macOS View Controllers Tutorial

In this macOS view controllers tutorial you’ll discover the wide range of functionality that is baked into vanilla view controllers, along with learning how you can create your own view controller subclasses to build up your app in an easy-to-understand manner. By Jean-Pierre Distler.

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When writing any code, it’s important to get clear separation of concerns — functionality should be split out into appropriate smaller classes. This helps keep code maintainable and easy to understand. Apple has designed the frameworks available on macOS around the Model-View-Controller design pattern, and as such has provided various controller objects that are responsible for managing the UI.

View controllers are responsible for hooking up the model layer to the view layer, and have an incredibly important role in the architecture of your macOS app.

In this macOS view controllers tutorial you’ll discover the wide range of functionality that is baked into vanilla view controllers, along with learning how you can create your own view controller subclasses to build up your app in an easy-to-understand manner. You’ll see how the life cycle methods allow you to hook into important events for the UI of your app, together with how view controllers compare with window controllers.

To follow this tutorial you’ll need the most recent version of macOS and Xcode installed on your mac. There’s no starter project — you’ll build a great app from scratch! You might like to read Gabriel Miro’s excellent tutorial on windows and window controllers before embarking upon this view controllers tutorial, but it’s not a requirement.

Enough introduction — let’s kick off with some theory!

Introducing View Controllers

A view controller is responsible for managing a view and its subviews. In macOS, view controllers are implemented as subclasses of NSViewController.

View controllers have been around for a while (Apple introduced them with OS X 10.5), but before OS X 10.10 they weren’t part of the responder chain. That means, for example, that if you had a button on a view controller’s view, the controller would not receive its events. After OS X 10.10, however, view controllers became very useful as building blocks for more complex user interfaces.

View controllers allow you to split the content of your window into logical units. The view controllers take care of those smaller units, while the window controller handles window-specific tasks like resizing or closing the window. This makes your code way easier to organize.

Another benefit is that view controllers are easy to reuse in other applications. If a File Browser with a hierarchical view on the left is controlled by a single view controller, you can use it in another application that needs a similar view. That’s time and energy saved, which you can now devote to drinking beer!

Window Controller or View Controller?

You may be wondering when to use only a window controller, and when to implement view controllers.

Prior to OS X 10.10 Yosemite, NSViewController was not a very useful class. It did not provide any of the view controller functionality you could expect — for instance, that found in UIViewController.

With the changes introduced since, like the view life cycle and the inclusion of the view controllers in the responder chain to receive events from its view, Apple is promoting the Model View Controller (MVC) pattern in the same way it’s currently doing with iOS Development. You should use view controllers to handle all the functionality of your views and subviews and the user interaction. Use window controllers to implement the functionality associated to the application windows, like setting up the root view controller, resizing, repositioning, setting the title, etc.

This approach will help in building a complex user interface by dividing the different parts of the UI into several view controllers and using them like building blocks to form the complete user interface.

View Controllers in Action

In this tutorial, you’ll write an application called RWStore that lets you select different books from store. Let’s get started!

Open Xcode and choose to create a new Xcode project, and select macOS/Application/Cocoa Application from the templates menu. Click Next.

Name your project RWStore. On the options screen, make sure that Swift is selected as Language and the Use Storyboards checkbox is checked. You don’t need Unit and UI Tests, so uncheck the corresponding checkboxes. Click Next and save your project.

Download the project resources. The zip file contains images for the books and a Products.plist file containing an array of dictionaries with the information for a product, like the name, description, and price. You will also find a source code file named Product.swift. This file contains the Product class, that reads the product information from the plist file. You’re going to add these to RWStore.

Select the Assets.xcassets folder in the Project Navigator and drop the downloaded images into the column containing the app icon.

Drag and drop Products.plist and Product.swift into the Project Navigator on the left. Make sure that Copy items if needed is checked.

Build and run the app. You should see the main window of your application.


It’s empty now, but don’t worry — this is just the starting point.

Creating the User Interface

Open Main.storyboard, select View Controller Scene, and drag a pop-up button into the view. You’ll use this pop-up button to display the list of products.


Set its position using auto layout. The pop-up button should occupy the full width of the view and stay pinned to the top, so with the pop-up selected, click the Add New Constraints button located in the bottom bar.

In the pop-up that appears, select the trailing constraint and set its value to Use Standard Value. Repeat for the top and leading constraints and click Add 3 Constraints.

To complete the UI, add a view to show the product details. Select a container view and drag it below the pop-up button.


A container view is a placeholder for another view and comes with its own View Controller.

Now we’ll set up the auto layout constraints for this view. Select the container view and click on the Add New Constraints button. Add top, bottom, trailing, and leading constraints with a value of 0. Click the Add 4 Constraints button.

Select the view of your view controller and click the Update Frames button at the left of row of constraints buttons. Your view should look like this:


Now you’ll create an action that will be called when the button selection changes. Open the Assistant Editor (you can also use the keyboard shortcut Command-Option-Return) and make sure that ViewController.swift is open. Control-drag from the pop-up button into ViewController.swift and add an Action Connection. In the pop-up view, make sure the connection is an Action, the name is valueChanged, and the type is NSPopUpButton.

On the canvas, there is a new view controller connected to the container view with an embed segue. Your app will use a custom view controller, so you can delete the auto-generated one: select the view controller associated with the container view and press delete.


Tab View Controllers

Now we’ll add the view controller used to display the product info: a Tab View Controller. A Tab View Controller is a view controller subclass (NSTabViewController); its view contains a tab view with two or more items and a container view. Behind every tab is another view controller whose content is used to fill the container view. Every time a new tab is selected, the Tab View Controller replaces the content with the view of the associated view controller.

Select a Tab View Controller and drag it on on the canvas.


The tab controller is now on the storyboard, but it’s not used yet. Connect it to the container view using an embed segue; control-drag from the container view to the Tab View Controller.


Select embed in the menu that pops up.

With this change, when the app runs the area of the container view is replaced with the view of the Tab View Controller. Double-click on the left tab of the Tab View and rename it Overview. Repeat to rename the right tab Details.


Build and run the app.

Now the tab view controller is shown, and you can select between the two view controllers using the tabs. This isn’t noticeable yet because the two views are exactly the same, but internally the tab view controller is replacing them when you select a tab.

Overview View Controller

Next up you need to create the view controller for the Overview tab.

Go to File/New/File…, choose the macOS/Source/Cocoa Class, and click Next. Name the class OverviewController, make it a subclass of NSViewController, and make sure Also Create XIB for user interface is not selected. Click Next and save.


Return to Main.storyboard and select Overview Scene. Click the blue circle on the view and change the class to OverviewController in the Identity Inspector on the right.


Drag three labels onto the OverviewController’s view. Place the labels on the top left side of the view, one below each other. Add an image view on the top right corner of the view.

Note: By default, the image view has no borders and can be a bit difficult to find in the view. To help during the layout process, you can set an image. With the image view selected, open the Attributes Inspector and select 2d_games in the Image field. This image will be replaced in runtime with the proper product image in the tutorial code

Select the top label. In the Attributes Inspector, change the font to System Bold and the size to 19. You will need to resize the label now to see all the text.

The view should now look like this:

It’s time to use the superpowers of auto layout to make this view look great.

Select the image view and click the Add New Constraints button on the bottom. Add constraints for top and trailing with the standard value, and constraints for width and height with a value of 180.

Select the top label and add bottom, top, leading, and trailing constraints using the standard value.

Select the label below and add constraints for trailing and leading using the standard value.

Widen the last label so it goes under the image, then add constraints for leading, trailing and bottom, using the standard value. For the top constraint, make sure that the image view is selected (so that the top is aligned to the image view), and use the standard value.

Select the view and click on the Update Frames button in the bottom bar. Your view should look like this:

After all your hard work on the interface, it’s finally time to see the result, so build and run.

Click on the tabs and see how the tab view controller shows the appropriate view controller. It works right out of the box and without a single line of code!

Add Some Code

It’s time to get your hands dirty adding some code to show the products details in the view. In order to refer to the labels and image view from code you need to add an IBOutlet for each of them.

First, open the Assistant Editor and make sure OverviewViewController.swift is selected. Control-drag from the top label into OverviewController.swift and add an outlet named titleLabel. Ensure the type is NSTextField.

Repeat the process with the other two labels and the image view to create the rest of the outlets with the following names:

  1. priceLabel for the label in the middle.
  2. descriptionLabel for the bottom label.
  3. productImageView for the image view.

Like most UI elements, labels and image views are built of multiple subviews, so make sure that you have the correct view selected. You can see this when you look at the class for the outlet: for the image view it must be NSImageView, not NSImageCell. For the labels, it must be NSTextField, not NSTextFieldCell.

To show the product information in the overview tab, open OverviewController.swift and add the following code inside the class implementation:

let numberFormatter = NumberFormatter()
var selectedProduct: Product? {
  didSet {

Taking this code bit-by-bit:

  1. numberFormatter is an NumberFormatter object used to show the value of the price, formatted as currency.
  2. selectedProduct holds the currently selected product. Every time the value changes, didSet is executed, and with it updateUI.

Now add the updateUI method to OverviewController.swift.

private func updateUI() {
  if isViewLoaded {
    if let product = selectedProduct {
      productImageView.image = product.image
      titleLabel.stringValue = product.title
      priceLabel.stringValue = numberFormatter.string(from: product.price) ?? "n/a"
      descriptionLabel.stringValue = product.descriptionText
  1. Checks to see if the view is loaded. isViewLoaded is a property of NSViewController, and it’s true if the view is loaded into memory. If the view is loaded, it’s safe to access all view-related properties, like the labels.
  2. Unwraps selectedProduct to see if there is a product. After that, the labels and image are updated to show the appropriate values.

This method is already called when the product changes, but also needs to be called as the view is ready to be displayed.

View Controller Life Cycle

Since view controllers are responsible for managing views, they expose methods that allow you to hook into events associated with the views. For example the point at which the views have loaded from the storyboard, or when the views are about to appear on the screen. This collection of event-based methods are known as the view controller life cycle.

The life cycle of a view controller can be divided into three major parts: its creation, its lifetime, and finally its termination. Each part has methods you can override to do additional work.


  1. viewDidLoad is called once the view is fully loaded and can be used to do one-time initializations like the configuration of a number formatter, registering for notifications, or calls to API that only need to be done once.
  2. viewWillAppear is called every time the view is about to appear on screen. In our application, it is called every time you select the Overview tab. This is a good point to update your UI or to refresh your data model.
  3. viewDidAppear is called after the view appears on screen. Here you can start some fancy animations.


Once a view controller has been created, it then enters a period during which it it handles user interactions. It has three methods specific to this phase of its life:

  1. updateViewConstraints is called every time the layout changes, like when the window is resized.
  2. viewWillLayout is called before the layout method of a view controller’s view is called. For example, you can use this method to adjust constraints.
  3. viewDidLayout is called after layout is called.


These are the counterpart methods to creation:

  1. viewWillDisappear is called before the view disappears. Here you can stop your fancy animations you started in viewDidAppear.
  2. viewDidDisappear is called after the view is no longer on the screen. Here you can discard everything you no longer need. For example, you could invalidate a timer you used to upate your data model on a periodic time base.

In all these methods, you should call the super implementation at some point.

Life cycle in practice

Now that you know the most important things about a view controller’s life cycle, it’s time for a short test!

Question: Every time OverviewController’s view appears, you want to update the UI to take into account that a user selected a product when the Details tab was selected. Which method would be a good fit?
[spoiler title=””]
There are two possible methods: viewWillAppear and viewDidAppear. The best solution is to use viewWillAppear so that the user sees the updated UI at the moment the view appears. Using viewDidAppear means that a user would see the UI appear first showing old data before updating.

Open OverviewController.swift and add this code inside the class implementation:

override func viewWillAppear() {

This overrides the viewWillAppear to update the user interface before the view becomes visible.

The number formatter currently uses default values, which doesn’t fit your needs. You’ll configure it to format numbers as currency values; since you only need to do this once, a good place is the method viewDidLoad.

In OverviewController add this code inside viewDidLoad:

numberFormatter.numberStyle = .currency

For the next step, the main view controller needs to react on product selection and then inform the OverviewController about this change. The best place for this is in the ViewController class, because this controller owns the pop-up button. Open ViewController.swift and add these properties inside the ViewController class implementation:

private var products = [Product]()
var selectedProduct: Product?

The first property, products, is an array used to keep a reference to all the products. The second, selectedProduct, holds the product selected in the pop-up button.

Find viewDidLoad and add the following code inside:

if let filePath = Bundle.main.path(forResource: "Products", ofType: "plist") {
  products = Product.productsList(filePath)

This loads the array of products from the plist file using the Product class added at the beginning of the tutorial, and keeps it in the products property. Now you can use this array to populate the pop-up button.

Open Main.storyboard, select View Controller Scene, and switch to the Assistant Editor. Make sure ViewController.swift is selected, and Control-drag from the pop-up button to ViewController.swift to create an outlet named productsButton. Make sure the type is NSPopUpButton.

Return to ViewController.swift and add the following code to the end of viewDidLoad :

for product in products {
  productsButton.addItem(withTitle: product.title)
selectedProduct = products[0]
productsButton.selectItem(at: 0)

This piece of code does the following:

  1. It removes all items in the pop-up button, getting rid of the Item1 and Item2 entries.
  2. It adds an item for every product, showing its title.
  3. It selects the first product and the first item of the pop-up button. This makes sure that everything is consistent.

The final piece in this puzzle is reacting to the pop-up button selection changes. Find valueChanged and add the following lines:

if let bookTitle = sender.selectedItem?.title,
  let index = products.index(where: {$0.title == bookTitle}) {
  selectedProduct = products[index]     

This code tries to get the selected book title and searches in the products for the index of the title. With this index, it sets selectedProduct to the correct product.

Now you only need to inform OverviewController when the selected product changes. For this you need a reference to the OverviewController. You can get a reference within code, but first you have to add another property to ViewController.swift to hold that reference. Add the following code inside the ViewController implementation:

private var overviewViewController: OverviewController?

You can get the instance of OverviewController inside prepare(for:sender:), which is called by the system when the view controllers are embedded in the container view. Add the following method to the ViewController implementation:

override func prepare(for segue: NSStoryboardSegue, sender: Any?) {
  guard let tabViewController = segue.destinationController
    as? NSTabViewController else { return }

  for controller in tabViewController.childViewControllers {

    if let controller = controller as? OverviewController {
      overviewViewController = controller
      overviewViewController?.selectedProduct = selectedProduct
    // More later

This code does the following:

  1. Gets a reference to the Tab View controller if possible.
  2. Iterates over all its child view controllers.
  3. Checks if the current child view controller is an instance of OverviewController, and if it is, sets its selectedProduct property.

Now add the following line in the method valueChanged, inside the if let block.

overviewViewController?.selectedProduct = selectedProduct

Build and run to see how the UI updates when you select a different product.

Detail View Controller

Now you will create a view controller class for the Details tab.

Go to File/New/File…, choose macOS/Source/Cocoa Class, and click Next. Name the class DetailViewController, make it a subclass of NSViewController, and make sure Also Create XIB for user interface is not selected. Click Next and save.


Open Main.storyboard and select Details Scene. In the Identity Inspector change the class to DetailViewController.


Add an image view to the detail view. Select it and click on the Add New Constraints button to create its constraints. Set width and height constraints to a value of 180, and a top constraint to the standard value. As you did with the OverviewController, give it an image to make it easier to see.

Click on the Align button in the bottom bar and add a constraint to center the view Horizontally in the Container.

Add a label below the image view. Change the font to bold and the size to 19, then click on the Add New Constraints button to add constraints for top, leading, and trailing, using the standard values.

Add another label below the previous one. Select it, and click on the Add New Constraints button first to add constraints for top, leading and trailing, using standard values.

Make the view taller, then drag a Box under the last label. Select it and add constraints for top, leading, trailing and bottom, using standard values.

Open the Attributes Inspector and change the box font to System Bold and the size to 14. Change the title to “Who is this Book For?”.

An NSBox is a nice way to group related UI elements and to them a name you can see in Xcode’s Document Outline.

To complete the UI, drag a label inside the content area of the NSBox. Select the label and click on the Add New Constraints button to add constraints for top, leading, trailing, and bottom, all using the standard value.

After updating the frames, the UI should look like this:

To create the outlets for those controls, open the Assistant Editor and make sure that DetailViewController.swift is open. Add four IBOutlets, giving them the following names:

  1. productImageView for the NSImageView.
  2. titleLabel for the label with the bold font.
  3. descriptionLabel for the label below.
  4. audienceLabel for the label in the NSBox.

With the outlets in place, add the implementation to show the product detail. Add the following code to DetailViewController class implementation:

// 1
var selectedProduct: Product? {
  didSet {
// 2
override func viewWillAppear() {
// 3
private func updateUI() {
  if isViewLoaded {
    if let product = selectedProduct {
      productImageView.image = product.image
      titleLabel.stringValue = product.title
      descriptionLabel.stringValue = product.descriptionText
      audienceLabel.stringValue = product.audience

You’re probably familiar with this code already, because it’s very similar to the Overview view controller implementation. This code:

  1. Defines a selectedProduct property and updates the UI whenever it changes.
  2. Forces a UI update whenever the view appears (when the detail view tab is selected).
  3. Sets the product information (using updateUI) in the labels and image view using the appropriate outlets.

When the product selection changes, you need to change the selected product in the detail view controller so that it updates the UI. Open ViewController.swift and add a property to hold a reference to the the detail view controller. Just below the overviewViewController property, add the following:

private var detailViewController: DetailViewController?

Find valueChanged and add the following inside:

detailViewController?.selectedProduct = selectedProduct

This updates the selected product property of the view controller when the pop-up selection changes.

The last change is inside prepare(for:sender:). Find the comment // More later and replace with the following:

else if let controller = controller as? DetailViewController {
  detailViewController = controller
  detailViewController?.selectedProduct = selectedProduct

This updates the selectedProduct when the detail view is embedded.

Build and run, and enjoy your finished application!

Where to Go From Here

You can download the final project here.

In this macOS view controller tutorial you’ve learned the following:

  • What a view controller is and how it compares to a window controller.
  • How to create a custom view controller subclass.
  • How to connect elements in your view to a view controller.
  • How to manipulate the view from the view controller.
  • The lifecycle of a view controller, and how to hook into the different events.

In addition to the functionality you’ve added to your custom view controller subclasses, there are many built-in subclasses provided for you. To see what built-in view controllers are available, take a look at the documentation.

If you’ve not already read it, you should take a look at Gabriel Miro’s excellent tutorial on windows and window controllers.

View controllers are one of the most powerful and useful aspects of architecting an macOS app, and there’s plenty more to learn. However, you’re now equipped with the knowledge to go out there and start playing around building apps — which you should do now!

If you have any questions or comments, please join the forum discussion below.