iOS layouts for web developers #4 - CSS properties replacements

This is the fourth post in the iOS layouts for web developers series. The previous ones were about the controls, control positioning and managing the appearance. This time something more lightweight, I hope. We’ll go through various visual aspects of the controls and see how we can set it up, compared to CSS. Let’s start with the basics - margin and padding.

Box model & controlling controls spacing

There was a lot of confusion in the past in the web world around the box model, i.e. whether the size of an element should be calculated including or excluding its padding and border sizes. Finally, by default, the HTML element size excludes padding and borders (unless we decide to change that using box-sizing CSS property). How does it work in iOS?

Paddings and margins are not useful at all within frame-based positioning - you place the content where you place it, full stop. In the constraints-based layouts (auto layout), though, paddings and margins make a lot of sense. In most cases in iOS these concepts are known as inset and outset and are actually a single value - we get the margin (outset) effect when we use negative value, padding (inset) for positive.

CSS padding <—> inset, -outset

CSS margin <—> outset, -inset

In the context of auto layout, most of the controls has some natural margins (insets) set that are used automatically whenever we’re constraining to the control’s leading space (contrary to the edge). From iOS 8, new UIView property was introduced to control the inset/outset value - layoutMargins. It allows to control the inset (or outset, if value is negative) for each side of the control separately.

CSS padding, margin <—> UIView’s layoutMargins property

Next thing in the box model is the border. There is no such property directly available on UIView (except for UITextField’s borderStyle property). In order to draw a border around the view, we need to rely on the lower level CALayer and use its borderWidth and borderColor properties.

CSS border-color <—> layer.borderColor

CSS border-width <—> layer.borderWidth

So, how about the box model? In iOS, the size comes from the frame property, either assigned or calculated with constraints, regardless of the inset (layoutMargins) values or border size. Both margins and borders are drawn within a frame, so the box model on iOS actually is the same like on IE6, not like in the web nowadays.

box-sizing: border-box <—> the default box model in iOS

the web’s default box-sizing: content-box <—> N/A in iOS

There is one more thing specific to iOS layouts and controls sizing that should be mentioned here. Apart from the frame, the view has the sibling bounds property. While frame is about the control’s size and location within the superview’s coordinate system, bounds are the values within the control’s own system. It means that in most cases the control’s origin is (0,0), but it changes with rotation, scaling or translations. It makes sense to use the frame property from the context of superview when dealing with its children (when our code runs from the top - like from the view controller - looking down in the view hierarchy). On the other hand, it makes sense to use bounds when dealing with the control’s own view (for example when we’re writing the custom control), as bounds are decoupled from the specifics about where and how the view is rendered at the given point of time.

Other positioning aspects

Overflow is used in the web to control what happens when the content in the element is larger than the element’s expected dimensions. When no dimensions is set, the elements grow with the content, so no overflow applied. Otherwise, one of the tree options applies - either the excess content is visible outside the element’s dimensions (overflow: visible, the default), cut off and invisible (overflow: hidden) or the scrollbars are added to the side of a control to enable scrolling independent from the main window (overflow: scroll and overflow: auto). The two first options are represented directly in iOS with clipsToBounds property of UIView - when set to YES, the content is clipped (cut off), the default is NO, like in the web. There is no direct replacement for automatic scrolls - in case we need that, we need to take care of it manually, creating an additional UIScrollView.

overflow: visible <—> clipsToBounds = NO

overflow: hidden <—> clipsToBounds = YES

overflow: scroll and overflow: auto <—> UIScrollView

Z-Index. The position of a control on the Z-axis is quite important when we use the absolute positioning (or frame-based positioning in iOS), as controls may arbitrarily cover and be covered by other controls and relying on the order of setting up the control is too brittle to be trusted. That’s why we use z-index value in CSS. In iOS, we have the same thing hidden in the CALayer as zPosition. To avoid the need to go to that level and deal with the fact that view hierarchy is actually not the same as layers hierarchy, we should be using [superview bringSubviewToFront:subview] and [superview:sendSubviewToBack:subview] to achieve the same in imperative, but more powerful manner.

z-index CSS property <—> layer.zPosition, exposed through bringSubviewToFront and sendSubviewToBack

Most of the display CSS property, as known in the web, doesn’t have a lot of sense in iOS layouts, as there is no distinction between inline and block elements and there’s no document flow, as we’ve already learned. The only display value that makes any sense for iOS is none that allows to hide the element without actually removing it from the view. The UIView’s property for this purpose is conveniently called hidden.

display: none <—> hidden


In iOS, there is concise backgroundColor property that encapsulates most of background styling, much like background in CSS. At a first glance, it seems to be simple and intended for setting plain-colored backgrounds. But it’s actually much more powerful than that. UIColor class can be initialized using colorWithPatternImage method that takes an UIImage instance and the “color” it creates is actually an image that can fill our view’s background with repetition - however strange it might sound. In case we need more control over stretching, repetition etc., we need to defer to “manual” way. We need to add UIImageView as a subview to our view and ensure it is displayed at the bottom on Z-axis.

background-color CSS property <—> backgroundColor with plain color

background-image CSS property with background-repeat: repeat <—> backgroundColor with UIColor created through colorWithPatternImage

background-image CSS property with stretching or custom positioning <—> UIImageView subview

Moreover, for a reason unknown to me, UITextField has background property specialized for setting and stretching the background image for a text field, so there’s no need to fall back to adding a subview in this case.

background-image CSS property with stretching on <input> <—> background on UITextField

Text properties

As we discussed in the first post the textual content in iOS may appear only within specialized controls like UILabel or controls supporting NSAttributedString textual values.

NSAttributesString has plenty of options for customizing text appearance, ranging from colors, through underlines and strikethroughs, to effects such as strokes and shadows. Some of the properties are encapsulated within NSParagraphStyle available under NSParagraphStyleAttributeName key in the attributed string.

font CSS properties combined <—> NSAttributedString with NSFontAttributeName

text-align CSS property <—> alignment property of NSParagraphStyleAttributeName value in NSAttributedString

text-indent CSS property <—> firstLineHeadIntent property of NSParagraphStyleAttributeName value in NSAttributedString

padding-left CSS property <—> headIndent property of NSParagraphStyleAttributeName value in NSAttributedString

padding-right CSS property <—> tailIndent property of NSParagraphStyleAttributeName value in NSAttributedString

line-height CSS property <—> lineSpacing property of NSParagraphStyleAttributeName value in NSAttributedString

word-wrap CSS property <—> lineBreakMode property of NSParagraphStyleAttributeName value in NSAttributedString

color CSS property <—> NSAttributedString with NSForegroundColorAttributeName

background-color CSS property <—> NSAttributedString with NSBackgroundColorAttributeName

text-decoration: line-through CSS value <—> NSAttributedString with NSStrikethroughStyleAttributeName set to NSUnderlineStyleSingle

text-decoration: underline CSS value <—> NSAttributedString with NSUnderlineStyleAttributeName set to NSUnderlineStyleSingle

text-stroke CSS property (not widely supported yet) <—> NSAttributedString with NSStrokeColorAttributeName and NSStrokeWidthAttributeName

text-shadow CSS property <—> NSAttributedString with NSShadowAttributeName

UILabel, the control dedicated for text display, supports attributedText, so can handle all of the features for NSAttributedString, but additionally exposes some properties that affect the whole label content, like textAlignment.

font CSS properties combined <—> UILabel’s font

color CSS property <—> UILabel’s textColor

text-align CSS property <—> UILabel’s textAlignment

word-wrap CSS property <—> UILabel’s lineBreakMode

Fancy effects

Some of the “fancy” text effects like text shadows or strokes are available through NSAttributedString we’ve just gone through. There are few more available, though. I think “fancy effects” is not a perfect heading, anyway, but I needed a place to describe few more properties that are available in iOS and are well-known in CSS but I couldn’t fit it anywhere else. So here we go:

opacity CSS property <—> alpha

animation CSS properties family <—> whole bunch of UIView’s specialized methods

border-radius CSS property for <input> <—> UITextField’s borderStyle set to UITextBorderStyleRoundedRect

border-radius CSS property in general <—> layer.cornerRadius

That’s all I found useful and worth mentioning here, but of course the full list of styling-related features of UIKit, and especially when going down to CALayers is vast, likewise the full list of features in CSS, so I don’t think it’s even feasible to cover everything here.

Next time I’ll conclude the series with the post about events handling.