Piss-Poor Publishing - (Or “Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks”)

Web design books

Just for the heck of it, and just because I couldn’t find the books that I was after in my local branch of Waterstones, I had a leaf through some of their other books on Web Design. Now, I knew I couldn’t expect great things, and I was sure that none of them could even hold a candle to Bulletproof Web Design (which I’d bought just one day previously and was carrying with me to read while waiting around for Manda to try on half the contents of the various women’s clothes shops); actually, holding a candle to any book is a bad thing to do (unless it’s a Jeffrey Archer novel, perhaps). So, I picked up Creating Web Pages for Dummies …

Oh. My. God.

Like I said, I had an idea that web design books out there were probably quite bad, but I’d never had the inclination to buy one of them, and consequently had never really flicked through. With the “Dummies” book, I flicked through and on almost every page that I settled upon I saw bad examples of presentational markup, general bad advice and supposed ‘tips’ for best practice that went out with the stone age (if not before). I found one section that was so bad I felt compelled to take a picture with my cameraphone so that I could transcribe the words here (emphasis added is mine). It read:

Believe it or not, this whole ‘tables for layout’ thing was a bit controversial at first Why? Because there were some idealistic objectives behind the original design of HTML, with it having web pages be able to display on just about any screen. Table-based layouts, by contrast, only work well on screens of at least a certain minimum size, such as a PC screen rather than, say, a mobile phone screen. The controversy has now largely faded because the people who pay for web site development demand that their sites look good on most of the PCs and Macs out there, and tables are just about the only way to create a complex design that looks good.


And again, !!

I picked up another book, Web Page Design in Easy Steps. It was written by a guy based in Austin, Texas, home of one of the best Interactive conferences in the world whereby each year the cream of the web design crop descend and from it wonderful things usually happen (either that or they just get sloshed). Evidently this author has never met any of these people and is blissfully unaware that things have changed since the year 2000 (or even before that). Once more I found myself flicking through a book that would appear to the uninitiated wannabe web designer to be a well presented, nicely illustrated book that would teach them what they need to know. I, however, found myself mumbling the words “No, no, no!” to myself as sin was heaped upon sin on the pages in front of me. The advice given was, once again, of the type that would only require extensive fixing later.

Who in these shops decides what goes on the shelves? Can a librarian really be expected to know everything? No, of course not. And how could a buyer (and by that I mean the person buying in stock for the shop to sell) be sure that one book is better than another in terms of the advice given? Perhaps the main factors for sellability are presentation (does it look pretty?), the cost of the book (an obvious one) or how pushy the publisher is (or maybe it’s more a case of how much money is being exchanged in brown envelopes for featuring ‘their’ books on the shelves)? I have to say that I don’t know - I am not part of the publishing business, so it’s only guesswork on my part. What I can say without a shadow of a doubt is that it’s no wonder that so many people out there build crappy web sites. And the thing is, they’ll keep on building crappy web sites until they get that Eureka! moment and switch to buying books like those linked to above, whereby us standards bods try to convert those who have been led down the path of presentational tag soup.

So, maybe my advice about holding a candle to a book being a bad idea was itself a bad piece of advice? Maybe that’s precisely what we need to do? Perhaps we should march into these shops and set up a little ‘camp fire’, Fahrenheit 451-style, to remove these heinous blots on the web publishing horizon?! Just don’t say that I sent you …

(Note: I’ve deliberately not linked to these bad, bad books)

Filed under: Accessibility
Posted by Ian on Monday, October 10, 2005


  1. So says Web Teacher

    Wrong-headed books were the norm for quite some time and led me to start my blog, Web Teacher, so I could review and recommend books. I was interested in books for teaching web design, but the same books are used by everyone. I have reviewed a large number of books, and recommended a much smaller number. My recommended books must meet standards for accessibility and CSS. After several years of reviews, I can say that in general things are improving. Most of the best selling books have changed the approach to include accessibility and CSS. However, I still see a strong need for a major change in the books used for graphics software such as Fireworks. These books definitely don’t go beyond the “export our HTML and all will be perfect” view of how to make a web site.

    Added October 10, 2005 at 1:29 pm

  2. So says Robert Nyman

    I truly feel your pain. The only problem with the book-burning thing is that we might get affected by the poisonous smoke and fumes and start building “a complex design that looks good” using tables…

    Added October 10, 2005 at 2:17 pm

  3. As the author of a couple of books myself, there’s a reality here: many designers and developers can’t or don’t want to write. So it’s left up to either career authors who have no practical experience, or people like Virginia, and myself, who have incorporated experience into writing and made that part of our goal’s and focus - to educate.

    I do agree it’s getting better. Publishers are more picky because they have less money now. That’s shifted us away from the “frankenbook” mentality to the idea of high quality.

    Also, readers, PLEASE read the copyright date of any given book, note the skill level (they’re all marked on the back or in the frontmatter as to level) and topics covered. One of the sad facts is that buyers do NOT pay attention to these important details.

    I certainly wrote a lot about table based design before 2000. Who didn’t?

    Added October 10, 2005 at 4:20 pm

  4. So says David Hay

    Whilst I’ve experienced similar stuff, I have to say it obviously depends on where you go. In my local Barnes & Noble, Cederholm, Zeldman, Shea and Holzschlag were all present and well represented in terms of numbers of books and positioning.

    Added October 10, 2005 at 5:42 pm

  5. So says Stephen Caver

    I live next to a large mall with a Barns & Noble and a Boarders pretty much across the street from each other and these large booksellers are the only bookstores I visit. I generally find their books are better. Maybe less so at Barns & Noble but at Boarders there were copies of The Zen of CSS Design and Bulletproof Web Design not only on the shelves, but being displayed prominently.

    Added October 10, 2005 at 7:02 pm

  6. So says Simon Mackie

    I certainly agree with Molly’s advice to check the copyright date - a lot of these books were written a long time ago. However the problem remains that a lot of the big chains do still stock these books (publishers like ourselves need to do a better job of educating the buyers at these chains) and some publishers see no reason to update their older books, which is a shame.

    Added October 11, 2005 at 1:15 am

  7. Being a Reddot CMS and LiveServer developer for my company in Australia, i have found that there are a few types of web developer.

    Broadly catagorised as, the developers themselves who deal with under the hood(html, xml etc..) and those who use tools such as Front Page, Dreamweaver and im afraid to say, MS Word to design websites and pages.

    Tools such as these breed a common problem with websites, is the code output from these are HORRIBLE!

    Not only do they breed this bad code they also breed bad development and the ensuing bad advice.

    Recently i converted a site from dreamweaver to Reddot CMS with EXTREME difficulty due to the fact that a graphics designer developed the site using Dreamweaver. That seems to be the trade off these days.

    This output code was a complete mess but they got what they wanted and that was a site that looks good.

    Im sorry to say that these books encourage people to get into web development by making it easy. Its not meant to be for everyone but these books make it simple.

    Thank god some of these people dont code asp or jsp etc..

    Added October 11, 2005 at 2:45 am

  8. So says redux

    i propose a grassroots book terrorist movement: we get little insert cards printed, explaining in 5 easy bullet points what web standards are and why they’re the best practice to follow, plus reference to modern books on the subject, and slip them in the middle of any old books we come across in libraries, book shops, etc. a WaSP calling card, so to speak…

    Added October 11, 2005 at 8:04 am

  9. So says Bruce

    Agree totally with redux. And, as I used to work in publishing, I can tell you that publishers watch their Amazon reviews and ratings like hawks.

    So, let’s nominate a day a week - Tuesday for alliterative joy - and mentally earmark it as “Terrible Tome Terrorism Tuesday”. Go to amazon.com and review a crap book, pointing out its flaws rather than just saying “This book sucks the big one”.

    That way publishers will know there’s a market for good books. And as the crap ones are marketed to web developers, they’ll likely as not visit amazon to check out which book is crap, so may be swayed by our reviews.

    (Best *not* to recommend another book in the body of the review, as that can look like a concerted campaign by author/ publisher to boost the sales of said book, and Amazon will probably pull the review).

    Happy Terrible Tome Terrorism Tuesday!

    Added October 11, 2005 at 8:13 am

  10. So says Anonymous

    I feel your pain. After reading a few pages of Creating Web Pages for Dummies, I was thoroughly disgusted.

    Added October 14, 2005 at 5:19 am

  11. So says Karl Dawson

    I’m popping into town tomorrow, so I think I’ll go to Waterstones for a giggle or three. Weekends are meant to be fun, right? ;)
    @Brendan: Please understand it’s not Dreamweaver producing bad code. It’s the human working in design view with either an old book teaching tables layout and/or without any understanding of what’s going on under the hood. I have no trouble producing standards-compliant and accessible websites with DW, thanks (I’m just not a graphic designer :o ).

    Added October 14, 2005 at 1:37 pm

  12. So says Noah Lazar

    One thing to consider is how fast our industry evolves. Every new browser release (and support retirement of older browsers) changes how code is supported and handled. New best practices, methodologies, and hacks are introduced almost weekly around the web.

    So a lot of publications can become outdated very quickly. Of course some are just poorly written, but in this field newer is almost always better.

    Also, next time you are in an airport, check out the “quick reference” cards in some of the bookstores. The HTML one I used to see was a complete joke — I think it was written as soon as Netscape 4 was released.

    Added October 17, 2005 at 6:54 am

  13. So says Richard Conyard

    To be honest I am not suprised you found such trash hanging around. With more and more people getting into computers the quality of what slips through the publishers net has gone down.

    Gone are the times as a spoty youth when I would hoard any cash I had available to head into a bookstore and pick something up, take it away, digest and learn. Computer books have taken the easy way out and headed in the direction of the LCD (a notable exception being some O’Reilly titles - nutshell series generally).

    Today if I need to pick something up I’ll search the net. If I need to read it away from the computer I’ll print it out (a side note - if anyone wants to develop an a4/a5 e-book like Picard has you’ll have a ready customer in me (linux embeded, lynx, usb and 64mb flash - couldn’t be too hard/expensive) ).

    It’s just a pity that there are such few good technical authors out there.

    Added October 18, 2005 at 2:34 pm

  14. So says Andy

    I’m with Pat and Bruce. Sounds like Fight Club and that cant be a bad thing. Project Mayhem for the standards movement.

    Seriously though I know what the pressures of teaching people “web design” are. I was taching a web design course until pretty recently where the syllabus demanded that you teach table based design. you simply couldnt fulfil the assessment criteria without using tables for layout and therefore couldnt get the qualification.

    If anyone asks I always point them in the direction of ALA or W3 Schools and to Zeldman’s book as a startign point.

    Added October 25, 2005 at 11:48 pm

  15. So says Xedium


    These outdated books insult my sense of correctness.
    When I started web-designing, I rarely ever heard of “W3C”, “standards”, or other novelty terms. CSS was kinda a new-fangled thing that wasn’t really supported.

    Now, nobody’s bothered to update these books, and the reader’s are learning 90’s style HTML.

    Added October 28, 2005 at 10:55 pm

  16. So says Anonymous

    FYI: Web Design in Easy Steps. As a resident of Austin, TX I had to see who this guy was. Found on the “In Easy Steps” Web site: The author’s name is Brian Austin. About the Author: Professional ?plain English? author with a special interest in helping non-technical people understand and make practical use of computers and the Internet; an experienced Web designer and ‘Internet Strategist’; Member of the Society of Authors and Corporate Member of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (MISTC). Brian thinks he is ‘lucky enough’ to be married to Ann, has two children, lives and works on the beautiful Island of Skye in Scotland.

    Added October 31, 2005 at 6:19 pm

  17. So says Ian

    Mmm, it must have been one of the other books in the small batch that I flicked through that day. That’s bugging me now - it was definitely there, but I may have attributed the author in Texas to the wrong book (I wasn’t making notes at the time, just sneaky photos on the camera phone). To be honest, these books were all as bad as each other!

    Added November 1, 2005 at 9:01 am

  18. So says Shane

    The best thing to do is to channel anger about this sort of thing into promoting more modern practices and hope that, in time, this kind of stuff becomes less common.

    What makes this harder is when somebody with good intentions wishing to learn a bit of web design picks up a book with this kind of stuff.

    When some of the teachers are misguided, it is more of a problem.

    Oh - by the way - good tip about keeping yourself occupied whilst your missus is clothes shopping!

    Added November 1, 2005 at 7:49 pm

  19. So says Anonymous

    “Evidently this author [of Web Page Design in Easy Steps] has never met any of these people and is blissfully unaware that things have changed since the year 2000″

    In fairness the book was written in 1998 - the subsequent editions are just reprints.

    Added January 10, 2006 at 11:25 pm

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