"The Zen of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web," by Dave Shea and Molly E. Holzschlag

Pros: Beautiful, Inspiring, Did I Mention Beautiful
Cons: Needs Less Appreciation and More Practical Instruction
Rating: 3 out of 5

The moment I opened this book, I knew just how the review was going to go. This book was going to be exactly like the best book on writing my wife ever gave me: “Keys to Great Writing”. And I was going to get to write a review much like her review of that book Well, almost, but not quite.

I think there are two things a book like this can provide. First, it can serve as a gallery of beautiful web designs, providing inspiration and food for thought. In this, “The Zen of CSS Design,” succeeds admirably. It’s stunning. Not only is it gorgeous, but the form of the book itself shows off design principles that can be easily translated to web design. Even the sidebar notes are done with the stylish rounded boxes that are so popular on self-labeled “web 2.0” sites right now.

The second thing I want out of a book like this is a clear, thorough analysis of why these sites look good. What are the reusable elements of style and taste that strike a chord in a wide audience, and how are those elements achieved in CSS? The book delivers here, but not as strongly as I would’ve liked. The book is good about explaining CSS tricks of the trade. I definitely learned how to get boxes of content placed on the screen where I want them and how image replacement works.

Unfortunately, the discussions of how to select and apply those tools are hit or miss. For example, in a paragraph on margins, the authors explain, “Sometimes it’s beneficial to fill the whole window with a design; at other times a constrained layout is preferable.” The rest of the section is a rather one-sided discussion of why margins are necessary with little or no discussion of when it is beneficial to fill the window. What I wanted to know – and didn’t find – is when it’s appropriate to use one or the other. I can see that the featured design for this section got it right, but that’s not enough. I want to understand thoroughly enough to get it right in entirely different designs.

This flaw is not universal throughout the book. There are several sections that impart a very clear understanding of how and when to apply the CSS tools to great effect. The chapter on typography, for example, was invaluable. There’s a great deal of insight into how the human eye takes in a page of content and how to lead your visitors’ attention to important parts of a page.

Certainly, there’s plenty to be gained from reading this book. At the very least, the pages in the zen garden should provide ample inspiration and ideas for your own projects. I may have wanted more from the book, but I’ve made plenty of use of what was there.

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