Focal Curve

Beginning HTML is Finished

Beginning HTML with CSS and XHTML: Modern Guide and Reference (Beginning: From Novice to Professional), the book to which I contributed 6 chapters, is finally in transit from the printer to the warehouse, thence to be distributed to bookstores worldwide. Some time in the last 24 hours, Amazon switched the button from “Pre-order this item today” to “Add to Shopping Cart,” so I guess that makes it official. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet updated the cover image or added my bio, but I’m sure that will be remedied soon enough.

This is probably a good time to pimp the companion site, BeginningHTMLbook.com. All the hip authors do promotional companion sites these days, so who am I to go against the grain? The site features all the usual bits: an introduction, table of contents, and code downloads, as well as some other recommended books and the complete case study website from Chapter 11, Spaghetti & Cruft. But I also thought it would be good to add some “extended and deleted scenes,” which are additional articles and tutorials that don’t appear in the book. The goal is to supplement the book and fill in any knowledge gaps: stuff that really should be covered somewhere, but didn’t make it into the print edition. So far I’ve only written up a bit on specifying colors in CSS, but more is forthcoming soon.

The design is based on the one I did for the case study, which was deliberately engineered to be uncomplicated (it’s a book for beginners, after all, and is more about code than about design, so I went for simplicity). The companion site is a tad more complex than the case study, but follows the same general template. I changed the masthead background from red to blue because, well, the Apress standard black-and-gold cover looked positively putrid on a red background. I first darkened it to a rich burgundy, which looked good, but was much too similar to Andy’s recent reboot. So, since Spaghetti & Cruft was red with green accents (complementary colors, as well as invoking the Italian flag), I simply rotated the color wheel and switched to blue with orange accents.

The site naturally includes the requisite multinational Amazon links, with affiliate IDs attached to those for the US, UK, Canada, and Germany (I couldn’t muddle through the French signup process, and Japanese was right out). If anyone wishes to purchase a copy, doing so via these links will earn me a slightly higher commission, which I would certainly appreciate. As of this posting it’s still on pre-order on Amazons outside the US, though Canada shows it as “out of stock” and unavailable. Come on, Amazon.ca, get with the program.

Working on this book has been a more grueling and time-consuming process than I ever could have imagined. I’ve always said that writing is the easy part. Deciding what to write, what to keep, and what to cut out… well, that’s downright excruciating, and demands a great deal more skill and competence. I did my best, and in the end I’m rather proud of the portions I wrote. I learned a lot in the course of writing my chapters (and correcting my mistakes), and I sincerely hope the book can be of some use to people who want to learn how to build a better web.

For the moment, I intend to rest on my laurels for a bit and enjoy the relief and sense of accomplishment for as long as it lasts, at least until the inevitable nasty reviews start to appear. Until then… wow, I wrote half a book. How freaking cool is that?

CS3 Hoops

Well the book is at last entering the stages of copy-editing and pre-production. One of my duties now is to review the press-ready layouts in PDF format as they become available, to make any final tweaks and edits. This requires highlighting passages and adding comments in a PDF file, which requires a full-blown version of Adobe Acrobat. I don’t have Acrobat, and Preview’s “annotation tool” won’t cut it. I was offered temporary use of an older version of Acrobat (v5) but for some reason have been unable to install it. The files simply don’t register as applications and attempting to run “Acrobat 5 Installer” just opens the 105mb file in TextMate.

I decided to spring for my own copy of Acrobat 8, thinking I’ll surely have use for it in the future, and it’s all a business expense anyway. Then I recall that Acrobat 8 Pro is included in the just-released Adobe Creative Suite 3: Web: Premium edition, which I planned to buy anyway, just not right this minute. It would be foolish to pay for Acrobat 8 just to replace it later.

In the interest of getting my stubby little fingers on the software right this minute, I decided to go whole hog on CS3 Web Premium and spend $1600 at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, the local Apple store had none in stock, and no ETA on when more copies would arrive. Ordering directly from Adobe displays the statement “usually ships in 7 days,” with no way of knowing just what “usually” means in this particular circumstance. I could buy the 3.2 gigabyte download from Adobe and get the whole thing right this minute (after a few painful hours of downloading, that is), except I really would prefer the nice box and an official install disc, rather than burn my own backup. Call me picky.

So it’s off to PriceGrabber to see who offers the best price as well as overnight shipping. The winner was SoftwareMedia.com, who offered the suite at $30 below retail. Of course, overnight shipping is $30, so I only broke even. So be it. I held my breath and placed my order, excited at the prospect of having it within 48 hours.

But no, it just couldn’t be that easy, could it? I awake to an E-mail informing me that SoftwareMedia has no copies CS3 Web Premium Full in stock, and they’re planning instead to ship me CS2 Full, along with the upgrade to CS3. Yes, this would equally accomplish the same goal of getting working, legal copies of the latest versions of the suite overnight. But I really want full installers for CS3, preferably right this minute. Call me picky.

I phoned SoftwareMedia’s customer support, intending to either cancel the order or at least find out how much it would be delayed if I waited until they got the full version in stock. Alas, no ETA. Nice distribution, Adobe. The helpful chap on the line did some poking around and it seems one of their third-party distributors actually has it in stock, right this minute, and is willing to ship overnight. But they’re in California, as am I, so it would add $107 in sales tax that the Utah-based SoftwareMedia wouldn’t have charged me. The other option would be for the warehouse in CA to overnight the package to UT, where they could then overnight it right back to me and save me the sales tax, but it would take an extra day. Quite the conundrum.

I had two choices: pay sales tax and get it the next day, or pay a second overnight charge and get it in two days. Perhaps foolishly, I opted to save myself 77 bucks and wait an extra day. Call me stingy.

So at this moment, my shiny copy of Adobe Creative Suite 3: Web: Premium: Full is winging its way from a warehouse in California to a warehouse in Utah, thence to be sent back to California, and I should have it by noon on Friday. Meanwhile, I’m still unable to provide review comments on the PDF of Chapter 4, so perhaps I’ll fill the time by trying to sort out why OS X thinks this copy of Acrobat 5 is an undefined file.

Update: I didn’t realize Acrobat 5 predates OS X. Supposedly, I could install it by first installing OS 9 and running in “Classic mode,” but that’s a hoop I just won’t jump. Commenting on PDFs will have to wait until CS3 arrives. Note to Apress: you should invest a multi-user license for a newer Mac version of Acrobat for your Mac-lovin’ authors.

Naked Day II

CSS Naked Day is upon us again, a festive event wherein numerous websites (mostly the personal sites of web designers) temporarily strip themselves of their stylistic vestments and reveal their content otherwise unadorned. It vividly demonstrates the separation of presentation from content; when the presentation layer is removed from the equation the content left behind remains in a readable, functional, accessible state thanks to semantic markup and logical source order. Essentially, it’s one day when a few hundred websites party like it’s 1993.

So what does Naked Day really accomplish? Alas, not much. As others have remarked, only a relatively small clustering of people “get it” while the rest are left stumped as to why these sites look so ugly. The vast hordes never see these niche sites anyway. This stunt will do little to convert anyone who isn’t already a member of the choir.

But for all its frivolity and me-tooism, Naked Day is still an effective exhibition of semantics in action. But moreover, it really drives home the point that, while content is king, design is still important. Not just decoration and fluffery, but real, honest, true design.

There has been much pontification over what “Design” is and how it’s different from “Art.” For my money, Art is a free, emotional expression of self while Design is an intellectual application of artistic principles under specific constraints. Art can exist for its own sake, Design always has an agenda — to guide and sway the manner in which a person engages with a thing. The best design is subtle and invisible, but its absence is noticed immediately.

A graphical browser’s built-in style sheet is the epitome of undesigned design. It will inject margins to separate blocks of text and can stylistically differentiate headings from paragraphs from links. But that’s about all it does. These legacy styles — holdovers from days when the web was the exclusive domain of programmers and computer scientists, before graphic designers got their grubby, ink-stained fingers on the medium — are just not very well designed.

A few minutes’ surfing a few naked sites quickly shows that they all look very much alike. You’re forced to actually read to know where you are, without the benefit of a recognizable visual identity. And I’m a huge fan of liquid layouts, but a line of text quickly becomes unreadable without something constraining its maximum length. The wider a line of text stretches without some proportional adjustment of white space, the more cramped and unscannable it becomes. The content may be readable in its default presentation, but it takes considerable effort to read it.

A little more attention paid to typography and spatial arrangement makes a site better, and not just better-looking. A well-designed site can draw the eye to the most important content, direct the reader’s attention to the fundamental message. An unstyled site fails to do that. Everything runs together and looks alike. I don’t know where to look or what to remember or how to find what I’m after. Skillful design, applied unobtrusively through clean application of CSS, makes a site smoother, more usable, more memorable and more pleasant to be around.

Naked websites are ugly, but they work. That’s the real point we’re making. And we can breathe a sigh of relief when it’s all over and we toggle our CSS back into effect. Web design is dead, long live web design.