The Cartesian Plane and the iOS Auto Layout

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Hello guys, Leo here.

Today we'll discuss something about auto layout that may confuse many iOS developers and that's the Auto Layout Cartesian Plane. I bet you were thinking it was just a high school subject, right?

The auto layout is defined by apple as:

Auto Layout dynamically calculates the size and position of all the views in your view hierarchy, based on constraints placed on those views. For example, you can constrain a button so that it is horizontally centered with an Image view and so that the button’s top edge always remains 8 points below the image’s bottom. If the image view’s size or position changes, the button’s position automatically adjusts to match. This constraint-based approach to design allows you to build user interfaces that dynamically respond to both internal and external changes.

Very straightforward, right? Not so much. There are two things we need to understand before we can move on: what Apple considers "8 points below" and what is a constraint.

Point System

The point system created by Apple is a very smart approach to a problem that started to emerge when the new iPhone was released with different screen resolutions. Imagine you have to create ONE measurement system to encapsulate more than 1 screen resolution. The problem was when you defined a view to have 40 pixels in iPhone 3g, let's say it would be translated to 1 cm in the screen, BUT after the launch of the Retina display 40 pixels in the screen would be like half of it, because the resolution of the Retina is higher than the previous iPhone. So Apple invented this system to let developers only care about the relative constraint position of the views in the screen. Very clever, isn't it?

Anatomy of a Constraint

The layout of your view hierarchy is defined as a series of linear equations. Each constraint represents a single equation. Your goal is to declare a series of equations that has one and only one possible solution. We can understand better with the image below:


And in the code we write something like this (without using third party libraries):

redView.leadingAnchor.constraint(equalTo: blueView.traillingAnchor, constant: 8) // the multiplier is default 1

If you pay attention we are setting a relation between two views, the blue and the red, and they are related by the constraint. Check the apple docs about constraints for a WAY better explanation.

Stop talking and let's code!

Imagine that you have two views, one red square and one yellow square inside the red square, like in the image below:

Screen Shot 2020-08-03 at 12.44.47.png

And to achieve that we can write with something like this:

        let redSquare = UIView()
        redSquare.backgroundColor = .red

        redSquare.translatesAutoresizingMaskIntoConstraints = false

            redSquare.centerXAnchor.constraint(equalTo: view.centerXAnchor),
            redSquare.centerYAnchor.constraint(equalTo: view.centerYAnchor),
            redSquare.widthAnchor.constraint(equalToConstant: 100),
            redSquare.heightAnchor.constraint(equalToConstant: 100)

        let yellowSquare = UIView()
        yellowSquare.backgroundColor = .yellow
        yellowSquare.translatesAutoresizingMaskIntoConstraints = false

            yellowSquare.topAnchor.constraint(equalTo: redSquare.topAnchor, constant: 15),
            yellowSquare.leadingAnchor.constraint(equalTo: redSquare.leadingAnchor, constant: 15),
            yellowSquare.trailingAnchor.constraint(equalTo: redSquare.trailingAnchor, constant: -15), // 1
            yellowSquare.bottomAnchor.constraint(equalTo: redSquare.bottomAnchor, constant: -15) // 1

And if you are like me and are curious about how the things work, you are thinking....

Why the trailing and the bottom Anchor are negative?

The Apple's digital Cartesian Plane is the answer. The image below demonstrates where the coordinate system starts.


So as you can see the coordinate system starts on the upper-left corner.

Now we have our answer, the trailing anchor is negative because the right side of the yellow square (trailing anchor) must be 15 constant points to the left relative to the right side (trailing anchor) of the red square, so while we are walking by the cartesian coordinates when you want to go to the left it will always be negative, that's the reasoning about it.

The same logic applies to the bottom anchor, if you want the bottom side (bottom anchor) of your yellow square to go UP relative to the bottom side (bottom anchor) of the red square the constant must be negative.

As you can see, every time a view anchor must be to the left or upwards relative to another view anchor it should be negative.

Thanks for the reading and... That's all folks!

Comments (2)

Linda Clark's photo

Great! Explain in detail and get to the point, can I share your article? It will be helpful for many people to read this article of yours. ps5 release date

Leonardo Maia Pugliese's photo

Of course you can share, and I very glad you like it!