Community Blog Intelligently Generate Frontend Code from Design Files: Intelligent Plugins

Intelligently Generate Frontend Code from Design Files: Intelligent Plugins

This article is a part of the article series discussing how to generate frontend code from design files intelligently.

By Queyue

As one of the four major technical directions of the Frontend Committee of Alibaba, the frontend intelligent project created tremendous value during the 2019 Double 11 Shopping Festival. The frontend intelligent project automatically generated 79.34% of the code for Taobao's and Tmall's new modules. During this period, the R&D team experienced a lot of difficulties and had many thoughts on how to solve them. In the series "Intelligently Generate Frontend Code from Design Files," we talk about the technologies and ideas behind the frontend intelligent project.


A typical development cycle often goes through product requirements, interaction files, design files, and frontend development. In the Design2Code (D2C) project, designers draw up product visual effects and produce design files, while frontend developers write code based on design files. Therefore, to replace manual analysis, image editing, and other tedious work, we need to implement a capability that can automatically parse design file information for intelligent frontend development. Thanks to the ever-increasing capabilities of third-party plugins for mainstream design tools such as Sketch, Photoshop, and Adobe XD in recent years, we can restore some basic structured information and style information with these official APIs to extract raw information from the design file. In this article, we take the Sketch plugin of imgcook (a frontend intelligent product we have developed) as an example. This example shows how we process design files with a plugin and export the element information for downstream layout algorithms based on absolute position layout.


As the following figure shows, the first layer in the process is a material identification layer. This layer uses the design file as the input and identifies materials in pages and modules, such as the basic components, business components, and basic controls. This helps page segmentation and feeds the downstream with relevant element information. After that, the design file's raw information (document) is delivered to the image processing layer, which is implemented by the plugin set out in this article.

With the software capabilities, plugins installed in design tools such as Sketch or Photoshop can extract raw information from the design file. Extraction on this layer offers us data in the JSON format that conforms to the imgcook specification. The process includes extracting all elements' relevant information, such as absolute positions of elements and CSS attributes. Eventually, it will help the plugin understand modules and pages based on absolute positioning.

Designers may organize the design layers and structure by following specifications different from those in traditional frontend development. Due to this, we also use computer vision and intelligence capabilities in the image reprocessing layer to reprocess the layers that appear in the original design. For example, we can filter out redundant layers or merge layers that can be considered whole.

Hierarchical architecture of D2C technology

Technology Selection

As the following figure shows, we use Sketch's JS API to access the original design file and get information from it. For features not officially offered in the JS API, we use CocoaScript to call the original Objective-C interface. Meanwhile, we can render the plugin interface using the frontend technology stack with WebView. We use the Create and Publish Plugin features in Sketch Plugin Manager (SKPM).

Plugin selection

Plugin Layer Processing

Plugin layer processing flowchart

Overall Process

As the flowchart shows, imgcook's Sketch plugin reads the design file, traverses all types of layers using the Depth-first search (DFS) algorithm, and extracts basic information about the layers, including the position and size information. It is worth noting that a Symbol in Sketch can override some of the properties of its Symbol master since it is considered a subclass of its Symbol master. So for Symbol layers, we must identify its Symbol master to extract corresponding information.

After layer information extraction, we mark all elements affected by the mask layer or covered by other layers to prevent the current layer's visual output from being affected by the mask layer or other layers. With consideration of each type's style, we process the shape, image, text, and other layers separately and convert the relevant Sketch properties into CSS attributes. imgcook has defined some design protocols for designers to follow. They can specify layers in the design file as groups or components by assigning different names. By doing this, designers can reveal component information relevant to them. Let's proceed to two challenges in this process.

Mask Processing

Masks in Sketch act like a base layer. If parts of the layers above the mask fall outside the mask, they will be cropped. The processing of masks differs from other layers in the following aspects:

  • Masks have no direct counterpart in HTML and CSS, and therefore relevant CSS or HTML attributes cannot be exported directly from masks.
  • A mask's processing not only involves itself but also affects how other layers are shown. Therefore, we must process a mask along with other layers.
  • Since the mask's shape may be irregular, we need to consider dividing it reasonably.

To tackle these challenges and accurately restore the visuals, we have developed an algorithm to calculate the mask's areas and shapes and all layers it affects. If both the area and the shape are regular, we use the CSS attributes for regular cropping. A screenshot is taken for the Sketch design file's visible area in circumstances where CSS attributes fail to specify the area to be cropped. In this process, we can also detect redundant layers. If a layer falls outside its mask area, it is considered a redundant layer and deleted. Meanwhile, if a layer completely falls within its mask area and is not affected by the mask layer, it will be processed according to the original logic.

Intelligent Text Position Calibration

Text layers are a bit more complex to process than shape and image layers for several reasons:

  • For each shape or image layer, we need to export one corresponding node, which includes properties such as position and style. However, if a text layer involves multiple styles - for example, different font colors, sizes, and line heights - we must split a text layer into multiple nodes to export it.
  • Sketch provides fixed-width text boxes, but it contains no width information for HTML inline elements such as the span tags. Therefore, we need to split multiple lines of text in Sketch.
  • Currently, we need to rely on the exported SVG information to obtain the position and style of a text layer in Sketch. However, the SVG information exported by the SketchSVGExporter API often contains inaccurate positions.

To solve the first problem, we conduct a cyclic check on the SVG information to examine whether each SVG child node's CSS-related attributes have changed. If so, a child node is created to store the information. To solve the second problem, we export the accurate width and the number of lines for a fixed-width text box. The layout algorithm then examines the information for accuracy. The third problem requires thorough elaboration. Since the SVG information of rich text may be inaccurate, we have designed a computer vision based algorithm to correct the text box's baseline. The process is as follows:

  • Checks the text layer for rich text boxes.
  • Takes a screenshot of the current text box. Since the baselines of text in different styles in a single text box must be on the same horizontal line in Sketch, this horizontal line serves as our reference point.
  • Analyzes the screenshot by using the OpenCV library.
  • Analyzes the font outline and determines the baseline position by using the canny edge detector.
  • Calculates the baseline position differences between the texts in different styles.
  • The plugin returns information about the position difference and corrects the position based on the maximum font.

Layer Reprocessing

Intelligent Layer Merging

Layer merging is another issue between a design file and frontend development. Unlike frontend developers, designers usually focus on achieving desired visual effects in their design files, rather than the rationality of element structures and nesting relationships. As a result, sometimes, in a design file, a designer may piece several small layers together to achieve a visual effect for an icon or an atmosphere image. However, the graphic layers pieced together should be present as a whole from a structural view. Therefore, in this case, we need to merge these layers into one and export the screenshot. We use an algorithm that automatically merges layers to achieve this. The algorithm automatically detects whether layers should be merged into a group. If so, it will merge them while exporting for subsequent processing.

Detection of Redundant Layers

A designer may add layers that do not impact the final layout or visuals in a design file. Consequently, we need to filter out these layers to rationalize and streamline the structure. Layers are checked and processed in the following ways:

  • If two image layers are visually identical but reference different URLs, they are unified to the same URL.
  • If a layer does not have backgroundImage, backgroundColor, or borderWidth properties, the layer does not have a visual effect and is directly filtered out.
  • If a layer has no effect on the image matrix, the layer is filtered out.
  • If a non-transparent layer covers a layer, the layer is filtered out.
  • If a layer contains a transparent area that is smaller than a certain threshold, the layer is filtered out.

Plugin Test and Measurement

Unit Test System

Since the Sketch plugin is upstream in imgcook's intelligent code generation system, Sketch needs to be tested rigorously before every code change and release to ensure its functionality. So, we use SKPM-Test, a unit test system built with a Jest-like test framework under the SKPM system. The test system can cover 95% of the plugin's functionality.

View Absolute Position Layout

As mentioned above, the information exported by the Sketch plugin contains the absolute position of each child node and related CSS attributes. The attributes and types of each node are mapped to the corresponding HTML code. Therefore, we can convert the exported JSON data to HTML and CSS code to view the effect. You can paste the exported JSON strings to https://imgcook.taobao.org/design-restore to view the effect.

Visual Restoration Measurement System

Visual measurement process of the plugin

We have developed an algorithm with OpenCV (a computer vision processing library) to measure whether the exported JSON data fully restores the original design file's visual effects.

OpenCV calculates the visual restoration score in the following steps:

  • Preprocess layers.

    • Reset the exported image's size to that of the original image if they are different.
    • Convert the image to grayscale.
  • Compare the main logic of layers.
  • Analyze the exported JSON data and perform the following operations on each child element in the JSON data:

    • Get the position, width, and height of each child element: x, y, w, and h.
    • Record how many child elements and overlapped elements are inside the element.
    • Retrieve the area corresponding to each sub-element in the original design file.
    • Template match: Use the OpenCV template to match and find the position, and measure the area's similarity in the original image.
    • Ignore an overlapped element that has already been processed.
    • Ignore an element whose child elements have already been processed.
  • Complete processing and export JSON data.
  • Each JSON array contains the following properties of an element:

    • originPosition: this element's position in the original design file.
    • exportPosition: this element's position on the exported layer.
    • similarity: the similarity between the exported layer and the original design file.
    • width: the original width.
    • height: the original height.

After the original and restored positions of each layer are obtained with computer vision and the similarity between them compared, we take the following metrics into account to measure the restoration score:

  • Total number of layers
  • Similarity between original and restored positions
  • Position of the restored layer

Based on these three metrics, we design the following formula to calculate the restoration score:


P is the restoration score, n denotes the total number of layers, and Cᵢ indicates the similarity between the i-th restored layer and the i-th original layer. dxᵢ denotes the x difference between the i-th restored layer and the i-th original layer, with x being the total width. dyᵢ indicates the y difference between the i-th restored layer and the i-th original layer, with y being the total height. According to this formula, if none of the layers are restored (with the similarity being 0), then P=0. If all the layers are perfectly restored (with the similarity being 1, and both the x-directional shift and y-directional shift being 0), then P=1. The score can measure the visual restoration accuracy.


Optimize Specifications

To achieve better restoration results, we have laid out some design specifications for designers to follow when they produce design files. However, the number of specifications once ran into a score and were streamlined into three through intelligent layer processing. Next, we will gradually waive these restrictions for designers and frontend developers through intelligent technologies.

Upgrade Restoration Capability

We will continue to improve the Sketch plugin's visual restoration performance for future Sketch versions. According to the measurement system, on average, we can achieve a restoration rate of around 95% for Sketch design files, which we will strive to improve further in later versions.

Improve Restoration Efficiency

Due to the large number of high-speed processes that the plugin runs, the export speed is not ideal sometimes. We have researched this issue and found that when the plugin is processing multiple layers, especially layers with multiple images, the upload speed is slow. In the future, we aim to improve the restoration speed significantly.

With the rapid development of technology, frontend intelligence has seen many advancements. In the future, machines will gradually replace simple, repetitive, and regular development. Machines must have a better understanding of design files to do this. We hope that the plugin can achieve a higher level of intelligence in the future to understand designers' intents accurately and serve frontend development better.

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