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Designing With Web Standards

DWWSThis past week I got a copy of Jeffery Zeldman's excellent book on web design, called Designing With Web Standards. This weekend, I dove heavily into the book (I'm about halfway through) and have been thoroughly enjoying the read. In fact, it's been a while since I've laughed out loud while reading a technical manual... wait come to think of it, I've never laughed while reading a technical manual!

Okay, so why did I like the book? Well, first, it's aimed right at me, a graphic and web designer, who has labored to create good looking websites for the wide array of web browsers. Many of these browsers were foisted on the public over the past few years: namely, all 3.0 browsers and in particular, Netscape 4.

I like that this book offers the individual web designer (me) a realistic way to ditch the old ways of working with tables and other hacks to achieve a nice looking design. Further, it offers an alternative approach of standards-based design by providing practical info on ways to actually build sites using XHTML 1.0 (a new, XML-based version of the HTML spec) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) so that the same web page will appear similarly in all browsers.

Now, about the book itself...

Zeldman has a great writing style, which combines deep knowledge of his topic (XHTML, CSS and web standards) and humorous shots at other "usability gurus" like Jakob Nielsen and the companies who've been creating web design "solutions" like Microsoft FrontPage.

The book describes how concerned web designers established a group called the Web Standards Project, bugged the heck out of Netscape and Microsoft to actually create web browsers that would follow the very web standards they helped establish.

The idea was simple -- web designers should need to build only one page that would render similarly in every browser, whether IE, Netscape, a Palm, Pocket PC or mobile phones browser. The gamble to pressure these firms actually paid off, resulting in 5.0 browsers from Microsoft and Netscape (and other firms) displaying web standard specs consistently enough that web designers can actually design a page once, and have it appear pretty decently in all modern browsers.

Designing With Web Standards also shares practical information. In particular, the book offers an easy to read, how-to guide on building sites using standards like XHTML and CSS, rather than common table hacks and other time consuming and bandwidth hogging tricks of the average web designer.

The biggest advantage of this new approach is that the structure of your content gets separated from the markup of that same content. Why is this significant? well, first, it allows all browsers to read the content itself because tags to change the color or font size are not getting in the way of the browser. Further, keeping content separated can make the file size significantly smaller and quicker to load. Lastly, separating markup (or CSS stylesheets) lets the designer make global changes to an entire site with a simple change of the stylesheet item, rather than laboriously editing Every. Single. Page.

So, if you're a long time web designer, or a graphic designer just getting into web design, get this book. If involved in creating web pages in any shape or form, get this book. It presents an incredibly logical and sensible way of working that will make your web designing life much easier now and in the long run.

As for me, well, once I've completed the book I'll be coding with web standards. I might even start before I'm done with the book. We'll see. Changes will most likely start with this weblog page and then extend to all of the other web design I do, because it just makes sense to build to web standards. It's hard to argue with that.

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