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Utillity to automate the process of creating sprite images, providing all the needed flexibility to allow for different layouts, corresponding definitions and image-types.
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The WebSpriteGenerator (short: wsg) is an application to automate the creation of so called sprite images and corresponding definition files. The application is written completely in PHP.


This document gives a general overview about the WebSpriteGenerator application. Usage examples are provided and the main interface is explained in detail. Part of this explanation is a overview about the internal application design. This information is only provided to a degree where it is needed to understand the different choices the user has in running this application. This is not a design document featuring implementation details about interfaces or inner workings.

Clarification of terms

Sprite image

Sprite images are image files containing more than one image in some sort of positioning scheme.

For example a message on a html page can have three images to indicate its state. An error image, a question image and an information image. Instead of storing these pictures in 3 different images, they are stored aligned in someway one image file. This image file is considered a sprite.

Input definition file

An input definition file is a arbitrary structured file. which maps image filenames to classes. These classes may be CSS classes or any sort of identifier (Whereas the default components of wsg assume the classes are valid CSS class strings.). An example would be something like images/foo.png => .some_class. The format of the file does rely on the used DefinitionReader implementation. (Detailed in DefinitionReader).

Sprite/Output definition file

As a sprite image is quite useless without some kind of information about the positions and dimensions of the pictures stored in it a definition file is needed.

This definition may be of an arbitrary format. To be used for webpages the mostly used format is a CSS-background-definition using the background position values to indicate the position of the image to use inside the sprite. Together with this a absolute width and height of the defined element is used in most cases to reflect the dimensions of the stored image, to not display any sprite which might be positioned next to it.

Commandline usage

Wsg's primary way of usage is commandline frontend. As wsg will most likely be called by some sort of build system this seemed to be most natural way to provide a user interface. The implementations of user interfaces is however easily possible.

The commandline executable is located under src/bin/wsgen. It provides a lot of different options to configure the different components wsg is supposed to use during processing. To allow for flexibility when it comes to input and output definition formats, as well as the layout (positioning) of images inside the sprites itself, the application consists of many different loosely coupled components. These components may easily replaced by your own implementation if some sort of special functionality is needed. Before the different components and their function is described a detailed look at the commandline interface is given.

After calling the wsgen executable a quite sophisticated help text is displayed:

(c) 2010 Jakob Westhoff

  ./src/bin/wsgen [OPTION, ...] <output-sprite>

  -h/--help                    Show this help text

  -o/--output=<value>          File to output the definition to. (By default it
                               will be outputted to STDOUT)

  -i/--input=<value>           File to read the input definition from. (By
                               default STDIN will be used)

  -r/--reader=<value>          Definition reader to use for input processing.
                               (Default: css-like)

  -e/--render-engine=<value>   Renderer engine to use for sprite generation.
                               (Default: gd)

  -w/--writer=<value>          Definition writer used to create an output
                               definition. (Default: css-background)

  -l/--layout-manager=<value>  Layout manager used to calculate the placement
                               of the images inside the sprite. (Default:

  css-like:   Reader of a css-like definition format. See the README.txt for
              more information about this format.

  php-array:  Reader of a php based array structure. See the README.txt for
              more information about this format.

  css-background:  Write out a css file containing moved background statements
                   for each sprite image.

  color-group:  Group images horizontally by their overall color, to allow for
                better png compression.

  vertical:     Align all images in a vertical row

  gd:  Renderer using the GD lib, which is available in most default php

The help text does not only show the placement of the arguments to be given, it lists all available option switches, which may be used to select other components to fulfill certain tasks of the processing cycle. Furthermore for each of the different components a list of available implementations is provided with short descriptions for each of them.

Every component does have a default implementation pre-selected in case a special one is not selected. Therefore the easiest way to call the wsgen commandline interface is something like this:

bin/wsgen -i input.cfg -o sprite-definition.css sprite.png

The commandline shown above instructs wsg to read a file called input.cfg as input definition to create a sprite image called sprite.png containing all of the images defined in there. Furthermore a sprite definition will be written to the file sprite-definition.css.

The -i and -o switches are optional if they are not supplied STDIN is used for input and STDOUT for output respectively. Status messages are always printed to STDERR.

Some of the definition readers are not capable of reading from STDIN. They will return an error if these kind of processing is tried.

By default the input definition is assumed to be in a css-like format (Detailed in CSS-Like DefinitionReader), the sprite is rendered using the GD library which is available in most PHP installations (Detailed in GD Renderer), whereas the output definition will be written as a CSS file which uses background properties for mapping to the correct image in the sprite file (Detailed in CSS-Background DefinitionWriter). The placement of the different images inside the sprite is determined by their color. This allows for images with similar colors to be grouped together for a better PNG compression (Detailed in Color-Group LayoutManager).

All of these default behavior can be easily changed using the --reader, --render-engine, --writer and --layout-manger options. The options are given followed by an equal sign followed by one of the possible implementations listed in the corresponding section of the help text.

For example to use the Vertical LayoutManager instead of the default Color-Group LayoutManager the following commandline could be issued:

bin/wsgen --layout-manager=vertical -i input.cfg -o sprite-definition.css sprite.png


To allow for the greatest possible flexibility, when it comes to extension and behavioral change of the application, it is designed to consist of loosely coupled components, which are defined by strict interfaces to allow for multiple different implementations of each component.

The application consists of 5 components:

  • Logger
  • DefinitionReader
  • LayoutManager
  • DefinitionWriter
  • Renderer


The Logger components main obligation is to take message from any other component and propagate them in a specific way, to inform the user about the action taken.

Console Logger

The Console Logger is an implementation of the Logger component, which simply outputs all provided log messages to the terminal console. They are optionally formatted with a timestamp and the error-level assigned to the message.

This is the default logger for the commandline interface.


The input needed by wsg consists of a mapping between image filenames and identifiers. These identifiers are, even though this is not enforced are supposed to be valid CSS identifiers.

This mapping might be stored in any kind of format. Therefore wsg uses the DefinitionReader component to read this mapping into a internal data structure for application wide usage. Different implementations of the DefinitionReader therefore read different representations of the needed configuration data.

PHP-Array DefinitionReader

Because the whole application is implemented in PHP it seemed natural to implement a definition file format utilizing PHP data structures, which may directly be used internally.

The PHP-Array DefinitionReader is capable of using these array representations as input.

The input definition files are supposed to obey to the following structure:

  return array(
    'image/file/1.png' => array(
      '#css .rule',
      '#optionally another.css:rule',

This datastructure might be useful if your definition is auto-generated by some other PHP script, as it could be easily written using the var_export functionality. If you intend to write the definition files by hand, the CSS-Like DefinitionReader might be a better choice.

CSS-Like DefinitionReader

The CSS-Like DefinitionReader is provides an easy to learn, as well as familiar looking format, to anyone who has worked with CSS before. Its main goals are readability as well as the chance to easily write definition files by hand.

The definition files need to obey the following structure:

more.than:one > rule#is.possible {
  image: /path/to/image/file.png;

It is quite similar to CSS taken into account, that CSS doesn't know the image property. Please note that the semicolon on the end of the property line is not optional. It is mandatory. You will receive a parse error, if this character is not supplied. An arbitrary amount of different rules might be connected to one image as far as these rules are splitted by a comma (,).

All newlines and spaces are optional and may be left out or added in any amount the author considers necessary.

Directory DefinitionReader

The Directory DefinitionReader allows to use the directory structure of a directory filled with image files as input definition.

It is capable of reading a pattern which is understood by php's glob function.

The used CSS selectors for the output definition are derived from the scanned filenames. These filenames are normalized and outputted as CSS class selectors. The normalization process does replace any character not matching the character group [A-Za-z0-9-] by a minus sign (-).


LayoutManagers are responsible for positioning all the given image files inside the sprite image, as well as calculating the needed sprite resolution.

At a first glance different sorts of LayoutManagers seem a little bit useless, as simply aligning the images vertically or horizontally seems the most effective and yet easiest way. Image positioning inside the sprite may however directly influence the file size of the sprite. Due to different image aspects, like PNG compression, the smallest image resolution does not always produce the smallest files. Therefore an easy way to allow for different positioning algorithms is provided by LayoutManagers.

Vertical LayoutManager

The Vertical LayoutManager uses one of the most naive approaches for positioning the images inside the sprite. As the name already says they are simply aligned in down one column vertically. The images are drawn below each other.

Color-Group LayoutManager

The Color-Group LayoutManager calculates a certain metric for every supplied picture to compare the used colors inside these pictures with each other. It finally aligns pictures in groups of similar colors. Each of this groups is drawn into its own row inside the picture.

Even though this might create a lot of unused free pixel space on the edges of the sprite, the image sizes of the generated sprites are about 7-10% smaller to their vertically aligned counterparts. This effect is caused by the compression algorithm used by PNG images. It allows rows of similar color to be compressed much better than rows with great changes in the color. The free pixel space however can be compressed optimally as it is all the same color. Therefore it can be neglected.

Because of the size benefits the Color-Group LayoutManager is selected by default.


Sprite images on their own are mostly useless in most cases, as no information about where the images are located in the sprite is available. To provide this information DefinitionWriters are used. The implementations of this component supply the information about position and size of each of the images inside the created sprite in some arbitrary data format.

CSS-Background DefinitionWriter

Sprite images are used in conjunction with webpages/application in most of the cases. The usually taken approach in this environment is to used CSS rules for the needed images, which make use of the background-image property to display a certain part of the sprite image. To specify the resolution of the original image fixed width and height values are normally used. The position of the image inside the sprite itself is selected using the background-position property.

The CSS-Background DefinitionWriter creates a file filled with valid CSS rules, mapping each of the identifiers given to the DefinitionReader to a bunch of CSS rules specifying the correct background-image and background-position to display the image inside the sprite file.


A lot of different libraries exist in the PHP world to draw images (GD, IMagick, Cairo, ...). Furthermore a lot of different image formats exist out there. Even though PNG is most likely to be used for sprite maps today. You might want to use some other format. Or the input format for your sprites is some rarely used format, which is not supported by the default libraries.

To overcome all of these problems the Renderer component was created. Each of its implementations may use a completely different output format or a different kind of library to do its drawing.

GD Renderer

The GD library is shipped with PHP and therefore available on most of the systems using it. Even though it is by far not the most efficient, user-friendly or feature-packed of the available solutions it provides all the necessary facilities to be used for sprite generation.

Supported operating systems

The application has only been tested on *nix based operating systems, where it runs flawlessly. It has not been developed nor tested for the windows operation system. However it should work there as well. If you can test the application on windows any feedback is welcome. I will happily apply patches and tests for the windows platform. I will however not create these fixes myself, as I don't have the proper means to debug this application on a windows based system.

Supported PHP versions

The application makes heavy usage of the features newly available in PHP 5.3, like closures and namespaces. Therefore its minimum required version is 5.3.x. There are currently no plans to create a backport, which will work with PHP 5.2.x.

Unit tests

The application is fully unit tested. The tests are written utilizing phpUnit. To run the testsuite for the application a call to the runTests script should do the trick.

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