Book Review: "Designing with Web Standards" (1st Edition)

I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more “industry literature” lately, in as much as I’ve started seeking out books on web/software development and design that I feel, as a supposed pro, I ought to have read (possibly some time ago).

This endeavour eventually brought me to Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards, which I’d never actually read despite it being revered as the book for anyone remotely serious about web design. Feeling nought but dust in my pockets, I hunted out a second-hand copy on the Amazon Marketplace, which I found for the princely sum of £0.01 plus postage. How do they do it?

This turned up not long ago and turned out, unsurprisingly, to be the orange-jacketed first edition from 2003. What surprised me in reading it, however, was just how much of this book is still spot-on despite eight years maturing on the shelf.

A great deal of what was written about the web three years ago is now laughably outdated - let alone eight years ago - and yet Zeldman manages to skewer the fundamental truths of what it means to design for the web such that at least 75% of this first edition is still completely valid, valuable advice in 2011.

The web of Designing with Web Standards, 1st Edition was IE6; Netscape 6 and 7; Mozilla 1.0. Firefox was still a way from 1.0, and doesn’t get a mention. The mobile world had just begun to stir, with the proliferation of devices like the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC. I remember that time as being dominated by Internet Explorer alone, but in reality the web landscape of 2003 was just like today’s: it was constantly in flux.

The web standards movement arose out of a desire to unify the fragmented browser landscape with a set of conventions that transcended browser- and vendor-specific design - an objective even more important today as it was then.

Today’s browser market is orders of magnitude more diverse than that of 2003, and the web has shifted towards the mobile space with incredible speed, with new types of mobile Internet device being launched every week. Now as then, we must design for “browsers” not “a browser” if our sites are to have any hope of a long-term future.

At the core of Zeldman’s message is this: write clean, concise markup that can sensibly stand apart from its stylesheets; consider a wide gamut of user-agents; strive for accessibility; follow the agreed standards as closely as you can. Designing for specific browsers or platforms wasn’t sustainable when this book was first written, and it’s even less sustainable now. In reading this inadvertent snapshot from ‘net history you can see the common thread of fundamentals that run right through to today, and should still be the foundations of any web work.

And all this for £0.01 plus postage. Value doesn’t get much better than that.