CSS: Background, CSS Sprites Tutorial

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This page shows you how to use CSS background property and image sprites.

What's a CSS sprite?

In many websites, it needs lots of icons. For example, here's icons used by Google Plus website.

Google Plus css sprites
Google Plus icons

Normally, each icon is a image file. For each image file, you need a HTTP request. Too many HTTP request makes your site loading slow. (regardless of the internet bandwidth, because each HTTP request usually means a TCP connection, and starting TCP connection has latency. 〔➤ Computer Networking, TCP/IP Basics〕)

CSS sprites is one way to solve the many http image request problem. Instead of using many images, you combine them into one big image, and use CSS to show part of the image, the icon you want.

(Note: another solution is using CSS: Data URI Scheme, but CSS sprites is in general more efficient, when your sprites are larger (say, bigger than 16×16 pixels, or you have more than 10 icons.).)

(Note: CSS sprite is often used by highly trafficked website that needs tens of icons. It also reduces server load. For small sites, you don't need to use it.)

CSS Sprite Example

Here's a example of a (flame) icon using CSS sprite:

Here's the HTML:

<div class="flameicon"></div>

Here's the CSS:

.flameicon {
width:17px;
height:22px;
background-image: url(i/Google_Plus_css_sprites.png);
background-position: -18px -20px;
}

The most important thing about sprites is positioning. Here's the steps of how to position a CSS sprite.

How to find the “background-position” for a sprite icon?

Suppose this is your image:

Google Plus css sprites

Suppose you want the red flame icon.

① Find the coordinates of the upper-left corner and bottom-right corner of the icon you want.

For the flame icon, its upper-left corner is (18,20) and bottom-right corner is (35,42).

② The offset for the icon would be background-position: -18px -20px.

The width and height for the element would be: 17px and 22px. (derived by: 35-18=17, 42-20=22.)

Here's the basics of CSS background attributes.

AttributeValues & Meaning
background-imageurl(url). By default, the image tiles from left to right, top to bottom. You can set the background-repeat to override.
background-positionoffset-x offset-y. Shift the image horizontally and vertically. The offsets are CSS Units.
background-clipborder-box (default), padding-box, or content-box. The area for the image to fill. 〔➤ CSS Box Model Tutorial
background-originborder-box (default), padding-box, or content-box. The start position of the image, from top left.
background-repeat repeat (default), no-repeat, repeat-x, repeat-y.
background-sizewidth height CSS Units, each can also be auto, or contain (scale to fit, keep aspect ratio), cover (scale to fit, don't keep aspect ratio).
background-attachmentscroll (default), fixed. Whether the background image scrolls with the page, or fixed to window.
background-colorCSS Color Value. Color will show for the transparent area of the image.

For detail, see Colors and backgrounds#background

Sprites Gallery

Here's sample sprites used by popular sites. Many sites have more than one sprites image.

Twitter css sprites Google Plus sprites 11178 Google Plus sprites 88138
Sprites: Twitter, Google Plus, Google Plus
Facebook css sprites Facebook sprits 63186
Facebook sprites
Google Plus css sprites Google Plus sprits 2
Google Plus sprites
Sina Weibo css sprites
Sina Weibo sprites

Reference

Colors and backgrounds#background

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