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Custom UICollectionView: Global Headers

UICollectionView is an extremely capable UIKit component, which since its introduction in iOS6 has enabled a broad variety of attractive UI layouts.

The power of Collection View is in its remarkable flexibility, with totally custom layouts and sleek dynamic interactive transitions between them. That flexibility is also the main reason why proper handling of these aspects requires experience and sometimes could be way more complex compared to dealing with the rest of UIKit.

Global Header

This article is about extending the concept of collection view section headers via adding a configurable, pinnable, and stretchable global header. That will allow building UI interfaces like the one shown here, which comes a part of the sample app. The sample app project relies on a simple, configurable custom layout that is available as an open source framework and can used in your project to enable the same kind of functionality. The layout works with both iOS8 and iOS9, and is optimized for performance via using invalidation contexts to rebuild only those parts of UI that actually changed during scrolling.


The build-in collection view Flow Layout has the notion of section headers and footers, and as of iOS9 also provides built-in support for floating section headers similar to those seen in table views. In addition to that, we want to be able to optionally add a global header that would always stay on top and be stretchable. When a global header is turned on, the other sections should be sticking to it when scrolling otherwise they should behave exactly as defined by the Flow Layout’s sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds property. The layout should work for both iOS8 and iOS9.

Getting started

In general, a good way to get into custom layouts is to start with built-in Flow Layout. Given it covers a large range of line-oriented layouts with notion of rows and columns, tweaking UICollectionViewFlowLayout is often the best and fastest way to achieve desired customizations. Apple strongly recommends this approach, and provides specific scenarios for subclassing.

That is clearly no exception for our case. Since the Flow Layout already comes with support for section headers and footers, all we need to do is to leverage it and to build on top.

Before diving into implementation, there are a few things to consider regarding the concept of global section header. Since collection view sections are data driven, shell we count on the data source to provide for our global section as well? Or perhaps shall it rather be treated as a static part of the layout, similar to decoration views?

There are obviously multiple possible approaches, including the one shown at a WWDC 2014 session: Advanced User Interfaces with Collection Views. The session introduced the idea of aggregate data sources, which among many other things include support for global sections.

After some thinking on the subject, my preference was towards keeping things simple and flexible. Our custom layout will rely on collection view datasource to provide the global section, and it will simply assume that it will be the first section there. This way there is no need for dedicated hierarchy of data sources, and it will allow our custom layout to be useful in a smart way without unnecessarily bloating things up.

Custom Layout Attributes

Since the requirements include section header stretching, our custom layout will have to manipulate the headers’ frames. The dynamic height changes should be propagated back to collection view items, so that they can adjust their UI in corresponding applyLayoutAttributes: methods. In order to enable such communication, let’s subclass UICollectionViewLayoutAttributes and define the stretchFactor property:

public class AKPFlowLayoutAttributes: UICollectionViewLayoutAttributes {
    /// Set by AKPFlowLayout when managing section headers stretching
    public var stretchFactor: CGFloat = 0

    override public func copyWithZone(zone: NSZone) -> AnyObject {
        let aCopy = super.copyWithZone(zone) as! AKPFlowLayoutAttributes
        aCopy.stretchFactor = stretchFactor
        return aCopy

    override public func isEqual(object: AnyObject?) -> Bool {
        if let attributes = object as? AKPFlowLayoutAttributes {
            if attributes.stretchFactor == stretchFactor {
                return super.isEqual(object)
        return false

As collection view copies layout attribute objects, we also have to conform to the NSCopying protocol and implement its methods.

Section headers in a rect

The central place for a custom layout implementation is typically in the layoutAttributesForElementsInRect: function, which returns an array of layout attributes containing a layout attribute for each cell, supplementary, or decoration view that should be displayed in the passed rectangle.

Since we’re going to move forward with our implementation via subclassing UICollectionViewFlowLayout, most of the key ingredients there should already be provided to us out of the box.

The main idea is to simply add our custom sections’ layout attributes to those already handled by the Flow Layout.

Before we do that, let’s first write a few helper functions that will help us deal with collection view sections.

First, let’s calculate the indexes of all sections confined in a rect. That should include both regular sections and the custom sections, i.e the global header and the headers that are currently “sticking” to it:

// Given a rect, calculates indexes of all confined section headers
// _including_ the custom headers
private func sectionsHeadersIDxs(forRect rect: CGRect) -> Set<Int>? {
    guard let layoutAttributes = super.layoutAttributesForElementsInRect(rect)
                                                as? [AKPFlowLayoutAttributes] else {return nil}
    let sectionsShouldPin = layoutOptions.contains(.SectionsPinToGlobalHeaderOrVisibleBounds)

    var headersIdxs = Set<Int>()
    for attributes in layoutAttributes
            where attributes.visibleSectionHeader(sectionsShouldPin) {
    if layoutOptions.contains(.FirstSectionIsGlobalHeader) {
    return headersIdxs
private extension AKPFlowLayoutAttributes {
    // Determines if element is a section, or is a cell in a section with custom header
    func visibleSectionHeader(sectionsShouldPin: Bool) -> Bool {
        let isHeader = representedElementKind == UICollectionElementKindSectionHeader
        let isCellInPinnedSection = sectionsShouldPin && ( representedElementCategory == .Cell )
        return isCellInPinnedSection || isHeader

The code above builds a set of all section indexes, via going through layout attributes and searching for elements that are:

  • regular sections
  • cells that are in a section with custom header

The sections indexes of all matching elements are added to the set of unique indexes. In case of the global section, we always want to have it so it is added there as well.

Now it’s trivial to calculate the indexes of only the custom sections in a rect, i.e. excluding the regular headers provided by UICollectionViewFlowLayout:

// Given a rect, calculates the indexes of confined custom section headers
// _excluding_ the regular headers handled by UICollectionViewFlowLayout
private func customSectionHeadersIdxs(rect: CGRect) -> Set<Int>? {
    guard let layoutAttributes = super.layoutAttributesForElementsInRect(rect),
          var sectionIdxs = sectionsHeadersIDxs(forRect: rect)  else {return nil}

    // remove the sections that should already be taken care of by UICollectionViewFlowLayout
    for attributes in layoutAttributes
        where attributes.representedElementKind == UICollectionElementKindSectionHeader {
    return sectionIdxs

Layout Attributes headers in a rect

Now we are ready to write our layoutAttributesForElementsInRect(:) function as the following:

/// Returns layout attributes for specified rectangle, with added custom headers
override public func layoutAttributesForElementsInRect(rect: CGRect) -> [UICollectionViewLayoutAttributes]? {
    guard shouldDoCustomLayout else { return super.layoutAttributesForElementsInRect(rect) }

    guard var layoutAttributes = super.layoutAttributesForElementsInRect(rect) as? [AKPFlowLayoutAttributes],
          // calculate custom headers that should be confined in the rect
          let customSectionHeadersIdxs = customSectionHeadersIdxs(rect) else { return nil }

    // add the custom headers to the regular UICollectionViewFlowLayout layoutAttributes
    for idx in customSectionHeadersIdxs {
        let indexPath = NSIndexPath(forItem: 0, inSection: idx)
        if let attributes = super.layoutAttributesForSupplementaryViewOfKind(
                                                atIndexPath: indexPath) as? AKPFlowLayoutAttributes {
    // for section headers, need to adjust their attributes
    for attributes in layoutAttributes where
        attributes.representedElementKind == UICollectionElementKindSectionHeader {
            (attributes.frame, attributes.zIndex) = adjustLayoutAttributes(forSectionAttributes: attributes)
    return layoutAttributes

The code above adds our custom sections attributes to the array of regular layout attributes, and then adjusts those so that the global section is always top and all other sections behave according to the requirements.

The adjustLayoutAttributes: function is a bit on the lengthy side though still relatively straightforward:

// Adjusts layout attributes of section headers
private func adjustLayoutAttributes(forSectionAttributes
                                        sectionHeadersLayoutAttributes: AKPFlowLayoutAttributes)
                                                                                         -> (CGRect, Int) {
    guard let collectionView = collectionView else { return (, 0) }
    let section = sectionHeadersLayoutAttributes.indexPath.section
    var sectionFrame = sectionHeadersLayoutAttributes.frame

    // 1. Establish the section boundaries:
    let (minY, maxY) = boundaryMetrics(forSectionAttributes: sectionHeadersLayoutAttributes)

    // 2. Determine the height and insets of the first section,
    //    in case it's stretchable or serves as a global header
    let (firstSectionHeight, firstSectionInsets) = firstSectionMetrics()

    // 3. If within the above boundaries, the section should follow content offset
    //   (adjusting a few more things along the way)
    var offset = collectionView.contentOffset.y +
    if (section > 0) {
        // The global section
        if layoutOptions.contains(.SectionsPinToGlobalHeaderOrVisibleBounds) {
            if layoutOptions.contains(.FirstSectionIsGlobalHeader) {
                // A global header adjustment
                offset += firstSectionHeight +
            sectionFrame.origin.y = min(max(offset, minY), maxY)
    } else {
        if layoutOptions.contains(.FirstSectionStretchable) && offset < 0 {
            // Stretchy header
            if firstSectionHeight - offset < firsSectionMaximumStretchHeight {
                sectionFrame.size.height = firstSectionHeight - offset
                sectionHeadersLayoutAttributes.stretchFactor = fabs(offset)
                previousStretchFactor = sectionHeadersLayoutAttributes.stretchFactor
            } else {
                // need to limit the stretch
                sectionFrame.size.height = firsSectionMaximumStretchHeight
                sectionHeadersLayoutAttributes.stretchFactor = previousStretchFactor
            sectionFrame.origin.y += offset +
        } else if layoutOptions.contains(.FirstSectionIsGlobalHeader) {
            // Sticky header position needs to be relative to the global header
            sectionFrame.origin.y += offset +
        } else {
            sectionFrame.origin.y = min(max(offset, minY), maxY)
    return (sectionFrame, zIndexForSection(section))

Basically, the function first establishes the section boundaries of (minY, maxY) and then based on that configures sectionFrame.origin.y so it intelligently follows the collection view content offset.

If stretching a header, the section frame height is set accordingly and the stretch information is recorded in our custom layout attributes stretchFactor property.

Finally, we also need to manage sections’ zIndex, so that the global header and sticky headers are always on top.

Custom Layout Invalidation

The key to building high-performance layout is to recompute only those parts that actually changed. This way when a user scrolls, we will not end up repeatedly calling computationally intensive layoutAttributesForElementsInRect: but instead whenever possible just be calling layoutAttributesForSupplementaryViewOfKind directly. According to Apple’s documentation:

an invalidation context lets you specify which parts of the layout changed. To define a custom invalidation context for your layout, subclass the UICollectionViewLayoutInvalidationContext class. In your subclass, define custom properties that represent the parts of your layout data that can be recomputed independently.

For our case the Flow Layout is already using its invalidation context for optimized layout updates. Therefore, instead of creating our own custom invalidation context class it is sufficient to simply plug into the existing invalidation process.

Since we are handling the layout for collection view sections, we should also take care of invalidating those that are affected by the bounds changes:

override public func shouldInvalidateLayoutForBoundsChange(newBounds: CGRect) -> Bool {
    guard _shouldDoCustomLayout else {
        return super.shouldInvalidateLayoutForBoundsChange(newBounds)
    return true
/// Custom invalidation
override public func invalidationContextForBoundsChange(newBounds: CGRect)
                                    -> UICollectionViewLayoutInvalidationContext {
    guard _shouldDoCustomLayout,
        let invalidationContext = super.invalidationContextForBoundsChange(newBounds)
                                    as? UICollectionViewFlowLayoutInvalidationContext,
        let oldBounds = collectionView?.bounds
                                    else { return super.invalidationContextForBoundsChange(newBounds) }
    // Size changes?
    if oldBounds.size != newBounds.size {
        // re-query the collection view delegate for metrics such as size information etc.
        invalidationContext.invalidateFlowLayoutDelegateMetrics = true

    // Origin changes?
    if oldBounds.origin != newBounds.origin {
        // find and invalidate the sections that would fall into the new bounds
        guard let sectionIdxPaths = sectionsHeadersIDxs(forRect: newBounds) else {return invalidationContext}

        // then invalidate
        let invalidatedIdxPaths = { NSIndexPath(forItem: 0, inSection: $0) }
            UICollectionElementKindSectionHeader, atIndexPaths: invalidatedIdxPaths )
    return invalidationContext

Just one more thing

At that point, we are almost done! However the requirements mention sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds, which is a boolean property of UICollectionViewFlowLayout that enables out-of-the-box sticky headers in iOS9. Since we are now explicitly managing the sections headers, we also need to make sure there is no interference with the built-in implementation. The easiest way around that might be doing something along of lines of:

override public var sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds: Bool {
    didSet {
        if sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds {
            print("NO!!! 🙀")
            sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds = false

The problem is that the sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds property is not available in iOS8, and so far there seems to be no reasonable way to use Swift property observers with conditional compilation. Luckily, we can still fall back to using KVO:

override public init() {
    if #available(iOS 9.0, *) {
        addObserver(self, forKeyPath: "sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds",
                                                options: .New, context: &AKPFlowLayoutKVOContext)
deinit {
    if #available(iOS 9.0, *) {
        removeObserver(self, forKeyPath: "sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds", context: &AKPFlowLayoutKVOContext)
override public func observeValueForKeyPath(keyPath: String?, ofObject object: AnyObject?,
                                            change: [String : AnyObject]?, context: UnsafeMutablePointer<Void>) {
    if context == &AKPFlowLayoutKVOContext {
        if let newValue = change?[NSKeyValueChangeNewKey],
            boolValue = newValue as? Bool where boolValue {
            print("AKPFlowLayout supports sticky headers by default, therefore " +
                "the built-in functionality via sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds has been disabled")
            if #available(iOS 9.0, *) { sectionHeadersPinToVisibleBounds = false }
    } else {
        super.observeValueForKeyPath(keyPath, ofObject: object, change: change, context: context)

This way our custom layout will work both for iOS8 and iOS9, and there will be no collision with the iOS9 built-in sticky headers functionality.


The article went through major steps of implementing a custom collection view flow layout, extending the concept of sections headers according to specific requirements.

The custom layout code shown in article is available as an open source framework, accompanied by the sample app that you can download and run / test in Xcode.