InVision Framework: The View Template Language

Many modern web applications follow the Model-View-Controller pattern in order to separate concerns, or in detailed terms: to avoid mixing the backend processes, business logic, the data structuring and the way all gets displayed to the user. Following this pattern I have developed a simple language which is quite neat, easy to use and understand and it’s sole purpose is to produce views for a given data structure.

We can assume most data is stored in tables so we can have a simple table such as this one:

ID name surname
1 Jimmy Hendrix
2 James Hetfield
3 Dexter Holland

We can also assume that such a table is stored in a MySQL table, and a PHP script is fetching those rows to an array of a following structure:

$data = array(
 array( "ID" => "1" , "name" => "Jimmy" , "surname" => "Hendrix" ) ,
 array( "ID" => "2" , "name" => "James" , "surname" => "Hetfield" ) ,
 array( "ID" => "3" , "name" => "Dexter" , "surname" => "Holland" ) ,

In order to display this simple data structure as a table in an HTML document, we would need a generic function like this:

function display_as_table( $data ) {
	if (!is_array($data) || count($data) == 0) 
		return "No data";
	// extract the keys (field names)
	$keys = array_keys( reset($data) );
	// generate the table header
	foreach ( $keys as $field ) {
		$header .= "<th>{$field}</th>";
	// generate the table rows
	foreach ( $data as $row ) {
		foreach ( $row as $field => $cell )  {
			$rows.= "<td>{$cell}</td>";
	// construct the table with the header and rows
	return "
	<table border='1'>

How ever useful this might seem, it’s not really, because not all data is simple as this, often you need to provide links, styles and other view associated information… By expanding this function, you would be using a ton of parameters or objects to describe how you want your view to be displayed. It’s a very easy way to make your code hard to maintain.

A simpler way would be to describe this view generating process in a seperate view file named std.table.view.html:

<table border='1'>
			$([*.0]) {<th>[#]</th>}
			${ <td>[*]</td> }

And whenever you want to produce a standard table, just make a simple call:

echo produceview('std.table.view.html',$data);

The template language

Let’s take a simpler example, we want to produce an ordered list:

  1. One
  2. Two
  3. Three

So, here’s what we need to construct the view:

// The view template
$template = '<ol> ${ <li>[*]</li> } </ol>';
// The data being presented by the view
$data = array("One","Two","Three");
// output the view
echo produce( $template , $data );

Let’s now explain the template language.

First of all, the view expects some data to work with, that data is usually an array or a string. The data you pass to the view via the produce or produceview function is called the root data. So our root data is array(“One”,”Two”,”Three”).

The other thing the view knows is it’s current value context. The current value context is denoted by [*] and the view always starts with the root data as it’s current value context.

The view also knows it’s current key context which is denoted by [#]. Root context however does not have a key (only data) – so there is no such thing as a root key context.

In order to produce the list, we need to iterate over the root data values.
We do so by writing:

  $([*]){ The key value pair is [#] : [*] }.
#  ____  _________________________________
# /    \/                                 \
#  loop         iterating expression
# context    [#] ==> key , [*] ==> value

Or we can omit the $([*]) part since the root context is our current context and just write:

${ The key value pair is [#] : [*] }

How this notation works is very similar to the php foreach statement. However, each time the view enters the ${ } loop it changes the key/value context so the meanings of [#] and [*] are different according to the position in the view (the loop level).

Let’s take another example:

$data = array( 
  "points" => array( array(10,20) , array(30,40,20) , array(50,60,70) ) ,
  "days" => array( "Monday" , "Tuesday" , "Wednesday" , "Thursday" , "Friday" )

In order to produce a view the template should look somewhat like this:

These are the points with X and Y values explicitly written out:
$([points]) { Point at index [#] is ( [*.0] , [*.1] ) 

These are the same points with all available components:
$([points]) { Point at index [#] is ( $[ , ]{[*]} ) 

These are the working days separated by a comma:
$[, ]([days]){[*]}

This would produce to

These are the points with X and Y values explicitly written out:
  Point at index 0 is ( 10 , 20 ) 
  Point at index 1 is ( 30 , 40 ) 
  Point at index 2 is ( 50 , 60 ) 

These are the same points with all available components:
  Point at index 0 is ( 10 , 20 ) 
  Point at index 1 is ( 30 , 40 , 20 ) 
  Point at index 2 is ( 50 , 60 , 70 ) 

These are the working days separated by a comma:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

From this example we can cover three new features:

– Iterating over a given key-value pair by defining the subcontext:

$([subcontext]) { ... }

– The delimiter notation:

$[ delimiter ]([subcontext]){ ... }

– The wrapping of the current value context:

$([*]) {
   /root/firstlevel items
    /root/firstlevel/secondlevel items

The context

To summarize the loop, the syntax is as follows:

# pure iteration over current context
${ item_pattern }

# pure iteration over current context + delimiter between outputs
$[delimiter]{ item_pattern }

# iteration over given subcontext within the current context
$([subcontext]){ item_pattern }
$([*.subcontext]){ item_pattern }

# iteration over given subcontext within the current context + delimiter between outputs
$[delimiter]([subcontext]){ item_pattern }

# iteration of the upper level context (not applicable in root level)
$([**]) { item_pattern }

Data transformations

Let’s look at the following example:
Given a list of names, we want to print them all uppercased and comma separated:

$data = array('John','Mike','Nicole','Jennifer');

The appropriate view template would be as follows:

$[, ]{[*:strtoupper]}

And the corresponding output would evaluate to:


The lambda function in this example is the PHP built-in function strtoupper,

The syntax for data lambda-type data transformations on a context value is as follows:


Let’s view some more examples:

['Y-m-d H:i:s':date]
# output the date in the standard MySQL notation

# output the MD5 hash uppercased

# shuffle the letters of a string


PHP defined constant values can be output in the following manner:

1) By using the literal expression and the PHP lambda function constant

${ ['MY_CONSTANT':constant] }

2) Using the shorthand operator @:



Data and the constant:

$data = array(
   array('id'=>123, 'title'=>'Apple'),
   array('id'=>453, 'title'=>'Orange'),
   array('id'=>517, 'title'=>'Lemon'),

View template:

${<a href="[@SITEURL]/item/[id].html">[title]</a> 


<a href="/path/to/siteroot/item/123.html">Apple</a>
<a href="/path/to/siteroot/item/453.html">Orange</a>
<a href="/path/to/siteroot/item/517.html">Lemon</a>

Context operators

1) Key operator / index operator: [#]
2) Value operator: [*]
3) Parent context value operator: [**]
4) Count operator: [~]
5) Key+1 operator: [#+]
6) (Modulo 2) operator: [#%2]
7) Reverse index operator : [!#]
8) Revere index +1 operator : [!#+]
9) Subcontext operator: [context.subcontext]
10) Level up context value operator: [**], [***], [*…*]

Conditional expressions and branching

Often, you’ll want to display some data only if it satisfies a condition, or in some cases you’ll end up with two or more options on how to display the data depending on it’s value or other conditions.

A typical scenario is a navigation menu which indicates the current active link:

## This file: navigation.php 
// include in all page serving scripts: i.e. index.php, about.php, ...

// get the name of the document being served
$p = parse_url($_SERVER['REQUEST_URI']);
$current_section = basename($p['path']);

// define the structure of the navgation and indicate the active link
$nav = array(
 'links' => array(
     'index.php' => 'Home'
   , 'about.php' => 'About'
   , 'contact.php' => 'Contact us'
 'current' => $current_section

Example of a simple template for the navigation with the structure above.

 <li $?([**.current]==[#]){class="active"}><a href="/[#]">[*]</a></li>

The branching syntax (IF and IF-ELSE):





Good news! You can write more complex logic with logical operators!

All logical operators are same as in PHP:
! – NOT
&& – AND
|| – OR
== – EQUAL

Also arithmetic:

lambda functions are called in the context as follows [context:lambda1:lambda2]

All terms in the bool expression are either a [context] or a ‘literal’.
Let’s look at a few examples:

$data = array(
 'a' => true,
 'b' => true,
 'c' => false,
 'weather' => 'good',
 'number' => 10,
 'maybe_empty' => '',
 'elements' => array(10,21,30,41,50,61,70,81,90,101)
$?([a] && [b]){ A and B }

$?(![a] && [c]) { not A and C  }

$?([weather]=='good') { We're havin some good weather today } { Weather sucks today man } 

$?([number] > 5) { Over 5, to be exact it's a [number] } { Less than 5? Try again... }

$?([maybe_empty]) { Well it's not empty } { Yep, it's empty }

$?([weather]!='bad' && [number]>5) { It's your lucky day! }

$?([weather::strtoupper] == 'GOOD') { Still having GOOD weather  }

The elements from 2nd to 5th:
 $?([#+1]>=2 && [#+1]<=5) { [*] }

The elements with even values:
 $?([*]%2==0) { [*] }


Special characters $ , [ , ] you want to output need to be escaped as follows: \$ , \[ , \]


You can place a comment into your template with the following syntax:

$/* Comment not being output once produced, 
but visible in generated PHP code for the template */

Ready to start using the template engine?

Clone the framework and framework-empty-project from github:

mkdir workdir && cd workdir
git clone
git clone
mv framework-empty-project myproject
Open Source | Posted on July 2, 2013 by .

About Kristijan Burnik

Kristijan Burnik is a Programmer and Web Developer specializing in Server-side and Client-side Technologies and Application Development on Linux Servers and Windows Desktop . Also has experience in Networking, Desktop application development as well as Android mobile application development . Experienced in Programming Languages like Java, C, C++, C#, PHP, Javascript, MySQL and somewhat in other languages like Bash, Perl & Python. Sometimes he works as a Graphical Designer for digital production as well as for printing and advertising. He dedicates his spare time writing Tech Articles on his blog in order to share his work with others, as well as to document his projects for his own use. He's also an Educator & Mentor in field of Algorithms and Programming to young programmers in Zagreb, Croatia.

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