Inspirational: Zen of CSS Design (Book Review)

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

Zen of CSS Design

In 2002, Dave Shea set out with a mission. He wanted to prove that standards-based websites didn’t necessarily mean dull design. So he created The CSS Zen Garden composed purely of compliant, well-formed HTML, upon which users could apply their own stylesheets and submit them to the site for inclusion in a big catalog of themed variations on the main page. Much to his dismay, his initial prototypes turned out to be mindnumbingly dull, shackled as they were by the rather limited and hugely varied CSS support offered by the motley crew of web browsers available at the time: the main issue was that it wasn’t possible to add imagery to the pages via CSS. Various ingenious hacks and workarounds later, and with steadily improving CSS support in today’s browsers, the Zen Garden soon began to strut its stuff and to live up to its original goal.

The Zen of CSS Design is, essentially, the book of the website. As with the website, the book isn’t about the technical details of CSS, it’s about design (the clue is in the book’s title, of course). Sure, there’s plenty of CSS markup in the book, nicely laid out to demonstrate how each aspect of each featured site works. But the bulk of the book describes each site from a graphical and usability perspective, and goes into detail on some important lessons in website design.

As such, this book isn’t for novices looking for an introduction to CSS, although website designers learning CSS who want to become good at it definitely should also read this book.

The CSS markup itself – the implementation, the technical gubbins – is important, but it’s only one half of the story. You can have all the technical proficiency in the world, but your website may still look like a dog’s dinner. This book very much fills that other half of the story. Its mission is to inspire web designers to create interesting, well-designed, standards-based websites, by showcasing existing designs, discussing the finer points of each design, highlighting important lessons, and then walking briefly through how it’s done.

You might think that a book which is primarily an in-print version of a website wouldn’t be much use; but the book is well thought out, obviously not just a case of loading the website in a browser and selecting “File..Print”. Instead, the authors have adapted the content to take advantage of the print medium, with explanatory text arranged in a grid layout around each showcased web page design. The result is pleasant on the eye and surprisingly easy to read.

Dave Shea would probably never forgive me for describing Zen of CSS Design as a coffee-table book, but in the best possible ways that’s exactly what it is – a beautifully presented, glossy, full-color book that you can dip into in no particular order. In fact, in the book’s introduction, the authors suggest that this is one of the ways the book can be read. Nothing wrong with that; it’s refreshing to be able to simply pick up a book, flip through it until a page happens to catch your eye, and gain something valuable from that page – without getting all confused because you’ve missed some vital theme or other that’s been built on in previous chapters.

Highly recommended, both for web designers needing inspiration and for people who just want to spend their coffee break learning about how the web design pros do it.

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.