Icons in Pure CSS

Oct 31 · 10min

中文 Chinese Version

In my previous post about Reimagine Atomic CSS, I introduced a preset of UnoCSS that provides the ability to use any icons on-demand in purely CSS. Today in this post, I’d like to share with you how we made it possible.

My Icon Explorations

If you are interested in how I get here, there is an index of my previous post about the stories of my icon explorations and experiments.

Prior Arts

I know there is a Pure CSS icon solution called css.gg, which is a great idea to use pseudo-elements (::before, ::after) to construct the icons. However, that could require some expert knowledge of how CSS works, but I imagine that approach could be hard to create more complex icons. Instead of the limited choices in a specific set, I am seeking a more general solution that could apply to any icons.

The Idea

The idea come from this feature request created by @husayt to unplugin-icons and the initial implementation in this pull request by @userquin. The idea here is quite straightforward - to generate CSS with the icons in DataURI as the background image.

.my-icon {
  background: url(data:...) no-repeat center;
  background-color: transparent;
  background-size: 16px 16px;
  height: 16px;
  width: 16px;
  display: inline-block;

With that, we could use any images inlined in CSS with a single class.

<div class="my-icon"></div> 

It’s indeed an interesting idea. However, this is more like an image instead of an icon. To me, an icon has to be scalable and colorable (if it’s monochrome).

Make it Work


Thanks again to Iconify, which unified 100+ icon sets with 10,000+ icons into the consistent JSON format. It allows us to get the SVG of any icon set by simply providing the collection and icon ids. The usage is like this:

import { iconToSVG, getIconData } from '@iconify/utils'

const svg = iconToSVG(getIconData('mdi', 'alarm'))
// (this is not the exact API, simplified here for demo)

Once we got the SVG string, we could convert the it to DataURI:

const dataUri = `data:image/svg+xml;base64,${Buffer.from(svg).toString('base64')}`

Talking about DataURI, it’s almost the default choice to use Base64 until I read Probably Don’t Base64 SVG by Chris Coyier. Base64 is needed to encode binary data like images to be used in plain text files like CSS, while for SVG, since it’s already in text format, the extra encoding to Base64 actually makes the file size larger.

Combine the technique mentioned in Optimizing SVGs in data URIs by Taylor Hunt to improve the output size, further, here is the solution we end up with.

// https://bl.ocks.org/jennyknuth/222825e315d45a738ed9d6e04c7a88d0
function encodeSvg(svg: string) {
  return svg.replace('<svg', (~svg.indexOf('xmlns') ? '<svg' : '<svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg"'))
    .replace(/"/g, '\'')
    .replace(/%/g, '%25')
    .replace(/#/g, '%23')
    .replace(/{/g, '%7B')
    .replace(/}/g, '%7D')
    .replace(/</g, '%3C')
    .replace(/>/g, '%3E')

const dataUri = `data:image/svg+xml;utf8,${encodeSvg(svg)}`


The first step of making the "image" more like an icon, we need to make it scalable to the context.

Luckily we have the first-class support scaling support - the em unit.

.my-icon {
  background: url(data:...) no-repeat center;
  background-color: transparent;
  background-size: 100% 100%;
  height: 1em;
  width: 1em;

By changing the height and width to 1em, and the background-size to 100%, we made the image scales based on the parent’s font size.

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large


In inlined SVG, we could use fill="currentColor" to make the color of the SVG matches with the current text color. However, when we use it as a background image, it becomes a flat image. The dynamic parts of the SVG are lost, so is the currentColor magic (it’s just like you can’t override the color of a PNG).

If you do a quick search, you will find that most people are telling you that you can’t. Some might offer you the option to assign the colors in the SVG before converting to DataURI, which could solve the specific problem that you want the icon to have color, but not the root cause that the color is not reactive to the context.

Then you might come up with the idea of using CSS filters, like Una Kravets mentioned in Solved with CSS! Colorizing SVG Backgrounds. That sounds valid, but only that you need to calculate the matrix of how to transform the color to the desired ones. Probably feasible by introducing some runtime JavaScript for that? Maybe, if so, we lost the whole point of trying icons in pure CSS.

This sounds like a dead-end to me. Until I accidentally found the article Coloring SVGs in CSS Background Images by Noah Blon. In the article, Noah mentioned a brilliant idea of using CSS masks - a property that I have never heard of before.

.my-icon {
  background-color: red;
  mask-image: url(icon.svg);

Instead of using the icon as a background image and figuring out a way to color it, we could actually use the icon as a mask to clip the filled background color. Furthermore, we could now use the currentColor magic to have the icon matching with the parent text color!

.my-icon {
  background-color: currentColor;
  mask-image: url(icon.svg);
This is a blue text, with the blue icon

Icons with Colors

We made the monochrome icons colorable but now it problem comes to the icons with colors. With the mask approach, the colors and content of the icons got lost, for example:


Yes, I might say it’s hard for one approach to cover all the cases.

Unless - you could blend two approaches into one! Remember we just talked about the background image approach serving the icons as images? Isn’t that just what we want for colored icons? - We don’t need to change the colors after all!

So the solution is actually pretty simple, we just need to find a way to distinguish the monochrome and colored icons smartly. Luckily, since we had access the the SVG content, we could have:

// if an SVG icon have the `currentColor` value,
// it's very likely to be a monochrome icon
const mode = svg.includes('currentColor')
  ? 'mask'
  : 'background-img'

const uri = `url("data:image/svg+xml;utf8,${encodeSvg(svg)}")`

// monochrome
if (mode === 'mask') {
  return {
    'mask': `${uri} no-repeat`,
    'mask-size': '100% 100%',
    'background-color': 'currentColor',
    'height': '1em',
    'width': '1em',
// colored
else {
  return {
    'background': `${uri} no-repeat`,
    'background-size': '100% 100%',
    'background-color': 'transparent',
    'height': '1em',
    'width': '1em',

And it works surprisingly well! You know, it’s now behavior similar to the thing we are using daily - system’s native emojis. The color of texts changes based on the context, while emojis stay the colors of their own.

Here are some showcases of what we end up with:

Material Design





To see and find all the icons available, you can check out my other project Icônes.

Use It

If you want to try this icons solution in your project, you can install UnoCSS and the icons preset:

npm i -D unocss @unocss/preset-icons @iconify/json

@iconify/json is the package that stores the icon data from Iconify. Alternatively, you could install per icon set, for example, @iconify-json/mdi for Material Design Icons or @iconify-json/carbon for Carbon Icons and so on.

Then in your vite.config.js

import { defineConfig } from 'vite'
import Unocss from 'unocss'
import UnocssIcons from '@unocss/preset-icons'

export default defineConfig({
  plugins: [
      // when `presets` is specified, the default preset will be disabled
      // so you could only use the pure CSS icons in addition to your
      // existing app without polluting other CSS 
      presets: [
          // options
          prefix: 'i-',
          extraProperties: {
            display: 'inline-block'
        // presetUno() - if you want to use other atomic CSS as well

And that’s it for today. Hope you enjoy this icons solution from UnoCSS, or get some inspiration from it for your own projects.

Thanks for reading, and see you :)

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 2021 © Anthony Fu