Document Layout

The automatic document layout feature of HexaPDF allows one to easily create complex documents. It works by first defining the space where the content should be placed and then adding content boxes. The layout engine places the boxes into the space according to the their position information and allows, for example, for flowing text around other content.


Defining the contents of a PDF document works a bit differently than what one is used to from word processors like LibreOffice Writer.

Word processors usually store the contents, being text, images, graphics or other things, as is together with styling information like font, font size, position information, border style and so on. The word processor itself is responsible for laying out the content according to this information when a file is opened. This is also the reason why different word processor applications might display files differently, for example, if they are not 100% compatible with the used file format.

In contrast to this, the contents of a PDF document is stored already layed out. For example, text is not stored as Unicode text but as glyph identifiers together with the exact position for each glyph. A PDF viewer takes this information and just renders this content, without doing any layouting at all. This is still quite a complex task but it ensures – generally – that the display of a PDF document is the same across different PDF viewers.

Due to this difference layouting of PDF content is the responsibility of the PDF creation software.

Every PDF creation software can do the easy graphics and text operations that map directly to PDF operators, like showing text at a certain position. More complex document layout needs additional work like line wrapping algorithms, hyphenation algorithms, flowing text around other content and more.

HexaPDF is naturally able to do the basic document creation tasks. These can be done using the HexaPDF::Content::Canvas class which also provides basic text output. The complex tasks are handled by the classes in the HexaPDF::Layout module.

Most classes in the HexaPDF::Layout module are completely decoupled from the PDF-specific parts of HexaPDF. This is because the PDF parts only come into play once text and graphics have been properly laid out and need to be drawn on a canvas.

Layout Class Overview

The main classes used by the layout engine are

These classes can either be used directly or through HexaPDF::Document::Layout which provides a convenience interface for working with them. However, they are most commonly used through HexaPDF::Composer which ties them neatly together and provides the easiest interface for users.

The inner workings and main features of the mentioned classes are discussed below.

Boxes for Content

Boxes encapsulate content and know how to fit the content into a frame, how to optionally split the content and how to draw the content.

Examples of box classes that directly encapsulate content are HexaPDF::Layout::TextBox for drawing text and HexaPDF::Layout::ImageBox for drawing an image. Additionally, there are box classes that act as containers like HexaPDF::Layout::ListBox and HexaPDF::Layout::ColumnBox. Those container classes internally use Frame and BoxFitter objects to do the actual layouting.

Each box has at least the following attributes:

width, height

They define the width and height the box should have. A value of zero means that the value of the attribute is determined during the layouting process. For example, if an image box has a set width but a height of zero, the height will be calculated so that the aspect ratio of the image persists.


The style of a box is an instance of HexaPDF::Layout::Style and encapsulates all the style information for that box. Examples of style attributes are position (describing how to place the box in the frame) and font_size.

The base class HexaPDF::Layout::Box already provides some useful properties for all box classes, for example the ability to draw a background and border.

By encapsulating content into a box class and not drawing it directly onto the canvas, the drawing logic becomes easily re-usable. Additionally, the box instances can be used together with frames for automatic positioning.

Therefore it is best to create new box subclasses whenever something needs to be drawn, even if only one time.

Frames for Layout

A HexaPDF::Layout::Frame defines the space where content boxes can be placed and provides the methods to place them. Once placed their occupied area (which is different for different types of positions) is removed from the available space, making the frame ready for the next box placement. Note that placing a box in a frame doesn’t necessarily mean actually drawing the box, e.g. when frames are used inside container boxes.

Frame Shape

The shape of a frame is initially rectangular. Once boxes are fitted and drawn inside the frame, its available space gets reduced. Due to this the shape of a frame may be a polygon set consisting of arbitrary rectilinear polygons. For example, if a box is placed using absolute coordinates, a hole in the shape may appear.

The frame’s shape is used to determine the current placement position (available through the HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#x and HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#y attributes). Together with the HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#available_width and HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#available_height attributes they define a rectangular region inside which the next box is placed.

There is one exception though: If the to-be-placed box is to be flown around content (style property position=:flow), this rectangular region is ignored and the frame’s shape is directly used to determine where to place the box’s content.

Box Placement

The general work flow for placing a box in a frame is like this:

Fitting the box

The first step is fitting the box using the HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#fit method. This method in turn calls HexaPDF::Layout::Box#fit and lets the box decide whether it fits or not. The result of Frame#fit is a HexaPDF::Layout::Frame::FitResult object, holding the information about whether fitting was successful, where the box in the frame is placed and which area needs to be removed from the frame.

If the box fits at the current position, it can either be drawn directly afterwards or the fit result stored for later use.

Handling a negative fit result

There are two reasons for a box not fitting at the current position:

  1. The box is too big to completely fit but a part fits.
  2. The box doesn’t fit at all.

To determine whether it is 1. or 2. the HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#split method needs to be called. The result is an array where the first item is the current box or nil and the second item is the split-off box or nil.

If the first item is not nil, it means that at least a part fits and that the box can be drawn with the already available fit result object. The second item is then nil if the box fit completely (and a call to #split was not really necessary) or another box containing the content that didn’t fit.

In case the first item is nil, the box didn’t fit at all and is returned as the second item. In this case the HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#find_next_region method may be called to determine a new region for fitting the box and the process is repeated from the top.

Drawing the result and/or removing the box’s occupied area

Once a successful fit result has been obtained, the HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#draw method can be called to draw the box and remove the occupied area of the box from the frame’s shape.

Alternatively, the HexaPDF::Layout::Frame#remove_area method is called to just remove the box’s occupied area from the frame’s shape without drawing the box. This is useful, for example, when boxes are fitted into a temporary frame inside a container box.

To have the most control over this process, one can use the frame class directly. However, in most cases it is easier to use the BoxFitter class.

Fitting Boxes into Frames

The HexaPDF::Layout::BoxFitter class encapsulates the default logic for laying out boxes into one or more frames. Due to this it is used by container boxes like the HexaPDF::Layout::ColumnBox for doing the actual layouting work.

All one needs to do is to provide the frames and then use the #fit method to fit the boxes, one after the other. The logic for placing the boxes uses the flow described above, adjusted for use with multiple frames:

After the #fit method is called for every box, the stored fit results can be used to draw the boxes. And the stored remaining boxes can be used during a box splitting operation.

Convenience Interface

Though the layout classes can be created directly, it is easier to use the convenience interface provided by HexaPDF::Document::Layout. It can be accessed through HexaPDF::Document#layout.

This interface provides a central store for styles. Through them it is easy to define document wide styles for paragraphs, headings, and so on. Those styles can then be assigned to boxes created through the interface.

There are a few special methods for creating boxes, like HexaPDF::Document::Layout#text_box, and a general method HexaPDF::Document::Layout#box. The latter one uses the configuration option to create box instances based on registered box names. This feature allows one to create and register custom box classes and use them like the built-in ones.

All-in-one Document Composition

All the classes discussed above focus on special aspects of the layouting work. The HexaPDF::Composer class now ties all the classes together to provide a very easy to use interface for creating whole documents:

require 'hexapdf'

HexaPDF::Composer.create('output.pdf') do |composer|
  composer.text("Hello World", font_size: 20)
  composer.image("some image.jpg", text_align: :center, width: 300)

The composer uses the central style store provided by HexaPDF::Document::Layout and also delegates the box creation to that class.

In addition to automatically laying out the given boxes and drawing them, it creates new pages when needed. This allows one to just add all the boxes without too much thinking about how and where the boxes will fit.