GIF Files: When to Use Them and What They Are

To GIF or not to GIF?

Illustration of a GIF file on a computer screen

Oleksandr Hruts / Getty Images

GIF files are commonly used on the internet, along with several other file formats such as JPGs and PNG. GIF is an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format which uses a lossless data compression technique that reduces the file size without quality loss. A GIF can contain a maximum of 256 colors from the 24-bit RGB color space, which — although that may sound like a lot of colors — is actually a limited palette that makes the GIF useful in some scenarios but inappropriate to others.

The GIF was first developed by CompuServe in 1987 and is widely used on the internet due to its portability and relatively small size, making GIFs available in any browser and on any platform, and fast to load.

When the GIF Format Works Best

A GIF, identified with the .gif file extension, is usually the best choice for images that feature solid color, text and simple shapes. Examples would be buttons, icons or banners, for example, since they have hard edges and simple colors. If you are working with photos or other images that feature color gradation, a GIF is not your best bet (consider a JPG instead, although JPG does not feature the lossless compression that a GIF does).

Unlike JPG files, GIF files support transparent backgrounds. This allows GIF files to blend with website background colors. However, since pixels can be only 100% transparent or 100% opaque, you cannot use them for partial transparency, drop shadows, and similar effects. To achieve that, PNG files are best.

In fact, PNG, standing for Portable Network Graphics, has overtaken the GIF's popularity as a leading graphics format for the web. It offers better compression and additional features, but it doesn't support animation, for which GIFs are now most commonly used.

Animated GIFs

GIF files can contain animation, creating files known as animated GIFs. These are commonly seen on websites, though they are not as widely used as they used to be. Remember the days of animated "under construction" graphics? Those were classic animated GIFs.

But there are still common uses for these animations. They can be used in advertisements, email marketing or simple DIY demos — anywhere where a static image just won't do the trick.

You don't need an expensive graphics program to create an animated GIF. In fact, you can do it for free using one of several online tools, such as, or GIPHY.

Some web users are turned off by too much animation, however, so use this format carefully and sparingly, and where it will have the greatest impact.

How to Pronounce GIF

Most designers pronounce GIF with a hard "g" like that in the word "give." Interestingly, however, its developer Steve Wilhite of CompuServe intended it to be pronounced with a soft "g" like "jif" as in Jif peanut butter. A famous saying among the CompuServe developers in the '80s was " Choosy developers choose GIF" as a play on the peanut butter ad of that era.