macOS Storyboard Outlet-Like Connections Between View Controllers


Transitioning from Nibs to Storyboards poses a few challenges. One of them being creating outlets from a parent view controller to a child view controller. There is no such thing.

You could say this is the new idiomatic way to create interfaces, but I don’t quite agree with the consequences. How do you pass data to a view controller 4 levels deep in the hierarchy? It’s not obvious. And there are no “embed” segues like you have them on iOS to obtain references.

Just as I have beef with Segue’s, I don’t want my view controllers to be the central point of control. I want to tell them what to do. Eventually, I guess I’ll have to settle for a programmatic view, but that day is not today.

Turns out that NSViewController now sports a childViewControllers: [NSViewController] property which you can use to query for parent–child-relations.

As usual, my custom NSWindowController subclass also was the façade for the whole view hierarchy, implementing all view-related protocols to forward the display(foo:) commands to the child view controllers. That made the transition from Nib to Storyboard very easy, in fact, since there’s just a single point of change. High locality of change for the win! – If only the outdated child view controller outlets were easy to replace.

The best way I came up with is, upon windowDidLoad, traverse the view controller hierarchy and stop when a good match is found. Since even complex views won’t have hierarchies hundreds of levels deep, this doesn’t even take a noticeable amount of time.

This helper function looks for a match by type in a given view controller’s child collection, recursively:

func firstChildViewController<T: NSViewController>(
    _ parentViewController: NSViewController
    ) -> T? 
    for viewController in parentViewController.childViewControllers {
        if let match = viewController as? T { return match }
        if let subChild: T = firstChildViewController(viewController) { return subChild }

    return nil

Since it’s generic, you just have to specify the desired type to look for so the compiler can figure out what you want:

let bananaVC: BananaViewController 
    = firstChildViewController(jungleViewController)

The only limitation is that this will stop on the first match. If you use the same type of NSViewController subclasses in multiple places, you to check for an additional criterion.

Inside my window controller, I use this function as follows:

class AmazingWindowController: NSWindowController {
    var bananaViewController: BananaViewController!
    var appleViewController: AppleViewController!
    override func windowDidLoad() {
        // ...
    fileprivate func loadChildViewControllers() {
        self.bananaViewController = getChildViewController()
        self.appleViewController = getChildViewController()
    fileprivate func getChildViewController<T: NSViewController>() -> T! {
        let firstViewController = self.window!.contentViewController!
        return firstChildViewController(firstViewController)

Okay, so getChildViewController sounds like we’re back in Java-land. But it’s the best name I could come up with; “load” doesn’t fit since the view controller already is loaded. “Fetch” may work, or “find”. Whatever suits you.

With this in place, I am able to instantiate the child view controller reference properties in a fashion that resembles @IBOutlets closest.

And this, in turn, paves the way to extract the façade functionality from the window controller into another object. Nice!