[Book Review] Jeffrey Zeldman : Designing with Web Standards

New Riders, ISBN 0735712018

I should probably note that I've not actually read this book in the couple of hours since I reviewed the last one, in fact I've been battling my (very non-zen) garden.

I read both DDFtW and DWWS in sequence last week, and the combination is a good one. DDFtW helps you work out what your site should do, to best serve its users. DWWS shows you how to code up a site that presents this design to all of your users, with the minimum of work, in a way that's both backward- and forward- compatible.

Both of these books were quite a quick read (by my standards). DDFtW is fairly light on content volume, forming a sequence of easily-digestible points. DWWS is significantly more content-rich (almost double the page count, as well as greater density of text), but has to be one of the most readable "technical" books I've seen. Zeldman is passionate about web standards - as can be seen from his own site - but is also a pragmatist. This book doesn't try to force you into "pure CSS" design, or sell the concept as some self-evident higher good; instead it gives sound business and designer-friendly reasons, followed by logically-ordered (if not always perfectly clear) information on design. The only lack of clarity comes from Zeldman's apparent aversion to repeated or complete listings, forcing te reader to search back occasionally for the source he's now working with.

In fact, for a book on what's commonly supposed to be a complex black art, there's remarkably little technical information. In a conversational (and frequently highly whimsical, if not tangential) tone, Zeldman spends much of the book exploring what might be referred to as the "sociology" of standards - their effects, history and use. He tackles the incompatabilities of previous browser versions and points out the essential fact (which has passed many by) that clean, compliant design is now both quick and practical.

And of course, he proves it. Not by making the reader into an obsessive table-hating CSS guru, but by advocating "transitional methods for transitional times" - which basically boils down to using XHTML 1.0 Transitional as the DTD of choice, and allowing tables for columns and the "center" tag to avoid particular headaches. In doing so he presents a method of genuine cross-browser usability that covers everything from IE to PDAs and screenreaders while validating cleanly and saving the need for multiple page versions.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure there was a great deal in this book that I'd not known, or encountered, before. But the way it's combined allowed me to make a comprehensible whole out of fragments that I'd previously learned piecemeal, essentially restructuring (and thus improving) my understanding. And even if you do know most of it, the book still makes a really good read.

I'll recommend this book to you with considerable enthusiasm. It's useful to various groups of people, from clients and managers wishing to improve the effectiveness of their websites and online budgets (and expand their audience), to coders wishing to avoid the headaches of continually "fixing" site flaws that appear in different browsers. It's ideal, in particular, for anyone who wants to know what all the noise about standards compliance is about, and whether it's really practical and for them (hint: yes!).

There's one last thing I should point out before I close this review. While Zeldman takes a pragmatic approach to "transitional methods", he doesn't ignore pure semantic coding or fully-CSS layout. This aspect is also covered in worthwhile detail, but more as an area for exploration in personal sites than client sites that need to be made "bullet proof". No doubt when we get browsers with even better CSS2/3 support, Zeldman will revisit the topic, and I'll be looking forward to that book, too.
Posted by parsingphase, 2004-05-29 16:05

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