Functional APIs with Swift

In this article

When it comes to designing APIs, a lot of common patterns and best practices have evolved over the years. If nothing else, we always had lots of examples to draw from in the form of Apple’s Foundation, Cocoa, Cocoa Touch, and many other frameworks. Undoubtedly, there are still ambiguities, and there’s always room for discussion about how an API for a certain use case should ideally look. Nevertheless, the general patterns have become pretty much second nature to many Objective-C developers.

With this year’s emergence of Swift, designing an API poses many more questions than before. For the most part, we could just keep doing what we’ve been doing and translate existing approaches to Swift. But that’s not doing justice to the added capabilities of Swift as compared to Objective-C. To quote Swift’s creator, Chris Lattner:

Swift dramatically expands the design space through the introduction of generics and functional programming concepts.

In this article, we’re going to explore how we can leverage these new tools at our disposal in the realm of API design. We’re going to build a wrapper API around Core Image as an example. Core Image is a powerful image processing framework, but its API can be a bit clunky to use at times. The Core Image API is loosely typed — image filters are configured using key-value coding. It is all too easy to make mistakes in the type or name of arguments, which can result in runtime errors. The new API we develop will be safe and modular, exploiting types to guarantee the absence of such runtime errors.

The Goal

The goal is to build an API that allows us to safely and easily compose custom filters. For example, at the end of this article, we’ll be able to write something like this:

let myFilter = blur(blurRadius) >|> colorOverlay(overlayColor)
let result = myFilter(image)

This constructs a custom filter that first blurs the image and then applies a color overlay to it. To achieve this, we will make heavy use of Swift’s first-class functions. The code we’re going to develop is available in a sample project on GitHub.

The Filter Type

One of the key classes in Core Image is the CIFilter class, which is used to create image filters. When you instantiate a CIFilter object, you (almost) always provide an input image via the kCIInputImageKey key, and then retrieve the filtered result via the kCIOutputImageKey key. Then you can use this result as input for the next filter.

In the API we will develop in this chapter, we’ll encapsulate the exact details of these key-value pairs and present a safe, strongly typed API to our users. We define our own Filter type as a function that takes an image as its parameter and returns a new image:

typealias Filter = CIImage -> CIImage

Here we use the typealias keyword to define our own name for the type CIImage -> CIImage, which is the type of a function that takes a CIImage as its argument and returns a CIImage. This is the base type that we are going to build upon.

If you’re not used to functional programming, it may seem strange to use the name Filter for a function type. Usually, we’d use such a name for a class, and the temptation to somehow denote the function nature of this type is high. We could name it FilterFunction or something similar. However, we consciously chose the name Filter, since the key philosophy underlying functional programming is that functions are just values. They’re no different from structs, integers, tuples, or classes. It took me some getting used to as well, but after a while, it started to make a lot of sense.

Building Filters

Now that we have the Filter type defined, we can start defining functions that build specific filters. These are convenience functions that take the parameters needed for a specific filter and construct a value of type Filter. These functions will all have the following general shape:

func myFilter(/* parameters */) -> Filter

Note that the return value, Filter, is a function as well. Later on, this will help us compose multiple filters to achieve the image effects we want.

To make our lives a bit easier, we’ll extend the CIFilter class with a convenience initializer and a computed property to retrieve the output image:

typealias Parameters = Dictionary<String, AnyObject>

extension CIFilter {

    convenience init(name: String, parameters: Parameters) {
        self.init(name: name)
        for (key, value : AnyObject) in parameters {
            setValue(value, forKey: key)

    var outputImage: CIImage { return self.valueForKey(kCIOutputImageKey) as CIImage }


The convenience initializer takes the name of the filter and a dictionary as parameters. The key-value pairs in the dictionary will be set as parameters on the new filter object. Our convenience initializer follows the Swift pattern of calling the designated initializer first.

The computed property, outputImage, provides an easy way to retrieve the output image from the filter object. It looks up the value for the kCIOutputImageKey key and casts the result to a value of type CIImage. By providing this computed property of type CIImage, users of our API no longer need to cast the result of such a lookup operation themselves.


With these pieces in place, we can define our first simple filters. The Gaussian blur filter only has the blur radius as its parameter. As a result, we can write a blur Filter very easily:

func blur(radius: Double) -> Filter {
    return { image in
        let parameters : Parameters = [kCIInputRadiusKey: radius, kCIInputImageKey: image]
        let filter = CIFilter(name:"CIGaussianBlur", parameters:parameters)
        return filter.outputImage

That’s all there is to it. The blur function returns a function that takes an argument image of type CIImage and returns a new image (return filter.outputImage). Because of this, the return value of the blur function conforms to the Filter type we previously defined as CIImage -> CIImage.

This example is just a thin wrapper around a filter that already exists in Core Image. We can use the same pattern over and over again to create our own filter functions.

Color Overlay

Let’s define a filter that overlays an image with a solid color of our choice. Core Image doesn’t have such a filter by default, but we can, of course, compose it from existing filters.

The two building blocks we’re going to use for this are the color generator filter (CIConstantColorGenerator) and the source-over compositing filter (CISourceOverCompositing). Let’s first define a filter to generate a constant color plane:

func colorGenerator(color: UIColor) -> Filter {
    return { _ in
        let filter = CIFilter(name:"CIConstantColorGenerator", parameters: [kCIInputColorKey: color])
        return filter.outputImage

This looks very similar to the blur filter we’ve defined above, with one notable difference: the constant color generator filter does not inspect its input image. Therefore, we don’t need to name the image parameter in the function being returned. Instead, we use an unnamed parameter, _, to emphasize that the image argument to the filter we are defining is ignored.

Next, we’re going to define the composite filter:

func compositeSourceOver(overlay: CIImage) -> Filter {
    return { image in
        let parameters : Parameters = [ 
            kCIInputBackgroundImageKey: image, 
            kCIInputImageKey: overlay
        let filter = CIFilter(name:"CISourceOverCompositing", parameters: parameters)
        return filter.outputImage.imageByCroppingToRect(image.extent())

Here we crop the output image to the size of the input image. This is not strictly necessary, and it depends on how we want the filter to behave. However, this choice works well in the examples we will cover.

Finally, we combine these two filters to create our color overlay filter:

func colorOverlay(color: UIColor) -> Filter {
    return { image in
        let overlay = colorGenerator(color)(image)
        return compositeSourceOver(overlay)(image)

Once again, we return a function that takes an image parameter as its argument. The colorOverlay starts by calling the colorGenerator filter. The colorGenerator filter requires a color as its argument and returns a filter, hence the code snippet colorGenerator(color) has type Filter. The Filter type, however, is itself a function from CIImage to CIImage; we can pass an additional argument of type CIImage to colorGenerator(color) to compute a new overlay CIImage. This is exactly what happens in the definition of overlay — we create a filter using the colorGenerator function and pass the image argument to this filter to create a new image. Similarly, the value returned, compositeSourceOver(overlay)(image), consists of a filter, compositeSourceOver(overlay), being constructed and subsequently applied to the image argument.

Composing Filters

Now that we have a blur and a color overlay filter defined, we can put them to use on an actual image in a combined way: first we blur the image, and then we put a red overlay on top. Let’s load an image to work on:

let url = NSURL(string: "");
let image = CIImage(contentsOfURL: url)

Now we can apply both filters to these by chaining them together:

let blurRadius = 5.0
let overlayColor = UIColor.redColor().colorWithAlphaComponent(0.2)
let blurredImage = blur(blurRadius)(image)
let overlaidImage = colorOverlay(overlayColor)(blurredImage)

Once again, we assemble images by creating a filter, such as blur(blurRadius), and applying the resulting filter to an image.

Function Composition

However, we can do much better than the example above. The first alternative that comes to mind is to simply combine the two filter calls into a single expression:

let result = colorOverlay(overlayColor)(blur(blurRadius)(image))

However, all the parentheses make this unreadable very quickly. A better approach is to compose filters by defining a custom function for this task:

func composeFilters(filter1: Filter, filter2: Filter) -> Filter {
    return { img in filter2(filter1(img)) }

The composeFilters function takes two filters as arguments and defines a new filter. This composite filter expects an argument img of type CIImage, and passes it through both filter1 and filter2, respectively. We can now use function composition to define our own composite filter, like this:

let myFilter = composeFilters(blur(blurRadius), colorOverlay(overlayColor))
let result = myFilter(image)

But we can go one step further to make this even more readable by introducing an operator for filter composition:

infix operator >|> { associativity left }

func >|> (filter1: Filter, filter2: Filter) -> Filter {
    return { img in filter2(filter1(img)) }

The operator definition starts with the keyword infix, which specifies that the operator takes a left and a right argument, and associativity left specifies that an expression like f1 >|> f2 >|> f3 will be evaluated as (f1 >|> f2) >|> f3. By making this a left-associative operator and applying the left-hand filter first, we can read the sequence of filters from left to right, just as Unix pipes.

The rest is a simple function identical to the composeFilters function we’ve defined before — the only difference being its name, >|>.

Applying the filter composition operator turns the example we’ve used before into:

let myFilter = blur(blurRadius) >|> colorOverlay(overlayColor)
let result = myFilter(image)

Working with this operator makes it easier to read and understand the sequence the filters are applied in. It’s also much more convenient if we want to reorder the filters. To use a simple analogy: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 is much clearer and easier to change than add(add(add(1, 2), 3), 4).

Custom Operators

Many Objective-C developers are very skeptical about defining custom operators. It was a feature that didn’t receive a too warm welcome when Swift was first introduced. Lots of people have been burned by custom operator overuse (or abuse) in C++, either in personal experience or with stories from others.

You might look equally skeptical at the >|> operator for filter composition that we’ve defined above. After all, if everybody starts to define one’s own operators, isn’t this going to make code really hard to understand? The good thing is that in functional programming there are a bunch of operations that come back all the time, and defining a custom operator for those operations is not an uncommon thing to do at all.

The filter composition operator we’ve defined above is just an example of function composition, a concept that’s widely used in functional programming. In mathematics, the composition of the two functions f and g, sometimes written f ∘ g, defines a new function mapping an input to x to f(g(x)). This is precisely what our >|> operator does (apart from applying the functions in reverse order).


With this in mind, we don’t actually have to define a special operator to compose filters, but we can use a generic function composition operator. So far, our >|> operator was defined as:

func >|> (filter1: Filter, filter2: Filter) -> Filter

With this definition, we can only apply it to arguments of type Filter.

However, we can leverage Swift’s generics feature to define a generic function composition operator:

func >|> <A, B, C>(lhs: A -> B, rhs: B -> C) -> A -> C {
    return { x in rhs(lhs(x)) }

This is probably pretty hard to read at first — at least it was for me. But looking at all the pieces individually, it becomes clear what this does.

First we take a look at what’s between the angled brackets after the function’s name. This specifies the generic types this function is going to work with. In this case, we have specified three generic types: A, B, and C. Since we haven’t restricted those types in any way, they can represent anything.

Next, let’s inspect the function’s arguments: the first argument, lhs (short for left-hand side), is a function of type A -> B, i.e. a function that takes an argument of type A and returns a value of type B. The second argument, rhs (right-hand side), is a function of type B -> C. The arguments are named lhs and rhs because they represent what is located to the left and right of the operator, respectively.

Rewriting our filter composition operator without using the Filter type alias, we quickly see that it was only a special case of the generic function composition operator:

func >|> (filter1: CIImage -> CIImage, filter2: CIImage -> CIImage) -> CIImage -> CIImage

Translating the generic types A, B, and C in our minds to all represent CIImage makes it clear that the generic operator is indeed capable of replacing the specific filter composition operator.


Hopefully the example of wrapping Core Image in a functional API was able to demonstrate that, when it comes to API design patterns, there is an entirely different world out there than what we’re used to as Objective-C developers. With Swift, we now have the tools in our hands to explore those other patterns and make use of them where it makes sense.