Best Practices for Getting Started with SVG

October 27th, 2011

Web graphics in SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format offer better quality display over a broader range of device sizes compared to bitmap-based graphics. SVG also has inherent accessibility making it the best choice for interactive graphics and those involving text.

SVG usage on the Web continues to grow. Last week at SVG Open 2011, we had the opportunity to meet with and hear from Web developers putting SVG to use in a wide variety of real-world applications. These applications include data-driving charts, technical drawings, games, interactive instructional diagrams, and geographic visualization of data.

Though the SVG specification itself is nearing a decade old, SVG wasn’t available as an inline element in HTML until the HTML5 specification. As browsers support SVG as part of HTML5, the next generation Web can use these technologies to enable Web experiences previously available only with the use of plug-in technologies. SVG’s easy integration with HTML markup, CSS, the HTML DOM, and JavaScript makes it a natural choice for building integrated, interactive experiences that are stylable and adaptable to different form factors. SVG is also the declarative vector graphics technology for building Windows 8 Metro style apps using HTML.

In this post, I offer ideas for when to use SVG in your HTML5 Web sites and outline some best practices to help you get started with SVG.

When to use SVG in HTML5

As the declarative graphics format in HTML5, SVG is designed for graphics that need to scale, contain selectable text, are dynamic and interactive, or benefit from being styled using CSS. (For a comparison of SVG and HTML5’s procedural 2D graphics element, <canvas>, see Thoughts on when to use Canvas and SVG.)

Scalable Graphics

Graphics are used in different contexts and on different mediums. SVG is an excellent choice because fidelity is maintained at all resolutions—important for dealing with different device form factors and high-quality printing. For instance, SVG is a great format for logos as illustrated by the W3C HTML5 logo below.

Selectable Text

Images containing text are better served as SVG than a raster alternative. Charts and diagrams fall under this category. In addition to the added benefit of scalability, the text in charts and diagrams retains the properties of text. It can be copied and pasted, searched, and easily updated. Image headers containing decorative text may be candidates for using SVG. WOFF fonts combined with a text stroke and gradient or pattern fill enables customized text to remain selectable and indexed by search engines.

Flow charts, for instance, tend to be composed mostly of text, which incidentally serves as good search terms for the image. As can be seen in the screenshot below, the text within an SVG chart can be selected; just like other text, it can be copied, crawled by a search engine, or even used in conjunction with Accelerators in IE.

Dynamic and Interactive Graphics

Dynamic and interactive graphics can include games, maps, graphs, seating charts, and more. One use of SVG that Internet users frequently encounter can be found on Bing and Google maps. When requesting directions, they draw a blue SVG path that your car should follow, overlaid on a raster map image. SVG can be generated through client-side scripting, which is great for making minor additions to existing images as with mapping directions. SVG’s rich DOM support also makes it fantastic for dynamically changing images. Charts can be updated in the browser as data changes. Shapes can move and change size or color by altering their DOMs. Additionally, SVG’s hit testing abilities mean that precise interactions with shapes can occur. Much like with HTML elements, event handlers can be attached to an SVG element. However, unlike HTML elements, mouse events will only be affected by mouse interactions on the shape and not its entire rectangular bounding box.

Formatting with CSS

The benefits of styling content with CSS are another core reason for using SVG. Every shape in SVG is reflected in the DOM and contains all information about the graphic, including the appearance of each shape. This makes it easy to update the styling information about each shape. UI elements can benefit from using SVG as it allows for non-rectangular shapes and its appearance is customizable. The fills, strokes, and opacity of shapes can be modified via a new stylesheet, via script, or even via a pseudo selector such as :hover.

These benefits of SVG are not mutually exclusive. For example, below is a map graphic that displays data over time. It scales well and utilizes multiple stylesheets to show data changes over time. On this map, only the colors of the states are changing. Each state is represented by a <path> element with an id corresponding to its postal code. Using CSS selectors on these ids, the fill color of the shapes is specified in stylesheets that are each applied as appropriate when cycling through years. Election maps often show data trends in this color-coded manner. You could easily envision live election result updates requiring only minor modification of the graphic. These updates are simple, isolated, and small.

Getting Started: Best Practices

Despite SVG’s similarities to HTML, some frequently made errors can easily be avoided. Listed below are some common mistakes to avoid so that you don’t waste time figuring out what’s going on.

HTML5 Doctype

If you are including SVG inline in HTML5, make sure you use the HTML5 doctype <!DOCTYPE html>. This is a requirement of HTML5. Without specifying the appropriate doctype, your page will not render in the expected document mode in IE9 or IE10. As a result, your SVG content will not appear. Don’t forget to specify the HTML5 doctype!

Default Overflow

Like other HTML elements such as <div>, the default overflow for a top-level inline <svg> element is visible. (This is different from the default behavior of an <svg> element in XHTML, which is “overflow: hidden.”) This default means that SVG content outside the <svg> element’s bounding box will be visible. In some cases, this can lead to unexpected behavior. You can remedy this by explicitly setting either the SVG attribute overflow=”hidden” on your <svg> element or by adding svg { overflow: hidden; } to your document’s CSS block.

Default Text Baseline Position

If you are creating SVG by hand, you may not realize that the y attribute of <text> and <tspan> elements refers to the baseline of your text. If you do not specify the y attribute, text is positioned at y=0 relative to its containing transform. This could mean the text baseline is positioned at the top of the SVG container and end up being invisible if you’ve set overflow=”hidden” as described above. So, if you don’t see your text, check to see if the y attribute is specified with a positive value.


Achieving a graphic fully accessible is challenging but because SVG supports adding descriptive text and titles to individual SVG graphic elements and groups of elements, it is possible to create an SVG graphic with much greater accessibility than an HTML <img> element’s alt text.

Without any additional markup, text content is naturally readable by screen readers. For graphic elements, adding <title> and <desc> tags as child elements of the shape or group allows screen readers access to that descriptive text. Like the title attribute of an HTML <img> element, SVG title elements display as a tooltip with the mouse is hovered over the containing shape.

The following example illustrates the <title> element on a simple drawing.

version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>

width="500" height="300"
viewBox="0 0 500 300">

<title>Abstract Art</title>



.c0, .c1, .c2 { fill-opacity:
1; fill-rule: evenodd; stroke-dasharray: none; stroke-linecap: round; stroke-linejoin:
round; stroke-miterlimit: 4; stroke-opacity: 1; stroke-width: 10px; }

.c0 { fill: #e3caad; stroke:
#4e320e; }

.c1 { fill: #bc9dc9; stroke:
#4b1268; }

.c2 { fill: #2cec7d; stroke:
#2c9549; stroke-linecap: butt; stroke-linejoin: miter; }



class="c0" width="131.429"
height="168.571" x="37.143"




<title>Bunch of grapes</title>

class="c2" d="M314.286,78.076 340,15.219 428.571,26.648z">

<title>Grape Leaf</title>


cx="270" cy="100" r="20" class="c1"

xlink:href="#grape" x="40"/>

xlink:href="#grape" x="80"/>

xlink:href="#grape" x="20"

xlink:href="#grape" x="60"

xlink:href="#grape" x="38"



In addition, the focusable attribute can be used to enable keyboard access to these descriptions. If focusable=”true”, a tab stop will be created for that element, making it easy for a keyboard-centric user to focus on the shape and obtain its information from an accessibility tool. Additionally, tabbing to and from these elements will trigger the focusin and focusout events.

MIME type

If you are serving up standalone SVG files, ensure that the server is configured to be serving up the files with the proper MIME type. The correct SVG MIME type is image/svg+xml. This is not to be confused with image/svg-xml. Some already existing content may use the incorrect MIME type due to the Adobe SVG Viewer’s acceptance of it. Make sure you are using the correct MIME type.

SVGZ files

Similar to the above, if you are using compressed SVG, you should make the line Content-Encoding: gzip is in your header response of the SVG file, much like how other gzip-encoded files should have this header response line.

Scaling: viewBox and preserveAspectRatio

To ensure your graphics will scale the way that you’d like it to, specify the viewBox attribute on your top-level <svg> element. With a viewBox specified, changing the height and width of the graphic will scale it rather than clip the SVG image.

The preserveAspectRatio attribute can also be used to control the scaling of images within SVG. The syntax of this attribute is preserveAspectRatio=”align meetOrSlice“. These two parameters describe the how an image is to fit into its containing <image> element and where the image is positioned within the container. By setting preserveAspectRatio=”none”, the SVG <image> element behaves like the HTML’s <img> element as illustrated below.

Things get interesting when preserveAspectRatio is not “none”. In such cases you control how the image aligns within a container of a different aspect ratio than the image itself. The meetOrSlice parameter determines whether the image is scaled down to fit within the container (meet) or scaled up to fill the container (slice). The align parameter specifies how to align the image within its container. Three options—min, mid, and max—are provided for each direction—x and y. This yields nine combinations of alignments specified as:

  • xMinYMin – align image in left-top corner of container
  • xMidYMin – align image at center-top of container
  • xMaxYMin – align image in right-top corner of container
  • xMinYMid – align image at left-middle of container
  • xMidYMid – align image at center-middle of container
  • xMaxYMid – align image at right-middle of container
  • xMinYMax – align image in left-bottom corner of container
  • xMidYMax – align image at center-bottom of container
  • xMaxYMax – align image in right-bottom corner of container

The following examples show how an image is aligned for its controlling alignment. Note that align only matters in one dimension at a time; the image exactly fills the container in the other dimension so it doesn’t matter whether that dimension is min, mid, or max.

SVG’s preserveAspectRatio property gives you the control to define both the scaling and positioning of an image within its container. preserveAspectRatio=”none” yields behavior common with HTML.

Scripting: SVG DOM vs. Core DOM

The getAttribute() and setAttribute() methods come from the DOM Core specification and apply to HTML and XML alike, including SVG. These methods are familiar, easy, and consistent ways to make changes to element attributes. Regardless of the attribute to be changed, setAttribute(attribute, value) can always be used. However, performance gains can often be attained by taking advantage of the SVG DOM. SVG supports its own DOM that exposes a multitude of attribute values and methods. Due to the nature of the SVG DOM, modifying attribute values requires a steeper learning curve than simply using setAttribute(). But the SVG DOM provides direct access to attribute values, which both improves performance and can make value manipulation simpler.

For instance, the following function doubles the radius of a circle element using setAttribute():

function doubleCircleRadius(circle)

2 * parseFloat(circle.getAttribute("r")));


By contrast, using the SVG DOM, achieving the same effect looks like this:

function doubleCircleRadius(circle)

circle.r.baseVal.value *= 2;


With the setAttribute() and getAttribute() methods of the Core DOM, parsing will often be required to manipulate values. Modifying values based on the existing ones is easier done with the SVG DOM.

Because the SVG DOM accesses attributes directly instead of dealing in strings, value type awareness is necessary and makes scripting with it more complex.

Below is a table describing a generalization of how to access a few common attributes:

Value “type” Attribute examples DOM access
Presentation attribute fill, stroke
Length r, width, height, cx, cy, x, y elem.r.baseVal.value
Object viewBox elem.viewBox.baseVal.x
List transform, d elem.transform.baseVal.getItem(0);

The SVG DOM interfaces are documented at the end of each chapter in the SVG specification.

Tools & Libraries

Though SVG is readable and can be crafted by hand, it is still largely visual and often unintuitive to translate a visual graphic into a mathematical description of its shape. Using vector design tools already in existence today, static SVG images can easily be created. Inkscape is an option available for free download. Adobe Illustrator, often used by professional Web developers to create vector images, can save files in the SVG format. Microsoft Visio, also capable of exporting in an SVG format, is tailored towards developing business diagrams and flowcharts. If optimization is important to you, note that these applications do not output SVG in the simplest format; their output contains proprietary namespace elements and attributes that allow for round-trip editing but are not useful for final production graphics. Additional markup cleanup may be desired for a reduction in file size or for easy styling.

In addition to Inkscape, another free SVG editor is SVG-edit. It is a JavaScript SVG editor and uses your browser to render the SVG creation! The latest alpha version has some great features. Try it in IE9!

IE9 supports WOFF fonts instead of SVG Fonts. WOFF fonts bridge the gap between HTML and SVG, reducing the learning curve for SVG and integrating SVG as a part of HTML. This makes it easy to apply the same custom fonts to both your HTML and SVG content. For those already acquainted with SVG fonts, Font Squirrel can convert your SVG Fonts to the WOFF format.

Another common problem is providing fallback support for older versions of IE that do not support SVG. SVG libraries on the Web often provide fallback support and abstract the process away from you. RaphaelJS is one of the most widely known that displays VML in older versions of IE. Charting libraries that provide graceful fallback, such as Highcharts are springing up all over the web.

These are just a few basic resources to help you get started. The tools and libraries in existence today fall into two camps: (1) creation of static, standalone SVG content and (2) programming dynamic, script-driven, and script-created SVG. Both have their place in your toolbox. For those of you pioneering SVG on the Web, you’ll find there is a lot to play around with.

Call to Action

You’ve seen SVG in use. With its benefits outlined and some practical tips to avoid early roadblocks, there’s every reason to start experimenting with SVG to see how you can take advantage of it on your HTML5 Web site. Post some of your creations or links to other libraries – we’d love to see them!

—Jennifer Yu, Program Manager, Internet Explorer Graphics