Pros: Lots of graphics stuff; step-by-step; lots of topics
Cons: Some attitudes; a little dull
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 10/13/2001
Obligatory experience note: I’m not a web design or tech expert; my assessment is based on my experience with a few web sites and a handful of book, and hopefully I’ve included enough information for you to make your own judgment on this book.
Well, I’ve made it through my second HTML book, and I believe my original assessment was correct: if you want any hope of learning something like this, you really need to buy multiple books. Not just because no one book could possibly contain everything you need to know, but also because there’s so much opinion involved in HTML that if you don’t read multiple books, you really won’t have a good handle on the issues involved. Last time I reviewed Elizabeth Castro’s “HTML 4 For the World Wide Web Visual QuickStart Guide.” This time, it’s Lynda and William Weinman’s “creative html design.2: a hands-on web design tutorial.”
This book was touted as an ideal synthesis between graphical design and technical know-how. Lynda is a writer, designer, and animator. Her brother Bill is an electronics engineer, writer, and programmer. So if you’re into web pages with lots of graphical design elements but don’t know a lot about the HTML, this might be the right book for you. Even if you aren’t so graphically inclined you might find this useful – which is a good thing since I tend to dislike some kinds of high-graphic sites (having spent many years on slow links, on lousy old computers that got crashed by people’s “designs,” with at least some awareness of the limitations faced by handicapped people using text-only browsers).
Ahem. But moving on to the book…
The Technical Limitations
First of all, there are lots of graphics-oriented exercises in this book. Most of them make use of Photoshop; some make use of one or two other programs. If you’re on Linux, forget about it – all we merit is a brief mention of the Gimp at the front of the book as a substitute for Photoshop. Having tried to use Gimp once or twice… well, I know someone who claims to be able to use it. Thus, the graphical examples were largely useless to me (and given my preferences with respect to web graphics, largely irrelevant as well). This at least had the advantage of making what seemed a rather thick book go very quickly. It only took me a day to get through it, even though it’s more than 500 pages long including index. Of course, the occasionally-drastic amounts of white space present in the margins helped quite a bit as well.
There are more typos than in Castro’s book, but less than in some others I’ve heard about. I actually did see a smiley in one place, which some might see as unprofessional; most people probably won’t care. As seems to be the norm for these books, there are companion web sites you can go look at, and in this case there’s also a CD enclosed.
Who It’s For
This is a great book for base-level beginners, as it walks you through pretty much absolutely everything. It doesn’t require you to think like a programmer or have any previous experience in this area. The examples used in the text primarily come from a real web site the Weinmans worked on, so in general they’re much duller than Castro’s often-amusing examples. Thus while the text has a more conversational tone, thus making it accessible to non-techies, it’s also more boring.
HTML and the World Wide Web Consortium
The W3C is theoretically in charge of setting standards for HTML, even though neither Netscape nor Microsoft really listens to them all that well. Regardless, one of the things I loved about Castro’s book was her decision to show you which tags have been “deprecated” (removed from the standard), and explain the issues behind whether or not you should continue using them. I.e., whether it was removed, whether browsers were likely to continue supporting it, what the alternatives were. She not only marked them in a handy reference table, but mentioned possible deprecation problems whenever she introduced a new bit of code. This meant that you could make your own choices, fairly fully informed as to the issues involved.
The Weinmans, unfortunately, chose to make those decisions for you. They don’t mention the issue when introducing code, and only briefly address it at all, choosing a largely “oh, don’t worry about it” approach. Fine and all, but I’d have liked to be able to make that choice for myself. It leaves me wondering what else they chose for me. On the other hand, I’m sure that people who get headaches at the mere mention of a word like “deprecated” will appreciate not having to worry about it!
If you ever, at any time, whatsoever, think that you might want to work with graphics on the web, you should get this book. It addresses everything from creating an image to mucking with it in all sorts of ways (transparency, animations, image maps, etc.). It addresses the thorny issue of graphic size and slow links, even telling you how best to make use of the compression algorithms in each of the major graphics formats (GIF, JPEG, PNG). There’s lots of info on the browser-safe color palette (those colors that will appear as you expect on old 256-color monitors), and whole scads of info on typography and fonts.
Sometimes I agreed with the Weinmans’ opinions on graphics, animation, and sound–for instance, their gentle reminder that, if you’re planning to add music to your page, remember that not everyone will agree with your taste in music, and some of the things you can do about that.
Sometimes I didn’t. For instance, the Weinmans provide a link to an “artistic” use of the blink tag. AGH! I’m sorry, but if a gigantic piece of green blinking ASCII art is their idea of artistic, then I’m not so sure that I trust their advice in the art department.
There are occasionally problems where the authors didn’t realize the limitations of their own medium, which I guess nicely fits into their own warnings about web pages not looking on other browsers the way you expect them to. For instance, when you’re raving about how wonderful a particular font looks at very small sizes, you should make sure that the final picture of it in your book is actually legible, and that it doesn’t leave out pieces of the letters.
The authors nicely chose to put the chapter on organizing your web site after they cover the basics of what can be done with HTML design, so that you’ll know what the technology is capable of and what you can do. However, I wish they’d also added a brief overview (even if just a few words each!) on other technologies that can be made to work with web pages, so we’d have had a much better idea of what we can do.
This book does address a few things that Castro’s book does not. For instance, most of that graphics stuff you won’t find in Castro’s book. You also won’t find information on Server Side Includes in Castro’s book – something I very much wanted to learn about. (That’s where you put something – say, an interesting header or footer or navigation bar – into one file, and then include it into all of your pages so that if you ever want to change it, you only have to change it in one place.)
It addresses more in the way of organizational issues than Castro does, but it still didn’t make me as comfortable with style sheet attributes as I would have liked. It also covered some “fluffier” subjects, like getting listed with search engines, making use of ad banners, and common HTML mistakes. One section I rather liked pointed out some of the (occasionally disastrous) problems that WYSIWYG editors can introduce into your code, and how to clean it up if you really feel that you must use one of these to create your web pages.
Perhaps best of all, there’s a very extensive set of reference tables at the end of the book for tags, attributes, and so on. I’m definitely holding on to this book for that alone! The HTML examples, also, tend to be a little more complete than Castro’s, which occasionally make them more understandable.
If you aren’t into graphics then large parts of this book will be irrelevant to you. That doesn’t necessarily make it useless, though. I like Castro’s attitude better, and her tendency to let you make your own choices. So if you’re going to buy the Weinmans’ book, remember that their opinions are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of web design (mind you, that’s good advice upon the purchase of any HTML book!).
If you’re a base beginner, you might find this book a little better. It holds your hand a little more and has a slightly less technical tone. If you want your HTML books to be lively, though, you might prefer Castro’s, which at least has funny examples. As a companion to Castro’s book it does reasonably well, I find, if you’re a beginner and won’t get too bored by the easy stuff.