Measurement Units

In order to achieve full control over the visual design of a webpage, the ability to accurate define distances and colors on the screen is essential. Units of measurement on the web are diverse, but the most commonly used units are detailed below.


Modern computer screens are capable of displaying 24 bits of color, or 224 different colors. CSS can make use of all of these colors. Rather than coming up with 16,777,216 names for all these colors, we can specify them with hex codes.

Computer screens create color by mixing varying amounts of red, green, and blue light. Combining them in different intensities creates the illusion of different colors. For example, black can be thought of as zero red light, zero green light, and zero blue light; white, on the other hand, is lots of all three colors of light. Any color that the screen can display can be specified as a mixture of just red, green, and blue light. This is called an additive color system.

circles of color: blue red and green on the outside with magenta cyan and yellow on the inside and white in the middle
additive color system vs. subtractive color system

The mixture is represented as three bytes: one byte for red, one for green, and another for blue. Recall that a byte can have a value between 0 and 255. Rather than specifying them as a triple of decimal numbers, each byte can be conveniently represented exactly as two hexadecimal digits. Hexadecimal, or hex, is, like decimal and binary, a positional number system; however hex digits are base 16. They are written using 0-9 for the first 10 numerals, and A-F for the remaining 6 numerals. Decimal 10 becomes hexadecimal A, 11 becomes B, etc., up to F. The values 0 through 255 become 00 through FF.

CSS uses hex to specify colors. They begin with a hash followed by six hex digits. The first two hex digits represent the red intensity, the next two represent green, and the last two represent blue: #rrggbb. For example, a bright red color can be thought of as full red intensity with zero intensity green and blue, thus #FF0000. When red and green light are mixed, the result, #FFFF00, is yellow.

For a comprehensive list of hex colors and their names, refer to Wikipedia.


Due to the wide variety of web-enabled device displays, all with different physical sizes and pixel densities, distances are a little more difficult to measure on the web.

The most literal way of measuring distances is by using the pixel unit. In css, a pixel is a unit of distance based on a mathematical approximation of the smallest dot a computer screen can display. This means that, even on two laptops that have a 15-inch screen, a pixel might appear smaller on one than the other if the first screen had a higher display resolution. Pixels are considered appropriate for resizing (or adjusting other properties of) any elements on a webpage: text, images, etc.

Another commonly used unit of measurement is the percentage unit. The percentage unit is based off of the containing element’s font size (or the browser’s default font size, if no font size is defined for the containing element). This means that if a user has changed their browser’s font size, elements which are measured in percentage may scale as well – this can be advantageous, if anticipated properly. Because the percentage unit is so closely coupled with font size, it is not very appropriate for resizing elements other than text (for example, giving an image a width of 200% will not cause the image to be twice as wide as it was).

Similar to the percentage unit is the em unit. One em approximates the width of the letter ‘M’ (the widest character in the English alphabet) in the font size of the containing element (or the browser’s default font size, if no font size is defined for the containing element), although the actual measurement is slightly larger than that. Like the percentage unit, this can cause scaling if the user has adjust the browser’s default font size. This unique, although seemingly obtuse, unit of measurement has a mostly historic relevance in the typesetting industry and is still quite popular in the digital age. Because the percentage unit is so closely coupled with font size, it is not very appropriate for resizing elements other than text.

For more information about measurements of distance on the web, review the W3C formal definitions, or search for any of the many blog articles written by web developers which discuss the relative merits of each type of unit.