Render arrays in Drupal 7

I’m currently supporting a legacy Dupal 7 application, which is a new experience for me. Drupal 7 has a vast and often confusing API, and finding specific information on how various parts of it work can be a challenge.

Recently I had to implement a new page, which involves returning a render array from the page callback. This strange structure isn’t actually that different a concept from render trees in, for example, ReactJS. It does take some digging, however, to figure out how to shape it to my needs. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

What it looks like

Fundamentally it’s just a tree of associative arrays. Each array represents a conceptual element (not neccesarily an HTML element - it could be a component or just text). The array entries can either be properties or children. Properties are denoted by having keys that start with the # character, and they affect the way the element is rendered when it’s passed to drupal_render. All other entries are children, which are the descendents of an element.

So that’s fairly straight forward, right? Well unfortunately things thence get more complex.

#theme and #type

The first two properties it’s useful to know about are #theme and #type.

The #type property specifies the name of a drupal element to render. These are more granular components like form controls and lists, usually for use when inserting content into another structure. These elements are more generic–they might occur in many places throughout the site–and have a predefined look and feel, so in most cases you don’t actually need to add any aditional styling to them.

The #type property is for larger, more purpose-built components. It makes use of the theme layer of Drupal, so is slightly more involved. I hope to cover this one more in a future post.


Here’s an example of using the markup type:

// Let's imagine this is the page callback used in a custom menu hook:
function mymodule_custom_page () {
  return array(
    '#type' => 'markdown',
    '#markdown' => "
<h1>Hello world!</h1>
<p><b>Lorem ipsum</b> dolor sit amet.</p>

The markdown type uses a custom #markdown property to render a string of HTML. Obviously this is a trivial use case and not really practical in the real world, but it gives you a basic introduction to the concept.

Different element types will have different properties they require. You should seek out documentation for the type you want to use. Unfortunately I can’t find very good documentation on what types are available; the best so far I have found is by looking at the source of system_element_info.

More properties

There are other properties apart from #theme and #type that you might find useful. Here are some of them (taken from the drupal_render docs and render arrays docs):

  • #cache - Enables caching of the generated code; sholud be an array with the following keys:
    • keys: An array of one or more keys that identify the element. If ‘keys’ is set, the cache ID is created automatically from these keys. See drupal_render_cid_create().
    • granularity: DRUPAL_CACHE_PER_USER to cache for each user separately or DRUPAL_CACHE_PER_PAGE DRUPAL_CACHE_PER_ROLE to cache separately for each page and role. If not specified the element is cached globally for each theme and language.
    • cid: Alternative to using keys&granularity. For special caching requirements.
    • expire: “Set to one of the cache lifetime constants.” - no explanation of what this is
    • bin: “Specify a cache bin to cache the element in. Defaults to ‘cache’” - presumably this allows you to have multiple different caches and select which one you use?
  • #sorted: - true improves performance by disabling sorting of elements by #weight
  • #printed: - Flag set by drupal_render to prevent rendering multiple times
  • #prefix: - String to be added to the start of an element
  • #sufffix: - String to be added to the end of an element
  • #pre_render: - List of functions to call before render
  • #post_render: - Functions to call after render.
  • #weight: Determines the sort order of the child elements


I hope someone finds this document useful. These are the results of my own investigations so if I have anything incorrect or have missed anything I’d gladly recieve feedback. You can contact me on Twitter or Mastodon.