Monday, February 9, 2009
Review: Head First Web Design
Authors: Ethan Watrall and Jeff Siarto Format: Paperback, 495 pages Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc. (January 2, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596520301 ISBN-13: 978-0596520304 I recently reviewed Creating a Web Site: The Missing Manual and thought a review of this Head First book would be in order. While you might say that both of these books cater to beginners who don't have a history of creating and maintaining web site, you can also say that each book caters to its own special audience. Actually, these two books have two different audiences in more than one way. The Head First series, as I mentioned in my review of Head First Algebra, tends to be best used by younger people. A high school age audience is ideal and if you have been diagnosed with the dreaded initials "A-D-H-D", so much the better. All of the pictures, drawings, arrows, puzzles, and other input types are just great if you normally hate sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time reading straight text. However, as I glanced through the front matter of Watrall and Siarto's book, I got a mild shock. They didn't write this text for the "right-at-the-starting-gate" beginner. Specifically, the book assumes you have prior experience with XHTML (the most recent "buzzword" for HTML that conforms to the latest standards) and CSS, plus have some knowledge of PHP, .NET, and/or Ruby on Rails. If you don't fit this description, the publisher recommends picking up a copy of Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML to get started. So just what does this "web design" book teach? The book proposes to take up where designing a static HTML/CSS site leaves off. Specifically, to teach how to design and develop web sites for the professional or the wannebe-professional web designer. Your first clue that this Head First book is different from the rest of its siblings is that it's in color. I know it's an odd detail to mention, but all of the other Head First books I've seen to date have been strictly monochrome. It never occurred to me that color would be an option in this series (unless there's such a book as "Head First Color Digital Photography"). Relative to the audience-type I mentioned before, this isn't the easiest subject to teach, even in the Head First format. Action-oriented readers are doers, not necessarily planners, and designing professional web sites requires a lot of planning. Chapter 1 covers how to storyboard a proposed web site, which is a necessary first step in many artistic projects. This is contrary to the artist who, extending the metaphor, would rather grab a blank canvas and some paints and start spontaneously creating. Of course, using this approach, you don't always know what you'll end up with until it happens. With designing web sites, and particularly for people who are paying you, this isn't always the best option. While the web pages and some of the diagrams are better rendered in color for the sake of this book, I'm not sure that goes for the photos of the actual people (models). They tend to work better, at least for me, when they retain a more monochrome effect. It makes them easier to take, given their lack of surroundings. In fact, as I made my way through more of the book, I realized that I was having trouble shifting back and forth between the reality that color lends to screenshots of web sites and the more "cartoony" feel of the rest of the Head First format. I agree, it's better to "tell this tale" in color rather than monochrome, but it creates another problem. I found myself wondering if the reader, having become at least competent in basic XHTML/CSS and one or more programming languages, might be better served by "graduating" to a more standard web design/development text. I think of the Head First series as a single stepping stone for a person at a particular stage in their cognitive development (which is different than intelligence) that needs information served up in a particular format at this time in their life. Once they progress beyond that developmental milestone, they will be able to tolerate more "standard" information streams. This Head First book comes closer to the border between its realm and the realms covered by those other info streams than I would have expected. My basic assumption though, could be flawed. I have assumed that people "grow out of" needing to have all or most of their information provided the way the Head First series offers learning. On the other hand, how many people actually prefer the "video game" method of learning their entire lives? Is this also a generational difference in learning styles and that I'm on the wrong side of that particular line? No, otherwise, no one in their 20s could learn from any of O'Reilly's "The Definitive Guide" or "Cookbook" series, among others, and I know that's not true. The book might have been better titled "Head First Professional Web Design", since "web design" as a term, covers a wide field. Maybe that's what threw me off. While I, as an individual learner, am not often best served by this series (the Algebra book being the exception), this web design book seems to almost be pulling the audience away from a strict "Head First" learning model and encouraging them to take the next step. The "atypical-ness" of this one Head First book is being reflected in the difficulty I'm having in reviewing it. It's not that the book doesn't teach its subject well, it's just that the book has to bend it's own series format rules in order to do a good job. Could the audience have taken the next step on their own and just learned the same content from a different book? I'm not sure. Maybe the book serves those people who are used to and like the Head First format and don't feel ready to move away from it...even though they are. Is this book a good teacher for its audience? Probably. It just seems that, in order for the authors to teach this topic, they needed to appeal to the audience to stretch beyond what Head First normally offers. That may mean that Head First has an upper limit for what it can teach. As I review more in this series, I'll see if there's a point past which it cannot go.