Drupal’s Layout Initiative and component-based theming
A quick overview of some things happening with Drupal’s Layout Initiative from the perspective of component-based theming, a theme development approach that has been gaining popularity in the past few years.
Layouts in core
Layouts have been an important tool in component-based theming as they can be used to map data to component templates. Layouts can be used with well-established contrib modules like Display Suite and Panels, and the UI Patterns module can expose its patterns as layouts.
An experimental Field Layout module was also added in Drupal 8.3. Field Layout provides a simple UI for arranging rows of entity fields into regions of a single layout, in a very similar way to Display Suite. Field Layout was planned to be stabilized in Drupal 8.5, but it continues to be an experimental module.
An experimental Layout Builder module was added in Drupal 8.5. Layout Builder provides a UI with a visual preview and it supports using multiple layouts together, placing blocks in layout regions and creating layouts for individual pieces of content. It is powerful and unique and a huge step forward in capabilities offered by core. Layout Builder is currently planned to be stabilized in Drupal 8.7.
Field Layout might be removed from core
Layout Builder has essentially deprecated much of what Field Layout provides, and uses a completely different technical approach. Layout Builder does not currently support form displays, however. As Field Layout is still experimental, it has been proposed that Field Layout should be removed from core after moving its form display capabilities to core’s Field UI.
An alternative non-visual UI has been proposed for Layout Builder
Drupal’s values and principles include building software that everyone can use. Core changes must pass through a series of ‘gates’ to ensure their quality is up to standards, and one of them is accessibility.
Modern UIs can be challenging to build in an accessible way, as the WordPress community has sadly discovered recently. Layout Builder is no exception, and it might prove difficult to pass Drupal’s accessibility gate in time to stabilize Layout Builder in Drupal 8.7. Because of this it has been proposed that Layout Builder provide an alternative accessible UI without a visual preview, not unlike Field Layout or the block admin UI.
Component-based theming use cases
Both aforementioned types of UIs are useful from a component-based theming perspective. However, a simple non-visual UI can be a better option in many cases. Layout definitions for components might include regions for adding things that are not displayed, for example.
Such a case can be found in my old blog post about using UI Patterns. The Code component described in that blog post defines a layout region for adding the code language. Instead of displaying the value, the component uses it as a part of a CSS class name.
Another example might be a component that defines a layout region for an image and a region for text, which the component then displays over the image. Such visually overlapping regions would be unnecessarily hard to implement perfectly in a UI with a visual preview, when a simple non-visual UI could just as well be used.
Now is a good time to get involved in the discussion
Personally I think it would be really great to have an alternative simple UI without a visual preview for layouts in core. If you would like to express your opinion on this, or can think of further use cases for such a UI, now is a good time to get involved in the related issues on Drupal.org:
- Remove Field Layout module from core after moving its essential features to other parts of core
- Form a plan for coherent accessibility for Layout Builder
On experimental modules
This case is a good reminder that experimental core modules should only be used for experimentation, not in production. An experimental module might be removed instead of being stabilized.
Finally, I want to thank everyone involved in the Layout and Media Initiatives! Your work is very impressive and keeps making Drupal core better and more capable for component-based theming.
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