The Art & Science of Web Design, Jeffrey Veen

New Riders, 2001, 259 pages, C$67.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7897-2370-0

As a technical professional with a deep interest in web design, I was pleased, over the last year, to see the emergence of a new type of how-to books. More focused on the theory and bigger issues of web publishing than hands-on coding concerns, these books exemplify the emerging maturity of the web. Whereas before the field was moving too quickly and hapzardly to allow for any formal (written) literature, the recent stabilization of standards and depth of past case studies is having an impact.

Jeffrey Veen is one of those old-timers with a lot of experience to share. He’s been working for Wired Digital, involved in web standards work and is generally recognized as pretty hot stuff in web design communities. Now he’s ready to spill the beans and share his experience in The Art & Science of Web Design.

It’s a heterogeneous book divided in eight sections that can be read more or less independently. Rather than to generalize excessively, I’ll cover the book section by section, and so…

[1]: Foundations starts the book with a conceptual bang. In less than thirty pages, Veen provides a historical context for the web, as well as a solid theory on why and how to develop the web. This is easily the book’s highlight, with its emphasis on bigger issues rather than nitty-gritty.

[2]: Interface Consistency is a case study of other sites, and a powerful theoretical argument in favor of navigational standards. This section is complementary to the work of Jakob Nielsen. Again, it’s wonderful stuff if you like to think on a higher plane of design.

[3]: Structure is another good theoretical primer on how to organize information, how to differentiate between various organizational schemes and why some are more appropriate than others.

[4]: Behavior starts promisingly enough with a good argument in favor of rule-based design, but slowly peters out with an interesting but incongruous technical demo of a headline-resizing piece of code.

[5]: Browsers helps to understand the awesome responsibility of web designers in accomodating users through their browsers. A good technical overview, maybe a bit too short.

[6]: Speed is an argument for clever simplicity, well-needed at a time where designers tend to assume high bandwidth for everyone.

[7]: Advertising is a short but interesting primer on how to advertise -and to accomodate advertising- on the web.

[8]: Object-oriented Publishing is somewhat of a let-down as a final chapter, being mostly a case study of one sample web site presumably done by Veen. It lacks the oomph required to send off such a book and also piles up a lot of technicalities at once.

Overall, though, I was impressed by Veen’s chatty style and overall grasp of the bigger picture of web design. There was a lot in there that I already knew, but reminders always help, and they’re not overly annoying when they’re backed-up by good arguments.

I wasn’t so fond of the book’s latter half, which seemed out-of-place in a paper-media reference work. If I want Javascript code that will resize my headlines based on their length, I’ll head out to a web site. It doesn’t belong with the theoretical information that should be contained in a book destined to remain on my professional reference shelf. It’s almost as if past the first few chapters, Veen had to use filler in order to satisfy a publishing contract…

In the same vein, it’s hard to say who’s the target audience for the book. Its scattershot approach make it more efficient as a periodical refresher than a reference source. It’s mixture of theory and coding puts in in reach of both managers and tech weenie; maybe it’ll help both realms understand each other, or maybe it’ll confuse them forever. It’s a worthwhile read, sure, but unfortunately it’s also unsatisfying. A lot of good stuff, improperly tied in together. Maybe it’ll all be fixed in the upgrade…

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