Designing with Web Standards, Jeffrey Zeldman

New Riders, 2003, 436 pages, C$54.99 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1201-8

In my earlier review of Jeffrey Zeldman’s first book, Taking Your Talent to the Web, I made no secret of my admiration for his design philosophy and his influence on my own web design style. I suppose that this type of author/reader relationship isn’t uncommon in specialized trades, nor will it diminish in this age of daily blogs and direct publishing.

Through the early part of 2003, readers of zeldman.com witnessed a period of bi-weekly updates during which Zeldman worked on his book, finishing chapters on a daily basis and promising us a return to normalcy soon enough. Now the book in on shelves and it’s pretty much what Zeldman devotees (does this sound like a cult, yet? Zellld-maaan…) wanted and what non-Zeldfans need.

Designing with Web Standards is about many things, but it’s mostly about the web’s increasing maturity as a publishing media. The wild days of frantic exploration are over, web design is experiencing an temporary lull and both of these are good things: Now that we’ve seen the possibilities, the standardization can begin, and the result will be a better web experience for the vast majority. In this chatty non-fiction book that reads like a fireside talk and belongs on your reference shelf, Zeldman shows everyone how to learn to love web standards.

The first part of the book is an idealistic advocacy piece in favour of those standards. Nearly all web sites are obsolete if you take the long view, argues Zeldman. Those patched-up hacks and unstructured presentation markup tags will look increasingly creaky in five, ten or twenty years. (Anyone who assumes that the sites will not survive this long obviously wasn’t paying attention during the Y2K frenzy.) As good web designers, professional or amateur, it’s our responsibility to do everything within our power, right now, to build solid web sites that won’t be obsolete on their launch day. Zeldman’s ideals are bigger than current reality and that’s fine. No one can know the future, but current web standards are our best guide to ensure we won’t be caught unprepared.

For regular readers of zeldman.com, this is hardly news. But the book can now be used as a “respectable paper reference” for pointy-haired bosses left cold by URLs. Indeed, I expect this first section of the book to be photocopied and sent to web project managers across the nation: Zeldman is a persuasive writer, and it’s hard to remain unconvinced of the goodness of XHTML/CSS and DOM/ECMAScript in building web sites after the first fifty pages.

What follows is a gradual shift toward practical usage of XHTML/CSS in building sites. It’s a painless introduction to CSS for web designers, and while it’s not very complete (Zeldman himself acknowledges the deficiencies and suggests Eric Meyer’s books as more comprehensive references), it’s useful in how it weaves this in Zeldman’s core thesis of web standardization. This exercise culminates in a step-by-step look at the construction of a real, web-standards-compliant web site. This section of the book, I suspect, will be invaluable to apprentice web designers as we’re treated to a look inside the mind of a professional web designer during a real-world project, from concept to debugging.

Web design doesn’t stop when the first page renders in the first browser, of course: The third part of the book delves deeep into bugs, workaround, real-world compromises and other stuff that makes web designers earn their fee. Most of this material is adapted from Zeldman’s blog, making it available (and indexed!) in a handy paper package.

All of this could be quite dull if it wasn’t for Zeldman’s world-renowned prose, surely the easiest web technical read in recent memory. There’s a punch-line on every page —and useful information too! Designing with Web Standards has the continued appeal of a Dave Barry column, backed with invaluable real-world information you can depend upon. As a book, it’s in many ways a recycling of Zeldman’s daily blog musings, but when the level of quality remains so high, it’s his on-line readers who are getting a bargain. If you’re a professional web developer, there’s no real excuse to avoid reading Designing with Web Standards. Not if you want to remain in this crazy-fun business for more than a few years, that is.

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