PageMill for Macintosh
Peach Pit Press, Berkeley
148 pages; $15.95
HTML for the World Wide Web
Peach Pit Press, Berkeley
176 pages; $17.95
Designing Web Graphics
New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis
258 pages, includes CD-ROM; $50
Designing Large-Scale Web Sites
John Wiley & Sons, New York
288 pages; $34.95
it is one of life's delicious ironies that where cyberspace is concerned, the real money is being made by book publishers. That's right, print. Ink on paper. The rush to get a Web site up and running has been accompanied by a stampede of book publishers churning out dozens of how-to titles, directories of home pages and Web bibles. All purport to demystify the process of creating home pages, maintaining sites and raking in the moolah. Some of these books, especially the guides to cyberspace and the yellow-pages-like directories of Web sites, aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Why anyone with Internet access would want a several-hundred-pages-long directory of the Internet that is out of date by the time it hits the store shelves, when search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista exist, is an intriguing question.
There are a few books out there, like Lynda Weinman's excellent Designing Web Graphics, that rightfully belong next to every designer's and producer's CPU. Here's a quick look at them, in ascending order of complexity:
PageMill for Macintosh, by Maria Langer, is one in the series of Peach Pit Press' admirable attempts to produce short, simple, effective guides to using computer programs. Designed for beginners who need to accomplish a specific task, these guidebooks allow readers to plunge in anywhere, get just the information and instructions they need, then go back to work. Accompanied by step-by-step instructions and illustrations of screen grabs and pull-down menus, PageMill for Macintosh provides a concise guide to one of the more popular Web page authoring tools on the market.
PageMill, a $99 software program from Adobe, is designed to automate the process of getting pages ready for posting to the Internet without the hassle of learning HTML. Using simple pull-down menus, check boxes and drag-and-drop functionality, PageMill promises users the ability to markup documents, import images, format them as .gif files, create image maps, specify hot-links within documents and even create rudimentary forms for delivering e-mail to the Web site.
Because PageMill trades off simplicity for complexity, pages created with it tend toward the generic plain-vanilla flavor. But the program does deliver on its promise. For less than a hundred bucks, you too can be creating Web pages, and competing for hits with HotWired, CNet, and Babes on the Web. The program is so simple to use that a companion instruction book hardly seems necessary. However, if PageMill is the right program for you-and, for first-timers to Web building, it is a great place to start-then PageMill for Macintosh will serve as an excellent reference.
Moving a step up the food chain brings us to another Visual QuickStart Guide, HTML for the World Wide Web, by Elizabeth Castro. This book is devoted to the hands-on tagging of pages in HyperText Markup Language, the lingua-franca of the Web. If you are serious about writing or designing for the Web, you'll have to learn and master HTML. One of the first things designers mention in discussing the medium is its limitations. And actually learning to write HTML documents is one of the best ways of understanding what those limitations are, why they exist in the first place, and how to work within the limitations to extend the medium. At least until the newest Netscape plug-ins come along.
Meanwhile, HTML for the World Wide Web does a good job introducing readers to the basics of HTML text formatting, image creation, building links and publishing a Web site. Instructions are straightforward, concise and delivered in nonthreatening, jargon-free language. Complemented profusely with b&w illustrations that show exactly how sample pages are to be marked up, this book will help would-be publishers get their pages on the Web with a minimum of teeth gnashing and hair pulling. There's even a handy section that describes how to look at and copy the source code of other Web sites.
One of the most valuable books to come off a press this year is Lynda Weinman's Designing Web Graphics. With chapter titles like Browser Hell and Color Palette Hell, you know this is a book written by a designer with an in-the-trenches perspective. Richly illustrated with full-color graphics, along with the precise code required to execute the visual effects under discussion, Designing Web Graphics provides an intensely detailed guide to design considerations and Web production tips and techniques.
Weinman takes readers along a guided tour of Web design, starting with the most basic design issues, such as designing for multiple browsers and viewing across different computer platforms, converting graphics to limited color palettes for rapid downloading and even ascending (or descending, depending on your point of view) into the arcana of hexadecimal color codes. Essentially a deconstruction of Web page techniques, the book examines basic Web features, from working with patterned backgrounds, images and transparent .gifs to typographic issues, bullets and rules, then describes how to create them using language that is almost conversational in tone. The book is laced with the URLs of sites Weinman admires or hopes that readers will find useful.
Also included with the book is a CD-ROM that contains demo software of popular programs like Photoshop and DeBabelizer, plus image, movie and sound players as well as ready-to-go Web page templates. Knowing full well that the Web is going to undergo significant, rapid changes, Weinman has created her own companion site (http://earthlink.net/lyndaw) for readers to continue to receive updated information.
While Weinman does an excellent job discussing individual Web page production techniques, Darrell Sano's Designing Large-Scale Web Sites takes a big-picture look at the process. And the emphasis here is on the production process as opposed to particular production techniques. As Web sites become larger, more complex, and functionally more robust, the need for a book like Sano's becomes increasingly apparent. With large corporate Web sites for companies like DHL and J. Walter Thompson running into the hundreds of pages (and bearing price tags that are closing on in the million dollar mark), it is vital that these sites be constructed with every element in place, with navigational flows fully diagrammed, and with all features and functions precisely specified.
Designing Large-Scale Web Sites approaches site design from an architectural point of view. Designers who follow Sano's advice will literally begin with a blueprint of their site. Before they begin to push a pixel around on screen, they will lay the foundation for a site that allows users to navigate quickly to the information they need. Sano walks readers through the process of information architecture, specifying a hierarchy of user needs, determining layouts for typical page types, then creating paper and finally HTML prototypes. Sano's suggestion for designers to create their designs as HTML-ready prototypes able to be handed off to engineers is worth the price of the book alone.
Throughout, the book features b&w illustrations along with selected color inserts. Sano, who works at Netscape, uses these examples to display some of the best uses of frames currently on the Web. But the most valuable illustrations depict the iterative process in which good designs proceed from little more than cocktail napkin sketches to finished pages on the Web. It is interesting to note how, in some of these examples, rough sketches are transformed into richly detailed graphical executions only to get shunted aside finally in favor of less graphically appealing but more purely functional treatments.
While each of these books provides valuable information, there is a danger that all of them will become outdated. After all, print is a static medium, while the Web continues to grow and change on a daily basis. Yesterday's groundbreaking site is passe today, as dozens of other sites imitate it, and still others incorporate the most recent features available. With that in mind, it should be pointed out that one of the best sources of information about the Web, one of the deepest repositories of cool code, downloadable CGI scripts and Java applets, is the Web itself. Surf, and ye shall find. l
Sam McMillan, who teaches at a number of multimedia studies departments around the country, is an interactive scriptwriter and multimedia producer for