Animating Layouts with the FLIP Technique

User interfaces are most effective when they are intuitive and easily understandable to the user. Animation plays a major role in this – as Nick Babich said, animation brings user interfaces to life. However, adding meaningful transitions and micro-interactions is often an afterthought, or something that is “nice to have” if time permits. All too often, we experience web apps that simply “jump” from view to view without giving the user time to process what just happened in the current context.

This leads to unintuitive user experiences, but we can do better, by avoiding “jump cuts” and “teleportation” in creating UIs. After all, what’s more natural than real life, where nothing teleports (except maybe car keys), and everything you interact with moves with natural motion?

In this article, we’ll explore a technique called “FLIP” that can be used to animate the positions and dimensions of any DOM element in a performant manner, regardless of how their layout is calculated or rendered (e.g., height, width, floats, absolute positioning, transform, flexbox, grid, etc.)

Why the FLIP technique?

Have you ever tried to animate height, width, top, left, or any other properties besides transform and opacity? You might have noticed that the animations look a bit janky, and there’s a reason for that. When any property that triggers layout changes (such as `height`), the browser has to recursively check if any other element’s layout has changed as a result, and that can be expensive. If that calculation takes longer than one animation frame (around 16.7 milliseconds), then the animation frame will be skipped, resulting in “jank” since that frame wasn’t rendered in time. In Paul Lewis’ article “Pixels are Expensive”, he goes further in depth at how pixels are rendered and the various performance expenses.

In short, our goal is to be short – we want to calculate the least amount of style changes necessary, as quickly as possible. The key to this is only animating transform and opacity, and FLIP explains how we can simulate layout changes using only transform.

What is FLIP?

FLIP is a mnemonic device and technique first coined by Paul Lewis, which stands for First, Last, Invert, Play. His article contains an excellent explanation of the technique, but I’ll outline it here:

  • First: before anything happens, record the current (i.e., first) position and dimensions of the element that will transition. You can use element.getBoundingClientRect() for this, as will be shown below.
  • Last: execute the code that causes the transition to instantaneously happen, and record the final (i.e., last) position and dimensions of the element.*
  • Invert: since the element is in the last position, we want to create the illusion that it’s in the first position, by using transform to modify its position and dimensions. This takes a little math, but it’s not too difficult.
  • Play: with the element inverted (and pretending to be in the first position), we can move it back to its last position by setting its transform to none.

Below is how these steps can be implemented with the Web Animations API:

const elm = document.querySelector('.some-element'); // First: get the current bounds
const first = elm.getBoundingClientRect(); // execute the script that causes layout change
doSomething(); // Last: get the final bounds
const last = elm.getBoundingClientRect(); // Invert: determine the delta between the // first and last bounds to invert the element
const deltaX = first.left - last.left;
const deltaY = first.top - last.top;
const deltaW = first.width / last.width;
const deltaH = first.height / last.height; // Play: animate the final element from its first bounds
// to its last bounds (which is no transform)
elm.animate([{ transformOrigin: 'top left', transform: ` translate(${deltaX}px, ${deltaY}px) scale(${deltaW}, ${deltaH}) `
}, { transformOrigin: 'top left', transform: 'none'
}], { duration: 300, easing: 'ease-in-out', fill: 'both'
});

Note: At the time of writing, the Web Animations API is not yet supported in all browsers. However, you can use a polyfill.

See the Pen How the FLIP technique works by David Khourshid (@davidkpiano) on CodePen.

There are two important things to note:

  1. If the element’s size changed, you can transform scale in order to “resize” it with no performance penalty; however, make sure to set transformOrigin to 'top left' since that’s where we based our delta calculations.
  2. We’re using the Web Animations API to animate the element here, but you’re free to use any other animation engine, such as GSAP, Anime, Velocity, Just-Animate, Mo.js and more.

Shared Element Transitions

One common use-case for transitioning an element between app views and states is that the final element might not be the same DOM element as the initial element. In Android, this is similar to a shared element transition, except that the element isn’t “recycled” from view to view in the DOM as it is on Android.
Nevertheless, we can still achieve the FLIP transition with a little magic illusion:

const firstElm = document.querySelector('.first-element'); // First: get the bounds and then hide the element (if necessary)
const first = firstElm.getBoundingClientRect();
firstElm.style.setProperty('visibility', 'hidden'); // execute the script that causes view change
doSomething(); // Last: get the bounds of the element that just appeared
const lastElm = document.querySelector('.last-element');
const last = lastElm.getBoundingClientRect(); // continue with the other steps, just as before.
// remember: you're animating the lastElm, not the firstElm.

Below is an example of how two completely disparate elements can appear to be the same element using shared element transitions. Click one of the pictures to see the effect.

See the Pen FLIP example with WAAPI by David Khourshid (@davidkpiano) on CodePen.

Parent-Child Transitions

With the previous implementations, the element bounds are based on the window. For most use cases, this is fine, but consider this scenario:

  • An element changes position and needs to transition.
  • That element contains a child element, which itself needs to transition to a different position inside the parent.

Since the previously calculated bounds are relative to the window, our calculations for the child element are going to be off. To solve this, we need to ensure that the bounds are calculated relative to the parent element instead:

const parentElm = document.querySelector('.parent');
const childElm = document.querySelector('.parent > .child'); // First: parent and child
const parentFirst = parentElm.getBoundingClientRect();
const childFirst = childElm.getBoundingClientRect(); doSomething(); // Last: parent and child
const parentLast = parentElm.getBoundingClientRect();
const childLast = childElm.getBoundingClientRect(); // Invert: parent
const parentDeltaX = parentFirst.left - parentLast.left;
const parentDeltaY = parentFirst.top - parentLast.top; // Invert: child relative to parent
const childDeltaX = (childFirst.left - parentFirst.left) - (childLast.left - parentLast.left);
const childDeltaY = (childFirst.top - parentFirst.top) - (childLast.top - parentLast.top); // Play: using the WAAPI
parentElm.animate([ { transform: `translate(${parentDeltaX}px, ${parentDeltaY}px)` }, { transform: 'none' }
], { duration: 300, easing: 'ease-in-out' }); childElm.animate([ { transform: `translate(${childDeltaX}px, ${childDeltaY}px)` }, { transform: 'none' }
], { duration: 300, easing: 'ease-in-out' });

A few things to note here, as well:

  1. The timing options for the parent and child (duration, easing, etc.) do not necessarily need to match with this technique. Feel free to be creative!
  2. Changing dimensions in parent and/or child (width, height) was purposefully omitted in this example, since it is an advanced and complex topic. Let’s save that for another tutorial.
  3. You can combine the shared element and parent-child techniques for greater flexibility.

Using Flipping.js for Full Flexibility

The above techniques might seem straightforward, but they can get quite tedious to code once you have to keep track of multiple elements transitioning. Android eases this burden by:

  • baking shared element transitions into the core SDK
  • allowing developers to identify which elements are shared by using a common android:transitionName XML attribute

I’ve created a small library called Flipping.js with the same idea in mind. By adding a data-flip-key="..." attribute to HTML elements, it’s possible to predictably and efficiently keep track of elements that might change position and dimensions from state to state.

For example, consider this initial view:

 <section class="gallery"> <div class="photo-1" data-flip-key="photo-1"> <img src="/photo-1"/> </div> <div class="photo-2" data-flip-key="photo-2"> <img src="/photo-2"/> </div> <div class="photo-3" data-flip-key="photo-3"> <img src="/photo-3"/> </div> </section>

And this separate detail view:

 <section class="details"> <div class="photo" data-flip-key="photo-1"> <img src="/photo-1"/> </div> <p class="description"> Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet... </section>

Notice in the above example that there are 2 elements with the same data-flip-key="photo-1". Flipping.js tracks the “active” element by choosing the first element that meet these criteria:

  • The element exists in the DOM (i.e., it hasn’t been removed or detached)
  • The element is not hidden (hint: elm.getBoundingClientRect() will have { width: 0, height: 0 } for hidden elements)
  • Any custom logic specified in the selectActive option.

Getting Started with Flipping.js

There’s a few different packages for Flipping, depending on your needs:

  • flipping.js: tiny and low-level; only emits events when element bounds change
  • flipping.web.js: uses WAAPI to animate transitions
  • flipping.gsap.js: uses GSAP to animate transitions
  • More adapters coming soon!

You can grab the minified code directly from unpkg:

  • https://unpkg.com/flipping@latest/dist/flipping.js
  • https://unpkg.com/flipping@latest/dist/flipping.web.js
  • https://unpkg.com/flipping@latest/dist/flipping.gsap.js

Or you can npm install flipping --save and import it into your projects:

// import not necessary when including the unpkg scripts in a <script src="..."> tag
import Flipping from 'flipping/adapters/web'; const flipping = new Flipping(); // First: let Flipping read all initial bounds
flipping.read(); // execute the change that causes any elements to change bounds
doSomething(); // Last, Invert, Play: the flip() method does it all
flipping.flip();

Handling FLIP transitions as a result of a function call is such a common pattern, that the .wrap(fn) method transparently wraps (or “decorates”) the given function by first calling .read(), then getting the return value of the function, then calling .flip(), then returning the return value. This leads to much less code:

const flipping = new Flipping(); const flippingDoSomething = flipping.wrap(doSomething); // anytime this is called, FLIP will animate changed elements
flippingDoSomething();

Here is an example of using flipping.wrap() to easily achieve the shifting letters effect. Click anywhere to see the effect.

See the Pen Flipping Birthstones #Codevember by David Khourshid (@davidkpiano) on CodePen.

Adding Flipping.js to Existing Projects

In another article, we created a simple React gallery app using finite state machines. It works just as expected, but the UI could use some smooth transitions between states to prevent “jumping” and improve the user experience. Let’s add Flipping.js into our React app to accomplish this. (Keep in mind, Flipping.js is framework-agnostic.)

Step 1: Initialize Flipping.js

The Flipping instance will live on the React component itself, so that it’s isolated to only changes that occur within that component. Initialize Flipping.js by setting it up in the componentDidMount lifecycle hook:

 componentDidMount() { const { node } = this; if (!node) return; this.flipping = new Flipping({ parentElement: node }); // initialize flipping with the initial bounds this.flipping.read(); }

By specifying parentElement: node, we’re telling Flipping to only look for elements with a data-flip-key in the rendered App, instead of the entire document.
Then, modify the HTML elements with the data-flip-key attribute (similar to React’s key prop) to identify unique and “shared” elements:

 renderGallery(state) { return ( <section className="ui-items" data-state={state}> {this.state.items.map((item, i) => <img src={item.media.m} className="ui-item" style={{'--i': i}} key={item.link} onClick={() => this.transition({ type: 'SELECT_PHOTO', item })} data-flip-key={item.link} /> )} </section> ); } renderPhoto(state) { if (state !== 'photo') return; return ( <section className="ui-photo-detail" onClick={() => this.transition({ type: 'EXIT_PHOTO' })}> <img src={this.state.photo.media.m} className="ui-photo" data-flip-key={this.state.photo.link} /> </section> ) }

Notice how the img.ui-item and img.ui-photo are represented by data-flip-key={item.link} and data-flip-key={this.state.photo.link} respectively: when the user clicks on an img.ui-item, that item is set to this.state.photo, so the .link values will be equal.

And since they are equal, Flipping will smoothly transition from the img.ui-item thumbnail to the larger img.ui-photo.

Now we need to do two more things:

  1. call this.flipping.read() whenever the component will update
  2. call this.flipping.flip() whenever the component did update

Some of you might have already guessed where these method calls are going to occur: componentWillUpdate and componentDidUpdate, respectively:

 componentWillUpdate() { this.flipping.read(); } componentDidUpdate() { this.flipping.flip(); }

And, just like that, if you’re using a Flipping adapter (such as flipping.web.js or flipping.gsap.js), Flipping will keep track of all elements with a [data-flip-key] and smoothly transition them to their new bounds whenever they change. Here is the final result:

See the Pen FLIPping Gallery App by David Khourshid (@davidkpiano) on CodePen.

If you would rather implement custom animations yourself, you can use flipping.js as a simple event emitter. Read the documentation for more advanced use-cases.

Flipping.js and its adapters handle the shared element and parent-child transitions by default, as well as:

  • interrupted transitions (in adapters)
  • enter/move/leave states
  • plugin support for plugins such as mirror, which allows newly entered elements to “mirror” another element’s movement
  • and more planned in the future!

Resources

Similar libraries include:

  • FlipJS by Paul Lewis himself, which handles simple single-element FLIP transitions
  • React-Flip-Move, a useful React library by Josh Comeau
  • BarbaJS, not necessarily a FLIP library, but one that allows you to add smooth transitions between different URLs, without page jumps.

Further resources:

  • Animating the Unanimatable – Joshua Comeau
  • FLIP your Animations – Paul Lewis
  • Pixels are Expensive – Paul Lewis
  • Improving User Flow Through Page Transitions – Luigi de Rosa
  • Smart Transitions in User Experience Design – Adrian Zumbrunnen
  • What Makes a Good Transition? – Nick Babich
  • Motion Guidelines in Google’s Material Design
  • Shared Element Transition with React Native

Animating Layouts with the FLIP Technique is a post from CSS-Tricks