Generating CSS sprites with Gulp

While working with one large project, my colleague and I were thinking about how to automate building the CSS sprites. Before, we used to build them manually or with different online services which anyway took a lot of time. Also, by that time we already used Gulp to build the project and so were looking for a gulp-friendly solution for sprites.

Initially we were choosing from different variants:

The first one is too complex to install; it has a few dependencies which require additional package managers. Once gotten a new developer into our team, we would need to explain this complex process. This did not look as an option for us. Also, it does not enable to tune image positions in the sprite.

The other three modules are based on the same spritesmith generator. Eventually we chose gulp.spritesmith as an official port of it.

Installation

The first think to do is to install Gulp. Its official documentation will help you a lot.
Then install gulp.spritesmith. If your project is empty yet (as mine is), take supplement packages as well:

npm i gulp gulp-stylus gulp.spritesmith --save

Now you can move to tuning the generator.

Tuning

Before you start declaring the task, let's introduce all the possible parameters to the function.

  • imgName String - Filename to save image as
    • Supported image extensions are .png and .jpg/jpeg (limited to specfic engines)
    • Image format can be overridden via imgOpts.format
  • cssName String - Filename to save CSS as
    • Supported CSS extensions are .css (CSS), .sass ([SASS][]), .scss ([SCSS][]), .less ([LESS][]), .styl/.stylus ([Stylus][]), and .json ([JSON][])
    • CSS format can be overridden via cssFormat
  • imgPath String - Optional path to use in CSS referring to image location
  • engine String - Optional image generating engine to use
    • By default, auto will be used which detects the best supported engine for your system
    • Supported options are phantomjs, canvas, gm, and pngsmith
    • More information can be found in the [engine][] section
  • algorithm String - Optional method for how to pack images
    • Supported options are top-down (default), left-right, diagonal, alt-diagonal, and binary-tree
    • More information can be found in the [algorithm][] section
  • padding Number - Optional amount of pixels to include between images
    • By default, there will be no padding
  • imgOpts Object - Options for image output
    • format String - Override for format of output image
      • Supported values are png and jpg (limited to specific engines)
    • quality Number - Quality of image (only supported by gm engine)
    • timeout Number - Milliseconds to wait before terminating render (limited to phantomjs engine)
  • algorithmOpts Object - Options for algorithm configuration
    • sort Boolean - Enable/disable image sorting by algorithm
      • By default, sorting is enabled (true)
  • engineOpts Object - Options for engine configuration
    • imagemagick Boolean - Force usage of imagemagick over graphicsmagick (limited to gm)
  • cssFormat String - Override for format of CSS output
    • Supported values are css (CSS), sass ([SASS][]), scss ([SCSS][]), scss_maps ([SCSS][] using [map notation][sass-maps]), less ([LESS][]), stylus ([Stylus][]), and json ([JSON][])
  • cssVarMap Function - Iterator to customize CSS variable names
    • An example can be found [here][cssvarmap-example]
  • cssTemplate Function|String - CSS templating function or path to alternative [mustache][] template
    • More information can be found in the [cssTemplate][] section
  • cssOpts Object - Container for CSS templates
    • functions Boolean - Skip output of mixins
    • cssClass Function - Iterator to override default CSS selectors
      • An example can be found [here][cssclass-example]

Assuming this, the simpliest task would look like the following:

gulp.task('sprite', function() {
    var spriteData = 
        gulp.src('./src/assets/images/sprite/*.*') // source path of the sprite images
            .pipe(spritesmith({
                imgName: 'sprite.png',
                cssName: 'sprite.css',
            }));

    spriteData.img.pipe(gulp.dest('./built/images/')); // output path for the sprite
    spriteData.css.pipe(gulp.dest('./built/styles/')); // output path for the CSS
});

With that we can generate this sprite:

It is served with the following CSS code:

/*
Icon classes can be used entirely standalone. They are named after their original file names.

~```html
<i class="icon-home"></i>
```~
*/
.icon-home {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px 0px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-home_hover {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -16px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-instagram {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -32px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-instagram_hover {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -48px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-pin {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -64px;
  width: 12px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-pin_hover {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -80px;
  width: 12px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-tras_hover {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -96px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-trash {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -112px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-user {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -128px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}
.icon-user_hover {
  background-image: url(sprite.png);
  background-position: 0px -144px;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
}

Tweaking

In our project we use Stylus for processing CSS, so it is much more handy to get a .styl file with the variables.
I use binary-tree algorythm to make it more compact. All the variables are prefixed with s-, this makes them recognizable. I switched off generating the mixings and now have them in a separate file. I have created my own CSS template because the generic variant has too much of redundant code making the file heavier; and I don't use it anyway.

As a result, I get such a sprite:

There are the JavaScript and Stylus code for it:

gulp.task('sprite', function() {
    var spriteData = 
        gulp.src('./src/assets/images/sprite/*.*') // путь, откуда берем картинки для спрайта
            .pipe(spritesmith({
                imgName: 'sprite.png',
                cssName: 'sprite.styl',
                cssFormat: 'stylus',
                algorithm: 'binary-tree',
                cssTemplate: 'stylus.template.mustache',
                cssVarMap: function(sprite) {
                    sprite.name = 's-' + sprite.name
                }
            }));

    spriteData.img.pipe(gulp.dest('./built/images/')); // путь, куда сохраняем картинку
    spriteData.css.pipe(gulp.dest('./src/styles/')); // путь, куда сохраняем стили
});
$s-book = 16px 0px -16px 0px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-book_hover = 48px 16px -48px -16px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-comments = 0px 16px 0px -16px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-comments_hover = 16px 16px -16px -16px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-compose = 32px 0px -32px 0px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-compose_hover = 32px 16px -32px -16px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-faceboo_hover = 0px 32px 0px -32px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-facebook = 16px 32px -16px -32px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-globe = 32px 32px -32px -32px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-globe_hover = 48px 0px -48px 0px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-home = 0px 0px 0px 0px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-home_hover = 48px 32px -48px -32px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-instagram = 0px 48px 0px -48px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-instagram_hover = 16px 48px -16px -48px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-pin = 32px 48px -32px -48px 12px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-pin_hover = 44px 48px -44px -48px 12px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-tras_hover = 64px 0px -64px 0px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-trash = 64px 16px -64px -16px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-user = 64px 32px -64px -32px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';
$s-user_hover = 64px 48px -64px -48px 16px 16px 80px 64px 'sprite.png';

Usage

Ok, the sprite image has been generated and there is a stylys file of variables, what is next?

The next are mixins which I am not generating. I manually created a separate file for them which is mixins.styl. Here is its content:

spriteWidth($sprite) {
  width: $sprite[4];
}

spriteHeight($sprite) {
  height: $sprite[5];
}

spritePosition($sprite) {
  background-position: $sprite[2] $sprite[3];
}

spriteImage($sprite) {
  background-image: url(../images/$sprite[8]);
}

sprite($sprite) {
  spriteImage($sprite)
  spritePosition($sprite)
  spriteWidth($sprite)
  spriteHeight($sprite)
}

The main mixin is sprite($sprite). As $sprite I use the needed variable, for example sprite($s-home). It gives such a result:

background-image:url("../images/sprite.png");
background-position:0 0;
width:16px;
height:16px

The mixin enables to define the image sizes which is very useful when using pseudo elements.

Here is the working example.

Cons

I noticed only one problem since the time I've started to use the solution.
An icon is blinking when using :hover or :active. This happens because the sprite mixin generates background-image for every case and changes the picture on hover.

After thinking for a while and reading the Stylys' documentation, I have found the solution. We just need to check if a selector has these pseudo classes. And if they are, we can skip the spriteImage($sprite) output.

This is the final version of the mixin:

sprite($sprite)
    if !match('hover', selector()) && !match('active', selector())
        spriteImage($sprite)
    spritePosition($sprite)
    spriteWidth($sprite)
    spriteHeight($sprite)

Unfortunately this is not possible to foresee all the cases. Probably there would be some JavaScript code changing a CSS class. So, we can use spritePosition($sprite) if an image was already in use.

Wrap up

I've been working with this solution for a few months and happy to say that it saves a lot of time. Aim to automate any routine and use your time the most effectively.

I created a sample repository for you, you can use it as a dummy for your project or just explore how it work.

##Links

[RU] Генерация CSS-спрайтов с Gulp
If you've spotted a mistake, feel free to edit it on GitHub.
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