Favicon – Why you’re doing it wrong

You know what the favicon is. This is this small icon in each browser’s tab.

The most famous favicon
The most famous favicon

Web developers are familiar with the classic favicon declaration:

<link rel="shortcut icon" href="/favicon.ico">

Each web site comes with its favicon. A must have. But wait, what is needed exactly?

The many faces of the favicon in 2015

With the iPhone and so many new devices created during the last 10 years, the favicon is no longer a single 16×16 picture. It has many usages, many sizes and many designs.

The most well-known derivative is the Apple Touch Icon for iOS. This icon is used when your visitor adds your site to his home screen. No Touch icon? iOS generates a miniature of the bookmarked web page and uses it as the icon. Not great.

With and without Touch icon
With and without Touch icon

Android and Windows 8 follow the same trend, each one with its own approach.

With so many buzz around mobile web and responsive design, it just becomes mandatory for the favicon to address these new platforms. Basically, if you still stick to the classic favicon.ico, you’re 10 years behind schedule.

Why is that?

It’s a mess

Creating a single 16×16 icon is easy. But what if we want to support iOS, Android, Windows 8 Metro and desktop browsers? We need 4 picture at a minimum. If we want to do the job completely and address everything (first generation iPhone, latest Retina iPad, Android Lollipop, IE 9, MacOS Safari…), we can create up to 26 pictures. Sounds like we gonna have a great day.

There are not only a lot of pictures. Declaring them is also tricky. With Windows 8.1 and IE 11, Microsoft introduced the new browserconfig.xml. The main purpose of this file is to create “live tiles” and make your Metro tiles dynamic. This is also where you declare your 4 pictures dedicated to IE 11. For example, the 310×310 tile picture, which is actually recommended to be 558×558, for high density screens (but still declared as the square310x310logo picture in browserconfig.xml. Is that clear enough?). Android Chrome M39 also comes with its own manifest. No XML but JSON here.

So we not only have to create a lot of pictures, we also need to learn a lot of stuff. Just to create a compelling favicon. Hum…

Design matters

So, creating 20-something icons is surely not funny, but this is something we can deal with. This task can be automated. Give a script our picture and the sizes we want, it will create them all in no time.

But wait! Creating a multi-platform favicon is not only a matter of size. Each platform has its own design requirements. For example, transparent icons fit the Android home screen well. But iOS prevents them. It simply fills the transparent regions with black, which is generally not what we want.

The Touch Icon of StackOverflow has its transparent background set to black by iOS. Was it intended?
The Touch Icon of StackOverflow has its transparent background set to black by iOS. Was it intended?

We not only have to generate a lot of icons. We have to craft them, platform per platform. Damn.

Google doesn’t help

Nowadays the first step to fix anything is to launch Google. Let’s do this and find the information we need. For example, what are the sizes of the Apple Touch icon? Let’s google “touch icon size”.

The first two results for "touch icon size"
The first two results for “touch icon size”

The first result is from StackOverflow. Exactly what we would expect. Unfortunately, the first answer is two iOS versions behind: it talks about the 144×144 touch icon for Retina iPad running iOS 6. iOS 7 introduced the 152×152 picture, and iOS8 adds the 180×180 picture. You have to scroll to the 4th answer to get it right.

All is not lost, the second result are the Apple specs themselves. End of the story? Not really. The specs were not updated for iOS 8. Nothing beyond 152×152 is documented there.

Okay but what we really need here is a favicon generator right? We don’t care about all these information after all. Google again, “favicon generator” this time.

Google answer for "favicon generator". No self-promotion intended of course :)
Google answer for “favicon generator”. No self-promotion intended of course

Out of the 7 first results, 6 of them only generate the favicon.ico you needed in the pre-iPhone era. Only one covers the whole spectrum. It appears that this is RealFaviconGenerator, the very site you’re visiting and reading right now. I was as surprised are you are.

So Google surely brings the correct answers but we still have to figure them out. “I feel lucky” doesn’t work with favicons.


If you want to master the art of favicon, the Favicon Cheat Sheet is a great place to start. It lists a lot of information in one single place, which is very valuable by itself. Mathias Bynens also does an excellent job at updating his famous article about Touch icons. The RealFaviconGenerator’s FAQ also deals with a lot of tips and tricks and references.

What if you don’t really wanna know everything about favicon, but simply get the job done quickly? Well, you have the next-gen favicon generator option. Which is, by the merest chance, this site. Yes, among 1 billion web sites, this article was just published by the site it was referring to as the best site ever. You didn’t see that coming and nor did I.

32 thoughts on “Favicon – Why you’re doing it wrong

  1. Where does one put the HTML code for the icons on a WordPress site? In header.php? There is a header.php in the site framework folder but not in the child theme folder. Not sure where in the header to put it, beginning, middle, end?

    • I don’t really know Blogger so I can’t help, sorry. What I see is that Google doesn’t give really relevant results for a search such as “blogger apple touch icon”. So I’m afraid Blogger might support only the plain old favicon…

  2. It doesn’t work and I can’t figure it out.
    – Upload img
    – Change the setting accordingly
    – Download files and put them where they need to be
    – Copy/paste code into head
    – Triple checks that the path is correct
    – Nothing happens.

    Doesn’t work in chrome or safari.
    I’ve tried on my local server and on a live website, the results are the same. When I use the “Check your favicon” option on your site it just tells me that half the stuff isn’t there and the things it says work just fine doesn’t actually work.

    Is there any help to get or do I have to find an alternative to your otherwise incredibly awesome solution? (Even tho it doesn’t work for me I still think you did a really great a thorough job, I’m sure I made some kind of cock-up)

  3. Just gotta say it’s beautiful to see you interacting with your users publicly in the comments here. The maker himself.

    I found your site many months ago when curiously wanting to understand favicons. Now, months later, I’m dabbling in web page creation. I look forward to using the tool to manually add favicons to my Minecraft log to chat page I tossed up for a place. Don’t like home screen Android button that is a letter! Ewww! Haha.

    Thanks so much.

  4. Pingback: Das Favicon und ich | -=daMax=-

  5. Can you select a different design for each size using your generator? Get more high fidelity design for retina favicons?

  6. What about icon when you share link to your website in a facebook chat window? When I send a link, there is no any icon next to description in the chat window 🙁 I used the generator that you recommended.

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