By understanding the transform property, you’ll unlock ways to further build unique and engaging interfaces from scratch. In this post, I’ll show you everything you need to know to start using the CSS transform property, including:
- what CSS transform is
- how to transform elements in two dimensions
- how to transform elements in three dimensions
- the CSS transform origin property
- how to animate CSS transform
Let's dive in.
What is the CSS transform property?
The CSS transform property changes the shape, position, and orientation of page elements. Values of the CSS transform property are functions that transform the target element, including translate(), scale(), and rotate().
A CSS transform rule is written as follows:
... where value is the type of transformation and argument is the extent to which the transformation is applied. Note that some transformation declarations can take multiple arguments.
But, this explanation doesn’t mean much without examples of the transform property in action, so let’s explore some.
2D CSS Transformations
CSS transformations can be split into two categories, two-dimensional and three-dimensional. We’ll look at two-dimensional transformations first. Two-dimensional CSS transformations operate on the X (horizontal) and Y (vertical) axes.
In my examples, I’ll apply the transformation effects to a basic square div element. The blue div represents the untransformed element, and the orange div shows the same element with the transformation effect applied.
CSS Transform: Translate
The translate() method translates, or moves, a page element up, down, left, and/or right on the page by a specified amount. In the parenthesis, the first number specifies the horizontal distance, and the second number specifies the vertical distance.
For example, we can translate our div by a number of pixels:
You can also use percentages to specify the translation. Percentages move the element a horizontal/vertical distance proportional to its set width/height:
In addition to translate(), we also have the translateX() and translateY() methods. translateX() moves an element only horizontally, and takes one argument:
Similarly, the translateY() method moves an element vertically. It also takes just one argument:
CSS Transform: Scale
The scale() method changes the size of the target element. If we provide one argument, this increases or decreases the size of our div by a multiple of its original size. For example:
If we give two arguments (separated by a comma), the first argument specifies the horizontal scaling and the second specifies the vertical scaling:
The scaleX() method changes the horizontal scaling of an element. It takes one argument:
scaleY() does the same as scaleX(), but for vertical scaling:
CSS Transform: Rotate
The rotate() function, as you might guess, rotates an element. By default, the element will rotate around its center. We can specify the rotation in terms of degrees, radians, or turns (from 0turn to 1turn):
CSS Transform: Skew
The skew() method skews, or slants, an element along its X and/or Y axes. Its arguments specify the horizontal and vertical angle of the skew, respectively.
skewX() skews our div on the horizontal axis only:
skewY() does the same on the vertical axis only:
Combining 2D CSS Transformations
If you want to apply multiple transformations to the same CSS selector, you don’t need multiple transform declarations. Instead, you can combine multiple CSS transform values into one declaration by simply listing them with a space in between each one:
3D CSS Transformations
Three-dimensional CSS transformations incorporate the Z-axis. If you imagine the width and height of your screen as the X and Y-axes respectively, the Z-axis is the “depth” of your screen.
Here are some ways to transform your elements to add this depth:
CSS Transform: Perspective
The perspective() value sets the depth of the element on the Z-axis. It toggles how “close” or “far away” the element appears. perspective() is used in conjunction with other 3D transformation methods, as we’ll see next.
CSS Transform: rotateX() and rotateY()
Like rotate(), the rotateX() and rotateY() values rotate our div, but “around” the X and Y-axes:
When these methods are used with perspective(), the rotated element appears to rotate toward us:
When used with perspective(), the translateZ() creates the effect of an element moving forward or backward on the Z-axis:
The CSS transform-origin Property
transform-origin is another CSS property that can be used with transform. The transform-origin property changes the position of the origin, the point where the transformation starts or is based around.
This is most clearly demonstrated with the rotate() method: We can use transform-origin to move the center point of rotation:
The origin can also be specified in pixel distance from the top left corner of the original element:
CSS Animate Transform
All of our examples so far have been static, but we can do better than that. Any CSS transform method can be combined with CSS transitions to produce cool CSS animation effects.
For example, we can code an interactive hover button with the scale() method. Try moving your cursor over the div in the example below.
Or, we can produce a pinwheel-like effect with rotate(). Try hovering over this div.
For a more in-depth look at CSS transitions and how they can apply to the transform property, check out this video tutorial:
We’ve covered a lot, so let’s go back over everything we’ve learned:
- transform: A CSS property for changing the shape, position, and orientation of page elements. It can take one or more of the following values:
- translate(): moves an element on the page
- translateX(): moves an element horizontally on the page
- translateY(): moves an element vertically on the page
- translateZ(): moves an element along the Z-axis, “toward” or “away” from the user
- scale(): increases/decreases the size on an element
- scaleX(): increases/decreases the width of an element
- scaleY(): increases/decreases the height of an element
- rotate(): rotates an element (around its center by default)
- rotateX(): rotates an element around the X-axis
- rotateY(): rotates an element around the Y-axis
- skew(): skews an element’s shape
- skewX(): skews an element’s shape horizontally
- skewY(): skews an element’s shape vertically
- perspective(): when used with a 3D transform value, gives the appearance of an element moving toward/away from the user
- transform-origin: A CSS property used with transform to change the origin of the transformation.
- transition: A CSS property to control animation speed. It can be used with transform to animate page elements.
There’s a lot you can do when you combine these powerful techniques — experiment and see what you come up with.
And remember, whatever cool effects you achieve, make sure they’re ultimately serving the user by enhancing the browsing experience, and not distracting from it.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in November 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.