Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: HTML5 for Web Designers by Jeremy Keith

Book review of HTML5 for Web Designers by Jeremy Keith

I’ve read three books by Jeremy Keith at this point, and I can’t say I’ve found another author who can teach you something and make you laugh quite as well as Keith can. HTML 5 for Web Designers is no different, I mean, he manages to work in a Hitler reference in the first sentence of this book.

HTML5 for Web Designers is the first in a new line of books from A Book Apart, the publishing company founded by Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, and Mandy Brown. If you’re a web standards fanboy, like me, you’re already drooling. Once you take a gander at the lineup of authors A Book Apart has already, and plans to feature, you might just be pushed over the edge. In addition to Jeremy Keith, Dan Cederholm, Ethan Marcotte, Aarron Walter, Luke Wroblewski and more have all signed on to pen a book for the new publisher. Its like the super-hero lineup of The Avengers, but more geeky, if that’s possible.

So HTML5 for Web Designers is a short book, around 100 pages, (394 pages on my iPod Touch, for anyone counting), which means you can read it in an afternoon if you can concentrate on one thing for such an immense quantity of time, and for web designers like me, that’s exactly how much time I’d like to spend wrapping my head around HTML5 in order to decide what pieces of it I can use in my work today.

Keith wastes no time, giving us a very brief history of markup, and then jumping right in to the differences in HTML5’s DOCTYPE declaration, and how we reference external CSS and JS files. He gives working examples of using the new canvas, audio and video elements, some of which I’ve already been able to incorporate into my own work. He then spends a chapter on HTML5’s improvements to web forms, before diving into new elements offered by HTML5 like mark, time, meter, and progress, as well as the new structural elements like section, header, footer, aside, nav and article. The final chapter is spent analyzing how you can put HTML5 into practice today, and offers a few alternate approaches.

There it is, a very brief review for a very brief, but informative, book. Reading a short book like this on a mobile device is an absolute pleasure. I’ve read a few books of this size on my iPod Touch: Rework by the 37 Signals founders, Mobile Web Design by Cameron Moll, and now HTML5 for Web Designers by Jeremy Keith. I can say that this form factor works, and works very well for reading on mobile devices, and for books that don’t contain large amounts of code, this seems to be the format of choice for the future.

HTML5 for Web Designers comes highly rated if you’re a working web designer who’d rather spend quality time learning about HTML5’s goodies rather than tedious time picking through the official HTML5 spec.

You can purchase HTML5 for Web Designers over at A Book Apart.

Rating

  • Overall: 9 out of 10

Review: ProBlogger by Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett

Book review of ProBlogger by Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett

ProBlogger by Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett

While not a book covering strictly web design or development, ProBlogger is relevant in many ways.  Authors Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett walk the reader through the very basics of blogging, right through more advanced topics like blog promotion, advertising and blog “flipping”, the digital version of TLC’s Flip that House.  The fact that they detail the various blog publishing platforms, but express their tendency to lean toward WordPress for all their personal sites was appealing to me.  Also, just about every designer or developer comes across the issues of having to drive traffic, monetize pages, and analyze site performance at one point or another in their career.

I took some rather lengthy notes while reading the book, to make implementation on my personal sites a bit easier after completion of the book, and I’ll share some of those notes with you here.

1. Websites You Should Investigate

These are a few tools that I realized I should be using while reading the book.  These cover the main bases that every web site should be using to monitor or enhance their site:

  • Alexa – for researching hot topics and competitor sites
  • Technorati – add your blogs to the Technorati index, and monitor popular tags
  • Quantcast – track your site’s performance and compare to competitor site performance
  • Google Webmaster Tools – discover keywords that people are already using to find your site through Google

2. Tools to Target Hot Topics

Staying on top of industry news is an important task for a lot of web sites, from newspaper sites, to sporting sites, to the latest Hollywood gossip.  Here are some of the best:

3. Content Tips

For bloggers that are just starting out, Rowse and Garrett offer a fantastic intro to formatting blog posts so that they will rank well in search engines.  This happens to coincide with HTML standards and best practices, so this section is doubly worth your time:

  • Post regularly (1x/day or 1x/week)
  • Titles are important!
  • Vary long posts (reviews), with shorter posts (news)
  • Use h2 and h3 tags
  • Number paragraphs (helps with web audiences that typically scan pages)
  • Break longer posts into series
  • Write your entire post first, then go back and edit

4. Types of Blog Posts

ProBlogger contains a wealth of ideas.  Here are some of their recommendations for varying the style of your posts, so as not to become repetitive and stale:

  • Tutorials
  • Reviews
  • Lists
  • Profiles (pick an idol of yours or industry mogul and write a review of their life)
  • Links (microblogging)
  • Rants
  • Memes (idea virus, further explanation)

5. Link Bait Ideas

Further depth on content ideas is detailed in ProBlogger, and the issue of link baiting is discussed.  My thoughts on link baiting are that if the content is original, helpful, or insightful, its a good practice.  The content really has to come first.  Here are some ideas that you could potentially build content around:

  • Tools
  • Quizzes
  • Competitions
  • Awards
  • Freebies
  • Interviews

6. Blog Valuation Factors

Rowse and Garrett even get into the topic of buying existing blogs, and “flipping” them, or turning around and selling them for a profit.  The main benefit of blog flipping is that domain age is a major factor in Google’s evaluation of web sites.  Most of the most popular blog sites on Technorati have a domain age of three years or more.  If you purchase an existing domain, with an existing audience, you skip the work involved in starting from scratch.  Here are some factors to use while evaluating a blog purchase or sale:

  • Audience
  • Content
  • Search Rankings
  • Traffic
  • Inbound Links
  • Brand
  • Profit
  • Design
  • Domain

7. Blog Promotion & Marketing

After you’ve got your blog up and running, and feel that your content is good enough and regular enough to warrant an audience, you’ll want to promote or market it in some fashion.  The Field of Dreams mentality does not apply in the blogosphere.  Here are some of the promotion ideas I found in ProBlogger:

  • Build “content magnets”
  • Comment on other niche blogs (1x/day)
  • Encourage comments through questions in your posts
  • Add “blog carnival” posts that link to many other industry/niche blogs
  • Promote subscription via RSS
  • Join a blogging community or forum in your industry, and participate regularly
  • Request links from relevant industry blogs

I’m not going to get into further detail on any of the ideas here, to do that you’ll have to purchase ProBlogger.  I’ve only listed a sampling of the ideas Rowse and Garrett reveal in their book.  There are many more topics and ideas within, as well as much more detail and explanation.

Overall ProBlogger is a invaluable book for anyone with their own website.  Its an idea starter, and that’s a huge part of running your own website.  The other is finding time to actually do everything.  Then again, that’s where Brickwork could help you out.

You can purchase ProBlogger over at Amazon.com.

Rating

  • Overall: 9 out of 10

Review: Simply JavaScript by Kevin Yank and Cameron Adams

Book review of Simply JavaScript by Kevin Yank and Cameron Adams

Simply JavaScript by Kevin Yank and Cameron AdamsI read Simply JavaScript a few months back, and couldn’t help but include it in my reviews here at withinsight.com.  Its simply too good not to.  I’ve got a decent amount of JavaScript experience, although not necessarily through practice.  JavaScript has always been that part of my web design arsenal that I’ve wanted desperately to add, but has never seemed to work its way into regular usage in my day-to-day work.  You can’t say its for lack of trying, as I’ve read the first half of O’Reilly’s JavaScript, The Definitive Guide, which while full of great info, is not necessarily the best introduction to JavaScript for the beginning scripter.  I then found DOM Scripting by Jeremy Keith, which offers a very, very introductory level explanation of JavaScript before digging into the basics of DOM Scripting.  I had a decent picture of what else was out there in terms of JavaScript books.

Jeremy Keith is actually the one who recommended Simply JavaScript on his website a while back, which is how I originally heard about it.  He stated that his book DOM Scripting was intended for a very specific audience, and that there really weren’t any other books that did it as well as he does, until Simply JavaScript was released.  Very big of an author to acknowledge the competition with a tip of the hat.

Meet Your New Friend, JavaScript

If I could, I would probably go back and start from scratch originally with Simply JavaScript.  It is a perfect introduction for the web designer looking fill out the third leg of the XHTML/CSS/JS stool that we all sit upon.  Yank and Adams present the material in a way that anyone with a little XHTML and CSS experience will not only understand, but really find themselves enjoying.  I literally found myself laughing out loud at a few points, such as:

The popularity of regular expressions has everything to do with how useful they are, and absolutely nothing to do with how easy they are to use – they’re not easy at all. In fact, to most people who encounter them for the first time, regular expressions look like something that might eventuate if you fell asleep with your face on the keyboard.

Fantastic!  There are a number of moments like this that brighten up the pages.

Simply JavaScript is written in a progressive tutorial format, so you can move through it chapter by chapter, rather than using it as a reference.  The one exception to this is the chapter on “Errors and Debugging” which falls fairly late in the book.  I was okay without it for the first few chapters, but once I got into chapters 4, 5 and 6 on events, animation, and form enhancements, respectively, I think I could have done with reading that chapter first.  In chapter 7, they introduce the Firebug Firefox extension, and how to use it to pause the state of JavaScript at selected lines in your code, which I definitely could have used a little earlier in the book while troubleshooting projects.

JavaScript Libraries Galore

Another great aspect of Simply JavaScript is how they relate the tutorials completed in each chapter to the respective current JavaScript library.  So if you’ve heard about all the cool stuff web designers and developers have been doing with libraries like Prototype & script.aculo.us, MooTools, Dojo, jQuery, or Yahoo’s YUI, but haven’t been able to find practical uses for any of them in your projects, here’s where you can make the connection.

Yank & Adams build a very nice core library that you can use to power a few solutions to design problems that have faced web designers for years, like building stripey tables on the fly, or validating form information.  They even get into more advanced topics like animation and AJAX.  Actually, after you read this book, you’ll probably realize how non-advanced these topics are.  This book truly does make JavaScript simple!

I feel like a lot of JavaScript is like a catch-22 in that until you read a book like this, you have a very limited arsenal.  You may know how to pop open a new window or change the behavior of a few links, but you don’t truly have a grasp of the potential of what you can accomplish with JavaScript.  Reading a book like Simply JavaScript, even if you don’t go into all the details and grasp every last concept, at a bare minimum lets you know what you can do, which will help you tremendously in future projects.

First Impressions Make Such an Impact

One last thing that I need to mention is the production quality of this book. Sitepoint really went all out.  I’ve got six Sitepoint books, everything from HTML basics to PHP, and Simply JavaScript is the only one that is full color. In addition to brightening up the pages with color, the footnotes are all located at the bottom of each page.  I was recently reading the O’Reilly book AJAX Design Patterns, and found it extremely annoying to have to continually skip over URLs in the middle of the text.  Sitepoint places URL footnotes where they should be, at the foot of each page, making it easier to concentrate on the text and code, and reference the footnotes when you want to.

Overall, this is absolutely the best starting point for the beginner JavaScript student, and I would recommend it to any web professional who works with code on a daily basis.  It will teach you to apply the same unobtrusive principles that you hopefully already apply of CSS to XHTML documents, instructing you how to do the same with JavaScript.

You can purchase Simply JavaScript over at Amazon.com.

Rating

  • Overall: 9 out of 10

Review: Web Standards Solutions by Dan Cederholm

Book review of Dan Cederholm’s Web Standards Solutions

Web Standards Solutions by Dan CederholmWeb Standards Solutions: The Markup and Style Handbook is just that: an essential guide and reference that builds upon the theory presented in Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards with real-world practices.  Dan Cederholm is a designer working full-time in the field, and he presents practical and easily understood examples in a light tone.  This book is nothing less than essential for today’s working web designer.  Oh, and did I mention the 2nd edition is just around the corner, slated for release in May 2009?

Part One: Get Down with Markup

The book is split into two sections: the first reviews markup and creative methods of implementation, the second delves into CSS and solves many of the issues facing the modern CSS designer.  I’ve got over ten years of experience in the web design field, and I was simply amazed at some of the practical solutions to problems that I had faced.  Covering the essentials, from lists, headings, tables and forms, to expanding their usage through markup minimization and the application of Microformats, Web Standards Solutions contains inventive methods that are not only web standards compliant, but will save you time in your day to day projects.

One of my favorite chapters was the one covering anchors.  Countless times I’ve used semantically meaningless empty anchors to have the user jump lower in an HTML page.  This solution seems almost rudimentary, but gives meaning to my markup.  Its really almost comical how many decisions you make while coding without stopping to consider the implications when working a full-time job.  Another favorite that I put into immediate practice over at NESN.com was the chapter on tables, and the relations we can establish between data.  Taking the knowledge I took from Dan’s review of table markup, I combined it with the hCalendar chapter from my Microformats book and built the team calendars on NESN.com.  Check out the Red Sox schedule as an example.

Part Two: SimpleBits of Style

The second section of the book covers practical usage of CSS.  The one chapter I have referred to frequently is the section on building CSS layouts.  Cederholm breaks down CSS layout into four distinct methods, communicated in their most simplistic format, to ease the learning curve and also simplify the transition of using them as skeletons for your site designs.

Another technique I’ve pulled from this book is the “faux columns” created by repeating a background image vertically.  I’ve used this on just about all my sites I’ve designed since reading the book, and would recommend the investment so you can do the same.

The fact that Web Standards Solutions: The Markup and Style Handbook is an essential piece of the web designer’s arsenal is undeniable.  I have a personal connection to the book, as Dan makes reference to and uses in some of the book’s examples the Boston Red Sox, and their path to the title in 2004, when the 1st edition was originally published.  Being from the Boston area and working for NESN I definitely found the examples delightful.  Also going to Endicott college in Beverly, MA, I spent a good amount of time in Salem, where Dan’s SimpleBits studio is located.

The second edition of Web Standards Solutions is set for release in May, 2009. You can purchase Web Standards Solutions over at Amazon.com.

Rating

  • Overall: 8 out of 10