Designing With Web Standards

Posted: 21 August 2003

Computing books are not 'cool'. You don't impress anyone by walking around your place of work carrying the latest computer programming book. Hey, that stuff's for nerds, right? However, there is a computing book that you can carry around without looking like a dweeb, a book that just begs to be looked - probably something to do with the bright orange cover - and it is of course Jeffrey Zeldman's second book Designing With Web Standards.

Jeffrey Zeldman is one of a handful of people currently writing computing books (although some may argue it's more of a design book) who could be labelled a 'celebrity'. OK, if Jeffrey turned up at a movie premier wearing a revealing sheer green dress J-Lo style, he'd probably get arrested (it's a scary thought actually); there are levels of celebrity. Among the web community, though, fewer people have as much presence or influence as Jeffrey Zeldman, and a read through this book explains why ...

It's not a very easy job to make subjects like web accessibility, broken browser rendering methods or doctype switching sexy and/or exciting, and I would not suggest for one minute that Jeffrey achieves this. What he does - and does very well - is explain the issues in a very clear and often brilliantly entertaining way. When some of the issues get very complicated - for example, the broken box model in IE5.* - he is able to explain why it happened and how to get around the problem in a very thorough way without boring all asunder to tears. This must be an art.

So, what's in the book and why should you consider topping up the Jeffrey and Carrie Legacy Fund?

Book Structure

Designing With Web Standards is split into three distinct sections:

Part 1 - Houston, we have a problem
Jeffrey spells out the whole sorry state that was web development over the last 6-7 years, from the excessive code-forking required to support numerous different browsers and their wonderfully inventive and different ways of displaying mark-up (or not displaying at all) to the emergence of new languages that looked to be restoring order (e.g. XML) and the rise of groups such as the Web Standards Project who appeared to be collectively saying "We're mad as hell and we're not taking this anymore".
Part 2 - Designing and building
Enough of the lamenting? What's a web developer to do? In this section Jeffrey starts to spell out the 'how' - how to work around various browser bugs (or avoid them using cunning methods), explaining the difference between different approaches that a web developer can take in designing a site (pure CSS, table-free layout or a hybrid solution) and why you might choose any given method.
Part 3 - Back end
The appendix section which starts with item a, a list of browsers currently out there with a brief outline of what each one can and can't do in terms of support for web standards. Item b is ... wait a minute? No item b? There's an index page in this section with one entry. Mmm, a bit like using a <ol> and only having one <li> - which hardly constitutes a list, eh? We'll assume that one was down to the publishers ;)


Firstly, I have to say I found the background reading in part 1 of the book fascinating, just as I did when reading the Tim Berners Lee book Weaving the Web. It's not for everyone though. The politics, the commercial battles that caused the browser wars and so on might not be to everyone's taste, but it's hard to skip over the introductory pages as Jeffrey can make these topics engaging and often humorous.

But really I was itching to get to part 2 ...

The best way to learn is to do, and this is precisely what Jeffrey does in section 2 when he takes the reader through the different stages of a design project. He explains the process from building the navigation to placing the images and styling the text - all through CSS (actually, that's not 100% correct, the layout of the page is reliant on old school methods - that is with a <table> - but the reason for doing this is explained and justified).

I really like this approach - it's almost as if he's looking over your shoulder, pitching in when you fall over and make a mistake and pointing you backin the right direction; other books would simply tell you how it is and should be but perhaps not admit that sometimes you have to go down the wrong path to see the error of your ways and learn from the experience. An example of this is the tendency of people new to CSS to simply swap the over-enthusiastic use of the <font> tag with an equal amount of meaningless <span> or <div> tags, each one with their own class - or 'Divitis' and 'Classitis', to give these conditions a name.

But never mind the technical stuff, you gotta love the headings in this book! Anyone who knows Jeffrey's writing style will know that he has a real thing for writing headlines that alude to films, or sometimes historical events ... or whatever the hell else was going on in his head at the time. I found myself trying to find out what the source of each headline penned (or should that be punned?) by Jeffrey. Favourites include:

  • Structural Healing - It's Good For Me
  • Miss Behaviour To You
  • How Do I Code Thee? Let Me Count The Ways ...
  • Please DOM, Don't Hurt 'Em


The fact that Jeffrey Zeldman has written an excellent book should not surprise anyone. You probably expected nothing else, but for the record that's what he's delivered. I much preferred this book to his first (Taking Your Talent To The Web), but that's probably more of a reflection of what I do than the quality of the writing.

I truly believe that this is the kind of book that developers who have been building sites for a few years should look at to give themselves a refresher course. I've bemoaned the fact elsewhere that many developers are stuck in a timewarp of sorts, and the solution lies within these pages. Already I've found myself flipping the book open to a specific page to answer a question from a developer in the team - I figure that Jeffrey's probably explained things more eloquently than I could, so it's off to page 260 to reveal the mysteries of doctype switching and so on. This book will be well thumbed by myself - what about yourself?

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Title Designing With Web Standards
Publisher New Riders
Written by     Jeffrey Zeldman
ISBN 0-7357-1201-8