Understanding constraints

Hero image from the article

When someone learning Flutter asks you why some widget with width:100 isn’t 100 pixels wide, the default answer is to tell them to put that widget inside of a Center, right?

Don’t do that.

If you do, they’ll come back again and again, asking why some FittedBox isn’t working, why that Column is overflowing, or what IntrinsicWidth is supposed to be doing.

Instead, first tell them that Flutter layout is very different from HTML layout (which is probably where they’re coming from), and then make them memorize the following rule:

Constraints go down. Sizes go up. Parent sets position.

Flutter layout can’t really be understood without knowing this rule, so Flutter developers should learn it early on.

In more detail:

  • A widget gets its own constraints from its parent. A constraint is just a set of 4 doubles: a minimum and maximum width, and a minimum and maximum height.
  • Then the widget goes through its own list of children. One by one, the widget tells its children what their constraints are (which can be different for each child), and then asks each child what size it wants to be.
  • Then, the widget positions its children (horizontally in the x axis, and vertically in the y axis), one by one.
  • And, finally, the widget tells its parent about its own size (within the original constraints, of course).

For example, if a composed widget contains a column with some padding, and wants to lay out its two children as follows:

Visual layout

The negotiation goes something like this:

Widget: “Hey parent, what are my constraints?”

Parent: “You must be from 80 to 300 pixels wide, and 30 to 85 tall.”

Widget: “Hmmm, since I want to have 5 pixels of padding, then my children can have at most 290 pixels of width and 75 pixels of height.”

Widget: “Hey first child, You must be from 0 to 290 pixels wide, and 0 to 75 tall.”

First child: “OK, then I wish to be 290 pixels wide, and 20 pixels tall.”

Widget: “Hmmm, since I want to put my second child below the first one, this leaves only 55 pixels of height for my second child.”

Widget: “Hey second child, You must be from 0 to 290 wide, and 0 to 55 tall.”

Second child: “OK, I wish to be 140 pixels wide, and 30 pixels tall.”

Widget: “Very well. My first child has position x: 5 and y: 5, and my second child has x: 80 and y: 25.”

Widget: “Hey parent, I’ve decided that my size is going to be 300 pixels wide, and 60 pixels tall.”

Limitations

As a result of the layout rule mentioned above, Flutter’s layout engine has a few important limitations:

  • A widget can decide its own size only within the constraints given to it by its parent. This means a widget usually can’t have any size it wants.

  • A widget can’t know and doesn’t decide its own position in the screen, since it’s the widget’s parent who decides the position of the widget.

  • Since the parent’s size and position, in its turn, also depends on its own parent, it’s impossible to precisely define the size and position of any widget without taking into consideration the tree as a whole.

Examples

For an interactive experience, use the following DartPad. Use the numbered horizontal scrolling bar to switch between 29 different examples.

import 'package:flutter/material.dart';

void main() => runApp(HomePage());

const red = Colors.red;
const green = Colors.green;
const blue = Colors.blue;
const big = const TextStyle(fontSize: 30);

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class HomePage extends StatelessWidget {
  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) => FlutterLayoutArticle(<Example>[
        Example1(),
        Example2(),
        Example3(),
        Example4(),
        Example5(),
        Example6(),
        Example7(),
        Example8(),
        Example9(),
        Example10(),
        Example11(),
        Example12(),
        Example13(),
        Example14(),
        Example15(),
        Example16(),
        Example17(),
        Example18(),
        Example19(),
        Example20(),
        Example21(),
        Example22(),
        Example23(),
        Example24(),
        Example25(),
        Example26(),
        Example27(),
        Example28(),
        Example29(),
      ]);
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

abstract class Example extends StatelessWidget {
  String get code;

  String get explanation;
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class FlutterLayoutArticle extends StatefulWidget {
  final List<Example> examples;

  FlutterLayoutArticle(this.examples);

  @override
  _FlutterLayoutArticleState createState() => _FlutterLayoutArticleState();
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class _FlutterLayoutArticleState extends State<FlutterLayoutArticle> {
  int count;
  Widget example;
  String code;
  String explanation;

  @override
  void initState() {
    count = 1;
    code = Example1().code;
    explanation = Example1().explanation;

    super.initState();
  }

  @override
  void didUpdateWidget(FlutterLayoutArticle oldWidget) {
    super.didUpdateWidget(oldWidget);
    var example = widget.examples[count - 1];
    code = example.code;
    explanation = example.explanation;
  }

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return MaterialApp(
      debugShowCheckedModeBanner: false,
      title: 'Flutter Layout Article',
      home: SafeArea(
        child: Material(
            color: Colors.black,
            child: FittedBox(
              child: Container(
                width: 400,
                height: 670,
                color: Color(0xFFCCCCCC),
                child: Column(
                  crossAxisAlignment: CrossAxisAlignment.center,
                  children: [
                    Expanded(
                        child: ConstrainedBox(
                            constraints: BoxConstraints.tightFor(
                                width: double.infinity, height: double.infinity),
                            child: widget.examples[count - 1])),
                    Container(
                      height: 50,
                      width: double.infinity,
                      color: Colors.black,
                      child: SingleChildScrollView(
                        scrollDirection: Axis.horizontal,
                        child: Row(
                          mainAxisSize: MainAxisSize.min,
                          children: [
                            for (int i = 0; i < widget.examples.length; i++)
                              Container(
                                  width: 58,
                                  padding: const EdgeInsets.only(left: 4.0, right: 4.0),
                                  child: button(i + 1)),
                          ],
                        ),
                      ),
                    ),
                    Container(
                        child: Scrollbar(
                          child: SingleChildScrollView(
                              key: ValueKey(count),
                              child: Padding(
                                padding: const EdgeInsets.all(10.0),
                                child: Column(
                                  children: <Widget>[
                                    Center(child: Text(code)),
                                    SizedBox(height: 15),
                                    Text(explanation,
                                        style: TextStyle(
                                            color: Colors.blue[900], fontStyle: FontStyle.italic)),
                                  ],
                                ),
                              )),
                        ),
                        height: 273,
                        color: Colors.grey[50]),
                  ],
                ),
              ),
            )),
      ),
    );
  }

  Widget button(int exampleNumber) => Button(
        key: ValueKey('button$exampleNumber'),
        isSelected: this.count == exampleNumber,
        exampleNumber: exampleNumber,
        onPressed: () {
          showExample(
            exampleNumber,
            widget.examples[exampleNumber - 1].code,
            widget.examples[exampleNumber - 1].explanation,
          );
        },
      );

  void showExample(int exampleNumber, String code, String explanation) => setState(() {
        this.count = exampleNumber;
        this.code = code;
        this.explanation = explanation;
      });
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Button extends StatelessWidget {
  final Key key;
  final bool isSelected;
  final int exampleNumber;
  final VoidCallback onPressed;

  Button({
    this.key,
    this.isSelected,
    this.exampleNumber,
    this.onPressed,
  }) : super(key: key);

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return TextButton(
        style: TextButton.styleFrom(
          primary: Colors.white,
          backgroundColor: isSelected ? Colors.grey : Colors.grey[800],
        ),
        child: Text(exampleNumber.toString()),
        onPressed: () {
          Scrollable.ensureVisible(
            context,
            duration: Duration(milliseconds: 350),
            curve: Curves.easeOut,
            alignment: 0.5,
          );
          onPressed();
        });
  }
}
//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example1 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Container(color: red)';
  final String explanation = 'The screen is the parent of the Container, '
      'and it forces the Container to be exactly the same size as the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'So the Container fills the screen and paints it red.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Container(color: red);
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example2 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: red)';
  final String explanation = 'The red Container wants to be 100x100, but it can\'t, '
      'because the screen forces it to be exactly the same size as the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'So the Container fills the screen.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: red);
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example3 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: red))';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen,'
      'so the Center fills the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Center tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.'
      'Now the Container can indeed be 100x100.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: red),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example4 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Align(\n'
      '   alignment: Alignment.bottomRight,\n'
      '   child: Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: red))';
  final String explanation =
      'This is different from the previous example in that it uses Align instead of Center.'
      '\n\n'
      'Align also tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but if there is empty space it won\'t center the Container. '
      'Instead, it aligns the Container to the bottom-right of the available space.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Align(
      alignment: Alignment.bottomRight,
      child: Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: red),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example5 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: Container(\n'
      '              color: red,\n'
      '              width: double.infinity,\n'
      '              height: double.infinity))';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen,'
      'so the Center fills the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Center tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.'
      'The Container wants to be of infinite size, but since it can\'t be bigger than the screen, it just fills the screen.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: Container(width: double.infinity, height: double.infinity, color: red),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example6 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(child: Container(color: red))';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen,'
      'so the Center fills the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Center tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'Since the Container has no child and no fixed size, it decides it wants to be as big as possible, so it fills the whole screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'But why does the Container decide that? '
      'Simply because that\'s a design decision by those who created the Container widget. '
      'It could have been created differently, and you have to read the Container documentation to understand how it behaves, depending on the circumstances. ';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: Container(color: red),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example7 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: Container(color: red\n'
      '      child: Container(color: green, width: 30, height: 30)))';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen,'
      'so the Center fills the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Center tells the red Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.'
      'Since the red Container has no size but has a child, it decides it wants to be the same size as its child.'
      '\n\n'
      'The red Container tells its child that if can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'The child is a green Container that wants to be 30x30.'
      '\n\n'
      'Since the red `Container` has no size but has a child, it decides it wants to be the same size as its child. '
      'The red color isn\'t visible, since the green Container entirely covers all of the red Container.';


  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: Container(
        color: red,
        child: Container(color: green, width: 30, height: 30),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example8 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: Container(color: red\n'
      '      padding: const EdgeInsets.all(20.0),\n'
      '      child: Container(color: green, width: 30, height: 30)))';
  final String explanation =
      'The red Container sizes itself to its children size, but it takes its own padding into consideration. '
      'So it is also 30x30 plus padding. '
      'The red color is visible because of the padding, and the green Container has the same size as in the previous example.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: Container(
        padding: const EdgeInsets.all(20.0),
        color: red,
        child: Container(color: green, width: 30, height: 30),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example9 extends Example {
  final String code = 'ConstrainedBox(\n'
      '   constraints: BoxConstraints(\n'
      '              minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70,\n'
      '              maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),\n'
      '      child: Container(color: red, width: 10, height: 10)))';
  final String explanation =
      'You might guess that the Container has to be between 70 and 150 pixels, but you would be wrong. '
      'The ConstrainedBox only imposes ADDITIONAL constraints from those it receives from its parent.'
      '\n\n'
      'Here, the screen forces the ConstrainedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen, '
      'so it tells its child Container to also assume the size of the screen, '
      'thus ignoring its \'constraints\' parameter.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return ConstrainedBox(
      constraints: BoxConstraints(minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70, maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),
      child: Container(color: red, width: 10, height: 10),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example10 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: ConstrainedBox(\n'
      '      constraints: BoxConstraints(\n'
      '                 minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70,\n'
      '                 maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),\n'
      '        child: Container(color: red, width: 10, height: 10))))';
  final String explanation =
      'Now, Center allows ConstrainedBox to be any size up to the screen size.'
      '\n\n'
      'The ConstrainedBox imposes ADDITIONAL constraints from its \'constraints\' parameter onto its child.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Container must be between 70 and 150 pixels. It wants to have 10 pixels, so it will end up having 70 (the MINIMUM).';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: ConstrainedBox(
        constraints: BoxConstraints(minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70, maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),
        child: Container(color: red, width: 10, height: 10),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example11 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: ConstrainedBox(\n'
      '      constraints: BoxConstraints(\n'
      '                 minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70,\n'
      '                 maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),\n'
      '        child: Container(color: red, width: 1000, height: 1000))))';
  final String explanation =
      'Center allows ConstrainedBox to be any size up to the screen size.'
      'The ConstrainedBox imposes ADDITIONAL constraints from its \'constraints\' parameter onto its child'
      '\n\n'
      'The Container must be between 70 and 150 pixels. It wants to have 1000 pixels, so it ends up having 150 (the MAXIMUM).';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: ConstrainedBox(
        constraints: BoxConstraints(minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70, maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),
        child: Container(color: red, width: 1000, height: 1000),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example12 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: ConstrainedBox(\n'
      '      constraints: BoxConstraints(\n'
      '                 minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70,\n'
      '                 maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),\n'
      '        child: Container(color: red, width: 100, height: 100))))';
  final String explanation =
      'Center allow ConstrainedBox to be any size up to the screen size.'
      'ConstrainedBox imposes ADDITIONAL constraints from its \'constraints\' parameter onto its child.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Container must be between 70 and 150 pixels. It wants to have 100 pixels, and that\'s the size it has, since that\'s between 70 and 150.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: ConstrainedBox(
        constraints: BoxConstraints(minWidth: 70, minHeight: 70, maxWidth: 150, maxHeight: 150),
        child: Container(color: red, width: 100, height: 100),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example13 extends Example {
  final String code = 'UnconstrainedBox(\n'
      '   child: Container(color: red, width: 20, height: 50));';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the UnconstrainedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen.'
      'However, the UnconstrainedBox lets its child Container be any size it wants.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return UnconstrainedBox(
      child: Container(color: red, width: 20, height: 50),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example14 extends Example {
  final String code = 'UnconstrainedBox(\n'
      '   child: Container(color: red, width: 4000, height: 50));';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the UnconstrainedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen, '
      'and UnconstrainedBox lets its child Container be any size it wants.'
      '\n\n'
      'Unfortunately, in this case the Container has 4000 pixels of width and is too big to fit in the UnconstrainedBox, '
      'so the UnconstrainedBox displays the much dreaded "overflow warning".';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return UnconstrainedBox(
      child: Container(color: red, width: 4000, height: 50),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example15 extends Example {
  final String code = 'OverflowBox(\n'
      '   minWidth: 0.0,'
      '   minHeight: 0.0,'
      '   maxWidth: double.infinity,'
      '   maxHeight: double.infinity,'
      '   child: Container(color: red, width: 4000, height: 50));';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the OverflowBox to be exactly the same size as the screen, '
      'and OverflowBox lets its child Container be any size it wants.'
      '\n\n'
      'OverflowBox is similar to UnconstrainedBox, and the difference is that it won\'t display any warnings if the child doesn\'t fit the space.'
      '\n\n'
      'In this case the Container is 4000 pixels wide, and is too big to fit in the OverflowBox, '
      'but the OverflowBox simply shows as much as it can, with no warnings given.';

@override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return OverflowBox(
      minWidth: 0.0,
      minHeight: 0.0,
      maxWidth: double.infinity,
      maxHeight: double.infinity,
      child: Container(color: red, width: 4000, height: 50),
    );}
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example16 extends Example {
  final String code = 'UnconstrainedBox(\n'
      '   child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: double.infinity, height: 100));';
  final String explanation = 'This won\'t render anything, and you\'ll see an error in the console.'
      '\n\n'
      'The UnconstrainedBox lets its child be any size it wants, '
      'however its child is a Container with infinite size.'
      '\n\n'
      'Flutter can\'t render infinite sizes, so it throws an error with the following message: '
      '"BoxConstraints forces an infinite width."';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return UnconstrainedBox(
      child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: double.infinity, height: 100),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example17 extends Example {
  final String code = 'UnconstrainedBox(\n'
      '   child: LimitedBox(maxWidth: 100,\n'
      '      child: Container(color: Colors.red,\n'
      '                       width: double.infinity, height: 100));';
  final String explanation = 'Here you won\'t get an error anymore, '
      'because when the LimitedBox is given an infinite size by the UnconstrainedBox, '
      'it passes a maximum width of 100 down to its child.'
      '\n\n'
      'If you swap the UnconstrainedBox for a Center widget, '
      'the LimitedBox won\'t apply its limit anymore (since its limit is only applied when it gets infinite constraints), '
      'and the width of the Container is allowed to grow past 100.'
      '\n\n'
      'This explains the difference between a LimitedBox and a ConstrainedBox.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return UnconstrainedBox(
      child: LimitedBox(
        maxWidth: 100,
        child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: double.infinity, height: 100),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example18 extends Example {
  final String code = 'FittedBox(\n'
      '   child: Text(\'Some Example Text.\'));';
  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the FittedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen.'
      'The Text has some natural width (also called its intrinsic width) that depends on the amount of text, its font size, and so on.'
      '\n\n'
      'The FittedBox lets the Text be any size it wants, '
      'but after the Text tells its size to the FittedBox, '
      'the FittedBox scales the Text until it fills all of the available width.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return FittedBox(
      child: Text('Some Example Text.'),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example19 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: FittedBox(\n'
      '      child: Text(\'Some Example Text.\')));';
  final String explanation = 'But what happens if you put the FittedBox inside of a Center widget? '
      'The Center lets the FittedBox be any size it wants, up to the screen size.'
      '\n\n'
      'The FittedBox then sizes itself to the Text, and lets the Text be any size it wants.'
      '\n\n'
      'Since both FittedBox and the Text have the same size, no scaling happens.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: FittedBox(
        child: Text('Some Example Text.'),
      ),
    );
  }
}

////////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example20 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: FittedBox(\n'
      '      child: Text(\'…\')));';
  final String explanation =
      'However, what happens if FittedBox is inside of a Center widget, but the Text is too large to fit the screen?'
      '\n\n'
      'FittedBox tries to size itself to the Text, but it can\'t be bigger than the screen. '
      'It then assumes the screen size, and resizes Text so that it fits the screen, too.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: FittedBox(
        child: Text(
            'This is some very very very large text that is too big to fit a regular screen in a single line.'),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example21 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Center(\n'
      '   child: Text(\'…\'));';
  final String explanation = 'If, however, you remove the FittedBox, '
      'the Text gets its maximum width from the screen, '
      'and breaks the line so that it fits the screen.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Center(
      child: Text(
          'This is some very very very large text that is too big to fit a regular screen in a single line.'),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example22 extends Example {
  final String code = 'FittedBox(\n'
      '   child: Container(\n'
      '      height: 20.0, width: double.infinity));';
  final String explanation =
      'FittedBox can only scale a widget that is BOUNDED (has non-infinite width and height).'
      'Otherwise, it won\'t render anything, and you\'ll see an error in the console.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return FittedBox(
      child: Container(
        height: 20.0,
        width: double.infinity,
        color: Colors.red,
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example23 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Row(children:[\n'
      '   Container(color: red, child: Text(\'Hello!\'))\n'
      '   Container(color: green, child: Text(\'Goodbye!\'))]';
  final String explanation = 'The screen forces the Row to be exactly the same size as the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'Just like an UnconstrainedBox, the Row won\'t impose any constraints onto its children, '
      'and instead lets them be any size they want.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Row then puts them side-by-side, and any extra space remains empty.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Row(
      children: [
        Container(color: red, child: Text('Hello!', style: big)),
        Container(color: green, child: Text('Goodbye!', style: big)),
      ],
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example24 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Row(children:[\n'
      '   Container(color: red, child: Text(\'…\'))\n'
      '   Container(color: green, child: Text(\'Goodbye!\'))]';
  final String explanation = 'Since the Row won\'t impose any constraints onto its children, '
      'it\'s quite possible that the children might be too big to fit the available width of the Row.'
      'In this case, just like an UnconstrainedBox, the Row displays the "overflow warning".';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Row(
      children: [
        Container(
            color: red,
            child: Text('This is a very long text that won\'t fit the line.', style: big)),
        Container(color: green, child: Text('Goodbye!', style: big)),
      ],
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example25 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Row(children:[\n'
      '   Expanded(\n'
      '       child: Container(color: red, child: Text(\'…\')))\n'
      '   Container(color: green, child: Text(\'Goodbye!\'))]';
  final String explanation =
      'When a Row\'s child is wrapped in an Expanded widget, the Row won\'t let this child define its own width anymore.'
      '\n\n'
      'Instead, it defines the Expanded width according to the other children, and only then the Expanded widget forces the original child to have the Expanded\'s width.'
      '\n\n'
      'In other words, once you use Expanded, the original child\'s width becomes irrelevant, and is ignored.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Row(
      children: [
        Expanded(
            child: Center(
          child: Container(
              color: red,
              child: Text('This is a very long text that won\'t fit the line.', style: big)),
        )),
        Container(color: green, child: Text('Goodbye!', style: big)),
      ],
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example26 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Row(children:[\n'
      '   Expanded(\n'
      '       child: Container(color: red, child: Text(\'…\')))\n'
      '   Expanded(\n'
      '       child: Container(color: green, child: Text(\'Goodbye!\'))]';
  final String explanation =
      'If all of Row\'s children are wrapped in Expanded widgets, each Expanded has a size proportional to its flex parameter, '
      'and only then each Expanded widget forces its child to have the Expanded\'s width.'
      '\n\n'
      'In other words, Expanded ignores the preffered width of its children.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Row(
      children: [
        Expanded(
            child: Container(
                color: red,
                child: Text('This is a very long text that won\'t fit the line.', style: big))),
        Expanded(child: Container(color: green, child: Text('Goodbye!', style: big))),
      ],
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example27 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Row(children:[\n'
      '   Flexible(\n'
      '       child: Container(color: red, child: Text(\'…\')))\n'
      '   Flexible(\n'
      '       child: Container(color: green, child: Text(\'Goodbye!\'))]';
  final String explanation = 'The only difference if you use Flexible instead of Expanded, '
      'is that Flexible lets its child be SMALLER than the Flexible width, '
      'while Expanded forces its child to have the same width of the Expanded.'
      '\n\n'
      'But both Expanded and Flexible ignore their children\'s width when sizing themselves.'
      '\n\n'
      'This means that it\'s IMPOSSIBLE to expand Row children proportionally to their sizes. '
      'The Row either uses the exact child\'s width, or ignores it completely when you use Expanded or Flexible.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Row(
      children: [
        Flexible(
            child: Container(
                color: red,
                child: Text('This is a very long text that won\'t fit the line.', style: big))),
        Flexible(child: Container(color: green, child: Text('Goodbye!', style: big))),
      ],
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example28 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Scaffold(\n'
      '   body: Container(color: blue,\n'
      '   child: Column(\n'
      '      children: [\n'
      '         Text(\'Hello!\'),\n'
      '         Text(\'Goodbye!\')])))';

  final String explanation =
      'The screen forces the Scaffold to be exactly the same size as the screen,'
      'so the Scaffold fills the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'The Scaffold tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.'
      '\n\n'
      'When a widget tells its child that it can be smaller than a certain size, '
      'we say the widget supplies "loose" constraints to its child. More on that later.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Scaffold(
      body: Container(
        color: blue,
        child: Column(
          children: [
            Text('Hello!'),
            Text('Goodbye!'),
          ],
        ),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

class Example29 extends Example {
  final String code = 'Scaffold(\n'
      '   body: Container(color: blue,\n'
      '   child: SizedBox.expand(\n'
      '      child: Column(\n'
      '         children: [\n'
      '            Text(\'Hello!\'),\n'
      '            Text(\'Goodbye!\')]))))';

  final String explanation =
      'If you want the Scaffold\'s child to be exactly the same size as the Scaffold itself, '
      'you can wrap its child with SizedBox.expand.'
      '\n\n'
      'When a widget tells its child that it must be of a certain size, '
      'we say the widget supplies "tight" constraints to its child. More on that later.';

  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {
    return Scaffold(
      body: SizedBox.expand(
        child: Container(
          color: blue,
          child: Column(
            children: [
              Text('Hello!'),
              Text('Goodbye!'),
            ],
          ),
        ),
      ),
    );
  }
}

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

If you prefer, you can grab the code from this GitHub repo.

The examples are explained in the following sections.

Example 1

Example 1 layout

Container(color: Colors.red)

The screen is the parent of the Container, and it forces the Container to be exactly the same size as the screen.

So the Container fills the screen and paints it red.

Example 2

Example 2 layout

Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: Colors.red)

The red Container wants to be 100 × 100, but it can’t, because the screen forces it to be exactly the same size as the screen.

So the Container fills the screen.

Example 3

Example 3 layout

Center(
   child: Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: Colors.red)
)

The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen, so the Center fills the screen.

The Center tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen. Now the Container can indeed be 100 × 100.

Example 4

Example 4 layout

Align(
   alignment: Alignment.bottomRight,
   child: Container(width: 100, height: 100, color: Colors.red),
)

This is different from the previous example in that it uses Align instead of Center.

Align also tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but if there is empty space it won’t center the Container. Instead, it aligns the container to the bottom-right of the available space.

Example 5

Example 5 layout

Center(
   child: Container(
      color: Colors.red,
      width: double.infinity,
      height: double.infinity,
   )
)

The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen, so the Center fills the screen.

The Center tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen. The Container wants to be of infinite size, but since it can’t be bigger than the screen, it just fills the screen.

Example 6

Example 6 layout

Center(child: Container(color: Colors.red))

The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen, so the Center fills the screen.

The Center tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen. Since the Container has no child and no fixed size, it decides it wants to be as big as possible, so it fills the whole screen.

But why does the Container decide that? Simply because that’s a design decision by those who created the Container widget. It could have been created differently, and you have to read the Container documentation to understand how it behaves, depending on the circumstances.

Example 7

Example 7 layout

Center(
   child: Container(
      color: Colors.red,
      child: Container(color: Colors.green, width: 30, height: 30),
   )
)

The screen forces the Center to be exactly the same size as the screen, so the Center fills the screen.

The Center tells the red Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen. Since the red Container has no size but has a child, it decides it wants to be the same size as its child.

The red Container tells its child that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.

The child is a green Container that wants to be 30 × 30. Given that the red Container sizes itself to the size of its child, it is also 30 × 30. The red color isn’t visible because the green Container entirely covers the red Container.

Example 8

Example 8 layout

Center(
   child: Container(
     color: Colors.red,
     padding: const EdgeInsets.all(20.0),
     child: Container(color: Colors.green, width: 30, height: 30),
   )
)

The red Container sizes itself to its children’s size, but it takes its own padding into consideration. So it is also 30 × 30 plus padding. The red color is visible because of the padding, and the green Container has the same size as in the previous example.

Example 9

Example 9 layout

ConstrainedBox(
   constraints: BoxConstraints(
      minWidth: 70,
      minHeight: 70,
      maxWidth: 150,
      maxHeight: 150,
   ),
   child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: 10, height: 10),
)

You might guess that the Container has to be between 70 and 150 pixels, but you would be wrong. The ConstrainedBox only imposes additional constraints from those it receives from its parent.

Here, the screen forces the ConstrainedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen, so it tells its child Container to also assume the size of the screen, thus ignoring its constraints parameter.

Example 10

Example 10 layout

Center(
   child: ConstrainedBox(
      constraints: BoxConstraints(
         minWidth: 70,
         minHeight: 70,
         maxWidth: 150,
         maxHeight: 150,
      ),
      child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: 10, height: 10),
   )
)

Now, Center allows ConstrainedBox to be any size up to the screen size. The ConstrainedBox imposes additional constraints from its constraints parameter onto its child.

The Container must be between 70 and 150 pixels. It wants to have 10 pixels, so it ends up having 70 (the minimum).

Example 11

Example 11 layout

Center(
  child: ConstrainedBox(
     constraints: BoxConstraints(
        minWidth: 70,
        minHeight: 70,
        maxWidth: 150,
        maxHeight: 150,
        ),
     child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: 1000, height: 1000),
  )
)

Center allows ConstrainedBox to be any size up to the screen size. The ConstrainedBox imposes additional constraints from its constraints parameter onto its child.

The Container must be between 70 and 150 pixels. It wants to have 1000 pixels, so it ends up having 150 (the maximum).

Example 12

Example 12 layout

Center(
   child: ConstrainedBox(
      constraints: BoxConstraints(
         minWidth: 70,
         minHeight: 70,
         maxWidth: 150,
         maxHeight: 150,
      ),
      child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: 100, height: 100),
   )
)

Center allows ConstrainedBox to be any size up to the screen size. The ConstrainedBox imposes additional constraints from its constraints parameter onto its child.

The Container must be between 70 and 150 pixels. It wants to have 100 pixels, and that’s the size it has, since that’s between 70 and 150.

Example 13

Example 13 layout

UnconstrainedBox(
   child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: 20, height: 50),
)

The screen forces the UnconstrainedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen. However, the UnconstrainedBox lets its child Container be any size it wants.

Example 14

Example 14 layout

UnconstrainedBox(
   child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: 4000, height: 50),
)

The screen forces the UnconstrainedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen, and UnconstrainedBox lets its child Container be any size it wants.

Unfortunately, in this case the Container is 4000 pixels wide and is too big to fit in the UnconstrainedBox, so the UnconstrainedBox displays the much dreaded “overflow warning”.

Example 15

Example 15 layout

OverflowBox(
   minWidth: 0.0,
   minHeight: 0.0,
   maxWidth: double.infinity,
   maxHeight: double.infinity,
   child: Container(color: Colors.red, width: 4000, height: 50),
);

The screen forces the OverflowBox to be exactly the same size as the screen, and OverflowBox lets its child Container be any size it wants.

OverflowBox is similar to UnconstrainedBox; the difference is that it won’t display any warnings if the child doesn’t fit the space.

In this case, the Container has 4000 pixels of width, and is too big to fit in the OverflowBox, but the OverflowBox simply shows as much as it can, with no warnings given.

Example 16

Example 16 layout

UnconstrainedBox(
   child: Container(
      color: Colors.red,
      width: double.infinity,
      height: 100,
   )
)

This won’t render anything, and you’ll see an error in the console.

The UnconstrainedBox lets its child be any size it wants, however its child is a Container with infinite size.

Flutter can’t render infinite sizes, so it throws an error with the following message: BoxConstraints forces an infinite width.

Example 17

Example 17 layout

UnconstrainedBox(
   child: LimitedBox(
      maxWidth: 100,
      child: Container(
         color: Colors.red,
         width: double.infinity,
         height: 100,
      )
   )
)

Here you won’t get an error anymore, because when the LimitedBox is given an infinite size by the UnconstrainedBox; it passes a maximum width of 100 down to its child.

If you swap the UnconstrainedBox for a Center widget, the LimitedBox won’t apply its limit anymore (since its limit is only applied when it gets infinite constraints), and the width of the Container is allowed to grow past 100.

This explains the difference between a LimitedBox and a ConstrainedBox.

Example 18

Example 18 layout

FittedBox(
   child: Text('Some Example Text.'),
)

The screen forces the FittedBox to be exactly the same size as the screen. The Text has some natural width (also called its intrinsic width) that depends on the amount of text, its font size, and so on.

The FittedBox lets the Text be any size it wants, but after the Text tells its size to the FittedBox, the FittedBox scales the Text until it fills all of the available width.

Example 19

Example 19 layout

Center(
   child: FittedBox(
      child: Text('Some Example Text.'),
   )
)

But what happens if you put the FittedBox inside of a Center widget? The Center lets the FittedBox be any size it wants, up to the screen size.

The FittedBox then sizes itself to the Text, and lets the Text be any size it wants. Since both FittedBox and the Text have the same size, no scaling happens.

Example 20

Example 20 layout

Center(
   child: FittedBox(
      child: Text('This is some very very very large text that is too big to fit a regular screen in a single line.'),
   )
)

However, what happens if FittedBox is inside of a Center widget, but the Text is too large to fit the screen?

FittedBox tries to size itself to the Text, but it can’t be bigger than the screen. It then assumes the screen size, and resizes Text so that it fits the screen, too.

Example 21

Example 21 layout

Center(
   child: Text('This is some very very very large text that is too big to fit a regular screen in a single line.'),
)

If, however, you remove the FittedBox, the Text gets its maximum width from the screen, and breaks the line so that it fits the screen.

Example 22

Example 22 layout

FittedBox(
   child: Container(
      height: 20.0,
      width: double.infinity,
   )
)

FittedBox can only scale a widget that is bounded (has non-infinite width and height). Otherwise, it won’t render anything, and you’ll see an error in the console.

Example 23

Example 23 layout

Row(
   children:[
      Container(color: Colors.red, child: Text('Hello!')),
      Container(color: Colors.green, child: Text('Goodbye!')),
   ]
)

The screen forces the Row to be exactly the same size as the screen.

Just like an UnconstrainedBox, the Row won’t impose any constraints onto its children, and instead lets them be any size they want. The Row then puts them side-by-side, and any extra space remains empty.

Example 24

Example 24 layout

Row(
   children:[
      Container(color: Colors.red, child: Text('This is a very long text that won’t fit the line.')),
      Container(color: Colors.green, child: Text('Goodbye!')),
   ]
)

Since Row won’t impose any constraints onto its children, it’s quite possible that the children might too big to fit the available width of the Row. In this case, just like an UnconstrainedBox, the Row displays the “overflow warning”.

Example 25

Example 25 layout

Row(
   children:[
      Expanded(
         child: Container(color: Colors.red, child: Text('This is a very long text that won’t fit the line.'))
      ),
      Container(color: Colors.green, child: Text('Goodbye!')),
   ]
)

When a Row’s child is wrapped in an Expanded widget, the Row won’t let this child define its own width anymore.

Instead, it defines the Expanded width according to the other children, and only then the Expanded widget forces the original child to have the Expanded’s width.

In other words, once you use Expanded, the original child’s width becomes irrelevant, and is ignored.

Example 26

Example 26 layout

Row(
   children:[
      Expanded(
         child: Container(color: Colors.red, child: Text(This is a very long text that wont fit the line.)),
      ),
      Expanded(
         child: Container(color: Colors.green, child: Text(Goodbye!),
      ),
   ]
)

If all of Row’s children are wrapped in Expanded widgets, each Expanded has a size proportional to its flex parameter, and only then each Expanded widget forces its child to have the Expanded’s width.

In other words, Expanded ignores the preferred width of its children.

Example 27

Example 27 layout

Row(children:[
  Flexible(
    child: Container(color: Colors.red, child: Text('This is a very long text that won’t fit the line.'))),
  Flexible(
    child: Container(color: Colors.green, child: Text(Goodbye!))),
  ]
)

The only difference if you use Flexible instead of Expanded, is that Flexible lets its child have the same or smaller width than the Flexible itself, while Expanded forces its child to have the exact same width of the Expanded. But both Expanded and Flexible ignore their children’s width when sizing themselves.

Example 28

Example 28 layout

Scaffold(
   body: Container(
      color: blue,
      child: Column(
         children: [
            Text('Hello!'),
            Text('Goodbye!'),
         ]
      )))

The screen forces the Scaffold to be exactly the same size as the screen, so the Scaffold fills the screen. The Scaffold tells the Container that it can be any size it wants, but not bigger than the screen.

Example 29

Example 29 layout

Scaffold(
body: SizedBox.expand(
   child: Container(
      color: blue,
      child: Column(
         children: [
            Text('Hello!'),
            Text('Goodbye!'),
         ],
      ))))

If you want the Scaffold’s child to be exactly the same size as the Scaffold itself, you can wrap its child with SizedBox.expand.

Tight vs. loose constraints

It’s very common to hear that some constraint is “tight” or “loose”, so it’s worth knowing what that means.

A tight constraint offers a single possibility, an exact size. In other words, a tight constraint has its maximum width equal to its minimum width; and has its maximum height equal to its minimum height.

If you go to Flutter’s box.dart file and search for the BoxConstraints constructors, you’ll find the following:

BoxConstraints.tight(Size size)
   : minWidth = size.width,
     maxWidth = size.width,
     minHeight = size.height,
     maxHeight = size.height;

If you revisit Example 2 above, it tells us that the screen forces the red Container to be exactly the same size as the screen. The screen does that, of course, by passing tight constraints to the Container.

A loose constraint, on the other hand, sets the maximum width and height, but lets the widget be as small as it wants. In other words, a loose constraint has a minimum width and height both equal to zero:

BoxConstraints.loose(Size size)
   : minWidth = 0.0,
     maxWidth = size.width,
     minHeight = 0.0,
     maxHeight = size.height;

If you revisit Example 3, it tells us that the Center lets the red Container be smaller, but not bigger than the screen. The Center does that, of course, by passing loose constraints to the Container. Ultimately, the Center’s very purpose is to transform the tight constraints it got from its parent (the screen) to loose constraints for its child (the Container).

Learning the layout rules for specific widgets

Knowing the general layout rule is necessary, but it’s not enough.

Each widget has a lot of freedom when applying the general rule, so there is no way of knowing what it will do by just reading the widget’s name.

If you try to guess, you’ll probably guess wrong. You can’t know exactly how a widget behaves unless you’ve read its documentation, or studied its source-code.

The layout source-code is usually complex, so it’s probably better to just read the documentation. However, if you decide to study the layout source-code, you can easily find it by using the navigating capabilities of your IDE.

Here is an example:

  • Find a Column in your code and navigate to its source code. To do this, use command+B (macOS) or control+B (Windows/Linux) in Android Studio or IntelliJ. You’ll be taken to the basic.dart file. Since Column extends Flex, navigate to the Flex source code (also in basic.dart).

  • Scroll down until you find a method called createRenderObject(). As you can see, this method returns a RenderFlex. This is the render-object for the Column. Now navigate to the source-code of RenderFlex, which takes you to the flex.dart file.

  • Scroll down until you find a method called performLayout(). This is the method that does the layout for the Column.

A goodbye layout


Article by Marcelo Glasberg

Marcelo originally published this content as Flutter: The Advanced Layout Rule Even Beginners Must Know on Medium. We loved it and asked that he allow us to publish in on flutter.dev, to which he graciously agreed. Thanks, Marcelo! You can find Marcelo on GitHub and pub.dev.

Also, thanks to Simon Lightfoot for creating the header image at the top of the article.