When the MA Web Design & Content Planning programme began in 2003, good books on web design were hard to find. These days, new web design books appear every month and many of them are excellent but it’s difficult to know which are worth buying and which to leave alone. We asked ourselves, if we had to recommend just 15* books that covered the range of topics taught on our programme, what would they be? As it turned out, this was a really tricky choice because there are a lot of good books out there so in some cases, we’ve made alternative suggestions—yes, we cheated.
So, if you’re new to web design, the library below can be used to learn almost all you need to know about current practice in this new and fast-changing area of design. Of course, books alone won’t make you a web designer but they’re a good start.
Our recommended library
- Learning Web Design (5th edition) by Jennifer Niederst Robbins
- Adaptive Web Design (2nd edition) by Aaron Gustafson
- Smashing Book #6 by various authors
- Implementing Responsive Design by Tim Kadlec
- Art Direction for the Web by Andy Clarke
- Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell et. al.
- A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web by Mark Boulton
- Ordering Disorder by Khoi Vinh
- Above the Fold by Brian Miller
- Don’t Make Me Think (3rd edition) by Steve Krug
- Inclusive Design Patterns by Heydon Pickering
- Letting Go of the Words (2nd edition) by Janice Redish
- The Art of SEO (3nd edition) by Eric Enge et. al.
- PHP and MySQL for Dynamic Websites (5th edition) by Larry Ullman
* Actually, we decided 10 would be a nice round number but it was impossible to distil the range of subjects taught on this programme to just 10 books, so we’ve ended up with 15.
Learning Web Design (5th edition) by Jennifer Niederst Robbins
Learning Web Design (5th edition) is available at Amazon.co.uk.
Adaptive Web Design (2nd edition) by Aaron Gustafson
There are many books that set out to teach the mechanics of web design; how HTML and CSS work together to make a web page but few books focus on the broader principles. That’s where this book scores top marks. It’s no surprise that Aaron Gustafson’s book is often seen at the top of ‘best web design book’ lists. It does what many other books fail to do; it explains why you should code in a particular way. This goes beyond web standards. Most people are capable of writing valid code but for the aspiring front-end developer, that’s just not enough. In a relatively slim volume, Gustafson explains the principles of progressive enhancement and demonstrates how it is achieved. The book even finishes with a checklist so you can test your own work.
Adaptive Web Design is available at Easy Readers.
The first edition of this book is available to read for free.
Smashing Book #6: New Frontiers in 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 #6 is no exception and this volume continues to be essential reading for all web designers. I could have singled out any one of the 10 essays in this book but for me, Rachael Andrews’ chapter, Production-Ready CSS Grid Layouts is the one that most people will readily identify as being ‘of the moment’. In it, Rachael introduces us to a CSS tool that made it into browsers in 2017 and which is likely to shape the way webpages are built for years to come. Other essays also cover new CSS tools such as Custom Properties and others cover new design concepts such as Conversational Design. This is a book that demonstrates the maturing of web design as an intellectual endeavour and helps us to understand the tools and concepts that will change the future web. It really is essential reading for anyone who needs to understand web design today.
Smashing Book #6: New Frontiers in Web Design is available from The Smashing shop.
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’s Responsive 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.
Implementing Responsive Design is available at Amazon.co.uk.
Also consider: Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte.
Art Direction for the Web by Andy Clarke
All designers need inspiration and for front-end designers, it’s not just about the visual, it’s also about the underlying technologies that make the visual possible and about understanding concepts such as progressive enhancement and knowing when and how to apply them to a design.
Andy Clarke’s book is an excellent mix of inspiration for visual and technical design with a focus on page design and the combination of text with image. For the first time in a book on web design, we see the possibilities that CSS Grid and other recent technologies allow. Here are web pages that could easily be mistaken for magazine layouts for print. It’s a beautifully crafted book both in content and in look-and-feel, a real slice of design inspiration.
Art Direction for the Web is available at The Smashing Shop.
Also consider: Handcrafted CSS by Dan Cederholm
Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden & Jill Butler
Universal Principles of Design, subtitled ‘125 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 125 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.
Universal Principles of Design is available from Amazon.co.uk.
A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web by Mark Boulton
Since being published in 2009, Mark Boulton’s book has become something of a classic text. Although it’s one of the oldest book in this list, it avoids being out-of-date by avoiding reference to the underlying technologies of web design and instead focusses squarely on the visual/graphic aspects of design. As such, it forms the ideal primer for those with little or no background in visual design.
The book is in 5 parts, beginning with an overview of the job of web design, the workflow and the tools of the trade. It moves on to Research and Ideas, which explains the design process, the interpretation of the brief and the generation of ideas. The book then moves on to the 3 key design elements of all websites, Typography, Colour and Layout.
It’s also worth pointing out that the book itself is an object lesson in design; beautifully laid out and illustrated, it manages to practice what it preaches.
Also consider: The Principles of Beautiful Web Design (2nd edition) by Jason Beaird
Ordering Disorder by Khoi Vinh
How do you design a web page? How do you decide what goes where? How do you make sure there is a consistent, underlying order to your design? In this book, Khoi Vinh uses traditional typographic grid principles and applies them to the design of web pages. This is an important book for all designers but it is particularly useful to those starting out in web design and who have no background in visual/graphic design.
The book starts by covering the concept and process of grid-based design and then goes on to describe the execution of this approach, using a number of typical examples.
Ordering Disorder is available from Amazon.co.uk.
Also consider: The Web Designer’s Roadmap by Giovanni Difeterici
Above the Fold by Brian Miller
It’s often said these days that there’s no such thing as ‘the fold’ now that websites are viewed on many devices and at many formats and orientations. Nonetheless, this book (despite its title) is a really useful addition to the library of those trying to get to grips with the expanding area of expertise we call web design. Essentially, the book is a non-technical overview of the subject area and covers topics from typography, through usability and beyond to business considerations such as SEO and advertising.
The book is printed in full-colour and is lavishly illustrated. Not only does it explain many of the general principles of web design but it provides a really useful source of design inspiration.
Above the Fold is available at Amazon.co.uk.
Don't Make Me Think (3rd edition) by Steve Krug
This book, subtitled ‘A common sense approach to web usability’ is exactly that. Although, these days we tend to refer to this area of study as user experience (UX). Krug makes a point of stating the obvious and the not so obvious in order to give a complete picture of website usability. The book is printed in full colour and is thoughtfully illustrated—in fact, it’s an object lesson in usability. Clear writing and wry humour make Krug’s book a joy to read and he manages to get over some quite complicated ideas without you even noticing. There are also lots of excellent examples from real sites because as Krug points out ‘…you’ll find that the sites I use as examples tend to be excellent sites with minor flaws. I think you can learn more from looking at good sites than bad ones.’ Well said.
This third (or ‘revisited’) edition has been updated for mobile with 3 new chapters and updated content elsewhere. If you follow all the excellent advice in this book, your websites will be a joy to use and your visitors will be able to find the information they are looking for, quickly and easily, with no blind alleys, no ambiguity and no frustration.
Don’t Make Me Think (3rd edition) is available at Amazon.co.uk.
Also consider: The Elements of User Experience (2nd edition): User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond by Jesse James Garrett
Inclusive Design Patterns by Heydon Pickering
Finally, a book that addresses accessibility as a quality and not a feature. Heydon Pickering believes that interfaces should have accessibility baked in and this book explores how, by good visual design and good coding, we can apply that ideal to common design patterns.
The book is full of good advice and best practice, all supported by practical examples and illustrated with clear code snippets. It’s written in a clear and unambiguous manner — you’re never left in any doubt about the right way forward.
I love the way this book begins by making the distinction between the Graphic Designer, the Designer Who Codes and the Inclusive Designer. We should all aspire to become inclusive designers and this is the book that will help us achieve that goal.
Inclusive Design Patterns is available at Smashing Books.
Also consider: The Accessibility Handbook by Katie Cunningham and Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance by Jim Thatcher et. al.
Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works (2nd edition) by Janice Redish
Good websites need a content strategy and good web designers need to know how to develop content strategies and how to write web content that works for any given website. There are a number of excellent books covering this important (but often overlooked) aspect of web design. Ideally, you’ve already read Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy, which gives a concise overview of the subject area but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of actually writing web content, Letting Go of the Words provides a very useful and practical guide.
The book begins by explaining how people use websites (skim and scan) and then goes on to explain the importance of understanding your users and their context. The book then goes on to discuss how best to write and organise content for the different parts of a website (the homepage etc.), focussing on the appropriateness of the tone, style and personality of the words. It also considers the structure of content and describes the importance of headings and other components. All the while, the advice is set within the context of accessibility and SEO and this book really works hard at providing a complete approach to the careful curation of content on websites.
Letting Go of the Words (2nd edition) is available at Amazon.co.uk.
Also consider: The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane, Content Strategy for the Web (2nd edition) by Kristina Halvorson and Clout: the Art and Science of Influential Web Content by Colleen Jones
The Art of SEO: Mastering Search Engine Optimisation (3rd edition) by Eric Enge et. al.
SEO is considered by some to be a black art but in truth, it’s just another area of expertise within the ever-expanding discipline of web design. Crucially, SEO begins not when a website launches but when it is initially conceived. Web designers and web developers need a good understanding of SEO so that the sites they design and build can be easily found and indexed by search engines. This book will show you how; it’s the best and most comprehensive single volume on the subject. The Art of SEO is comprehensive. It’s not a short amusing guidebook to the As and Bs of SEO, it’s a thorough explanation of the A to Z of SEO. The world of search engine optimisation is complex and confusing with many conflicting views but this book takes us calmly through the whole thing, giving excellent and well considered advice along the way.
The Art of SEO: Mastering Search Engine Optimisation (3rd edition) is available at Amazon.co.uk.
Also consider: Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO, and Beyond by Aarron Walter
The key to the success of this book is in it’s design. It will appeal to those who care about design just as much as code and it is therefore ideally suited to our programme. Naturally, it helps that Jon’s descriptions and explanations are clear and concise and that the illustrations and typography are immensely helpful in conveying this information to the reader.
If I were running classes in how to write an effective technical textbook, this would be my number one example of how to do it well.
PHP and MySQL for Dynamic Websites (5th edition) by Larry Ullman
Sometimes it seems as though there are as many books about web development as there are web developers. Certainly, when it comes to PHP, the choice is wide and varied. However, although I’ve now read a number of books on server-side development, I keep returning to the first book I ever read on the subject, Larry Ullman’s PHP and MySQL for Dynamic Websites. Why this book? Well, because the format is neat and the approach is logical. Everyone has their own way of learning and this is the book that fits for me but I suspect it’s not just me; Ullman makes the learning curve not too steep, never assumes anything and keeps explanations clear and succinct.
At 700 pages, the book is comprehensive enough to cover everything a beginner needs to know, including a chapter on jQuery. It manages to be both a reference and a learning guide, with chapters on specific topics and some example projects to reinforce the learning.
PHP and MySQL for Dynamic Websites (5th edition) is available at Amazon.co.uk.
Also consider: PHP Solutions: Dynamic Web Design Made Easy (2nd edition) by David Powers
Although they’re not in our list of essential web design books, every web designer should also read the following:
Weaving the Web by the inventor of the web himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Although out of print, second hand copies are available for next to nothing. Worth reading, just so you know where it all started.
Designing with Web Standards (3rd edition) by Jeffrey Zeldman. Although published back in 2009, this book essentially sets the context for our approach to contemporary web design practice.
What’s that you say? You want more books?
If you’ve ploughed through all of the above and still need more stimulating reading, we can thoroughly recommend all of the books currently published by A Book Apart.