Manual UIKit Layout

May 13 2021

Whenever I mention that I don't use Interface Builder, Storyboards or Auto Layout, developers, especially newer developers, ask me how it's even possible to write UIKit apps like that. So many iOS tutorials dump you straight into Interface Builder and constraint-building, and while that does have benefits at the mid-to-high-end, like with localization and right-to-left languages, it's still a fairly sharp learning curve and mental overhead that leaves many beginners not really understanding what is going on under the hood. It's no wonder that SwiftUI seems so refreshing and easy to use, in comparison.

As an alternative, here's a tiny Swift example that uses programmatic, relative layout, the likes of which I use across all of my newer apps (when I'm not using SwiftUI). No magic, no layout constraints. If you're new to iOS development as of SwiftUI and need to use UIKit but really don't want to have to learn Interface Builder, perhaps this is a technique that could make things easier for you. It can be a struggle in SwiftUI to perform some simple layouts, like placing two container views side by side with an identical width & height, so knowing you have straightforward options in UIKit can be useful.

"Programmatic Layout Example"

import UIKit

class PUIMainViewController: UIViewController {

    let mainView = UIView()
    let leftButton = UIButton(type: .system)
    let rightButton = UIButton(type: .system)

    init() {
        super.init(nibName: nil, bundle: nil)

            Prepare all your views. Subclassing can prevent a lot of repeated code
        view.backgroundColor = .systemBackground

        leftButton.setTitle("Left", for: .normal)
        rightButton.setTitle("Right", for: .normal)
        mainView.backgroundColor = .systemRed


    required init?(coder: NSCoder) {
        fatalError("init(coder:) has not been implemented")

    // MARK: - Layout Here

    override func viewDidLayoutSubviews() {
        let buttonAreaHeight = CGFloat(60)
        let padding = CGFloat(20)

        /* Can't forget your safe area insets */
        let safeContentRegion = view.bounds.inset(by: view.safeAreaInsets)
        let contentRegion = safeContentRegion.insetBy(dx: padding, dy: padding)

        let mainViewArea = contentRegion.divided(atDistance: buttonAreaHeight, from: .maxYEdge)
        let buttonsArea = mainViewArea.slice.divided(atDistance: mainViewArea.slice.width/2, from: .minXEdge)

        mainView.frame = mainViewArea.remainder
        leftButton.frame = buttonsArea.slice
        rightButton.frame = buttonsArea.remainder

Going Further

Choosing to use manual layout vs Auto Layout vs Springs & Struts vs SwiftUI will always involve a performance vs ease-of-development tradeoff, so one size may not fit all — be smart and measure this in your apps to make the right decisions. If you are designing for multiple languages and/or right-to-left layouts, maybe the additional boilerplate will be too much overhead compared to using Auto Layout or a mix of the techniques. Or perhaps some layouts can be just as simple as reversing an array of views you're looping over when calculating frames.

Eschewing Interface Builder might also make your project less accessible to your designers, even if it completely eliminates complex merges conflicts. YMMV.

As with SwiftUI, it makes a lot of sense to encapsulate views — in a parent view or view controller — so you can ensure that each component knows how to resize its contents, and they can be moved or reused freely around your app as its design evolves. Since this layout pass happens as your view resizes, you can add logic here to completely change the arrangement of your views for certain width or height thresholds, or size classes. In Pastel, for example, its primary custom view controller expands to three columns when the window is large enough, but shrinks to just one for iPhone or iPad splitscreen. Ensuring your app is safely resizable puts you in the best position to add support for future screen sizes or platforms with resizable windows like macOS.

Sometimes just knowing an option is available to you is enough to inspire new workflows and ways of thinking, so hopefully this post is useful to someone. If so, let me know!