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Demo: Pure CSS GUI icons, no images (experimental). (nicolasgallagher.com)
205 points by bjonathan on Nov 19, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

Now, I realize this is a demo, but aside from that, I really don't think things like this should be used in a final product.

Why? CSS wasn't made for this. We have SVG for graphics like this. This is a demo, yes, and it's great to demonstrate the capabilities of CSS for making small graphics, but in practicality, I don't see the point. The key problem is graceful degrading- there simply is none here.

Regardless, I love seeing things like this, and he's done a good job. Good work.

I completely agree that it isn't something to be used as a replacement for sprites or SVG. I tried to make it clear that it's nothing more than a technical exercise that I hoped to learn from. Hopefully others will pay attention to that fact and avoid plaguing the web with 'css icons' when there are better (and easier to use) tools for the job.

You're right, people will just continue to plague the blogosphere with posts about how they laboriously drew yet another piece of vector art in 'pure' CSS.

But, what if I need to create Homer Simpson?


Naive question: Wouldn't this make rendering of pages over slow connections much faster if compression is used?

Maybe, depends on the size of the CSS. You could just use real images encoded into a data: uri for the same effect.

Anyone else getting sick of seeing "you should follow me on Twitter" everywhere?

Dustin Curtis may have a lot to answer for.


Yes, everyone uses this formula now. It's annoying.

"People should stop asking me to follow them now."

Cargo cult twittering?

I wonder if the results were more due to the face that the sentence itself is longer, rather than the specific words used (a longer sentence being a larger target for the user's eyes to land on).

He addresses that in the post. Phrasing it as other long sentences fared comparatively poorly.

I don't like being told to follow, but I'm more than happy to be given a link to their account.

Yes. You should stop using "You should follow me on twitter".

Yes, I have too. It's already been changed in my local build, just holding off on pushing a raft of updates until something else has gone live.

Pretty interesting how this has been picked up by so many, and now, at least to some is getting annoying.

I presume Dustin's audience is very "niche". They were responsible, if you will for the conversion results in his article, and after the article are annoyed by it.

On my blog I use "Have a comment? Contact me on Twitter or email me." with links for "Twitter" and "email me".

I KNOW -- I was just tweeting about this! Seriously - go check out my twits.


For monochrome icons, using font-face seems like a better idea than CSS. You get a ton of icons in one cacheable packet and can easily change the color, drop-shadow, opacity, etc using standard css.


The ideal solution (neither SVG or CSS) should be to use appropriate Unicode characters, of which there are very useful ones added in Unicode 6.0. The very first icon, "search", can be done with U+1F50D LEFT-POINTING MAGNIFYING GLASS. Of course most users will not have appropriate fonts installed for comprehensive Unicode 6.0 coverage, so you should deploy a custom font using @font-face that suits your site. For example, the search box on my personal website uses LEFT-POINTING MAGNIFYING GLASS and a custom font I made that defines a simple magnifying glass much like the one in this demo.

That sounds like a miss-use of fonts to me. Why isn't the ideal solution a GIF?

How is it a mis-use of fonts if I'm using an appropriately semantic character?

I always linked "fonts" and "text" together.

Have you heard of the font "Symbol"?

Do you mean Symbola, a Unicode 6.0 font? And yes, but it has elaborate characters that only look good at 40px+. I wanted a much more simplistic style, so I made my own U+1F50D.

Edit: Oh, you meant some unsemantic font.

Still seems like a hack to me

How does your GIF scale?

Good enough.

Ugh, too clever for my taste. I would hate to edit icons that are a mish-mash of CSS backgrounds, rotated boxes, and border-radius'ed edges, and to boot, based entirely on pseudo-elements. (Current web dev tools like Web Inspector in Chrome/Safari, etc. aren't well built for examining pseudo-elements.) This CSS uses ~3-4 pseudo-elements per icon. It's clever for doing that to preserve the markup and avoiding JS, but it's hard to understand. Maybe it would help to comment the CSS so designers can see that "this is the handle of the trash can, this is the left side of the heart," etc., since :after and :before are hacked far beyond having any semantic meaning.

As pseudo-elements, :before and :after don't have any real semantic meaning. But yes, it is a complete abuse of pseudo-elements that isn't immediately understandable. There are some more practical and simple pseudo-element hacks too - http://nicolasgallagher.com/multiple-backgrounds-and-borders...

Eh, some pseudo-elements have semantic meaning. My best example of this would be :link, which distinguishes between hyperlinks and bare anchors. I would typically associate :before with styling that happens visually before an element, and :after the opposite, but they have been both used here to provide for an icon before the element.

:link is a pseudo-class, not a pseudo-element

I stand corrected!

I have noticed that recently the Chrome web inspector has gotten much better at working with pseudo classes. Maybe it is just the nightly version of Chrome, but when I inspect one of those links, I can see and edit the a:before pseudo class.

It's a really nice upgrade, because in the current version of Firebug and older versions of the Chrome inspector it was not possible to modify or even see these properties.

We use a pretty nifty technique that isn't CSS for rendering icons on the blip.tv HTML5 player. Depending on the context, we use a <canvas> tag to display either the vectorized or rasterized version of the icon. For the player itself, not a single image request is required for the thing to draw. And we don't run into the nasty anti-aliasing stuff you see with small icons and <canvas>.

Can you explain this a little more?

Do you load the rasterized image using a base64 url, or do you store specific drawing instructions in JavaScript (lineTo, moveTo, etc)? For the vectorized icon, do you load SVG inside canvas, or just display SVG directly?

Also, how do you fall back for older browsers that do not support Canvas or SVG?

What are the pros/cons of using CSS instead of images?

Performance -- even if the CSS is the same size as the image, a single CSS file can return all the icons with a single HTTP request, vs having to make separate requests for each image.

Even with CSS Sprites, there are two requests - one for the CSS, another for the sprite image file.

Unless you use data: URIs and base64-encode the images, which can result in a smaller CSS file than "pure" CSS while still eliminating extra HTTP requests. That depends on the complexity of the image and of the gradient set (or what have you) that would be needed to replace it. Optimization is always situational.

Oh great, I once felt the need of it, but did not it actually existed. I feel though that pure CSS solution would be better, since modifying the colors etc would be easier with pure CSS.

You can use image sprites and still control the colors using CSS! http://www.digital-web.com/articles/web_standards_creativity...

You can avoid the extra request for an image using a data URI - http://www.phpied.com/data-uris-mhtml-ie7-win7-vista-blues/

The main advantage of CSS is that you can change the color and appearance of components without using a graphics package, and they might scale better. But that's about it.

It was a technical exercise rather than a proof of concept. The icons themselves are very simple and limited. I wouldn't recommend using CSS in this way for production work (other than perhaps for very simple arrows).

Even for simple arrows, I'd go with the multitude of unicode arrows.

This has the added benefit of screen reader support.


edit: I'm not sure why I can't reply to you below, but here are some of the unicode arrows:


It's easy enough to get screen readers to ignore it, if it is truly presentational.

Thanks, you're right, plenty of options - http://www.alanwood.net/unicode/arrows.html

But there doesn't seem to be one for the simplest: just a basic triangle.

I'm not sure some simple arrows can be achieved with unicode characters...nor would you want a screenreader to pay attention to what is purely presentational.

You can embed images directly in css with data URIs as well: http://css-tricks.com/data-uris/

To see something like this in action, this HTML Mail.app clone demo (that I'm pretty sure hit the HN front page several months ago) uses data URIs for all its icons: http://ukijs.org/mail/index.html

In theory, but looking across browsers shows that you'd never be able to use this in production without falling back to graphics, which adds to production, maintenance and degrades any performance benefits for a good portion of users.

It's a nice theoretical challenge, and may provide some benefits if you are building (mobile) device specific systems, but as a broad technique there is little production value at the moment.

CSS Sprites should be better, though. Less computer processing power.

For me main plus is easy way to change icon properties such as color with css or js. Bad browser support is main disadvantage for sure.

They natively scale to any size.

Not the ones in this implementation though.

If do a Ctrl-+, they do get bigger with no jaggies. So that is some level of scaling.

OTOH, I don't know that there is any way to take these icons and draw them at a larger size without creating new CSS.

Oh, it's because I have enabled "Text-only zoom" in Firefox. I expected the icons to be sized in "ems" so that their size would be relative to their element's font size.

Wow, a really nice experiment. I'm surprised you created so many.

Reminds me of: http://somerandomdude.com/projects/iconic/, a set of icons done in @fontface.

I also like the Pictos icon set, it has a set done in @font-face (in addition to standard PNG/vector sets).


That's cool. If you're a Raphael js fan, this is even cooler - http://raphaeljs.com/icons/

It's interesting to see these icons and actually recognize what sites already use them. For example, I believe OKCupid uses several of these icons in their GUI such as the report flag, edit, views, etc.

Great! This is a fun visual test for verifying browser's CSS transform functions.

Nice! However, "Help" and "Warning" need another iteration ...

This has no practical use. This is geeky. I love it!

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