The Math Behind Nesting Rounded Corners
I was recently designing an interface with a lot of rounded corners. I wanted to make sure the corners were consistent, so I created a
--border-radius custom property and went wild rounding those corners.
But, I quickly ran into a problem. When I nested an element with a rounded corner inside of a rounded container it looked off somehow:
This threw me off at first. I was using the same value for both corners. Why didn’t they match up?
Fixing Our Nested Corners
To fix this, I had to take a step back and think through how CSS
border-radius actually works. It can be helpful to imagine each corner holding a little circle. What
border-radius is actually doing is setting the radius of these tiny circles.
Thinking in Circles
I’m not Cloud Four’s resident circle expert, but thinking about rounded corners as circles helped me understand the math behind nesting rounded corners. To nest one circle inside of another, the inner circle needs a smaller radius than the outer circle.
The difference between the two circles’ radii is the gap between the outer circle and the inner circle. We can apply this same logic to determine the correct value for our rounded corners.
Here’s the equation to determine the inner element’s
outerRadius - gap = innerRadius
You can play with the demo below to see how changing the outer
border-radius, or the gap impacts the inner
See the Pen Nested Radius Calculator by Paul Hebert (@phebert) on CodePen.
This can also be expressed as a CSS
--outer-radius: 1em; --padding: 0.5em; --inner-radius: calc(var(--outer-radius) - var(--padding));Code language: CSS (css)
Thinking in Systems
I’m not sure what this means yet when it comes to managing
border-radius tokens in design systems. Should we be storing multiple border-radius tokens (inner and outer)? Or does it make more sense to store one primary radius token, and dynamically calculate the rest using
At the moment, I’m leaning towards using
calc, but I’m still figuring out the best practices here. In the meantime, understanding this math will help me add a little bit more polish to interfaces with rounded corners.
- Lily Konings tweeted a very helpful diagram explaining this concept.
- Ian Yates wrote a helpful article with some fun examples.
Paul Hebert is a hybrid designer and developer at Cloud Four. When he's not designing and developing websites he enjoys bouldering, drawing, cooking, gardening, and eating too much cheese.