Tag Archives: Jeffrey Zeldman

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.

Taking Your Talent to the Web, Jeffrey Zeldman

New Rider, 2001, 426 pages, C$59.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7356-1073-2

Zeldman. Jeffrey Zeldman. Mis-ter Zeldman… which should be said with a slight French accent: Mys-tère Zeldman, for it’s not clear how someone with so much personality was allowed to write a technical book about web design.

Most of the time, a technical book review will focus on the nuts and bolts of the content, the accuracy of the advice and the freshness of the details. But Taking Your Talents to the Web suggests a different approach. Whereas most technical books are dryer than a sunny Arizona day, Zeldman’s book is infused with so much personality that reviewing the authors seems as valid as reviewing the content of the book.

Naturally, I’m biased in this regard. Through his evangelism at www.webstandards.org, his editorship of the weekly e-zine www.alistapart.com and his blog at www.zeldman.com, Jeffrey Zeldman has been a guru of sorts for me as a web designer. His tireless push towards web standards meshed with my own preferences, and if I can blame a single person for my increasing professionalism in terms of XHTML design, Zeldman would be it. Reading the book came after my worship of the guy, not the other way around. This being said, I’d defy any professional web-person not to be impressed by Taking Your Talent to the Web.

It’s also different from the usual technical manual in terms of target audience: Zeldman is a designer first and foremost, and an XHTML maven second. (Or maybe third; his strong writing skills might make him a writer first.) Taking Your Talent To The Web is, as the subtitle says, “A Manual for the Transitioning Designer”. In other words, the target audience for this book already knows design; what they won’t know as much is the web. This makes for an interesting reading experience; the readership of the book is decidedly technical, but in a non-computer-related domain. The angle of attack is slightly askew, and for a computer-technical person with deficient designing skills such as myself, this makes for an interesting reading experience. Zeldman is writing for a smart audience, but they may not know exactly what XHTML geeks already know.

Zeldman’s overview of the origins of the web is wonderful (“Chapter 4: How This Web Thing Got Started”), as are his considerations on the nature of being in the web design business (“Chapter 7: Riding the Project Life Cycle”). Taking Your Talents To the Web isn’t quite so compelling when it delves into acutely specific technical details (“Chapter 12, Beyond Text/Pictures”), but I doubt that by then, most readers will stop reading.

The reason is simple: Zeldman may very well be the funniest technical writer ever to write about web design. Fireworks of wit and humor pepper every page of Taking Your Talent to the Web, from headers to body text itself. I found myself reading this manual concurrently with one of Dave Barry’s anthologies and finding scant difference between the two styles. Don’t think Zeldman skimps on the technical accuracy, though; it’s just that he’s funny in addition of being implacably correct.

This sense of fun is also reflected in the advice told by Zeldman. I’ve had my fill of technical manuals telling me that usability is factor number one, and it took a pro designer to point out a simple truth: All web sites do not have to sell something. They don’t all have to provide information. They can be entertaining, or expressive, or simply baffling and there is nothing wrong with that. No one is forcing you to make your personal web site user-friendly. It’s all right to be non-linear if that’s what you want. It’s a stupid revelation, really, but in a field where usability guru Jakob Nielson is worshipped by many, including your reviewer, it’s useful to take some time and realize that not all of us are designing for Fortune-500 companies. It’s not forbidden to have fun.

It helps, of course, that Zeldman himself looks as if he’s having a lot of fun doing what he does. Furthermore, he keeps preaching -through all the fun- rigorous web design methods, from useful divisions of responsibility to adequate use of bandwidth and validated XHTML coding. Hm, an author who’s technically adept and constantly fun… Trust Zeldman. Zeldman is your friend. I’m not sure if I can make this book any more attractive to you, so why don’t you go out and rush get a copy, already?

(For a preview, extra info and more plain good fun, don’t forget the book’s wonderful web site, at www.zeldman.com/talent.htm )