Alignment, margin, and padding for UI element layout
[This article is for Windows 8.x and Windows Phone 8.x developers writing Windows Runtime apps. If you’re developing for Windows 10, see the latest documentation]
In addition to dimension properties (width, height and constraints) elements can also have alignment, margin and padding properties that influence the layout behavior when an element goes through a layout pass and is rendered in a UI. There are relationships between alignment, margin, padding and dimension properties that have a typical logic flow when a FrameworkElement object is positioned, such that values are sometimes used and sometimes ignored depending on the circumstances.
The HorizontalAlignment and VerticalAlignment properties describe how a child element should be positioned within a parent element's allocated layout space. By using these properties together, layout logic for a container can position child elements within the container (either a panel or a control). Alignment properties are intended to hint the desired layout to an adaptive layout container, so basically they're set on FrameworkElement children and interpreted by another FrameworkElement container parent. Alignment values can specify whether elements align to one of the two edges of an orientation, or to the center. However, the default value for both alignment properties is Stretch. With Stretch alignment, elements fill the space they're provided in layout. Stretch is the default so that it's easier to use adaptive layout techniques in the cases where there is no explicit measurement or no DesiredSize value that came from the measure pass of layout. With this default there's no risk of an explicit height/width not fitting within the container and being clipped until you size each container.
Note As a general layout principle, it's best to only apply measurements to certain key elements and use the adaptive layout behavior for the other elements. This provides flexible layout behavior for when the user sizes the top app window, which typically is possible to do at any time.
If there are either Height and Width values or clipping within an adaptive container, even if Stretch is set as an alignment value, the layout is controlled by the behavior of its container. In panels, a Stretch value that's been obviated by Height and Width acts as if the value is Center.
If there are no natural or calculated height and width values, these dimension values are mathematically NaN (Not A Number). The elements are waiting for their layout container to give them dimensions. After layout is run, there will be values for ActualHeight and ActualWidth properties for elements where a Stretch alignment was used. The NaN values remain in Height and Width for the child elements so that the adaptive behavior can run again, for example if layout-related changes such as app window sizing causes another layout cycle.
Text elements such as TextBlock don't usually have an explicitly declared width, but they do have a calculated width that you can query with ActualWidth, and that width also cancels out a Stretch alignment. (The FontSize property and other text properties, as well as the text itself, are already hinting the intended layout size. You don't typically want your text to be stretched.) Text used as content within a control has the same effect; the presence of text that needs presenting causes an ActualWidth to be calculated, and this also commutes a desired width and size to the containing control. Text elements also have an ActualHeight based on font size per line, line breaks, and other text properties.
A panel such as Grid already has other logic for layout (row and column definitions, and attached properties such as Grid.Row set on elements to indicate which cell to be drawn in). In that case the alignment properties influence how the content is aligned within the area of that cell, but the cell structure and sizing is controlled by settings on the Grid.
Item controls sometimes display items where the base types of the items are data. This involves an ItemsPresenter. Although the data itself is not a FrameworkElement derived type, ItemsPresenter is, so you can set HorizontalAlignment and VerticalAlignment for the presenter and that alignment applies to the data items when presented in the items control.
Alignment properties are only relevant for cases when there's extra space available in a dimension of the parent layout container. If a layout container is already clipping content, alignment can affect the area of the element where the clipping will apply. For example, if you set
HorizontalAlignment="Left", the right size of the element gets clipped.
The Margin property describes the distance between an element and its peers in a layout situation, and also the distance between an element and the content area of a container that contains the element. If you think of elements as bounding boxes or rectangles where the dimensions are the ActualHeight and ActualWidth, the Margin layout applies to the outside of that rectangle and does not add pixels to the ActualHeight and ActualWidth. The margin is also not considered part of the element for purposes of hit testing and sourcing input events.
In general layout behavior, components of a Margin value are constrained last, and are constrained only after Height and Width are already constrained all the way to 0. So be careful with margins when the container is already clipping or constraining the element, otherwise your margin could be the cause of an element not appearing to render (because one of its dimensions has been constrained to 0 after the margin was applied).
Margin values can be uniform, by using syntax like
Margin="20". With this syntax, a uniform margin of 20 pixels would be applied to the element, with a 20-pixel margin on the left, top, right and bottom sides. Margin values can also take the form of four distinct values, each value describing a distinct margin to apply to the left, top, right, and bottom (in that order). For example,
Margin="0,10,5,25". The underlying type for the Margin property is a Thickness structure, which has properties that hold the Left, Top, Right and Bottom values as separate Double values.
Margins are additive. For example, if two elements each specify a uniform margin of 10 pixels and they are adjacent peers in any orientation, the distance between the elements is 20 pixels.
Negative margins are permitted. However using a negative margin can often cause clipping, or overdraws of peers, so it's not a common technique to use negative margins.
Proper use of the Margin property enables very fine control of an element's rendering position and the rendering position of its neighbor elements and children. When you use element dragging to position elements within the XAML designer in Visual Studio, you'll see that the modified XAML typically has values for Margin of that element that were used to serialize your positioning changes back into the XAML.
The Block class, which is a base class for Paragraph, also has a Margin property. It has an analogous effect on how that Paragraph is positioned within its parent container, which is typically a RichTextBlock or RichEditBox object, and also how more than one paragraph is positioned relative to other Block peers from the RichTextBlock.Blocks collection.
A Padding property describes the distance between an element and any child elements or content that it contains. Content is treated as a single bounding box that encloses all the content, if it's an element that permits more than one child. For example if there's an ItemsControl that contains two items, the Padding is applied around the bounding box that contains the items. Padding subtracts from the available size when it comes to the measure and arrange pass calculations for that container and are part of the desired size values when the container itself goes through the layout pass for whatever contains it. Unlike Margin, Padding is not a property of FrameworkElement, and in fact there are several classes which each define their own Padding property:
- Control.Padding: inherits to all Control derived classes. Not all controls have content, so for some controls (for example AppBarSeparator) setting the property does nothing. If the control has a border (see Control.BorderThickness) the padding applies inside that border.
- Border.Padding: defines space between the rectangle line created by BorderThickness/BorderBrush and the Child element.
- ItemsPresenter.Padding: contributes to appearance of the generated visuals for items in item controls, placing the specified padding around each item.
- TextBlock.Padding and RichTextBlock.Padding: expands the bounding box around the text of the text element. These text elements don't have a Background so it can be visually difficult to see what's the text's padding versus other layout behavior applied by the text element's container. For that reason, text element padding is seldom used and it's more typical to use Margin settings on contained Block containers (for the RichTextBlock case).
In each of these cases the same element also has a Margin property. If both margin and padding are applied, they are additive in the sense that the apparent distance between an outer container and any inner content will be margin plus padding. If there are different background values applied to content, element or container, the point at which margin ends and padding begins is potentially visible in the rendering.
Dimensions (Height, Width)
The Height and Width properties of a FrameworkElement often influence how the alignment, margin and padding properties behave when a layout pass happens. In particular, real-number Height and Width value cancels Stretch alignments, and is also promoted as a possible component of the DesiredSize value that's established during the measure pass of the layout. Height and Width have constraint properties: the Height value can be constrained with MinHeight and MaxHeight, the Width value can be constrained with MinWidth and MaxWidth. Also, ActualWidth and ActualHeight are calculated, read-only properties that only contain valid values after a layout pass has completed. For more info on how the dimensions and constraints or calculated properties interrelate, see Remarks in FrameworkElement.Height and FrameworkElement.Width.