Efficient Component Layout

I recently worked on a project where there were problems getting the components to fit properly, align, and stretch were necessary. Here are some tips to making it easier to layout your application.


First, diagram what you what. Here is a layout that could be more optimized:

<mx:Application>
<mx:VBox>
<mx:HBox>
<custom component 1>
</mx:HBox>
<mx:HBox>
<custom component 2>
<mx:VBox>
<mx:ViewStack>
.. stack children ..
</mx:ViewStack>
</mx:VBox>
<custom component 3>
</mx:VBox>
<mx:HBox>
<custom component 4>
<custom component 5 >
<custom component 6>
</mx:HBox>
</mx:Application>

This layout can be made more efficient in a couple of ways. First, remember that <mx:Application> lays its children out vertically, so using a VBox inside of it is redudant. The same holds true for <mx:Panel> and <mx:TitleWindow>.

Second, any container with one child is unnecessary. All that you are doing is causing the Flex LayoutManager to do more work.

Here is the same application with a more efficient layout:

<mx:Application>
<custom component 1>
<mx:HBox>
<custom component 2>
<mx:ViewStack>
.. stack children ..
</mx:ViewStack>
<custom component 3>
</mx:HBox>
<mx:HBox>
<custom component 4>
<custom component 5>
<custom component 6>
</mx:HBox>
</mx:Application>

The first <mx:VBox> was eliminated because it was redudant. The first <mx:HBox> was eliminated because it was unnecessary (it had only 1 child). The same is true for the inner <mx:VBox> that contained the <mx:ViewStack>.

Another layout concern is when and where to place width= and height= specifications. As a rule of thumb, I do not place those values in the component definition. For example, in the definition for CustomComponent.mxml:

<mx:VBox xmlns:mx="http://www.macromedia.com/2003/mxml" width="100%" height="100%">
.. contents ..
</mx:VBox>

Placing the width= and height= parameters here means that this component will always try to take up all of the space in whatever container it is occupying. My rule is to let the parent component decide how its children should be positioned and sized:

<mx:HBox width="500" height="400">
<CustomComponent width="100%" height="50%" />
<OtherComponent width="100%" height="50%" />
</mx:HBox>

Placing the size attributes in the parent lets you easily reuse the component.

Another problem I see is when to use the width= and height= attributes. Take this MXML snippet:

<mx:HBox>
<CustomComponent width="100%" />
<OtherComponent width="100%" />
</mx:HBox>

This will have a layout problem because the <mx:HBox> has been given no size. You may think that the <mx:HBox> will take its size from its children, but that is not always the case. You may see scrollbars appearing where you don’t want them or components not occupying all of the space.

Suppose the <mx:HBox> above were meant to fill the remaining space of its parent? Without specify width= and height= attributes on the <mx:HBox>, you will get unexpected results.

This is better:

<mx:HBox width="100%" height="100%">
<CustomComponent width="100%" height="100%" />
<OtherComponent width="100%" height="100%" />
</mx:HBox>

My other rule of thumb is to always specify width= and height= attributes. This helps the Flex LayoutManager be more efficient and it gives you more control.

Always specify sizes, even for GridItem and GridRow tags.

You can also use <mx:Spacer> to help you out. On the project I mentioned above, the <mx:Grid> was used to create a control bar. There were two parts: a right side and a left side. So the developer used a <mx:Grid> with a single <mx:GridRow> which contained two items: one aligned left and the other aligned right. This worked, but the <mx:Grid> is pretty ineffcient. A better way to lay this out is:

<mx:HBox width="100%" height="26" horizontalGap="2" marginLeft="3">
<control 1>
<control 2>
<mx:Spacer width="100%" />
<control 3>
<control 4>
</mx:HBox>

This uses an <mx:HBox> and a <mx:Spacer> in the middle taking up the remaining amount of space. So the Flex Layout Manager places the first two controls in the HBox on the left, then places the other two controls on the right, and fills the remaining space with the spacer.

I threw in some other attributes on the <mx:HBox> in case you weren’t aware you could use them. The horizontalGap= attribute will make sure there are only 2 pixels between the items and the marginLeft attribute makes sure the first control is 3 pixels from the edge on the left.

From a performance perspective, it is best to use absolute pixel sizes and positions. But this isn’t always possible and certainly, it doesn’t make applications resizable. So compromises can be made. If for example, you know that a text field will be 200 pixels wide and 26 pixels height, specify that. If want the text field to occupy the width of its container, then use 100%.

In conclusion, when you are creating a component or application, follow these rules:

First, diagram your layout.

Second, remove controls that are redudant, especially <mx:VBox> containers as immediate children of <mx:Application>, <mx:Panel>, and <mx:TitleWindow> as they place their children vertically by default.

Third, identify containers holding only a single child. All Flex components can be sized and most have the same attributes. Do not think you need a container just to a particular attribute, especially when the child of the container is itself extending a container.

Finally, make sure you specify width= and height= attributes on all components. Use pixel sizes if possible. And use the <mx:Spacer> to take up room between components rather than introducing extra containers.