Link

The most dependable of all styles, the box style works for all kinds of tables. Pick a good color scheme and then distribute background-color to all the cells. Don’t forget to accentuate the differences of each cell by defining border as a separator. An example of a box style table is the following table:

Employee Salary Bonus Supervisor
Stephen C. Cox $300 $50 Bob
Josephin Tan $150 Annie
Joyce Ming $200 $35 Andy
James A. Pentel $175 $25 Annie
Comedy Adventure Action Children
Scary Movie Indiana Jones The Punisher Wall-E
Epic Movie Star Wars Bad Boys Madagascar
Spartan LOTR Die Hard Finding Nemo
Dr. Dolittle The Mummy 300 A Bug’s Life

This style is nowadays probably the most used style. The tricky part is actually trying to find the color scheme that matches with your site. If your site is heavy on graphics, it will be pretty hard to use this style.

  • Important!
  • Choose a color scheme that matches with your site
  • Pros
  • Easy to style, flexible for large or small tables
  • Cons
  • Choosing the perfect color scheme could be tricky
  • Play with
  • Colors and borders, use dashed or dotted to achieve cute effects, typography, icons

4. Horizontal Zebra Link

Zebra-tables are pretty attractive and usable. The alternating background color can serve as a visual cue for people when scanning the table. To style a table as zebra, simply put a class="odd" to every odd ordered tr tag and define a style for it (e.g. using if ($count % 2) then even class else odd class in PHP).

...

		<tr class="odd">
		   <td>...</td>
		   ...
		</tr>
	
		<tr>
		   <td>...</td>
		   ...
		</tr>

	...
Employee Salary Bonus Supervisor
Stephen C. Cox $300 $50 Bob
Josephin Tan $150 Annie
Joyce Ming $200 $35 Andy
James A. Pentel $175 $25 Annie
  • Important!
  • Do not put too much contrast on the zebra colors, you can blind your users
  • Pros
  • The zebra pattern can help people to scan the table
  • Cons
  • Adding class="odd" manually can be very tedious for large tables, many content management systems do not provide even/odd features on a table loop, hence picking the color scheme may be tricky
  • Play With
  • Contrasting color, borders, typography, icons

5. Vertical Zebra Style Link

Vertical zebra is easier to style than the horizontal one, as we can make use of colgroup and col elements to distribute column classes. However, the markup becomes a little bit heavier:

<table>

		<!-- Colgroup -->
	   <colgroup>
	      <col class="vzebra-odd"> 
	      <col class="vzebra-even">
	      <col class="vzebra-odd">
	      <col class="vzebra-even">
	   </colgroup>

		<!-- Table header -->
	   <thead>
	      <tr>
	         <th scope="col" id="vzebra-comedy">Employee</th>
	         ...
	      </tr>
	   </thead>

	   ...
</table>

The colgroup element actually applies a style or class to the table, columnwise. Instead of tediously applying class for the first td or th element, we can use a more convenient colgroup-tag. For more information about colgroup visit this page4.

Comedy Adventure Action Children
Scary Movie Indiana Jones The Punisher Wall-E
Epic Movie Star Wars Bad Boys Madagascar
Spartan LOTR Die Hard Finding Nemo
Dr. Dolittle The Mummy 300 A Bug’s Life

Although perhaps more suitable for vertically-oriented table, this zebra-style can also be used for any other kind of tables.

  • Important!
  • Do not put too much contrast on the zebra colors, you can blind your viewer
  • Pros
  • Suitable for all types of tables
  • Cons
  • Choosing the color scheme could be tricky, need to add colgroup elements
  • Play With
  • Contrasting color, borders, colgroup and col, icons and typography

6. One Column Emphasis Link

In some tables, some particular column may have a higher weight than the other columns. If that’s the case, you can use colgroup and col to make that particular column stand out. In the example below, the first column serves as the starting point to read, so it is emphasized, just like we emphasize the first letter of the paragraph as drop caps:

Company Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Microsoft 20.3 30.5 23.5 40.3
Google 50.2 40.63 45.23 39.3
Apple 25.4 30.2 33.3 36.7
IBM 20.4 15.6 22.3 29.3

You can also use one-column-emphasis-technique to highlight something important, say the column containing totals of an accounting table, or in a comparison table — for computer specification perhaps, the winning entity (column).

  • Important!
  • Be careful, don’t overdo the emphasis or the column will jump out, distracting the effort to read the rest of the columns.
  • Pros
  • Very effective when used in certain kind of tables
  • Cons
  • The necessary tr:hover effect does not work in IE, suitable for certain types of tables only
  • Play with
  • Color scheme, typography, icons and tr:hover effects

7. Newspaper Link

To achieve the so-called newspaper effect, apply border to table element and play with the cells inside. A quick, minimalistic newspaper style can look like this:

Company Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Microsoft 20.3 30.5 23.5 40.3
Google 50.2 40.63 45.23 39.3
Apple 25.4 30.2 33.3 36.7
IBM 20.4 15.6 22.3 29.3

Simply play with color scheme, borders, padding, backgrounds, and tr:hover effects of the cells (td and th). Other alternatives are presented below:

Company Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
The above data were fictional and made up, please do not sue me
Microsoft 20.3 30.5 23.5 40.3
Google 50.2 40.63 45.23 39.3
Apple 25.4 30.2 33.3 36.7
IBM 20.4 15.6 22.3 29.3
Favorite Great Nice Bad
Passion of the Christ Bourne Ultimatum Shoot ‘Em Up Ali
The Big Fish The Mummy Apocalypto Monster
Shawshank Redemption Cold Mountain Indiana Jones Dead or Alive
Greatest Story Ever Told I Am Legend Star Wars Saw 3
  • Important!
  • Be careful with border-collapse, do not lose the signature border around the table!
  • Pros
  • Gives a royal, authoritative aura to a table
  • Cons
  • Unsuitable for large tables (it loses it’s charm on large tables)
  • Play With
  • Typography, color scheme, background, border, padding, and tr:hover effects

8. Rounded Corner Link

Rounded corners are slick and modern, and it’s easy to apply it to a table, although you need to fire up Photoshop for this. Create images for all four corners of your table. Theoretically, we can make use of the nesting tr and td-elements to place the left and right corners of the table without adding additional markup. Unfortunately, IE 6 goes berserk and the table appears ugly, so the most stable way to do this is to put ID or class to all four corner cells of the table. Please consider the example below:

Company Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
The above data were fictional and made up, please do not sue me  
Microsoft 20.3 30.5 23.5 40.3
Google 50.2 40.63 45.23 39.3
Apple 25.4 30.2 33.3 36.7
IBM 20.4 15.6 22.3 29.3
  • Pros
  • Great if you want untraditional table, probably the only viable option you have if your website uses rounded corners heavily
  • Cons
  • Takes longer to style, requires images
  • Play With
  • Color scheme, corner variations, typography, tr:hover effects, icons

9. Table Background Link

If you are looking for a quick and unique way to style your table, simply pick an attractive image or photo related to the subject of your table and set it to be the background-image of the table. You can add 50% grey png-image as background-image of the cells to improve readability, and that means that you need a CSS-hack to make it work in IE 6:

* html table tbody td
{

		  /* IE CSS Filter Hack goes here*/

}

The table would look like this:

Employee Division Suggestions
IE 6 users won’t see the transparent background if the hack is not applied
Stephen C. Cox Marketing Make discount offers
Josephin Tan Advertising Give bonuses
Joyce Ming Marketing New designs
James A. Pentel Marketing Better Packaging
  • Important!
  • Make sure the image is relevant to the table’s contents
  • Pros
  • Very easy to style, delivers unique look, if used correctly the image can serve as a symbol that gives outstanding impression on the viewer
  • Cons
  • Needs hack to get the background work in IE 6, needs images
  • Play With
  • Background images, transparent PNGs, typography, colors, icons

10. Cell Background Link

You can apply background-image to the cells and achieve a consistent look. Say you have at least half an hour to spare and you want something that’s not too bland. Start your Photoshop and make 1 pixel width gradients, and set them as background-image of all cells. You’ll end up with a gradient style table:

Employee Division Suggestions Rating
Give background color to the table cells to achieve seamless transition
Stephen C. Cox Marketing Make discount offers 3/10
Josephin Tan Advertising Give bonuses 5/10
Joyce Ming Marketing New designs 8/10
James A. Pentel Marketing Better Packaging 8/10

Similarly, pick a pattern and set it as background-image and you’ll end up with a pattern-styled-table:

Employee Salary Bonus Supervisor
Stephen C. Cox $300 $50 Bob
Josephin Tan $150 Annie
Joyce Ming $200 $35 Andy
James A. Pentel $175 $25 Annie
Nation Capital Language Unique
Japan Tokyo Japanese Karate
South Korea Seoul Korean Ginseng
China Beijing Mandarin Kung-Fu
Indonesia Jakarta Indonesian Batik
  • Important!
  • Make sure the text stands out against the background
  • Pros
  • Easy to style, not too bland
  • Cons
  • Uses images, patterns and gradients might distract reading
  • Play With
  • Color scheme, patterns, typography, borders, backgrounds, gradients, icons

Final Words Link

I know I barely scratched the surface with this article, so grab the source5 and play around. Feel free to post your favourite table designs, especially if it’s something I missed out. Over to you.

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/web-design-essentials-examples-and-best-practices/
  2. 2 http://www.htmldog.com/guides/htmlbeginner/tables/
  3. 3 /images/express-css-table-design/express-css-table-design.zip
  4. 4 http://www.htmldog.com/guides/htmladvanced/tables/
  5. 5 /images/express-css-table-design/express-css-table-design.zip
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Rick Christie is studying information systems. He viciously juggles activities from college, web design, programming, church, to sports activities. You can say hello to him via seven.rchristie [at] gmail.com.

  1. 1

    One of the better guest articles. Tables still suck! :)

    1
  2. 2

    another great post smashing!!! beautiful tables.

    0
  3. 3

    F*** tables

    -11
  4. 4

    Tables…… I though tables were bad :) these look very nice though! Good read

    0
  5. 5

    Tanner Christensen

    August 13, 2008 12:04 pm

    Tables? Seriously?

    -19
  6. 6

    Terrible. The Vertical Minimalist section displays improper use of tables for non-tabular data. The markup there should be headers followed by unordered lists. NOT TABLES!

    4
  7. 7

    Praise ye table! :)

    0
  8. 8

    Tables for tabular data, who woulda thunk it..

    Good article, some neat tricks, and very nice looking tables.

    4
  9. 9

    “F… tables”

    you retards… Tables are GOOD when dealing with tabular data. pffff

    0
  10. 10

    Henry Hoffman

    August 13, 2008 12:12 pm

    This is one of the most poorly written articles I’ve read so far. It doesn’t take any time to read through and fix typos and grammar. The content is quite good though.

    @ TJ Mapes – Stop being such a purist. Tables are for use with tabular data, DIV’s are for layout.

    4
  11. 11

    MikeWhoBikes.com

    August 13, 2008 12:13 pm

    Now here is a terrific guest article! Very useful and informative, with techniques that I can apply directly to what I’m working on.

    A variation on #10, using a gradient background image, is to have the :hover change to a gradient that is vertically reversed. This creates a subtle 3D effect that looks great and really emphasizes that row.

    1
  12. 12

    You’re darn right about that! :-)

    1
  13. 13

    dont know why they insult tables
    i mean
    web depends a lot of it years ago
    that tool help us before get freaks about divs
    besides, tables reminds me to net art

    thanks!
    keep posting

    -1
  14. 14

    Overall, a nice simple article on tables. Author seems to have forgotten all about the table though.

    0
  15. 15

    you can fake tr:hover in IE6 with a little JS:

    onmouseover=”this.className=’trhover'” onmouseout=”this.className=’trdefault'”

    1
  16. 16

    Ooops. I used HTML… thats a no-no. I meant to say “seems to have forgotten all about the table caption tag though”.

    2
  17. 17

    To the other commenters, this isn’t tabled layout, this is tables for tabular data – the true and semantically correct purpose of the HTML table.

    Know the difference.

    7
  18. 18

    Brilliant, learning more all the time!

    -1
  19. 19

    CSS kids.. tables do not sucks. Tables are for “tables” – not for design. Great article.

    4
  20. 20

    Moritz Gießmann

    August 13, 2008 12:39 pm

    I love this article! One of you said “tables suck”, but not in this way!

    2

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