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Web design books roundup


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Other book reviews.

Whilst considering this bunch of web design books, side by side, it soon became clear that there is pretty much a core set of design principles that crop up in all of the books. They are the same tips that also appear in internet magazine articles about web design every month. That means that when you're reading these books, much of the time you're reading stuff you have read before and you're just waiting for the clever extra bit to show up. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

It also didn't take long for me to realise that Web Pages That Suck, the book of the website, is clearly better than the other books, even though some of the other books have good points. So we'll start with Web Pages That Suck, and then consider the other books in relation to it.


Web Pages That Suck (1998), by Vincent Flanders and Michael Willis (Sybex, San Francisco).

Long policy-statement as subtitle: 'Learn good design by looking at bad design'.

What the cover says: 'Funny, opinionated, and always to-the-point, Flanders and Willis have developed a reputation for being the Web's leading critics'.

Book design quirk: Lots of photos of the authors in 'comic' poses.

So?: It really is good. The idea of learning how to make a nice website by looking at horrible aspects of existing websites, and avoiding their sucky techniques, is a good one. The book is fun to read but you get a lot out of it too. Flanders and Willis have no wish to impress you with their understanding of difficult, techy aspects of web design; their line is more often that you should avoid getting carried away with any difficult, techy aspect of web design anyway because it will probably look stupid.

Other good points: It shows that you can start a website yourself and watch it grow into a big and successful thing, because that is exactly how Web Pages That Suck came to be a best-selling book -- being based on a website made by Vincent Flanders that got listed as a Yahoo! Pick of the Week and became very popular.

Bad points: It doesn't teach you HTML from scratch, if that's what you wanted, but none of these books do anyway. And, oh dear, it costs 30 [$39]. It comes with a free CD full of useful things, but so do lots of 4 magazines.

Rating (based on quality, ignoring the price): Top marks.


The Non-Designer's Web Book (1998), by Robin Williams and John Tollett (Peachpit Press, Berkeley, California).

Long policy-statement as subtitle: 'An easy guide to creating, designing, and posting your own web site'.

What the cover says: 'From the award-winning author of the best-seller, The Non-Designer's Design Book'. It also suggests that Robin Williams is a top female design writer, and not the top male actor (although viewers of Mrs Doubtfire feel that this is an uneasy claim).

Book design quirk: A 'friendly', colourful design.

So?: It's pretty good. There is a slight confusion about whether it wants to be an all-inclusive book for beginners or not. It tells you some basic things about the internet and how to use it, which someone reading this book would probably have discovered already, though it is OK to have it here, and would be useful if this was a course book for students, say. Then it seems to want to teach some design principles without worrying about HTML -- which is OK -- but at other times it is in HTML tutor mode -- which can be a bit confusing. I felt that some things were introduced in a funny order. It even seems to tell you about everything in basic terms once, and then goes through it all again, but in more detail, later in the book.

Good points: Having said that, it's well put together, looks nice, and contains a lot of information.

Bad points: Not perfectly organised. Light in spirit, but not actually humorous. Doesn't make you question the whole point and focus of your web site like Web Pages That Suck does. And it costs 22 [$30] and has no CD. Not that I'd want to spend an extra 8 just to get a 'free' CD.

Rating: 71 per cent as good as Web Pages That Suck.


Web Design in a Nutshell (1999), by Jennifer Niederst (O'Reilly, California).

Policy-statement as subtitle: 'A desktop quick reference'. (Suggesting that you will know all of the information already and will just be using the book to 'check').

What the cover says: 'Web Design in a Nutshell contains the nitty-gritty on everything you need to know to design web pages'.

Book design quirk: No colour. Looks like a computer manual.

So?: You wouldn't really want to learn how to make webpages with it, if you've never done it before, unless you are someone who actually likes the format of plain computer manuals because they give you no-fuss information, or something.

However, it is a decent reference book if you know HTML already and you want it to check things, or to learn in some detail how to do Cascading Style Sheets, for example. But web design, despite the title, does not really seem to be the most important thing here.

Good points: Comprehensive and reliable as a reference book.

Bad points: Not enough about design concepts per se. No fun. Costing 19 (with no CD), for a monochrome book, is actually worse than 22 for a colour book. And you can get all the pure reference stuff from the Web anyway.

Rating: 42 per cent as good as Web Pages That Suck.


Web Style Guide (1999), by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton (Yale University Press, New Haven).

Policy-statement as subtitle: 'Basic design principles for creating websites'.

What the cover says: 'At last, a book on the design of Web sites with the viewer in mind,' a man is quoted as saying. This is obviously stupid as every book on Web design, even the bad ones, has the viewer in mind -- who else?

Book design quirk: No colour. Plain, functional layout.

So?: This one is worth a mention, at least, because it is considerably cheaper than the others, at 10 [$15]. However, the 'you get what you pay for' rule seems to apply with these books. Web Pages That Suck costs three times more, but it's three times better, so there.

And although I just said you get what you pay for, you can in fact get this Web Style Guide for free on the web. So rather than getting what you pay for, you get something you didn't have to pay for.

Of course, it's good that you can get it for free on the Web. Furthermore, that's the best place for it. Skim it for tips you hadn't thought of. Sure, I found a couple. But it's not bursting with energy or ideas, this book.

Good points: It's a nothing-if-not-sensible guide to preparing serious documents in a decent Web format. That's what it is. If that's what you want, then fine.

Bad points: Quite a bit of it is rather obvious; and it mixes the essential with the superfluous rather haphazardly. It doesn't seem quite as well thought-out as it thinks it is.

Rating: 33 per cent as good as Web Pages That Suck -- but priced accordingly. It's not bad or wrong or anything, so read bits of it on the Web at the super price of nothing.


The Wired Professor (1999), by Anne B. Keating with Joseph Hargitai (New York University Press, New York).

Policy-statement as subtitle: 'A guide to incorporating the World Wide Web in college instruction'.

What the cover says: 'The internet is rapidly becoming a necessary and natural part of the way we access information. The Wired Professor provides instructors with the necessary skills and intellectual framework for effectively working with and understanding this new tool and medium'.

Book design quirk: Unusual oblong shape, close to A4 landscape. No colour. Cover design cannot have taken very long.

So?: This one, being aimed at college/university tutors, has different goals to the others. But should lecturers get this, or stick to one of the more general titles discussed above? Or is The Wired Professor so good that everybody should read it?

Flicking through the book at first, the reader notices that the author insists on calling herself 'Professor Anne B. Keating' at several points, which is usually a frightening sign. Happily I am able to tell you that much of the book is free of such freaky insecurity.

The book is readable and concise in style, with some good personal stuff, near the start, telling you how the authors got into the area and started producing webpages for their own courses. I am aware that some people think that that kind of material is 'self-indulgent', or something, but I always enjoy that stuff and find it very helpful in evaluating whether the author is trustworthy or likeable. So that part was welcome, and might be encouraging to any tutors who are starting to wonder whether they should be starting to put material on the web.

The book then spends two chunky chapters on the history and geography of the internet. This is useful stuff, generally speaking, although its inclusion in this particular book, at this level of detail, was not essential.

The rest of the book is about creating webpages to support (or even partly deliver) education courses. The introduction to HTML is fine and gives you enough information to turn your dream of a (slightly crappy-looking) website into reality. It misses out some useful stuff, though -- one I noticed is that it doesn't mention META tags (which need to be added to a site for it to be catalogued by many search engines). Whilst it might be unfair to expect a full HTML course from this book, it seems silly for it to explain some of the basics and not all of the basics. After all, it then goes on to (briefly) too you about adding sound and video to websites.

If the authors of Webpages That Suck read The Wired Professor, incidentally, they would be plunged into despair. For example, readers of Webpages That Suck will know that the absolute epitome of suckiness is a web page that makes you wait for a sound file to download, only for it to turn out to be a stupid welcome message, or a comment that would have worked just as well in text on the screen. What does The Wired Professor have to say about sound files? 'Sound always adds dimension to your page,' it enthuses, even mentioning 'reading a poem aloud for your students' as an example. This kind of thing is much too uncritically cheerful, ignoring all kinds of access issues, and failing to force the webpage creator to think 'Why do I really want to do this?'

Some important elements of web design, such as not having long lines of text which span the screen, seem to have been overlooked. More worryingly, some of the examples are ugly and use dumb, big graphics which would only annoy some users.

The book enthuses about the usefulness of frames (described as an 'advanced feature') without giving sufficient warning of their drawbacks (such as that they are difficult to bookmark or link to, and confusing for search engines).

On the positive side, it gives an easy explanation of how to include a guestbook on your website -- including an understandable, just-as-much-as-you-need crash course in the computer language Perl -- something I've not seen in other books or magazines like this.

Finally, the book concludes with 'Visions for a Virtual University', a reasonably cautious discussion of the ways in which the internet might be used for distance learning.

Rating: 66 per cent as good as Web Pages That Suck.


A clear conclusion

Get Web Pages That Suck. Then maybe get one of the others, if you think you need to.

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