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The First Review

February 24, 2005

Digital Web is running a big triple-issue today, with a book review and author interviews.

Yes, I will try to keep these at a minimum since I’m well aware it’s tedious to read someone else’s excitement about their new pet project… but it’s the first review and there are some things to respond to, so hopefully you can afford a little slack just this once.

As well as interviews with both Molly and myself, Digital Web published our first impartial book review, and whoo-hoo, they like it!

Some things that jumped out at me from the review that might stand for a bit of extra author’s interpretation:

The book is all about the designs on the CSS Zen Garden — but not just about how different designers faced the Zen Garden challenge. It also uses the designs to take readers on a tour of everything they need to know about using CSS on a Web site. Because the HTML file stays the same, it’s easy to really zero in on the CSS and how it’s used.

Well, not quite everything you need to know about using CSS. No bones about it, this is an intermediate to advanced book, and we’ve taken away some of the basic lessons (there is not a single box model illustration to be found, for example) in order to skip to advanced design and integration techniques. It’s about using CSS for design, not learning CSS.

I often get contacted for ‘CSS design work’, from which I begin a lengthy process of explaining that yes, I know CSS syntax, but CSS isn’t really the point of it; the design is more important. Perhaps I’m just funny about making the distinction and it doesn’t really matter, but I suppose I just suspect the ‘CSS = design’ mindset leads down the road to expendable, interchangeable templates that don’t properly solve design problems for the client in question.

Anyway, getting back on track:

The format was easy to follow, with the information divided up into nice little bits, each so easy to digest that when I reached the end of a section, I had to stop for a moment to realize how much I’d actually covered.

Aha, it worked! The format is something like this: each design gets 6 pages. The intro page is a full screenshot and an introduction blurb, so it’s a little content-light. The other 5 pages form the bulk of the actual ‘information’.

It’s a little deceptive because flipping through each design feels like only the briefest of explanations, until you dig in and actually start reading. Those 5 pages translate to about 6 or 7 full pages in Word, which (in most cases) were condensed down from 7 or 8 in the original draft, sometimes more. So we were forced to optimize our wording, cut the extraneous bits, and condense as much as we could. There’s a lot in that small space.

The tips in the margins were excellent. Make sure you take the time to read them.

Shh, secret tip: when you have to cut a bunch of information you don’t really want to cut, try moving it to the margins. (Many tips are extensions of the text in the main body.)

I would have liked the number associated with the design on csszengarden.com on each page, down in the footer maybe. It was only listed once at the beginning of the chapter.

Interestingly, in my original interior design draft there was more of a focus on the design number. I don’t think I went quite as far as she’s suggesting, but it did concentrate on the number more than the final design New Riders put together for us. Incidentally, there were no individual design URLs originally, there was simply a reference to the site at the beginning of the book, and that was it. Luckily I caught that and forced the change through late last year (much to the chagrin of the production team, and I don’t blame them, but it had to be done).

Sometimes I felt like a subject was just touched on, but that has more to do with the breadth of topic here (everything design- and CSS-related) than a shortcoming of the book and the authors provide lots of links and resources for more reading.

Valid point, to be sure. It was a tricky balancing act, fitting everything into the format we chose and deciding where it all went. Deciding what to cut was never easy, and there were certainly areas I wish we could have explored a lot more.

Although the topic is broad, there’s a lot of detailed info here. I picked up several CSS tidbits that helped me immediately (like how to use relative positioning with absolute positioning).

I think Molly and I wrote about this particular topic at least twice each before edits. There are about 3 explanations left in the end of varying (and complementary) depth, so it looks as if at least one of them will stick.

Seriously, I don’t recommend reading it from beginning to end in one sitting.

Neither do I. I’m a big fan of books that are broken into little bite-sized chunks. I absolutely love collections of short stories, for example. So that’s what we’ve tried to do; each design is meant to be a self-contained ‘short story’, allowing you to read them in any order you wish.

I do recommend reading it at the computer with your Web browser open and pointed to csszengarden.com. I used three tabs while I was reading it. One pointed to the design, one to the CSS for the design and a third to examine different graphics called out in the CSS.

Great way of doing it! Some of the topics are more conducive to viewing the source than others; many will read well without a computer at hand. But inevitably, to really dig in, you’ll want to play with the CSS itself.

Thanks Karen, thanks Digital Web.