When and why would you favor the Decorator pattern over inheritance?

Just a quick note: even if you don’t know much about the Decorator pattern, you should still be able to understand the discussion here.

The Decorator design pattern is used to wrap one object with another object. The point of wrapping one object with another object is so that the original object’s behavior can be modified.

The wrapper object can be used as a substitute for the original object because of the fact that both objects either share the same abstract class or implement the same interface.

Inheritance vs the Decorator Pattern

The thing that both inheritance and the decorator pattern have in common is the fact that they both allow you to change how an object behaves. But how they achieve this change in behavior is where inheritance and the decorator pattern are different.

The Decorator pattern makes run-time object changes easier

With inheritance, dynamically changing the behavior of an object can be a burdensome process. Suppose that you want to dynamically change the behavior of an object using inheritance. Since we are dealing with inheritance, you will need to use a child class and then create an object of that child class in order to get the desired effect. After you create the child class object you will then need to copy the state from the current object into the new child class object – because you will presumably want to still save the state of the current object. And finally, after you are done copying the state, you will want to discard the old object since you no longer need it. This is obviously a long process that can be quite a pain to implement over and over again.

But if we use the Decorator pattern instead, it is a lot easier to dynamically change the behavior of the object. All we have to do is wrap the current object with another object that contains the extra behavior that is desired.

The Decorator Pattern makes multiple behavior modifications easier

Suppose that you have many different changes that you would like to implement for a given class. And, also assume that those changes do not conflict with one another, so you can combine those modifications in any order without having to worry about potential conflicts. In this scenario, using the Decorator pattern can be very advantageous over inheritance. Let’s go over an example to understand this concept further.

As our example, let’s say that we have a Car class. This class could have many different behaviors like Automatic, Manual, Convertible, etc. We could have these behaviors implemented using inheritance. So, we could create classes called AutomaticCar, ManualCar, or ConvertibleCar that all derive from the Car class. While this is just fine for a reasonable number of child classes, for more behaviors (like LuxuryCar, SedanCar, etc) this process of creating more and more child classes can quickly become very messy. But, by using the Decorator pattern instead of inheritance, we can avoid this problem of having far too many child classes. This is because with the Decorator pattern, each and every behavior is described by just one Decorator class. And, you can specify whatever behaviors you want by applying the desired set of decorations.

The Decorator pattern is not necessary in non-dynamic situations

Using the Decorator pattern is pretty darn complex. If you actually need to dynamically change the way an object behaves, then using the Decorator pattern is a good idea. But, if you do not need to dynamically change the way an object behaves, then inheritance is the better option because you then do not need to deal with the complexity of the Decorator pattern.

Hiring? Job Hunting? Post a JOB or your RESUME on our JOB BOARD >>

Subscribe to our newsletter for more free interview questions.

2 thoughts on “Decorator pattern versus Inheritance”