Using CSS Sprites

Navigation is an important part of how sites work, and so I think we can all agree that it is important for our navigational items to look nice. One problem that many sites encounter is the slow loading of roll-over images that are used to give feedback to the user. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here – when you roll-over an image and it goes white for a moment before loading in the image? Well the reason for this problem is because the browser only loads the images that are going to be used immediately, and so when you’re CSS uses something like #nav-item:hover { background-image:url(images/2.png) } to change the background image, the browser has to go off and find that image.

Ways of avoiding this are simple, and one of the best ways to do so is by using one image for all of your navigational images within one image! Sound crazy? Well that’s what we call a sprite. Using CSS sprites will reduce your web-page’s loading time and greatly reduce the number of requests made by the browser, and that can only be a good thing. Many sites use this method to ensure their servers don’t die altogether, for example Apple uses it for their primary navigation.

Apple's Menu

So lets go ahead and create a nice looking menu.

We will begin with the HTML.

<div id="nav">
    <li id="menu-home"><a href="#">Home</a></li>
    <li id="menu-blog"><a href="#">Blog</a></li>
    <li id="menu-contacts"><a href="#">Contact</a></li>
    <li id="menu-about"><a href="#">About</a></li>

So that will just create for us a simple unordered list that we can now manipulate using the CSS below (and don’t forget to link to your CSS file).

* {

#nav {

#nav li {

#nav a {

#menu-home a { background-position:0px 0px; }
#menu-home a:hover { background-position:0px -50px; }

#menu-blog a { background-position:-150px 0px; }
#menu-blog a:hover { background-position:-150px -50px; }

#menu-contact a { background-position:-300px 0px; }
#menu-contact a:hover { background-position:-300px -50px; }

#menu-about a { background-position:-450px 0px; }
#menu-about a:hover { background-position:-450px -50px; }

So together that HTML and the CSS will create a rather lovely menu. To customise the menu you will need to create your own image and aligning it up with the values in the CSS. To view a live example of this visit the demo page.

So what are the real benefits of this method? Well first off it will speed up your site, and although you might not recognise the speed increase straight-away, on sites where daily visits are in the 100s of thousands, the fewer HTTP requests, the better. Also there are the obvious benefits of using images as opposed to text, for example post pictures, and nice roll-over effects.

To finish I’d like to mention one drawback – if you want to edit only one menu item, you will have to have access to the original file to edit it, and then upload it to your server. This can be annoying if you are working on somebody else’s site.

Oh and by the way, you don’t have to just restrict yourself to menus, many of the larger sites such as YouTube use huge sprites to hold nearly all of the images on their site. Such an approach can be annoying if you are constantly editing your site, but the pros received on a large site are huge and will usually outweigh the cons.





One response to “Using CSS Sprites”

  1. doodmangu avatar

    One of my friends already told me about this place and I do not regret that I found this article.