What are the best books for becoming a web designer?

Today i’ve listed some books that, in my opinion, should be read at least once in a lifetime. While doing so, I tried to create a logical path to follow: from more basic to more advanced.

Why should I care about web standards?

pswsIt’s probable that Jeffrey Zeldman is known to everyone working in web design. He was one of the founders of the movement supporting Web Standards: you could say that if it weren’t for him, we’d still be dealing with table layouts and gif spacers.

His most famous book, Designing With Web Standards, can be considered a sort of manifesto of the movement and, as such, I believe it should have a spot on every web designer’s bookshelf: in fact, this book introduces fundamental concepts at the root of web design.

The book is divided in two parts:  the first summarizes the current (disastrous) state of the web (yes, even though the book is from 2006, I don’t think the situation has improved much): the first chapter is emblematically titled “99.9% of Websites Are Obsolete”. If you’re in need of backup to support web standards, this is the book for you.

The second part, on the other hand, is more hands-on, demonstrating the possibility of creating a layout with XHTML+CSS and helping the reader through the first steps. I must say that even though a few sections are a bit obsolete (it mentions Netscape 4), the concepts are actually quite up to date and noteworthy.

Note: This is the first web design book I read, and as soon as I finished it I knew I had found my direction :)

Here you can find a limited preview of Designing With Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman.

Okay, you’ve convinced me. Where do I begin?

htmldogStarting down a new road is always difficult, choosing one’s own teacher is maybe even more so. There are n-thousand books about XHTML and CSS, each with their own qualities and defects. Some are too technical (I read one that started off by explaining the technical details of a client-server connection, I swear!), others cover the topics in an excessively simplistic manner. I find that HTML Dog: The Best-Practice Guide to XHTML and CSS by Patrick Griffiths is a good compromise between the two worlds: the approach to the various subjects is very practical, and this allows the reader to “get their hands dirty” without having to give up on a good explanation.

The book can be thought of in two parts: the first 10 chapters illustrate the various elements of a website (lists, tables, text, and so forth) with the relative XHTML and CSS code. A peculiarity of this book, in fact, is that these two subjects are covered hand in hand, showing therefore the close ties between them.

One thing that did leave me a bit perplexed, however, is the chapter on Javascript which is only four pages long, obviously too brief to adequately cover the subject. I’ve always wondered why this was included.

Another characteristic of the book is it’s close tie with the namesake website HTML Dog, which details and expands upon the concepts in the paper version (unfortunately the website is in English).

Here you can read a limited preview of HTML Dog: The Best-Practice Guide to XHTML and CSS – Patrick Griffiths.

I understand the basics, but I’d like to see some practical examples

bulletproofDuring my university years I often found myself in the following situation: the key concepts were clear, but I always had a hard time with exams.

Understanding how float, background-position, and text dimensions work in ad hoc examples is relatively simple. I do “float:left”, and the element is moved to the left and the text flows around it. Simple and direct, right?

This might be valid in an example with one image and one paragraph. When we apply these basic concepts to more complex layouts, a good 80% of the time we’re destined for failure. But it was all so simple in the example.

Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cederholm is the book that helped me to overcome this stage and served as the “glue” to link all the ideas whirling around in my head.

The book is very short (less than 300 pages) but packed with content. Each chapter examines one element of web design: it goes from text dimension, to the correct application of floating; from the creation of navigation tabs to liquid and elastic layouts. Each subject is explained in great detail: when I read it I was struck by the use of one pixel high images to create the bottom border on tabs (I would never have figured that out on my own).

CSS is interesting: how can I learn more?

licss1It happens to everyone: the moment you decide to expand your knowledge. If you want to know everything about CSS, you’ve got only one choice. CSS: The Definitive Guide by Eric Meyer could be considered the book on CSS: any aspect, however complex or mysterious, is handled with precision and competency by the man everyone considers one of the top stylesheet experts worldwide. The book’s dimensions are more than generous: almost 600 pages.

I must give you an advance warning that this book is mostly technical, written by a programmer for programmers: you won’t find examples of friendly interfaces or eye-catching design. The examples are based on small bits of text, with few images and nothing more, so all the attention is directed toward the concepts and not toward possible applications.

At the end of the part about CSS 2.1 properties, the appendix contains a helpful summary reference, about both properties and selectors.

Here you’ll find a limited preview of CSS: The Definitive Guide by Eric Meyer.

I’m a developer and I know nothing about web design. I’m a designer and I know nothing about code.

oltreicssThe basis of every successful site is careful and precise construction. A web professional, to be defined as such, must be competent in more than one field. There are developers that know nothing about web design. And designers that can’t understand concepts like semantic markup. Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design is a book that’s difficult to classify, but I think that the two groups I just mentioned are perfect targets for it.

The author, Andy Clarke, did a great job of bridging the gap that exists between technical and design books.

The book is subdivided in four parts:

  • The first part (Discovery) illustrates the approach “beyond CSS”: seven principles that should rule every web designer’s work.
  • The second part (Process), on the other hand, shows how to improve your work process (workflow) by looking at wireframes and their use.
  • The third part (Inspiration) lets the reader step away from their pc and go discover infinite ways to find inspiration.
  • The fourth part (Transcendence) outlines the advanced techniques available using CSS 2.1, as well as functional forms in CSS3 (complete with perfect working examples).

Here’s a limited preview of Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design by Andy Clarke.

I’ve heard of usability: what is it?

web-usability-20Usability is a concept that can be defined as an estimate of how simple something is to use. It happens frequently to we navigate poorly structured sites, with flashing moving navigation buttons; tiny pointers and other not-so-orthodox practices. Usability for the web studies how to structure a website so that it’s easy for users.

One of the most important books on this topic is Prioritizing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger. Nielsen is considered, and rightly so, the top expert in the world on usability and his column, Use it has often signaled, by one who rules the roost, what’s allowed or not in the web design world.

This book covers a very wide range of subjects (the index alone is seven pages long) illustrating the best practices to use for improving a website’s usability. It’s important to note that the book doesn’t detail hard and fast rules, but simply best practices: for example, the fact that it’s suggested to position the search bar at the top right doesn’t mean that all websites have to have it in that spot, but rather that the average user, according to thousands of tests, expects to find it there.

In conclusion, it’s a very interesting read about a subject that is very often ignored in the design phase.

Here you can find a limited preview of Prioritizing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger.


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The Author

Fond of web design, takes delight in creating (X)HTML+CSS layouts. A maniac of polished and tidy codes, the type of person you find in your house straightening the paintings hanging on the wall. He has made his mind of becoming a web designer with a capital “w”, and spends entire nights awake in order to make his dream come true.

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