SVG for Absolute Beginners

Creating SVG shapes, paths, and points

by Rob Levin


In this article, I'll try to go over just enough SVG basics to get you prepared for the fun stuff–namely, animating an SVG icon via JavaScript–we'll get to that by the second article in this series. But first let's tackle those SVG basics…onwards!

SVG Basics

SVG–short for Scalable Vector Graphics–is an XML vector graphics format which provides excellent scalability and 2D animation capabilities.

Creating an SVG by hand turns out to be pretty simple. Start with the <svg> element and the required namespace attribute (you'll need this if you want to view the SVG “standalone”), and simply stick a shape in there. Here's a circle:

<svg xmlns="" height="64" width="64">
<circle cx="32" cy="32" r="32" fill="#2ecc71"/>

The cx attribute defines the x-coordinate from the center of the circle, the cy defines the y-coordinate from the center of the circle, and the r defines the radius for the circle:

A basic SVG Circle

We can also lose the fill and replace that with strokes. Let's have some fun and nest two “stroked circles”:

<svg height="64" width="64">
  <circle cx="32" cy="32" r="28" stroke="#2ecc71" stroke-width="4" fill="none"></circle>
  <circle cx="32" cy="32" r="20" stroke="#08BCD0" stroke-width="4" fill="none" />
A Stroked SVG Circle

As you can see, creating an outlined shape is simply a matter of setting the fill to none, and applying the appropriate stroke attributes. Why stop there? Let's make an outlined square:

<svg height="64" width="64">
  <rect x="2" y="2" height="60" width="60" fill="none" stroke="#ff8a65" stroke-width="4"></rect>
Rendering of above square

Now let's make a rectangle with a fill and a stroke:

<svg height="80" width="80">
  <rect x="5" y="20" height="40" width="70" fill="#f1c40f" stroke="#16a085" stroke-width="5px" />
Rendering of Stroked Rectangle

Ok, we shown some basic shapes but we've left off the details on the root <svg> element itself. Let's digress for a bit to tackle that next.

SVG Viewport

The viewport is the rectangular region of the SVG canvas your document uses as the viewing area the user will see. The size of the SVG viewport can be explicitly set by providing the width and height attributes which will define the area of the coordinate system used. This coordinate system starts at the top-left corner (defined as 0,0). Increasing the x-coordinate will result in moving rightwards, while increasing the y-coordinate will result in moving downards. When specifying the width or height, the available length unit identifiers are: px, em, pt, ex, mm, cm, pc, in, and %. Units provided with no specifier will result in pixels by default.

If width and height are not provided, the value used will be as though '100%' was provided.

SVG Viewbox

We simplified the description of the initial coordinate system the SVG user agent creates. There are actually two initial coordinate systems at play:

  1. The viewport coordinate system (as described above)
  2. The user coordinate system

The two coordinates systems are, initially, identically placed, such that the viewport and user coordinate origins both start at the very top/left corner, or, 0,0). You might visualize these as two superimposed rectangles with the same dimensions.

The SVG attribute viewBox is, essentially, a means of establishing a new “current” user coordinate system, as it allows you to displace or stretch your viewable region in interesting ways. The viewBox attribute takes a list of four numbers: min-x, min-y, width and height, each separated by whitespace or comma.

Viewbox Displacement Example

An example should hopefully make it easier to “grok” the basics of how viewBox displacement works. Let's start with a simple rectangle that starts at 10,10:

<svg height="100" width="100" style="border: 1px solid #16a085;" viewBox="0 0 100 100">
  <rect x="10" y="10" height="50" width="50" fill="none" stroke="#ff8a65" stroke-width="4"></rect>
Simple rectangle 10 pixels from top and left

Now, if we specify positive values for the first two numbers, say 20,20, the viewBox will be displaced such that the viewBox's coordinate 20,20 (user space) will get overlayed over the 0,0 coordinate of the viewport's coordinate (viewport space):

<svg height="100" width="100" style="border: 1px solid #16a085;" viewBox="20 20 100 100">
  <rect x="10" y="10" height="50" width="50" fill="none" stroke="#ff8a65" stroke-width="4"></rect>
Resulting displacement when positive min-x and min-y values used

Is your mind blown? Yes, it's a bit counter-intuitive that these positive values don't represent new x1,y1 points (which would move our box the other way to the right)…but no, what's happening reads aloud as: ‘go to 20,20 of my viewBox, and move that to the 0,0 point on the viewport’.

If cognitive dissonance is making you yearn to see the box move down and to the right, you'll be comforted that we can do so simply, by instead using negative values:

<svg height="100" width="100" style="border: 1px solid #16a085;" viewBox="-20 -20 100 100">
  <rect x="10" y="10" height="50" width="50" fill="none" stroke="#ff8a65" stroke-width="4"></rect>
Resulting displacement when negative min-x and min-y values used

Viewbox Scaling

Now that you've seen how the viewBox can be used to displace our graphics, you may also be wondering what was all this talk about how we can stretch our viewBox region. We'll explain that now.

The width and height values of the viewBox attribute are divided in to the viewport's width and height to determine the ratio to scale each unit. This will result in the graphic being stretched or shrunk accordingly. Starting with stretching:

<svg height="100" width="100" style="border: 1px solid #16a085;" viewBox="0 0 50 50">
  <rect x="10" y="10" height="50" width="50" fill="none" stroke="#ff8a65" stroke-width="4"></rect>
viewBox “stretching”

Above, we see that our, initially 50 by 50 box has doubled in size and is clipped by the viewport. This happens since 100/50 = 2, so each unit in our rect is now, essentially, doubled. We can go the other way too:

<svg height="100" width="100" style="border: 1px solid #16a085;" viewBox="0 0 300 300">
  <rect x="10" y="10" height="50" width="50" fill="none" stroke="#ff8a65" stroke-width="4"></rect>
viewBox “shrinking”

This time our units are scaled down such that it takes 3 viewBox units to equal 1 viewport unit, so our box is about a third of it's original size. If you're paying particularly close attention, you'll notice that this also results in our initial 10,10 position of x1,y1 scaling down as well (which is not necessarily surprising, but worth being aware of).

Obviously, we need control to prevent things like clipping and control how this scaling behaves. You'll, ahem, be happy to know that you can further alter this stretch/shrink behavior by using the ultra-flexible, albeit complex, preserveAspectRatio attribute. A discussion of that topic is well beyond this article's scope, but if you'd like to “scratch that itch”, Sara Soueidan has an excellent article on coordinate systems that goes in to gory details. Of course, the truth can always be found in the coordinate spec itself.

More Shapes

Whew, all this abstract coordinate system nonsense…let's get back to having fun playing with shapes! Let's draw a line, 5 pixels from the top-left-most corner, down and to the right a bit shy of 200 pixels (we've started at 5 so it's 195 pixels in distance):

<svg width="225" height="325">
  <line x1="5" y1="5" x2="200" y2="200" stroke="#34495e" stroke-width="10" /></line>
Drawing a diagonal line

The x1 and y1 define the starting point of the line, and the x2 and y2 define the destination point. If we defined y2="5" we would have had a completely horizontal line.

We now have a couple of shapes and attributes under our belt, let's keep moving and fill in the details as we go…

Paths and Points

Polygons use path coordinates to define the various x and y coordinates of its points. A most basic implementation of a polygon might be a triangle like we have here, but you can certainly make more interesting shapes like a star–just define more points.

<svg height="64" width="64" viewBox="0 0 64 64">
  <polygon fill="none" stroke="#FF8A65" stroke-width="4" points="30,4 4,60 60,60"/><polygon>
Polygon element used to make a triangle

Besides applying path coordinates to a pre-built shape type like polygon, we can use the more generic but powerful <path> tag to bend paths at our will.

The path information is specified within the d attribute which contains all our path data (think of the d as standing for data). Within that attribute we insert our path data commands. Let's start with a simple example that creates a similar, albeit larger, triangle a bit more “manually”:

<svg height="250" width="300">
  <path d="M150 5 L75 200 L225 200 Z"  fill="#1abc9c" stroke="#95a5a6" stroke-width="5" />
Path element used to make a triangle

As we explain the above path data, try to imagine a virtual pen going from point to point:

There are more path data commands and we'll list some of them below, but try not to get too hung up on memorizing them–this is definitely a case for using a reference or cheat sheet:

Again, the above uppercase commands indicate absolute coordinates; just use their lowercase counter-parts to indicate a coordinate relative to the previous coordinate.

Paths can get more interesting (and complex) with curves and arcs. I'm going to defer to Mozilla's excellent guide on SVG Paths if you'd like to delve in. Alternatively, you might also check out SVG Essentials, 2nd Edition if you'd like to go even deeper. A “learning hack”, for understanding paths, is to draw super simple shapes in a vector application like Adobe Illustrator, Sketch, or Inkscape, and then look at the generated SVG that's created when you save or export to SVG).

Grouping Paths

One practical yet simple example of combining paths in to a group might be the infamous “hamburger icon”. Grouping is achieved by using the <g> element within the SVG like so:

    <path fill="none" stroke="#1abc9c" stroke-width="10" stroke-linejoin="bevel" d="m 5,10 55,0"/>
    <path fill="none" stroke="#1abc9c" stroke-width="10" stroke-linejoin="bevel" d="m 5,30 55,0"/>
    <path fill="none" stroke="#1abc9c" stroke-width="10" stroke-linejoin="bevel" d="m 5,50 55,0"/>

And here's what that looks like:

We very easily could have replaced the above path elements with SVG rect ones, but these hamburger rectangles are coveniently simple to understand and it also shows that we can, essentially, use a path to create a stroked line.

Congrats, you now have good grounding in SVG; enough to dive in to animating individual parts of SVGs, and learning how to prepare them animation. Ready to start animating SVG? Thought so–have a look at the next article in the SVG series–Intermediate SVG.