Web Design on a Shoestring, Carrie Bickner

New Riders, 2004, 215 pages, C$37.99 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1328-6

Regular readers of this web site will scarcely be surprised by my librarian fetish (though it still creeps them out). As keepers of books, masters of reference information and holders of library keys, librarians secretly control the world and that just makes them unbelievably hot. (And this regardless of whether they hold their flowing locks of curly hair in a bun or not.) Certainly, Carrie Bickner of www.roguelibrarian.com fame does nothing to quell my fascination for book-indexing ladies. Heck, by embracing the information age and leading the way for web standards, Bickner is the pin-up girl for what modern librarians should be. Entire crowds of geeks mourned when she married master web designer Jeffrey Zeldman (of, yes, www.zeldman.com fame), but she’ll forever remain special to all of us. Who hasn’t bookmarked her NYPL web style guide, already?

With Web Design on a Shoestring, Bickner carries the torch of efficient web standards from the virtual world to the real. The book sets out to help over-worked and under-resourced web professionals do the most with the least. In a post-dot-com-bubble world where the web has remained essential even as budgets for it have shrunk to almost nothing, this book is a sign of the times and a harbinger of things to come. Everyone needs a web site, but there’s not much money for it. Welcome to the real world.

As a public sector web designer and an occasional free-lance web expert, I could read the book as a member of two audiences, and Web Design on a Shoestring does indeed try to cover as many situations as possible. As long as you’re trying to make web design more cost-effective, this book has something to offer.

Bickner, for instance, illustrates the importance of web standards in bringing down costs; by designing to standards and doing cost-efficient usability testing, it’s relatively easy for web designers to sidestep incompatibilities between web browsers, simplify the design template of sites and be reasonably confident that they’re satisfying the vast majority of their audience. Further tips on typography, hosting, images and web writing help the book cover a very large subject.

There is, all told, a lot to like about this book. As is the norm with books by New Riders, it manages to provide a lot of technical information without being dull. The writing style is conversational, often quite amusing. The organization of the book is logical. It’s quick and to the point at just over 200 pages. There are plenty of summary points to recap the book’s most useful passages. Some of the material is unique or very handy, such as the very interesting chapters on Content Management Systems or how to deal with image sources.

Still, I can’t help but feel let down by the book. Having borrowed it from my employer’s corporate library, I’m not very well-placed to say that the book is page-per-page expensive. But even as short as it is, I know enough about a few subjects to see parts of the book as pure filler; the primer on XHTML and web design standards goes in too much detail as compared to the rest of the book, and yet doesn’t say much compared to other resources on the subject. (Furthermore, it’s not unreasonable to assume that most of the book’s target audience is already well-versed in XHTML.) Like a few other “name” web design books, parts of Web Design on a Shoestring feel like a “greatest hits” of the author’s knowledge, complete with a few technical how-tos that feel a lot like padding. Some of it is essential; some of it is practically useless and redundant.

I still think it’s a reasonably useful guide for the vast majority of web designers stuck doing much with less. But I’ll stop short of calling it an essential read: Most of the information can be picked up elsewhere on the web for far less than C$37.99 (how’s that for being cost-effective?) and whatever is left can be read at the bookstore if needs be. Too bad; there’s a lot to like about Bickner and her practical approach to web design. But when you call a book Web Design on a Shoestring, you have to deliver the best shoestrings possible.

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