Review: Web Design for Developers by Brian Hogan

The title of this book struck a chord with me. I’m comfortable with code but I don’t find design easy. Design is not magic though, and design skills can be learned. Maybe a typical developer will never be a great designer, but the ability to create web pages that look professional and attractive should be achievable.

Brian Hogan’s book Web Design for Developers (Pragmatic Bookshelf) looks like it might be the answer. Sub-titled “A programmer’s guide to design tools and techniques” it is aimed at developers who have “little or no design background”.

The book starts well, with a section called “The Basics of Design”. There are chapters on sketching out a layout, selecting or creating a colour scheme – with helpful insight into something that seems from outside like a black art – and a chapter on fonts and typography, explaining mysteries like the baseline grid and leading.

Hogan makes an interesting comment about fixed font sizes and accessibility. It used to be assumed that relative fonts are better for accessibility, as you can use the browser to increase the size. Hogan argues that zoom tools in the application or the operating system are better, since resizing fonts while images remain fixed makes a page look bad, so it is OK to use fixed font sizes.

The next part covers graphics, using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop; Hogan says these are industry standards and you should use them if possible. There is a chapter on logo design, and three chapters creating a design mock-up for a web page, including a detailed step-by-step on designing an icon. Useful chapters, though I would have liked this section to be longer. There is too much on the mechanics of using Photoshop, and not enough on the design decisions themselves. How do you go about deciding what size each section of a page should be? How do you avoid making a page too busy and cluttered, or leaving too much space so that elements look detached from one another? What’s the secret to adding decorative elements without making the page look like a flashback to Geocities?

Unfortunately, rather than drill further into these topics, Hogan devotes the rest of the book to more mechanics, including working with HTML and CSS, how to achieve compatibility across different browsers, exporting images from Photoshop, search engine optimization, and performance issues. There’s plenty of good advice, though some is out-of-date: Hogan says that “at the time of writing, IE 6 has more active users than Firefox”. That is no longer the case.

Although these are important topics, to my mind they are not especially challenging for developers, who know how to look up a CSS reference or figure out how to deal with cross-browser compatibility. Working out how something should look is more challenging than the implementation.

Hogan lost the “for developers” focus and ended up writing a book that could better have been called “Web Design Essentials” or something similar.

Not a bad book then; but not what I was hoping for. I do think the general topic of “Design for developers” is under-served, especially as design has become far more important in the last few years, for numerous technical and strategic reasons, and would like to see further books on the subject.


2 thoughts on “Review: Web Design for Developers by Brian Hogan”

  1. I like the idea but can a book ever really train you in design? Many big websites are in fact cluttered and not nearly as clear and concise as they could be, mainly due to advertising.

    Also I understand why people think its good to promote Photoshop, because to get a job in design its a useful skill to have on your CV. But I really wish people were more open minded.

    If more people were trained in GIMP (or other open-source applications) the cost of entry would be greatly reduced. Suggesting a developer spend money on Photoshop when there is free software out there that arguably is as good for the purpose, seems narrow minded. Should a book about design really be telling you what to use for that design anyway?

    I have always struggled with design, I have to start doing the basic content of the page first and then try to work on design and usability second. Sometimes it works out alright, sometimes its aweful, but can a book really help with that? Certainly if its telling you what software to use I think its already lost its direction.

  2. Could anyone recommend some other books that fit into the ‘Web Design for Developers’ category?

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