Thursday 19 July 2012

You're Doing It Wrong #2: Sizing labels with -[NSString sizeWithFont:...]

Author's note: Well, I've already blown my one-post-per-week target. UIButton's insets behaviour finally got the best of me and I had to take a major detour to settle the issue once and for all. I hope it was worth it!

It's very common to want to adjust the bounds of a UILabel to fit its contents. The most common technique I've seen from developers looks something like this:

UILabel *label = [[UILabel alloc] initWithFrame:...];
label.text = NSLocalizedString(@"Some long text here...");
label.numberOfLines = 0;

CGSize maxSize = CGSizeMake(label.bounds.size.width, CGFLOAT_MAX);

CGSize textSize = [label.text sizeWithFont:label.font

label.frame = CGRectMake(10, 10, textSize.width, textSize.height);

This code is using one of NSString's sizeWithFont:... methods to calculate the bounds of the label's text, taking its font and width into consideration.

If you are sizing your labels like this, you need to read on because you are doing it wrong.

A smell

Let's take a step back and think about this for a moment.

We want to know how much space the label needs to display its text. Surely that logic belongs in UILabel? Only the label itself really knows how it renders its content and what offsets or margins it may be applying.

It seems like a bit of a smell to me that we have to calculate this stuff ourselves using methods on another class.

Now in the case of UILabel, it turns out that -sizeWithFont: returns exactly the size we need. The label is probably doing a simple -[NSString drawAtPoint:...] which matches up perfectly with the results we get back from the sizeWithFont:... methods. But is this always going to be true?

What if UILabel decides to add support for special borders, or configurable line heights, or some other visual effects that will change the required bounds? The above code is going to break. It isn't future proof, and we are essentially duplicating or even worse guessing the behaviour of UILabel's rendering.

An example of using an attributed string with a UILabel in iOS 6

Is UILabel really going to change in such a manner? Well, it just did. As of iOS 6, UILabel supports the rendering of attributed strings. This means arbitrary ranges in the label's text can have different fonts and styles applied to them. If there is word in the middle of the label with a very large font, bounds required to fit that string in the label are going to increase.

If you use the previous code unmodified on a label containing an attributed string, you are going to get incorrect results.

As it turns out, that there are UIKit additions to NSAttributedString, namely boundingRectWithSize:options:context:, which provide similar functionality to NSString's -sizeWithFont: methods. But our code still should not be duplicating this kind of logic, especially when there is a far better and simpler solution...

sizeToFit and sizeThatFits:

If we want to resize a label to fit its contents, we can just tell it to do so:

[label sizeToFit];

Bam. Done. The label will take its current width, and adjust its height to fit its contents (assuming it is a multi-line label). If the label has a width of 0, its size is adjusted to fit everything on a single line.

If you wish to size the label without setting a frame beforehand, you can ask the label for the size it needs like this:

CGSize maxSize = CGSizeMake(200.0f, CGFLOAT_MAX);
CGSize requiredSize = [label sizeThatFits:maxSize];
label.frame = CGRectMake(10, 10, size.width, size.height);

Note the use of CGFLOAT_MAX here to mean "unbounded".

Both sizeToFit and sizeThatFits: are standard in UIKit and have existed for a very long time. They work with the new attributed string support in iOS 6, and will continue to work no matter what changes are made to UILabel.

It pains me to see people writing useless (and often times incorrect) categories on UILabel for something as standard as this. I guess the lesson to take away is to explore as much of the documentation as you can. I'm sure there are many useful methods out there that I've overlooked.

Going a little deeper

The documentation for sizeToFit and sizeThatFits: can be found in the UIView class reference.

What you need to know is that sizeThatFits: is overridable and returns the "most appropriate" size for the control that fits the constraints passed to it. The method can decide to ignore the constraints if they cannot be met.

sizeToFit will simply call through to sizeThatFits: passing the view's current size as the argument. It will then update the view's frame based on the value it gets back. So all the important logic goes in sizeThatFits:, and this is the method you should override for your own custom controls.

A major detour: UIButton insets demystified

Many of the standard UIKit controls implement sizeThatFits:, one of which is UIButton. However, things can get a little tricky with UIButton, especially when when you throw insets into the mix.

We'll start by creating a button with an image, a stretchable background image, and some text:

UIButton *b = [UIButton buttonWithType:UIButtonTypeCustom];

[b setBackgroundImage:[self buttonBackgroundImage]

[b setImage:[self buttonImage]

[b setTitle:NSLocalizedString(@"Click me!", nil)

[b sizeToFit];

We call sizeToFit and end up with this:

The button elements are all crammed together with no spacing. This is expected, and to fix this we need to give the button some insets.

UIButton provides three UIEdgeInsets properties that you can play with to adjust the spacing of the elements in the button. These are contentEdgeInsets, imageEdgeInsets and titleEdgeInsets.

If you've ever tried adjusting these in Interface Builder, you'll know things can get a little... interesting. For example, you may have tried increasing imageEdgeInsets.left 1 point at a time and seen how the button image seems to move unpredictably, sometimes making big steps between values:

The reason for this is that a positive inset value will shrink the layout rectangle for the image and give you you unpredictable results as the button tries to fit the image into a bounding box which is too small.

The documentation for UIEdgeInsets describes what insets represent:

Edge inset values are applied to a rectangle to shrink or expand the area represented by that rectangle. Typically, edge insets are used during view layout to modify the view’s frame. Positive values cause the frame to be inset (or shrunk) by the specified amount. Negative values cause the frame to be outset (or expanded) by the specified amount.

What this means is that if we want to reliably shift the image or text, we must add or subtract equal (but opposite) amounts to both left/right or top/bottom insets.

Confused? I'm not surprised. To help you visualize all this more easily and see the effect of sizeToFit at the same time, I've written a little iPhone app called ButtonInsetsPlayground. The source is available on github.

Please forgive the made-by-a-programmer UI, this is purely for testing.

If you play around with this UI for a while, you should end up even more confused than you were before. I seriously considered cracking out IDA and diving in to the UIButton internals to figure out what is going on, but I really want to finish this post. (hint to the curious: the relevant selectors are -[UIButton contentRectForBounds:], -[UIButton titleRectForContentRect:] and -[UIButton imageRectForContentRect:])

What you need to know is the following...


contentEdgeInsets is pretty intuitive and will behave as you expect. You can easily add space around both the image and text to pad things out nicely. Use positive values to inset the content. The implementation of sizeThatFits: causes the button to grow appropriately when we call sizeToFit:

UPDATE: I originally wrote about how it's possible to get pixel misaligned images with certain content insets. Naturally, this turned out to be my own fault.

imageEdgeInsets and titleEdgeInsets

The golden rule when it comes to these two insets is to add equal and opposite offsets to the left and right insets. So if you add 5pt to the left title inset, you must apply -5pt to the right. This means you are using these insets only to offset the image or text, not to resize them in any way.

If you do not follow this rule, the calculated layout rect for the title (or image) may become too small and you risk text truncation and other unexpected results:

This problem may not reveal itself until you have a string of the appropriate length, so if the text in your buttons is dynamic or localization-aware you need to be careful.

The top/bottom insets do not seem to have any major issues, but you should probably follow the same rule for these as well.

UIButton's mystical insets behaviour could be the topic of an entire blog post of its own, but I think we have enough information to continue on our way.

Finishing up

Back to our button.

We want to space out the elements a little better, and make sure sizeToFit does the right thing.

First we'll add some left and right content insets:

// ...
UIEdgeInsets contentInsets =
    UIEdgeInsetsMake(0.0f, 15.0f, 0.0f, 15.0f);

[b setContentEdgeInsets:contentInsets];
[b sizeToFit];

Next we want to shift the text to the right, to create some space between it and the image. Following our golden rule, we add equal but opposite amounts to the left and right insets:

// ...
UIEdgeInsets titleInsets =
    UIEdgeInsetsMake(0.0f, 8.0f, 0.0f, -8.0f);

UIEdgeInsets contentInsets =
    UIEdgeInsetsMake(0.0f, 15.0f, 0.0f, 15.0f);

[b setTitleEdgeInsets:titleInsets];
[b setContentEdgeInsets:contentInsets];

[b sizeToFit];

Finally, we adjust the content insets again to add some extra space on the right for our inset text:

UIEdgeInsets titleInsets =
    UIEdgeInsetsMake(0.0f, 8.0f, 0.0f, -8.0f);

UIEdgeInsets contentInsets =
    UIEdgeInsetsMake(0.0f, 15.0f, 0.0f, 15.0f);

CGFloat extraWidthRequiredForTitle =
    titleInsets.left - titleInsets.right;

contentInsets.right += extraWidthRequiredForTitle;

[b setTitleEdgeInsets:titleInsets];
[b setContentEdgeInsets:contentInsets];

[b sizeToFit];

And at long last, we're finished. We can set arbitrarily long titles on the button, call sizeToFit, and we get correct results.

I hope this has been useful. If you can provide further insight into UIButton's layout behaviour, I'd love to hear from you!


  1. While I agree that in most cases you shouldn't be using sizeWithFont, there are one or two cases where it is necessary. Most notably when you want to create a multiline UILabel that behaves as a single line label would with adjustsSizeToFitWidth enabled.

    In this case, (as Im sure you would agree) you should create a subclass of UILabel and override sizeThatFits: to encapsulate this logic.

  2. I haven't been able to get a label with subscript to show up correctly in a UIButton, the button of the text is cut off. I've tried using sizeWithFont and sizeToFit, but no help so far. If you have any suggestion, I would greatly appreciate it.
    Here's the subscript code I'm adding to the button
    [btn setTitle:@"\u2080" forState:UIControlStateNormal];

    1. I had the same problem. I change the UIButton font from SystemFont to Arial. Hope this helps.

  3. I agree that calculating the required size of a view should be part of the view class and not be done by another class. However, sometimes you don't even have an instance of the view class because you need to know the required size before the view has been created. E.g. for a UITableView with dynamic row heights (depending on the row content) you have to provide the necessary height of each row in advance in tableView:heightForRowAtIndexPath:. I don't think that creating a view just to calculate the height of each row is good practice.

  4. Another issue is that on iOS < 6, sizeToFit and sizeThatFits: both ignore numberOfLines set on the label, leading to a super-wide one-line label :/

  5. Great guide (learned it the hard way). What would you do for localization when the string length varies from one language to the other?

  6. Incredible article! I've wasted so much time wondering why my labels are not resized properly!.. Thank you for help!

  7. Berating people for not using methods that "have been around forever," without pointing out that until recently (iOS6) these methods were COMPLETELY BROKEN, is just dumb. Do your research before you start picking on people for using the methods that actually work. (And yes, I have clients that still need iOS5 compatibility.)

  8. I had no idea I was using insets wrong until I got unexpected behavior. This helped a lot; thanks!

  9. Amazing article.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Thanks a lot for this!

  11. This is awesome. Thank you.

  12. Seriously, I've been doing this for years and I now I finally get button insets -- so massively useful -- I owe you a tall beverage of your choosing!

  13. Thanks you save my time.

  14. Just great !! I liked this a lot in particular ...
    < It pains me to see people writing useless (and often times incorrect) categories on UILabel for something as standard as this. >

  15. Excellent post. It's so clear after reading this.

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