Monday, April 27, 2009

Sexy Web Design: Creating Interfaces that Work

Author: Elliot Jay Stocks Format: Paperback, 172 pages Publisher: SitePoint (March 28, 2009) ISBN-10: 0980455235 ISBN-13: 978-0980455236 There are just about a ton of web design books on the market. Better make that two tons. What makes this one so different that yet another book on the topic graces the shelves of our local bookstores...I mean, besides the fact that it's "sexy"? In terms of design (and a lot of other things), the term "sexy" doesn't quite mean a scantily clad curvy woman or buff man (although I suppose it could). It means a design that is highly attractive and appealing to the eye. Erotic imagery is used to sell everything from cars to sunglasses because it attracts attention. Anything that attracts (positive) attention to your web site design can be considered "sexy". Is this book "sexy"? Does it teach "sexy" design? Let's find out. I suppose it helps that the object on the book's cover is a two-tone '57 Corvette Stingray. Classic sports cars are "sexy", and I think the classic lines of a jet black 'vette are totally hot. However, Jina Bolton uses the word "sexy" at least eight times on the first page of the Foreword. Perhaps she's just trying to define the author's terms, but overuse of this particular vocabulary word could make it, and the concept, old fast. Who should read this book? Glad you asked. According to the Preface, the field is wide open. Anyone, from the web design newbie who has just installed Dreamweaver on his or her PC for the first time, to the seasoned design veteran who is an expert at the nuts-and-bolts of web design but needs help in the "art department". That's usually the kind of book you want to write when you want your book to appeal (be sexy) to the widest possible audience (and thus sell to the widest possible audience). As I was thumbing through the book's front matter, I was still waiting to see if the hype was worth the price of the content. I saw that the book was supported by a web page on the SitePoint site. Having recently had a bad experience with a supporting (or rather non-supporting) site for a book I'd reviewed, I decided to check this one out right away. No promise of being able to download the source code for the book (you'll see why later in the review), so I didn't bother looking for that. There was the promise of an errata page which I found, but the book's only been available for a month, so I wasn't surprised that nothing had been submitted as yet. Otherwise, the site hosted "the usual suspects" including a sample chapter, the TOC, much of what I'd already read in the front matter, and so forth. Like other, similar web design books (including ones published by SitePoint), the book is written to appeal to the artist or, in the author's words, "The reason I'm a designer is a simple one: I like making stuff look pretty". This actually is a better book for the non-artist who usually needs more help in designing an attractive website, as opposed to mastering the mechanics of building a website. Even if you know HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to the best of your ability and can do web design while doing the ironing, taking out the trash, and watching American Idol (you poor thing), you may still not be able to design an attractive website. Frankly, no one is going to marvel at your technical excellence in web design if your sites look ugly or even just "ho hum". On the other hand, you will be marvelled at (and hired) if your sites are technical wonders and look fabulous. Chapter one is all about the description of the design process, beginning to end. I've seen this in a number of other books, but it is sometimes neglected when it should be required. It's not enough to know the technical aspects of the various languages involved; you also need to understand planning and intent of a site. The chapter, though small (and the whole book is less than 200 pages), is packed with examples of each of the author's points. In fact, in each page's footer is the URL to the sites used as examples, so you can view them in your web browser as you're following along in the book. While Chapter one is a summary of the entire process, Chapter two focuses more on the specifics of the research involved in web design. So far, there is no hint at even a scrap of code, so much of what goes on in the first 43 pages is conceptual. I was expecting to see some code pop out at me in Chapter 3, but such was not the case. Instead, next on the agenda was a chapter outlining site structure. Again, information was presented from a conceptual rather than "practical" point of view. So far, all the tools you really need to work with this book and to learn its lessons are a pad and a set of markers. Sketching and diagramming both the form and substance of a site are emphasized, but don't expect to see a bit of HTML and CSS at this point. In fact, will it ever appear? Actually, no. This book doesn't teach you how to produce the various design effects it describes in terms of using HTML and CSS but rather, how to plot, plan, and scheme what makes a sexy site sexy. From this perspective, the book doesn't stand alone, particularly for the design newbie who has just installed Dreamweaver on their PC but hasn't done anything else. Yes, it is important to understand every single word of what this book describes if you truly want to create more than just a standard, run-of-the-mill site, but if you don't know how to translate your planned design into an online reality by using the necessary technologies, you might as well just hang all of your drawn designs on your bedroom wall and call them "art". This actually isn't a slam against the book. As I said, the concepts it teaches are highly valuable, especially for the technically adept web designer who may have only gotten a "C" in their "Introduction to Art" class. That said, you'll still need to be technically adapt in order to make any practical use of what the book teaches, particularly since Stocks doesn't actually teach how to turn his "pretty" designs into web pages that'll display in a browser by referencing the necessary code samples. Master the craft first, then buy this book to study the art.