TV version (Display Regular Site)

Skip to: Navigation | Content | Sidebar | Footer

Weblog Entry

The Zen of CSS Design

October 12, 2004

A few details about the forthcoming collaboration between Molly and me.

“The Zen of CSS Design” was officially announced over a week ago at WE04 in Sydney. I expected that word would leak, so a quick mention on my Update got the message out to everyone else. Molly made mention of it as well, and filled in a few details in her comments.

But we haven’t spent much time talking about the book yet, and now that I’m back (good to be home) and with connection (which I didn’t miss nearly as much as I thought I would) I figure it’s a good time to share what the book is, and isn’t.

Those who caught the Keynote in Sydney (slides available) caught a preview, but only of the first 30 or 40 pages. Both were written concurrently, and the first chapter covers the same major points that were touched on in the keynote — the early web and slow adoption of CSS, the inspiration and building of the Zen Garden, what the site teaches, and what the site has taught me.

But this is just the first chapter; we weren’t going to spend the whole book talking about something I did a year and a half ago obviously, so what we did was take 36 designs from the Zen Garden and pull out core concepts demonstrated in each. The concepts are roughly grouped into 6 chapters focusing on major design and CSS issues: Design, Layout, Imagery, Typography, Special Effects, and ?. (The last chapter is still undergoing some refinement, so I’ll hold off on talking about it for now.)

The focus is about using CSS as a design tool. Some chapters are even largely code-free, for that matter. This is a web design book first and foremost, and a CSS book second. We’re not writing an in-depth tech manual — Eric has already written a great one. That means that if you’re expecting an advanced CSS book, this probably isn’t the one for you. Most readers of this site will find familiar material, although Molly and I are both writing everything from scratch. Some concepts are new, and will hopefully prove beneficial to even the most experienced — I’m particularly fond of some of the typography segments, myself.

Where did all this come from? By way of explanation, here’s a story. I started out doing web design because of one particular book I picked up sometime in the late 90’s. I was doing a bunch of programming at the time, but I found I liked building the graphics for the programs more than writing the code. That book showed me a great way to combine the two practices, while focusing more on the visuals. The author of the book was, you guessed it, Molly E. Holzschlag.

She was the one that got me started with all of this, and late last year we thought it would be really cool to collaborate on a book. The ideas we had at the time didn’t mesh (though who knows what will happen to them later). Things were put on hold until sometime in April. After returning from a publishing industry conference, it was obvious to Molly that a book about the Zen Garden was a hot idea. We decided to go for it, we submitted a proposal for something completely different than what we were originally thinking, and 5 months later here we are.

There are still a few months until it ships, and you can expect to hear even less out of me over the next while as we finish up. We’re more than half way done at this point, so it’s been tough to keep so quiet about it since June. Shaun Inman has been doing an excellent job as our technical editor, and a big thanks to all the designers we’ve tapped into for keeping things under wraps.

Here’s to January, 2005!

Reader Comments

RMCox says:
October 12, 01h

A guided experience through the garden sounds like an engaging and innovative way to approach the subject matter — especially one that could become unwieldy like web design.

I guess what I would hope for out of a book with such potential is something that can take design elements, like the ones you mention as chapters, and bring them to people like me; someone who can see elements of design she’d like to reproduce (not copy), but still fails in achieving something she’s 100% happy with — due to issues that arise either aesthetically or technically. Like, for example, when I create a site where I’m excited about specific elements but hate the overall effect; or vis versa.

At any rate, what you described sounds really promising and best of luck to all involved as you sprint to the finish!

October 12, 01h

Well I have to admit I am looking forward to this one - I am an eager follower of the zen garden and an in depth book about it could be pretty darn good. It could be also good to see a bit less code in it as well; yet with that theres the inariable problem of perhaps excluding beginers. But anyway, I for one look forward to reading this one, and please don’t rush it! Good luck.

Firas says:
October 12, 03h

I’m really looking forward to this. Now that I can actually use CSS without having to look up the specs every 10 mins, I was looking around the Zen Garden and kept getting discouraged at the sheer amount of technique that is displayed there that probably only comes from experience (design, layout, special effects). Awesome idea.

October 12, 03h

There are enough beginner CSS books out there already so I’m glad to hear that you’ve approached this one a little differently. With the accelerated adoption of CSS for mainstream sites by the time January 2005 comes around you should have an eager gaggle of intermediate-advanced CSSers ready and waiting, cheque book in hand. Best of luck!

By the way, which designs did you go for? I’m guessing that Messers Hicks and Inman are well represented?

October 12, 04h

i’m eagerly awaiting this…i’m sure it will be fabulous.

October 12, 05h

I am looking forward to this book as well. Gonna pre-order it. Keep up the good work.

October 12, 06h


This is precisely the type of book I’ve been waiting for, and knowing how brilliant you, Inman, and Molly are, I’m certain I won’t be disappointed. As such, my copy’s been ordered. Congrats. Can’t wait to see it.

And if I wasn’t already kicking myself for not doing a Zen Garden design yet, I definitely am now. :)

October 12, 08h

Awesome! I am very ready for this book. Now if you can only get Big John to write a companion “how to fix every rendering bug known to man” novel, I’d be set for life!…or at least until IE7 comes out with a fresh crop of problems :-)

cam c. says:
October 12, 11h

Congrats on the book Dave; I’ll be picking up one of the first copies, I’m sure.

Now I’m kicking myself for not getting something submitted to Zen Garden earlier… I’ve missed my chance. Hopefully I learn a valuable lesson about procrastination! :)

(Seeing that the book was coming out was enough to send me digging through my photos for the ones of my visit to a real Zen garden in Japan; I’m hoping they will be inspiration for something for a Zen Garden submission!)

Rad Smith says:
October 12, 12h

I just hope it’s not another one of those ‘how to create CSS sites’ books; we have enough of those.

Dave S. says:
October 12, 12h

It’s quite a bit different from that type of book. The focus is on using CSS as a design tool, which means we skip a lot of the basic stuff. There’s no typical box model illustration, for example.

The danger in moving too far away from covering that material is that it’s only relevant to those who are armed with two or three other books already, which is a genuine problem. We’re trying to keep that in mind. You may find some material that’s far too beginner-level, but you also may find material that’s way advanced. We’re hoping to strike a nice balance.

October 12, 12h

Looks like it should be pretty interesting. I think I’ll pre-order. The slides for WE04 are awesome. Sure wish I could have attended to see yours, and others, great presentations.

October 12, 12h

I look forward to seeing this book, too. I’ve been pretty much a lurker on your site, but have enjoyed much of what you’ve provided here since I first came over from an early article put on One of these days, I’ll get around to doing something for Zen Garden. I hope the book is successful.

vlad says:
October 13, 02h

the title should read “…molly and me.” you are the object, not the subject.

please don’t hate me :)

October 13, 03h

Hey Dave, congrats on the book. Its alot of work to pull something like this off but I am 100% behind you and Molly.

I agree with the others about a book based on design and examples. Sometimes, I learn quite a bit more in seeing case studies and the “implementation” side of things.

Like thousands of others, Zeldman’s book really hit home with me and then Cederholm’s book (Web Standards Solutions). This book will sit on the shelf right next to the other treasures.

I think your approach to the book is wise and timely. CSS ZenGarden is a unique site that promotes thinking and opens the imagination to whats possible. Your book will supplement the ZEN site and offer an insight that will be valuable to many. Again, I applaud your efforts…writing is not easy and your hard work will pay off.

Good luck and lets plan for a big book launch in Vancouver. I will fly down…maybe a night out at the Pan Pacific or Yaletown! Sushi anyone?


Gordon Currie

Trent says:
October 13, 03h


I just want to say “thanks” for all the great CSS resources you’ve provided. It looks like I’m going to be leading a small team of web developers on a project pretty soon. They are all great people, but from what I’ve seen of their HTML so far, they’re still in a 20-nested-tables and spacer-gif mindset. I’m going to send them some of your articles and see if I can change some minds.

Jarrod says:
October 13, 08h

I got mine pre-ordered, and I’m glad there’s finally a new CSS book out that isn’t just a tutorial… this should be awesome!

October 13, 12h

Making a Zen Garden design is a lot of fun; I had a great time making mine. It also helped me take a hard look on how I was writing stylesheets up to that point.

Overwriting rules with newer selectors is very powerful technique but can also be a bit tricky to use if you don’t stick to a disciplined process. Stick to what you know and be prudent about applying new stuff you’ve learned.

Can’t wait to see the book and see how others can open my eyes to take another hard look on how I do things! :)

October 14, 03h

Having a launch party in Vancouver is a fantastic idea! I would love to meet more people in Vancouver who are interested in CSS and standards. Some days I think that maybe I should have stuck to tables and dreamweaver… Clients sure don’t seem to care about standards and just don’t get it.

Hopefully this book will be so successful that it will be picked up by more than web designers.

Paul says:
October 14, 10h

You can bet your ass I’m gonna get this book! Looking forward to it, Dave.

cam c. says:
October 14, 10h

Dave, if we put the word out on the GDC mailing list, I bet you’d get a lot of local designers; there has been a lot of buzz about standards-based design and CSS on the list lately, and almost everyone mentioned your sites when people were ticking off the best references to learn CSS.

Maybe a little party at the usual design community haunt, The Alibi Room (, would be a good way to do it, or perhaps a Japanese restaurant to celebrate the Zen-ness? :)

Anyway, I guess we’ll talk more in December as the date grows near!

cam c. says:
October 14, 11h

I like Gordon’s idea for a launch party here… it would be nice to do something for Dave, and it would be a great chance for all of us to meet other people in the area who are involved in CSS-based design…
Dave, are there any plans for an event already in the works?

Dave S. says:
October 14, 12h

No plans yet. It might be nice to do something local, that’s a great idea. I still haven’t met half of you that are around Vancouver. Let’s try and swing something a little closer to the time, maybe after I have a few copies in hand.

October 15, 01h

Congratulations to Dave and Molly for the forthcoming book, I will surely preorder it asap.

I always browse the Garden and think about how some designs were created, of course I have studied many of them, but having a book that tells us the story and process of some will be great.

I really enjoyed Douglas explaining his submission:

Will we have that kind of content on the book? I mean, from how the idea of the design is conceived to implementation?

King Chung Huang says:
October 15, 10h

A launch party/gathering in Vancouver sounds great! I live in Calgary, but Vancouver’s a short flight away. Someone should organize this!

Chuck says:
October 18, 06h

I propose changing the title to ‘Zen and the Art of CSS Design’, along the lines of ‘Zen and the Archery’, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, and ‘Zen and the Art of Poker’. It would add a nice satirical touch to the book! At any rate, I am looking forward to the book!

Ottawa Web says:
November 05, 12h

Is there a place I can preorder the book? I’d really like to get my hands and eyes on it :) I am a big fan on CSSZG!

Edgard Durand says:
November 06, 10h

Dave, I think is a good approach to write about web design concepts.

Ottawa Web, there’s a link at the end of the article.