What is Web Design?
RotoVision, UK, 2003 ISBN 2880466865 $35.00
Nico MacDonald’s recent book, What is Web Design, appears to be an attempt to fill a hole in Web design literature; no single text gathers together the manifold issues related to Web design practice into one volume as this one does. What is Web Design presents a broad survey of design practice, design and technology processes, and examples from real projects.
I’ve conducted workshops on Web design that tried to communicate the same things, so I agree with Nico Macdonald’s motivation for writing this book. Depending on what readers are looking for, the result may or may not be disappointing.
Structure of the Book
The book is arranged in three sections: Issues, Anatomy, and Practice.
The "Issues" section encompasses almost half of the book, and is a catalog of topics and concerns a Web team should consider. The scope of this section is very broad. It begins with a ten page "short history of the Internet and digital computing" and some background material, and is followed by eighty or so pages that cover sixty-seven subtopics in four sub-sections: Technical Platforms, Principles of Design, Elements, and Future Possibilities and Challenges. Many of the topics are presented with screen-shots and diagrams, so few topics have more than a page of text and many are addressed in a single paragraph.
Depending on your reasons for reading this section, its shallow breadth may be just the thing you need or it may be a bit unsatisfying. For example, the fact that the topic "Redefining the Problem" appears at all is helpful. A properly defined design process has great potential to help companies break out of ruts, ask good questions, and clearly define the goals for a Web project. Although the proper definition is supremely important, it is not discussed enough in literature that’s available. Thankfully, What is Web Design addresses this issue, though not in enough depth. "Redefining the Problem" is done in just two sentences, so for readers trying to improve their professional awareness, this will barely register. As a teacher, I appreciate having this point in the inventory of issues, but it needs to be supplemented with other resources.
The "Anatomy" section discusses the Web design and development process, and is illustrated with documents, diagrams, and photographs from many different companies. Despite industry’s wildly different ways of describing process, and despite the variation between ideals and actual practice, most Web teams at least aspire to work in roughly similar ways. Macdonald does an effective job of summarizing the design process into a set of generic phases and tackles the difficult challenge of representing workflow, iteration, activities, and deliverables in an overview diagram.
Thanks to the breadth of the Anatomy section, the diagrams, and the quick overview of issues, this section could be the starting point for a team’s process-planning. Since it includes topics drawn from the work of practicing teams, this section could serve as a well-grounded starting point for an in-class discussion on process.
The final eighty pages of the book are made up of ten case studies. Each case follows a similar format: a page of introductory text, several pages of annotated diagrams, screen captures and photographs, and a page of concluding text. They tell part of the project story and show how some aspects of each site progressed from sketch, through iteration to final result. For some readers, the term "case study" might set expectations too high, implying a full telling of the project story and an analysis of successes and failures. If you are such a reader, use the term "project brief" instead, and you should be happier.
Like the rest of the book, this section is open to criticism for its choice of breadth (ten studies) over depth (just a taste of each project), although in my opinion, this is a good and relevant contribution by a design- and technology-savvy journalist. Macdonald presents us with the story behind projects and some of the artifacts that were produced. As an industry we need to get better at reporting honestly and directly on our work. The gaming industry has taken to "post-mortem" reporting in concert with the launch of new titles (see for example www.gamasutra.com). Many other industriesincluding products and serviceswould benefit from the same, and I appreciate this book’s contribution to the effort, especially the inclusion of working documents that are normally not seen outside the team.
Macdonald’s book is an attempt to answer the question "What is Web design?"and so to define our practice. As a design journalist and tireless tracker of that conversation (but not, to my knowledge, a Web designer himself), Macdonald is in a good position to tackle the question of definition. He delivers on that promise with a catalog of issues, a survey of the design and development process, and ten examples. Readers who are looking to answer the different question"How do I DO Web design"are asking something more difficult to answer. The process and case study sections of this book may be of interest, but you will likely be better off looking elsewhere.
The writing is clear and flows well. In addition, the organization and design of the book make for easy scanning. It encourages "dipping in," and bits of it could easily be incorporated into courses or workshops. As a survey or catalog, this book captures the current state of thinking and practice in Web design. It is not an academic book, but is more a work of reporting: "Here’s what people are thinking and doing." While it offers a mostly descriptive definition of Web design, given the state of the field today, this type of definition is just right.
The book’s primary strength and weakness both stem from the same characteristic: its breadth. On the one hand, there’s something about everything. This suits Macdonald’s tasks of defining something that is broad and fuzzy, and serves as a "table of contents" for deeper investigation. On the other hand, many topics of importance are treated only superficially (especially in the "Issues" section) so that readers may be left dissatisfied, without even enough understanding to guide further exploration.
It’s a bit bold for Macdonald to attempt this book at a time when the topic of definitions is so alive, but the definitions themselves are so unclear. We work under conflicting and shifting definitions of the word "design"; we are living through a shift in the prominence of the role of design and we work with technologies that force us to rethink our methods in every project. (Even the definition of the Web itself is changing!) We can thank Macdonald for being so broad in his definition on design and for grounding his book in the current state of practice.
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Marc Rettig consults in customer research, product strategy, and interaction and interface design. His recent clients include BBC, the U.S. Army, Crate and Barrel, Cisco and Microsoft, as well as start-ups. Marc also teaches interaction design. Most recently he completed a term as the 2003 Nierenberg Chair of Design in the Graduate School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. Marc has held numerous roles in corporate, academic, editorial, and start-up efforts. Among these are Chief Experience Officer of HannaHodge, Director of User Experience at Cambridge Technology Partners, and Senior Architect in Andersen Consulting’s Advanced Technologies Group.
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©2004 ACM 1072-5220/04/0700 $5.00
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