Object Rendering or MVC the right way

The templates we use in our favourite MVC frameworks are awful. You pass an unstructured bunch of data to a template which hopes the you passed everything it needed. They do not define what their inputs are, they are not type safe.

For some years I’ve been using a different way of rendering views - it started when I was trying to create a new CMS framework, but since then it has come in useful time and time again. I call it Object Rendering, but it is very similar to Martin Fowlers Presentation Model.

Object Rendering

The idea is simple:

  • Render a template based on the FQN of an object.
  • That object contains all the data for the template.
  • The template can render objects from the main object.

So, assuming we do this in a typical web application your controller might look like this:

<?php

class MyController {

    public function __construct(private ObjectRenderer $renderer)
    {}

    public function blogPostAction(string $slug): Response
    {
        $view = new BlogPostView(
            $this->blogRepository->findBySlug($slug)
        );

        return new Response(200, $this->objectRenderer->render($view);
    }
}

Now without creating any templates the first thing that will happen is you will get an exception message:

Unable to find template at `templates/BlogPostView.twig`

Behind the scenes the template paths are mapped based on the FQN prefix:

[
    'MyApp\\View\\' => 'templates'
    'MyApp\\Entity\\' => 'templates/entity'
]

Exception Driven Development

So then, let’s create a template:

<html>
    <head>
        <title>{{ view.title }}</title>
    </head>
    <body>
        {{ render(view.post) }}
    </body>
</html>

We call render(<object>) to render the Post object and we will get an exception:

Unable to find template at `templates/entity/Post.twig`

Great! Let’s create that:

<article>
    <h2>{{ view.title }}</h2>
    <div>
        {{ view.body }}
    </div>
    {% for tag in view.tags %}{{ render(tag) }}{% endfor %}
</article>

Note that the template always has exactly one parameter: view. Can you guess what happens next?

Unable to find template at `templates/entity/Tag.twig`

And so on. I like this - it tells you what it needs and is easy to reason about - you have an object? render it. This creates very strong boundaries around templates - preventing them from getting to greedy.

Usually when I implement this pattern I think - oh! I need to pass extra parameters to the template:

$blogPost = $repository->find('my-blog-post');
$renderer->render($blogPost, [
   'next' => 'https://www....',
   'previous' => 'https://www....',
]);

But no! This is not needed! We need actually to create a new object containing those parameters:

$renderer->render(
    new BlogPostView(
        $blogPost,
        new Link('next'),
        new Link('previous')
    )
);

This is awesome in a subtle way - we can put all that behavior which may have ended up in the template into an object and we can benefit from all the nice things that implies like testing and static analysis.

The Root of All Evil

But the best thing is inheritence (hear me out, it’s might be fine).

Let’s say we Post extends Article extends Content. The object renderer will automatically fall back to the parent class if the top class does not exist.

Because templates map exactly to a certain class FQN, they are guaranteed to work with any objects extending that class.

So for example, if we are rendering a list:

$list = new List([
    new Header([
        new StringCell('ID'),
        new StringCell('Title'),
        new StringCell('Last Modified'),
        new StringCell('Action'),
    ]),
    new ListBody([
        new ListRow(
            new IntegerCell(5),
            new StringCell('Foobar'),
            new DateCell(new DateTime('05-05-2020')),
            new LinkCell('Edit', 'https://example.com/edit/this')
        ),
        // ...
    ])
);
echo $renderer->render($list);

Imagine StringCell and IntegerCell nodes extend ScalarCell, then we would need only to create ScalarCell to render both. Later when we add FloatCell it wil just work, while providing us a way to specialize.

Also, by running our application we would effectively be prompted to create each successive template (when we stick to the rule of calling the renderer for all objects).

Into The Wild

I’ve used this so far on phpactor to render markdown help for code reflection elements (e.g. rendering method / class / type information).