January 21, 2007

Book Review: Designing with Web Standards

As a web application developer I tend to spend most my time writing code to make web sites do stuff. I spend a lot of time working with databases and various n-tier layers except for one. I choose to keep my nose (as much as possible) out of the UI layer. Now I'll drop a repeater on a page and hook it up to a collection returned by a lower layer quick as a whistle, but I try to stay away from things my programmer's mind just doesn't understand, like design and stylesheets, etc. However from time to time I am forced to delve into those unknown worlds and for that reason I keep two CSS books within arms reach: Cascading Style Sheets 2.0: Programmer's Reference by Eric Meyer and More Eric Meyer on CSS by Eric Meyer.  The CSS Programmer's reference is just that - a "dictionary" type listing of CSS tags and possible values for them. When I can't remember if it's Z-Order or Z-Index I quickly snap open that book. More Eric Meyer on CSS is less of a reference and more of an inspirational piece. Whenever I want to look at pretty pictures and imagine that I could design beautiful web sites I browse through the second book.

I now have a new book to add to that mix and it is surprisingly not by Eric Meyer, though it is by one of the other kings of web standards, Jeffrey Zeldman. I finished reading Designing with Web Standards (New Riders), 2nd Edition, last night and I have to say that it is one of the most informative and enjoyable web standards web books that I have ever read. I may now be able to build a good, accessible, standards-compliant site now just because I read this book.

I cannot tell you the last time I marked multiple pages for quick reference and underlined important points in a book. Actually I can - Marc Holmes Continuous Integration book,  but that's beside the point. As an aside you see that I wrote "underlined" rather than "highlighted" in the above sentence. My college freshman English teacher taught me that it's always better to underline than highlight. People with highlighters tend to get a little over zealous. When you underline you usually stick to underlining the truly important points. To this day I still follow that advice.

I did not read the first edition of the book so I can't compare and contrast, but this version is great. I think I may take it with me to CodeMash so I can read it again. It was not only interesting and informative, but I found it entertaining, too. I really like Jeffrey Zeldman's writing style. I can tell you why, too - because it is not much different from my own. Now of course he's a much better writer than I am, but we have a similar sense of humor and I found myself laughing out loud at his little quips.

More than just a CSS book, this book covers the gamut of web standards from CSS to HTML markup to Section 508 and WAIS accessibility. The author is a web standards pragmatist, the book could have easily been part of the Pragmatic Programmer series, rather than a strict zealot.  He offers standards options explaining the benefits and detriments of each one, letting you decide how much or how little you'd like to travel down the web standards path, and telling you it's okay to take baby steps - "some is better than none". This alone makes implementing a site built on standards approachable and realistic. Additionally, the author spends a good amount of time describing the history of browsers and web standards and why it has taken us so long to get to this point. It makes for very interesting reading.

It is a truly extraordinary book and I highly recommend it to those looking to take a step into the web standards arena or looking for a good practical explanation and tips on the subject.
 

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