MA Web Design + Content Planning

Design for web content


Key Texts

We are very fortunate that there are now many excellent books on the topic of web design and to some extent, selecting a list of “key texts” is a matter of personal preference. However, the books below have been chosen specifically to match the structure and content of this course and to appeal to students at an introductory level. Students who want to broaden and deepen their knowledge may want to progress to those texts listed in the Further Reading section.

The primary text for this course is Jennifer Robbins’ Learning Web Design (4th Ed.) and this should be suitable for most students. However, everyone learns in a different way and so I recommend 2 alternatives that some students may feel more comfortable with. The first is Head First HTML and CSS (2nd Ed.) by Elisabeth Robson and Eric Freeman, which makes for a slightly gentler introduction and may be appropriate for those with little or no prior experience of web design. The second isHTML & CSS: Design and Build Web Sites by Jon Duckett, which will appeal to those with a design background.

Since web design is a fast evolving discipline, it’s a good idea to keep up with current trends by reading online magazines (see below) and blogs. However, it’s still nice to receive your news, reviews and articles in paper format. As far as printed magazines are concerned, there is only one worth mentioning and that is net Magazine. It’s an excellent publication, covering all the areas of concern for students on this programme and I recommend that you subscribe to it. The online magazines listed below are just the most useful of many currently publishing useful material, so this should be considered a partial list only.

Essential Text Books

Further Reading

Reference Books

Essential Magazines

Essential Text Books

The books in this section form a core of texts that cover all the topics addressed during the course. During the course, you will be asked to do weekly reading and in most cases, it will be from these books. Many of them are available from the library but you should probably aim to own a copy of at least 3 or 4 of them, with Jennifer Robbins’ Learning Web Design being top of your list.

Learning Web Design (4th Ed.) by Jennifer Niederst Robbins

If any book could claim to be a single volume introduction to everything a beginner needs to know about web design, this book comes closer than any other I know. If I tell you that the subtitle to this book is “A beginner’s guide to HTML, CSS, JavaScript and web graphics”, that will give you some idea of the scope of this excellent book. At just over 600 pages long, this isn’t a short read, but it is a surprisingly light read. Robbins is obviously a teacher and her clear and logical explanations of the topics in this book are delivered at a sensible pace, which makes even complex concepts such as progressive enhancement and responsive web design easy to understand. Web design beginners should make this book number one on their shopping list.

The Modern Web by Peter Gasston

Inevitably, and even after 600 pages, Jennifer Robbins can’t take us to the cutting edge of web design but fortunately, Peter Gasston can take us there with his book, The Modern Web. In it, Peter discusses many of the changes in web design technology happening right now and those that are set to become important in the near future such as the CSS Flexbox module. However, the book is not just about the headline design tools of the future, it also covers many topics that will just make you a better coder. Coverage of WAI-ARIA roles and HTML5 Microdata will help you write code that is semantically rich and accessible by assistive technologies. Of course, there’s graphics too and Peter spends a whole chapter covering the SVG file format, which is destined to become possibly the most important graphics format on the web. This book will take your understanding of web technologies to an advanced level.

Implementing Responsive Design by Tim Kadlec

Of all the conceptual and applied challenges that face the contemporary web designer, it is probably responsive design that causes the most difficulties. Partly this is due to the fact that it is still relatively new and optimised workflows have yet to be invented and certainly, the tools we currently use are far from ideal. Of course, every web designer must read Ethan Marcotte’sResponsive Web Design published by A Book Apart in order to grasp the fundamentals of this approach, but what then? Well, Tim Kadlec’s excellent book is the next step. It takes the principles outlined by Marcotte and expands on them, taking the reader on a journey through a typical web design project and demonstrating how responsive design principles can be implemented.

A good understanding of responsive design is important for all web designers and I recommend reading as much as you can on the subject. On your reading list should also be the chapters by Brad Frost and Trent Walton from The Mobile Book, published by Smashing Magazine.

Handcrafted CSS by Dan Cederholm

This is an inspirational book. It’s full of useful techniques that produce excellent and beautiful results. Most importantly, it demonstrates how CSS3 can be implemented now by adopting what Dan Cederholm describes as “progressive enrichment”, a philosophy that says it’s OK that websites can look different in different browsers – in fact, that they should look different because some browsers are more capable than others and we should allow those browsers to provide a better user experience.

This is a full-colour book so that you can easily see the graphic results of the accompanying code – a really good way to learn. Read this book, cover-to-cover (it’s not that long) and start working with CSS3 now. Also, if you can afford a little extra, the DVD edition is excellent too.

Above the Fold by Brian Miller

Above the Fold is an ideal book for the web design newbie. Although it doesn’t cover any particular topic in any great depth, it gives a great overview of the visual web design process and covers everything from the history of the web to the use of analytics via web page anatomy, typography, site planning, marketing and SEO. This book won’t teach you how to code but it makes the perfect companion to your favourite book on HTML and CSS. It’s printed in full colour with lots of really informative illustrations and lots of examples of websites that clearly illustrate the points made in the text. The book is a quick and easy read but there’s enough here to make it a great reference too.

From the introduction: “The phrase ‘above the fold’ reminds us that there are both close similarities and vast differences between print and Web design. The principles of space usage, typography, and other elements of effective hierarchical communication are essential to both print and Web design, but the methods of achieving these principles involve different skill sets and consideration for the end user. That’s what this book is about – the fundamentals of graphic design and the specific considerations a designer makes for effective web communication. And it’s the reason Above the Fold is a fitting title.”

If I have one small criticism, it is that the book shows a bias towards the author’s particular area of expertise (typography) but for those who need a visual design primer for the web that takes in other considerations like standard IAB banner sizes, this book is perfect.

A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web by Mark Boulton

It’s probably fair to say that Mark Boulton’s book has now reached the status of “classic text”. Essentially, it’s a graphic design primer for web designers and is an ideal first read on the subject for anyone with little or no experience of visual design. The book contains no code and is not tied to any particular web technology and as such is an excellent generic guide to typography, colour and layout. The book also considers the design process and the development of design ideas.

Although the book can be bought in hard copy and eBook form from Five Simple Steps, it is also available to read for free.

JavaScript & jQuery by Jon Duckett

For anyone who has never written a computer programme before, JavaScript can be quite daunting Given that working with JavaScript and associated libraries like jQuery is now a key front-end skill, there is a need for a book that can take all would-be front-end designer/developers from first principles to an intermediate level in a simple and engaging manner. Jon Duckett’s book does just that. It is unlike any other programming/scripting book I know. It is beautifully thought through, beautifully written and (what makes it different) beautifully presented.

  • See more information about JavaScript & jQuery
  • JavaScript & jQuery is available at Amazon.co.uk
  • This title is not currently available from the Greenwich library

Further Reading

The books below all fill in gaps, overlap and expand upon the “Essential Text Books” listed above. You do not need to own them but they may be used as good alternatives or simply to explore a bit more of the subject.

Designing with Web Standards (3rd Ed.) by Jeffrey Zeldman

This is a very important book. In Designing with Web Standards, Jeffrey Zeldman describes the way websites were coded in the twentieth century, clearly explains why this is now wrong and demonstrates how twenty-first century websites should be coded. The common perception is that designing websites to web standards is onerous for the designer and transparent to the user – naturally, many designers choose to ignore web standards. Zeldman demonstrates that working with standards, creating semantically correct XHTML in conjunction with structural CSS is, in fact, liberating rather than oppressive.

Some may fear that this book will give them a hard time and that Zeldman (standards guru) will push web standards for the sake of web standards. Nothing could be further from the truth. Zeldman is himself a website designer and as such, he delivers a very pragmatic approach to coding. The examples in the book are mainly based upon XHTML 1.0 Transitional (not Strict). Zeldman even covers the use of tables for page structure, heresy to most hard-line standards coders. The truth is that Zeldman is the best sort of evangelist. One who tells you it’s OK not to go by the book if that seems impractical and you won’t burn in hell as a consequence.

The book is also very instructive in the way it describes the development of web browsers and helps the reader to make sense of the many peculiarities that some browsers exhibit.

This may all sound rather dull but Zeldman has a very personable approach to technical writing. He is aware of the arcane nature of much of his subject matter and does a very good job of making it accessible and occasionally humorous.

This book has changed the way many web designers think and design. Whether you are a web design beginner or a seasoned professional, this book must be read; it will help you form opinions on web coding and will certainly help you to create better sites.

Visual Design for the Modern Web by Penny McIntire

This is one of only a few books that attempts to make the crossover between graphic design principles and the coding of web pages and in the main it succeeds very well. In fact, it goes beyond visual design and introduces the idea of design for usability with a very good chapter on navigation.

The book is written for web design beginners but it has great aspirations. Rather than simply plodding through a series of themed chapters, the book begins with a couple of excellent chapters that give a firm grounding in the concepts of visual design and its relation to the functioning of the site (interaction design). In chapter 2, “Site Analysis”, the author devises a very useful schema that will help beginners understand the entire web design process.

The book includes one of the best chapters on colour, covering, colour theory, a good explanation of hexadecimal values and a suggested approach for the creation of colour schemes. Throughout the book, web design principles are clearly stated and explained.

Unfortunately, this book is currently out of print but is available second-hand.

Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler

Universal Principles of Design, subtitled “100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design” is essentially a directory of all those design terms and “buzz phrases” that you know you ought to know the meaning of. The authors have chosen 100 design ideas and concepts and devote a double-page spread to each. Concepts such as Ockhams Razor, Fibonacci Sequence, Iteration and Legibility (the basics that all designers must understand) are beautifully described and illustrated with excellent examples to illustrate each point.

This is a general design reference although website examples are used where appropriate. All students of design should read this book and all designers should at least consider it a check list for their own knowledge and understanding.

Hardboiled Web Design by Andy Clarke

So much of contemporary web design is about technique. Some may feel that the way we apply the various technologies like HTML and CSS is rule-driven but that’s not the case. Of course we have a bunch of technology building blocks and there are rules about they way they are used but an understanding of the rules is only the start of the journey. Web designers also need to understand the way the rules are interpreted, what are the accepted practices and how all this understanding should be applied in order to create websites to a professional standard. Fortunately for us, Andy Clarke’s Hardboiled Web Design gives us the information we won’t find in the rule books.

The book was published in 2010, and I’ve heard Andy say that it is already out of date. Certainly, it doesn’t address responsive web design but there is still enough here to make it a valuable read for those trying to understand the complexities of contemporary web design.

Smashing Book #4 (New Perspectives on Web Design) by Various authors

Over the years, Smashing Magazine has produced some great books that have kept us all up-to-date with contemporary ideas and concepts in web design. Smashing Book #4 is no exception but this volume elevates the series from ‘good to know’ to ‘essential reading’ for all web designers. I could have singled out any one of the 13 essays in this book but for me, Harry Roberts’ chapter,Modern CSS Architecture and Front-End Development is a seminal work. In it, Harry challenges some of the most strongly held beliefs (e.g. CSS class names should be semantic) and paves a new way forward for front-end developers. This is a book that demonstrates the maturing of web design as an intellectual endeavour and it really is essential reading for anyone who needs to understand web design today.

The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero

Frank Chimero’s book attempts to explain what design is and to describe the process of design. For non-designers, this will be a view into an entirely new world and for those who think they are already designers, it’s likely to be a form of inspiration. The book is a personal view of design, it doesn’t aim to set out an academic framework and this is a good thing. On many levels, design presents a personal experience and this book allows us to tap into the personal thoughts and ideas of an established designer, who has given a great deal of thought to the intuitive process of design. It’s a slim book, an easy read and is recommended reading for anyone who is involved with design.

The book practices what it preaches, it is available as a beautifully bound hard-cover edition with wonderful illustrations and excellent typography (yes, the book itself is an object lesson in design) but it is also available to read online for free.

  • See more information about The Shape of Design
  • This title is not currently available from the Greenwich library

A Practical Guide to Designing the Invisible by Robert Mills

How do we design the invisible and why would we want to? In this book, Robert Mills explores design beyond the superficial, visual surface and explains that designers must become familiar with the meaning in the work we produce. Mills explains how the design decisions we make (the colour of a webpage, the form of an icon) can change the way people think, feel and react to our designs. The book makes a very good companion to Mark Boulton’s book by adding a layer of understanding about the implications of the design decisions we make.

Essential Reference Books

You may not need these books in the first instance but as your work develops, you may find that you need something more comprehensive than the references that are often appended to most text books. You don’t need to buy these books, there are hard copies in the library if you like paper, but the online versions are frequently updated, so they are your best source of reference.

The Ultimate HTML Reference by Ian Lloyd

It may seem a bit geeky to have a whole book that just tells you what all the HTML tags are, what they do and what parameters they can use; oh, and how the various flavour of browser render them, but when the chips are down, a book like this can save your life. Well, not your life, obviously but it could save your sanity.

Since buying this book, I have found myself coming back to it again and again – it really is the authority. Not only does it contain references to all the tags you use every day but it also contains references to those tags and parameters you never knew existed. In short, this book helps you increase the width your knowledge of HTML and not just the depth. The Ultimate HTML Reference is available in a free online version at Sitepoint.

The Ultimate CSS Reference by Tommy Olson and Paul O'Brien

This book is possibly even more useful than its HTML partner because the browser support for CSS is much more variable than that for HTML and this book documents which browsers support the various CSS properties and which do not. Again, this can be a real sanity-saver for those occasions when the browser is just not rendering a page the way you intended.

The book is organised by property type but fortunately also includes an alphabetic index, so you always have two chances of finding what you need. There is also an excellent first chapter (What is CSS?) that describes how CSS works, the syntax of CSS rules and how to link CSS with your HTML pages. The Ultimate CSS Reference is available in a freeonline version at Sitepoint.

Essential Periodicals

The Web is ever-changing. New ideas in webpage design come and go and you need to keep up-to-date. Sadly, most web design text books are out-of-date after 2 or 3 years and the best way to stay in touch with emerging ideas and technologies is to subscribe to regularly published magazines. The magazines described below (paper and online) are some of the best around. Great new material on Web Design is being published all the time and it’s a good idea to subscribe to RSS feeds and newsletters so that you at least get a digest of what’s available.

net Magazine (published monthly)

net magazine has been around for a while but over the past few years it has matured into a magazine aimed at professional web designers and serious amateurs. The monthly articles are always relevant, well researched and full of useful information. The magazine has benefited from the work of an advisory panel of net worthies, including Andy Budd and Andy Clarke.

Each month also includes a number of technical articles on various topics relevant to the course by some excellent technical writers, including Craig Grannell. It is the best paper-based web design magazine and I recommend you take out a subscription.

In recent times, net has evolved a really useful online version of the magazine called Creative Bloq with new articles published daily. It’s well worth visiting regularly or adding to your list of RSS feeds.