Case Study: Our SVG Icon Process

Written by Tyler Sticka on

When I wrote about why you shouldn’t use icon fonts in your next web project, I had no idea it would spark so much heated debate and intense discussion. One recurring question stood out to me: How might one actually implement an SVG icon system?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Should you use <img>, <svg>, <object> or pure CSS? Will you combine your icons into a single sprite or keep them separate? If you do combine them, do you use an old-school technique or embrace SVG’s built-in features? Can JavaScript factor in somehow?

Though this variety of options might feel overwhelming, it’s ultimately a good thing. SVG’s versatility empowers us to craft the most appropriate solution for our audience and use-case.

So as much as I’d like to, I can’t say exactly how you should implement SVG icons in your next project. There’s no substitution for research and trying stuff out when it comes to finding the best fit for your project.

Instead, I’m going to show how we tend to assemble and implement SVG icons, and why we do it that way.

What We Do

The icon process we’ve adopted here at Cloud Four is a byproduct of the types of projects we take on, which tend to be large responsive redesigns or brand-new responsive interfaces. Our most common deliverables are in-browser mockups and pattern libraries. We often work with existing in-house teams, designing or extending icon systems based on their brand guidelines.

The front-end problems we solve tend to be those that are too complex or idiosyncratic to tackle with a framework or a simple content reflow. Our most common use of icons is to reinforce the meaning or relative importance of interface controls (a plus next to the word “Add,” a checkmark next to the word “Okay,” etc.).

Our Requirements

With this context in mind, we can assemble a list of requirements:

  • Accessibility: Because our icons represent or reinforce content, they should exist in markup.
  • Design: Our icons will most often coexist with text. They should inherit the text color and flow with the text by default.
  • Performance: Icons should be consolidated into a single, external sprite to avoid multiple requests and maximize caching.
  • Workflow: Whatever icon prep we can automate should be baked into our existing development tools (Node.js and Gulp).
  • Browsers: Our projects tend to be optimized for IE9+, Android 4.3+ and the usual array of less finicky modern browsers.

With requirements in hand, it’s time to build an SVG icon system!

1. Exporting Icons

Though our team digs Sketch for UI explorations, we still feel like Illustrator is a bit more intuitive for the design of icons and other illustrative elements.

We maintain a master file in a shared spot (usually Dropbox), with each icon in the library residing in its own named artboard. We can see every icon in the context of its siblings, make any final tweaks for consistency, and simplify or combine any overlapping or unnecessary paths.

Screenshots of Illustrator artboards with icons

During this process, we purposely avoid preparing different rotations of the same icon. Traditionally, icon sets have exported separate assets for “left arrow,” “right arrow,” etc., but with SVG this repetition is redundant and unnecessary. Later on, we’ll walk through how to create simple rotational variations of the same icon.

Once everything’s looking good and feeling clean, we use Illustrator CC’s recently-improved exporting to generate SVGs from our artboards. After removing anything Illustrator over-enthusiastically prepended to our filenames, we’re ready to smoosh all of our icons into a single sprite.

2. Creating Our Sprite

As mentioned earlier, our team likes using Gulp for our local environment. If you’ve never used Gulp before, here’s a great article covering the basics. We’re going to write a Gulp task called icons this will compile a folder of separate, unoptimized SVG icons into a single, optimized sprite we can reference from our HTML.

Of the handful of plugins we’ve tried for accomplishing this sort of thing, our favorite is currently gulp-svg-sprite. It boasts a wealth of output modes and configuration options, making it the perfect choice for control freaks like yours truly.

For our icons task, we’ll be using the plugin’s symbol “mode.” This will transform each of our SVG files into a <symbol> element, which we’ll be able to reference by ID later.

Here’s what our SVG task might look like:

var gulp = require('gulp');
var svgSprite = require('gulp-svg-sprite');

var svgSpriteConfig = {
  mode: {
    symbol: {
      dest: '',
      sprite: 'icons.svg'

gulp.task('icons', function () {
  return gulp.src('./src/icons/**/*.svg')

This task will:

  1. Find every SVG file in the src/icons directory.
  2. Pass those files to the gulp-svg-sprite plugin, which combines them into a single icons.svg file using the symbol output mode.
  3. Output the result to the dist directory.

Now if we run gulp icons, we should find a shiny new icons.svg file in our dist directory, ready to be referenced from our markup.

3. Including Icons in Our Markup

Now that we have our SVG sprite, we can reference it from our markup using <svg> and the <use> element:

  <use xlink:href="icons.svg#back"/>

This markup tells the browser “use the symbol with ID back from the file icons.svg.” This means our external file is nice and cacheable, and we can reference the same icon asset multiple times from the same file! Hooray!

Except, it looks like garbage:

Unstyled SVG icon in document

We haven’t told the browser how we want our icons to be sized, filled or aligned based on their surroundings. To do that, we need some CSS.

4. Styling Icons

We don’t want to style every svg because SVG can be used for a lot more than icons. Instead, we’re going to create a class. Our team likes using SUIT CSS naming conventions, so we’ll name our class Icon:

.Icon {
  /* Flow with text content */
  display: inline-block;
  /* Inherit the parent text color */
  fill: currentColor;
  /* Use the parent font-size for width and height */
  height: 1em;
  width: 1em;
  /* Vertically align icon with adjacent text */
  vertical-align: middle;
  /* Align more nicely with capital letters */
  position: relative;
  top: -0.0625em;

(Props to Chris Coyier and Jonathan Snook!)

Here’s the result after adding class="Icon" to our SVG element:

Styled SVG icon in document

Success! Our icons are successfully inheriting their size and color, and aligning nicely with adjacent type.

This accomplishes most of what we set out to do, but we haven’t taken advantage of what makes SVG special just yet. Let’s fix that.

5. Adding DRY Variations

Back when we were exporting icons, we only exported a single arrow asset (back.svg), the contents of which looked something like this:

<svg xmlns="" viewBox="0 0 24 24">
  <path d="M22,10H6.83l3.59-3.59A2,2,0,0,0,7.59,3.59l-7,7a2,2,0,0,0,0,2.83l7,7a2,2,0,0,0,2.83-2.83L6.83,14H22A2,2,0,0,0,22,10Z"/>

Let’s pop open our favorite code editor, and create a new forward.svg file to compliment it:

<svg xmlns=""
  viewBox="0 0 24 24">
  <use xlink:href="#back" transform="rotate(180 12 12)"/>

Here’s what’s going on:

  1. Our <svg> element is identical to back.svg, except we’ve added an xmlns:xlink attribute. This helps avoid errors during optimization by letting the plugin know that this SVG will reference other elements.
  2. Instead of including the forward icon’s path data, we reference our existing #back icon from a <use> element (similar to how we reference icons from our markup).
  3. The transform attribute rotates the icon 180 degrees from the center of our viewBox.

If we recompile our sprite, we should now be able to reference both icons from our markup:

Original arrow icon and derivative icon in document

Any changes made to back.svg will cascade to forward.svg (or any future variations). Plus, we save a small amount of file-size in the compiled sprite. Win/win!

6. Enforcing Mandatory Colors

Sometimes there are icons that really shouldn’t inherit everything about the parent. A common concern we hear from design teams is that the meaning of certain icons (in particular those representing “error” or “warning”) can be diluted over time if they are applied inconsistently.

In these cases, it’s helpful to remember that SVG elements are subject to the same style cascade as everything else. By specifying mandatory colors via attributes on the elements themselves (fill, style, etc.), we can overrule some or all color inheritance.

As an example, this error.svg file has fill attributes on the elements themselves:

<svg xmlns="" viewBox="0 0 24 24">
  <path fill="#ff4136" d="M13.74,3l9,15.7A2.21,2.21,0,0,1,20.9,22H3.1a2.21,2.21,0,0,1-1.8-3.34l9-15.7A2,2,0,0,1,13.74,3Z"/>
  <path fill="#fff" d="M10.59,17.82a1.41,1.41,0,1,1,1.4,1.4A1.42,1.42,0,0,1,10.59,17.82Zm2.77-9.63a32.3,32.3,0,0,1-.61,4.5l-0.34,2.11H11.6l-0.34-2.11a32.77,32.77,0,0,1-.61-4.5A1.24,1.24,0,0,1,12,6.78,1.24,1.24,0,0,1,13.36,8.18Z"/>

Even with our .Icon class applied, these colors will not be overruled:

Error icon that will not inherit its fill color from document

7. Improving Accessibility

Arguably the best reason to adopt SVG is to take advantage of its accessibility features. Thanks to Léonie Watson’s Tips for Creating Accessible SVG, we know to add the following elements and attributes to our icons:

  viewBox="0 0 24 24"
  aria-labelledby="title desc">
  <title id="title">Back</title>
  <desc id="desc">A leftward arrow</desc>
  <path d="M22,10H6.83l3.59-3.59A2,2,0,0,0,7.59,3.59l-7,7a2,2,0,0,0,0,2.83l7,7a2,2,0,0,0,2.83-2.83L6.83,14H22A2,2,0,0,0,22,10Z"/>

This insures that our icons have human readable fallbacks for blind and partially sighted people in a variety of user agents.

But there’s a problem with this approach. IDs must be unique, and we’ll be combining multiple files into a single SVG document. Our accessibility efforts will be thwarted if two <title> or <desc> elements attempt to use the same ID within the same document.

We could just be really diligent about choosing unique IDs, but that’s kind of a pain. If only we could manage these titles and descriptions in a central location, relying on our Gulp task to assign unique identifiers…

Luckily, we can! All we need to do is provide all our titles and descriptions in a separate YAML file:

  title: Back
  description: A leftward arrow

  title: Error
  description: A red sign with a white exclamation mark

  title: Forward
  description: A rightward arrow

  title: Search
  description: A magnifying glass

Then update the Gulp task with the location of that file:

var svgSpriteConfig = {
  mode: { /* ... */ },
  shape: {
    // Titles and descriptions
    meta: './src/icons/icons.yaml'

When we run gulp icons again, gulp-svg-sprite will add <title> and <desc> elements with unique, namespaced IDs and update the aria-labelledby attribute accordingly.

(It’s important to note that while we’ve specified <title> and <desc> elements within our sprite, you should still take care to use accessibility attributes in the page itself when the icon’s meaning is not re-enforced by its surrounding content.)

8. Supporting More Browsers

Time to address the elephant in the room…

Our icon sprite is a separate file, which is great for caching. But referencing symbols in an external file doesn’t work in Internet Explorer (though it does in Edge).

Icons not displaying in IE10

To address that, we’re going to use a polyfill called svgxuse. The script works by detecting failed external references, loading the referenced file via AJAX, injecting the sprite into the page itself, and updating the xlink:href attributes to point to the in-page resource. We like svgxuse because it minimizes the duplicated path data while retaining the ability for icons to reference each other.

The polyfill will work as-is, but we should make a couple of changes one small change to our task config to avoid any collisions with in-page content:

var config = {
  mode: { /* ... */ },
  shape: {
    // Titles and descriptions
    meta: SRC + '/icons/icons.yaml',
    // Add suffix to IDs
    id: {
      generator: '%s-icon'

Now we won’t have to worry about the SVG sprite being visible in Internet Explorer, and the IDs for our icons are far less susceptible to collisions once they coexist in the same document. Once we update our icon references to include the -icon suffix, we should have our target browsers covered:

Icons displaying in IE10 with svgxuse

Update: An earlier version of this post included specific configuration options for hiding the injected SVG sprite, but svgxuse handles that automatically now. Open source is awesome!

Putting It All Together

We made it! Here’s what we accomplished:

  • Our Gulp task will compile a folder of icons into a single, cacheable SVG sprite.
  • Individual icons can be referenced one or more times from anywhere in our HTML document.
  • By default, icons will base their position, size and color on their parent elements and surrounding text.
  • Icons may defy the default styles where appropriate.
  • To avoid repetition, some icons can be simple variations of others.
  • We can specify conflict-free accessibility details within icons.yaml.
  • When external references fail, the asset will be injected into the page itself.

You can see a live demo of the end result or browse the code.

Our completed SVG icon demo

Before we pat ourselves on the back too vigorously, it’s important to remember that that there is no one, true SVG icon process. Your ideal setup might involve the picture element, grunt-svgstore, SVGInjector or even an existing library. It can and should change based on the needs of your project. We modify ours all the time.

So consider this just one potential starting point for your own SVG icon system. I hope you’ll share what you come up with!

Tyler Sticka

Tyler Sticka is Cloud Four’s Lead Designer, allowing him to think about responsive and component-based design almost every day. When he isn’t sketching on sticky notes, experimenting with SVG or nitpicking design details with his coworkers, he enjoys reading comics, making video games and listening to weird music. He tweets as @tylersticka.


Fantastic, well-written article,Tyler. Thank you for the write-up!

Great article! I will definitely keep your advice in mind next time, when I have to deal with svg icons.

Nice, Tyler! You tackled several of the challenges presented by your first article and made this much more approachable.

I have one suggestion. I believe adding the svg title and aria attributes to icons may not be a good idea. The article you reference is really useful, and I can see that coming in especially handy when we're working on things like SVG visualizations, infographics, etc. Our work with d3.js showed a whole bunch of nothing for accessibility, and this creates a path for that, which is very cool.

That said, the purpose of alternate text, is to ensure the page still makes sense when the icon can't be seen, and that people using screen readers can complete the task on the page. It isn't about trying to replicate/replace the visual experience so much. A complaint we've heard from our screen reader users in the past has been "too much unnecessary text" that they have to listen through before they can get to what they need. In your example, the "Previous" link already includes the text it needs - it says previous. Having the screen reader read out loud to the user that there's a leftward facing error before the link adds "noise" to the page which doesn't meaningfully contribute to the user's ability to get the job done. Often times, the best content for an alt tag is simply alt="", and I think this especially true for icons that supplement existing text.

I would recommend leaving these attributes off of icons, and instead ensuring there's always text accompanying each glyph on the page (which I think you also recommend as a fall back anyway). And bonus! That makes your process just a little shorter!
Again- thanks for putting this together. Really helpful!


Thanks for the thoughtful observations, Elise.

I struggled with how far this post should dive into accessibility. An earlier version spent more time making the distinction between the "Search" icon (which has no accompanying text label within the button) and purely decorative icons like "Back" and "Forward," but this made the core concept (integrating accessibility features into the build process) more difficult to understand. I also had difficulty summarizing various presentational attributes concisely, and aside from Léonie Watson's articles, there are regrettably few resources to link to for that.

I'm not sure I agree that these attributes are best avoided for all icons, but I agree that a "one size fits all" approach may not stand up against real-world scenarios.

Hey Tyler - nice followup. On a Reddit thread I see that Safari 9 dropped support for fragment IDs, so I assume this means the svgxuse polyfill will have to make it go.

Do you have any idea what's going on w.r.t. Safari svg support going forward? It would be a lot nicer if the newer browsers didn't need the polyfill action.


Short answer: The technique I show in this post (and the associated demo) works just fine in Safari 9 without a polyfill.

Long answer: That particular feature on is confusing. The support table is accurate if you're talking about support within img or background-image (examples here), but it's completely off if you're talking about support within SVG via use. For example, the table lists IE 9 through 11 as "supported," but those browsers do require a polyfill for this use-case.

My understanding is that because SVG is a separate spec, only concerns itself with support as it relates to portions of the HTML and CSS specification. At least that's the reason given in this open issue.

Great post and 99% of how I prefer to handle SVG Icons (loving `svg-sprite`!). As polyfill for `use` with external icons I tend to use `svg4everybody` but I'll sure checkout ‘svgxuse’, thanks!

However, I agree with Elise that a11y seems to be a bit more complex than adding `aria-labelledby` and `title`…

First (as Elise mentioned) it's important to handle _decorative_ icons differently from _content_ icons. Purely decorative icons should actually be _hidden_ from AT (with e.g. `role=presentation` and `aria-hidden=true` or `hidden`).

Content icons could benefit from a `role=img` on the `` element.

Also, when you need an icon to be an `img` (‘content’) you need an `alt`-text of sorts. This could be `aria-label="alternative text"` on the SVG or (as you mention) a `..` in it.

Then there's a difference with SVG Icons in ‘interactive’ elements and those in ‘non-interactive’ elements. And there's a bug with NVDA/Fx reading our text twice…

I've done some work with @fvsch trying to figure out the most accessible markup here (spc. see comments for updates):
(Would love more testing of this #hint)

All this to say that ‘SVG Icon A11y™’ is not as straight-forward, but thanks very much for addressing it ;-)


Thanks, David! As mentioned in my response to Elise, it was a challenge deciding how much detail to provide in the accessibility section. I may not have struck the right balance.

I enjoyed reading your Gist and the associated thread; I'd encourage you to consolidate and publish your findings somewhere more discoverable.

Interesting. I tried using SVG for image assets in an HTML5 game a few years ago. I found that Android webviews took much longer to render them, and that they were resistant to some layout that worked with bit maps.

Have you seen either of these issues?

Are you sure it works on Android 3+? I opened your demo page on Android 4 (vanilla) and Android 4.3 (Samsung), neither one show the icons

Sérgio Lopes


Thank you for your comment, Sérgio! The first draft of this post used the svg4everybody polyfill instead of svgxuse, and I neglected to update the supported browser versions later. This has been fixed.

The one thing that's odd to me is that Android 4.3 didn't work for you. I've tested this morning on a couple of Samsung devices running 4.3, and both the default Android browser and Chrome display the demo icons as expected. (Though it's certainly not unheard of for browser inconsistencies to crop up between devices, even from the same manufacturer.)

Thanks for the great article, I would suggest adding a watch task to the icons folder. Then any time a new svg is added to the folder the sprite will be automatically created, something like'./src/icons/**/*.svg', ['icons']);

Nigel O Toole


Thanks for sharing, Tyler! I will definitely try this out in the near future.
One question: what's your cache busting strategy here? I can image the sprite occasionally being updated with a couple of new icons and so we want the user to get the most updated version of the sprite.

Great question, Andi! You should extend whatever cache-busting strategy your project uses for images, stylesheets, scripts, etc. to SVG as well. Many of the techniques from this CSS-Tricks post could apply. Just make sure any filename modifications or query strings precede the fragment identifier (the part that starts with #).

Great article and a really nice process!
I'm also trying to switch to SVG icons using a similar process.
There is still one issue for me which is when you have an icon with two states (ex. default and active) and one has a stroke but no fill and the second state has a fill and no stroke.
Anyway, your method works very well for icons that only have a fill and don't have to deal with strokes.

Hey Tyler, great article!
How do you export icons from Illustrator which don't have a fill? Doesn't get it to work, even if I work with unfilled ones the exported path-element contains a style-attribute with "fill:none;" :(


Illustrator CC 2015 (not sure about earlier versions) won't export a fill if an object's fill color is #000000. But you can also just delete the fill values from the SVG file in your text editor.

Great article, this is a really nice workflow! Thanks for sharing!!

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