Book Review: Head First Web Design

Curt Shontz cracks open O'Reilly's Head First Web Design


Great designers understand far more about building web sites than just generating markup and style rules. They know that organization, layout, color scheme, and even writing style are fundamental to creating a successful web presence. Head First Web Design treats each of these subjects and dozens of others with thoroughness and flair.

A quick glance at the book's cover confirms that its audience is targeted toward young, creative professionals who are – or who want to be – on the cusp of a career in web design. Although the book’s content is staggeringly wide-ranging, co-authors Ethan Watrall and Jeff Siarto explain in their introduction that their intention is to teach these design principles to readers who are already comfortable with XHTML and CSS. Seasoned web developers looking for a reference book, code-timid dabblers who depend entirely on WYSIWYG editors, and newbies who don’t know an anchor tag from an alt attribute should probably look elsewhere.

The book’s nearly 500 pages are painstakingly designed with an energetic color scheme and hundreds of diagrams, photographs, and screenshots, each accompanied by humorous, upbeat commentary. If you love to scribble notes on the pages of your books, you may be disappointed to learn that the text comes pre-commented; the designers have already inserted script-font notations and hand-drawn arrows into the margins for your future reference. And if, on occasion, you like to pause from reading so you can ponder the subject material, the book’s authors have beaten you to that, too. Peppered throughout the book, cartoon-style word balloons hover above wide-angle photos of young professionals who are presumably mirroring the reader’s apprehension about a potentially complex subject. These scowling toe-tappers often start by saying, “Hey, hold on a second,” prompting the reader to mutter, “Yeah!” in agreement. It’s a new twist on the old-school sidebar, and a perfect segue into the clarifying paragraphs that follow. With these audience-inserted teaching tools, it’s as if the authors were doing your multitasking for you.

Judgments on teaching style aside, Head First Web Design does a thorough job of guiding you through every aspect of designing a web site. To get the process headed in the right direction, Watrall and Siarto carefully outline the basics of how to storyboard your concept and plan your navigation once the wishes of the client have been carefully pulled together. They also pay due diligence to the importance of Architecture Information diagramming, a tried and true hierarchical mapping method for organizing a site’s content.

Throughout the book, equal emphasis is placed on designing a web site that is beautiful, functional, and easy to use. Key concepts like employing visual metaphors, understanding basic color theory, and writing effectively for web audiences are recurring themes. To mitigate the all-too-common temptation to code first and ask questions later, the authors dedicate nearly a hundred pages to planning your site’s functionality before delving into the subject of coding and styling in any depth. When those subjects do emerge, they emphasize strict separation of content and style so that the look and feel of the site can be tweaked – or even overhauled completely – without disturbing the organization of the site’s information.

The book puts into plain words the complex subjects of visual perception, interactive design, and web content accessibility in a refreshingly childlike – yet effective – style. Though at first off-putting to Boomers like me, this approach is actually the book’s greatest strength; were it not for its playful and trendy format, the potentially dry and tedious subjects of code markup and style sheets could easily repel the Millennial generation who likely make up the majority of this book’s readership. Web design really is fun and Head First Web Design proves it.

K. Curtis Shontz is a freelance illustrator, graphic artist, and web designer operating under the name The Agile Badger. He produces illustrations for magazine feature articles, web sites, tee-shirts, logos, and advertisements for print and web. He also produces dozens of unwashed coffee mugs and staggeringly deep piles of recyclable waste. He dabbles in freelance writing and feels awkward constructing brief biographical summaries using the third-person voice.

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  • Short review of the Book "Head First Web Design"

    Great review! I was searching for help building a beginner web site and found most of the books to technical or just to boring. This book is too advanced for me, but it sure did a wonderful job of making me feel that there was hope for me to build a site....dancingron
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