Fresh Styles for Web Designers, Curt Cloninger

New Riders, 2002, 211 pages, C$52.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1074-0

I’m not sure why or how, but I have long been fascinated by design. Whether graphical design, web design or pure design (ie; the thousand ways to make a chair), I can be endlessly entertained by the intricacies of putting a detail here rather than there and the effect this can have on an overall piece. (Actually, I lied about not have any idea about the source of my design fascination: I suspect that it stems from my problem-solving fetish, which is a large part of what design is all about.)

Alas, as a quick look at my web site will reveal, I’m not a very good designer myself. I don’t have much imagination, and what I do best is either do a lot with nothing or slavishly copy whatever’s been done before. “Efficient” is one way of characterizing my work. “Boring” is another.

Still, I approached Curt Cloninger’s Fresh Styles for Web Designers with something approximating glee. I looked forward to reading it with the same feeling I have whenever I’m about to read a crunchy good SF novel from a reliable author. Simply paging through the book was difficult, as I wanted to just dive in and read everything at once.

Fresh Styles is a book-length expansion on an article available at http://www.lab404.com/dan/, a list of twelve new “cutting edge” styles to help designers break out of the curiously similar web sites you can find just about everywhere on the web. Cloninger doesn’t pay much heed to usability concerns here, usually justifying his position by the idea that personal sites can afford to be slightly user-unfriendly, and some commercial sites do, in fact, demand a slightly edgier look. In any case, anyone looking for usability design tips should read another book.

So Fresh Styles details ten new and unusual styles one could conceivably adopt and modify for one’s own purposes. The styles range from soft and cuddly to harsh and industrial, with everything from simple and minimal to complex and dirty in between. Though there is some technical advice here and there, this is more of an inspirational book than an instructional one. Indeed, it helped me come to grip with my own style, which I’ve come to recognize as an inept take on HTMinimaLism (“Say it! Say it loud! I’m an HTMinimaList and I’m proud!”)

Overall, this is a fun and inspiring tour: The design styles covered by Cloninger are indeed fresh (on or off the web) and he does explain a few of the techniques used in creating these styles, in addition to the philosophy (or desired effect) behind them. The book offers proof that everything old can be new again, and a simple exploration of past design trends can be applied in a fresh way to a new medium. The book is abundantly illustrated, so there are quite a few examples for the reader to enjoy.

Maybe not enough of them, though. In fact, my single biggest criticism of the book is flattering; I would have appreciated more stuff. For wannabee designers such as myself who excel in replicating styles, it’s also a bit of a bother that Cloninger doesn’t spend more time qualifying and explaining why and how to realize a design. One (or two) site does not a movement make! But that’s unlikely to bother more seasoned designers who will use the book as a springboard toward something wholly different.

Considering the book from a wider perspective, it can also stand in as a quick tour of the web circa late 2001, at a point where the medium began to acquire an artistic maturity of its own. It’s easy to be respectable when there’s VC money around, but once the big bucks and the glamour’s been stockbrokered away, that’s when the medium’s resilience shows through. The design philosophies in Fresh Styles are demonstrations that, yes, the web is a bold and new medium that just won’t go away, and might actually thrive best once the dot-com hype has died down.

But more prosaically, Fresh Styles is an all-too-rare glimpse in the mind of working design professionals, beyond the dirt-common “design” manuals that are really HTML coding primers. I’m glad this book exists, and I’m even happier that I’ve read it. Now I want a sequel with more styles, more details and more design considerations. As soon as possible!

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