8th July, 2004

Inspired by red, orange and yellow

What makes these three books so valuable to anyone concerned with building websites? Much has been written about all three, and each has gained many plaudits from professional and amateur designers alike.

Web design book covers

I’ve found Designing With Web Standards, Web Standards Solutions and Defensive Design For The Web inspirational, essential and even enjoyable. Here’s why…

Importantly, all three books are written by established, experienced commentators - each experts in their field. I know one would expect an author to know a lot about his or her subject, but here we have three examples of authors working with subject matter that is in a continuous state of flux. To trap a moment in the development of web design is surely tricky - to have that text still mean something over a year later is impressive.

New methods and techniques appear daily. Anyone addicted to their industry blogroll will know that. These three authors succeed in taking a screengrab of current practice, backing this up with how we got there, and being very upfront about the transience of certain methods they illustrate.

Web Standards Solutions

For example, I have just finished absorbing Dan Cederholm’s Web Standards Solutions (am I the first? Do I win a prize Dan?). This book is about as current as it gets, but trapping so many hacks in print soon dates a publication. In chapter 14, Dan dissects various methods of image replacement, primarily focussing on how we present text in place of images if a user cannot access our style sheet, or has images turned off. He moves from Fahrner’s method, and Leahy/Langridge’s method through to the Phark method. This charts the development of the techniques offered so far, and usefully illustrates how designers think around a problem. Yet, it could be argued that already the first methods have been usurped by later ones, and Dan is keen to stress that new methods could exist by the time the book hits the shelves. His commentary is often charged with the possibility that such alternative methods have a limited longevity, and many of them can be seen as mere starting points.

Key to Dan’s text is his Summary at the end of each chapter. The pros and cons of each chapter’s three or four preceeding methods are bulleted, and his Extra Credit sections power the reader with yet more tips and alternatives. It’s a logical read too. The first half of the book deals with mark-up, specifically how to write lean, manageable, byte-lite code. There’s CSS mixed in with that, but essentially he delves in to best XHTML practice. There’s some cracking stuff about phrase elements (cite, samp, dfn, kbd anyone?), correct use of tables and some choice methods of styling unordered lists. Whilst this may be old news to some designers, I approached the book as if a complete amateur - attempting to unlearn what I had learned. From this slightly false standpoint, it was clear that the book’s structure, simplicity and variety would make a perfect entry into the world of standards-aware web design.

Dan does not seek to lay down the law, rather he interprets it, thinks within and around it, and leaves the reader to conclude for themselves the best approach to a problem.

Dan’s book has me re-thinking my entire approach to XHTML/CSS-based design. It makes me want to go back to every build and start afresh. It shows how inadequate mere validation is, and makes us consider the bigger picture - forward-compatibility, easier site management, and the end user.

Designing With Web Standards

Many have extolled the virtues of Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards, so I won’t go on and on about it here. Suffice to say, it’s been propped next to my G4 for well over a year now. I can’t measure how much of a positive impact this pivotal text has had on my own approaches - lets just say it is still essential. Again, Zeldman trapped a moment in time, exploring web standards at a time when many were still confused by XHTML and CSS, and few agencies or clients were truly embracing such wild and crazy methods. Zeldman exploded the myths and sought to awaken designers to the endless possibilities and labour-saving brilliance of standards-based design.

For me, it was a chance to really understand the point of screen readers, saving bandwidth, character encoding and a million other core ingredients. Cederholm’s new book may supercede Zeldman’s code and methodology, but as an overview of the wind of change and new ways of thinking way back in 2003, it still makes for great reading (it’s actually very funny in parts) and makes me wish he’d finish writing whatever non-web novels or travelogues he somehow finds time for.

Defensive Design For The Web

Defensive Design For The Web by 37 Signals is a different beast entirely, yet it completes my set very nicely. Again, it’s been discussed across the blogosphere a great deal over the past few months, but I cannot stress enough how truly essential this manageable, incredibly coherent little book is to anyone tasked with building forms and other interactive elements. Custom 404 pages, error handling, search results - just about any potential outcome is considered and solved.

The book takes real examples and dissects them. It gets straight to the point, with every page having a useful example to follow. There’s little extraneous waffle within, just practical solutions. Every one of us must have had trouble with user interactivity at some point, if not as a developer then certainly as a user. The 37 Signals team (Matthew Linderman and Jason Fried have authored the book) have established key guidelines for each chapter - a checklist of potential errors, and seek to provide sensible solutions to each. Finally, they offer an easy-to-perform test for the reader to evaluate his or her own site, ensuring all pitfalls are covered. Top marks to 37 Signals for somehow making me want to care about forms and error handling. That’s some feat.

Pass the book

The Agenzia web bookshelf is bulging. There are many books I’ve sworn by over the last two years up there - too many to mention here. I chose to flag up these three in particular mainly because they don’t live on that shelf, they live on my desk. I read and re-read them. I show sections to clients. I thrust them at new members of our team. I wax lyrical about them often.

By the way, I’m not on commission here. If you’ve used any of these three books, be sure to leave a comment and let the authors and I know what worked for you. Alternatively, which books do you swear by, and why…

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